The Star of Bethlehem remains a mystery to both astronomers and historians. There are many contributing factors, including the uncertainty of the actual date of Christ’s birth and the terminology used to describe celestial happenings more than 20 centuries ago. For instance, any celestial object bright enough to attract attention was apt to be called a star. Therefore, the object we seek may not have even been a star.
Four theories have been advanced to explain the star. One is that it was an unusually bright meteor or fireball streaking toward the horizon. But such fiery streaks only last for several seconds at most; hardly long enough to lead the Wise Men halfway across the Orient to Bethlehem (though certainly it would have been quite an interesting camel ride!).
Another theory suggests that the star might have been a bright comet. But we must say no to that as well because comets were considered to omens of evil. They were considered to presage famine, flood, an epidemic or some other disaster.
Not so easily dismissed is a nova or supernova outburst; dying stars having a final fling of glory before descending the long road to ultimate extinction. The appearance of a very bright nova would certainly attract the attention of sky conscious people. Then, after several weeks or months of such prominence, it slowly fades back to obscurity. In the case of a supernova, a massive star literally blows itself apart, putting forth an energy output equivalent to a hundred billion stars or more. It can suddenly blaze forth in the night sky with a brilliance rivaling Jupiter or even Venus; perhaps even be glimpsed in broad daylight. Truly a celestial announcement worthy of the birth of a King.
Unfortunately, ancient Chinese records do not show any such bright nova or supernova appearing in the sky some 2,000 years ago.
That only leaves the planets. A conjunction of two or more planets would undoubtedly be watched with great interest by the Wise Men and might have been interpreted by them as a sign in the heavens. In February of 6 B.C., Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars formed a triangular configuration very low in the western twilight sky soon after sunset. If you have visited a planetarium for the traditional Christmas show, you may have experienced the thrill of seeing these worlds approach each other as the projector races back in time to recreate this celestial tableau.
Taken literally, however, the account of the star in the book of St. Matthew actually calls for two “stars.” One to start the Wise Men on their long journey, the other appearing when they arrived in Bethlehem. Perhaps the signal for their star came on August 12, 3 B.C. with the two brightest planets, Venus and Jupiter rising in the east at dawn and appearing just 12 minutes of arc apart. Planets this close are very striking, if they do not differ too much in brightness.
Interestingly, in the book The Bible as History (Bantam 1983) by Werner Keller, it is noted that in the original Greek the words used for “in the east” are a technical term meaning “heliacal rising” or an observation in the eastern sky before sunrise, nicely explaining the ambiguous phrase in St. Matthew.
Venus then disappeared into the solar glare, but Jupiter remained in the sky for the next 10 months, accompanying the Wise Men on their westward journey until on June 17, 2 B.C. another, even more outstanding conjunction with Venus took place, this time in the western sky after sunset. At sundown only the sharpest of eyes might have split them and two hours later at minimum separation they were just 36 arc seconds or 0.01° apart. The two planets would have appeared to merge their light into a single brilliant beacon; an exceedingly rare occurrence! And since the Wise Men were traveling westward, one could say that the “star in the east” went (as St. Matthew noted) “before them.”
While I believe that these two close conjunctions of Venus and Jupiter offer the most plausible astronomical explanation for the Star, there are problems with it, since each occurred after the generally accepted date for the death of King Herod (April 4 B.C.), who met with the Wise Men before they proceeded to Bethlehem. Scholars who reject as mythical the story of Herod and favor a later date for Christ’s birth are inclined to regard the star as a myth too.
Or perhaps it was after all, truly a miracle star? A celestial apparition unique in the history of man.
Astronomy has taken us as far as it can go. The final decision is yours, alone.