What was the Star of Bethlehem?
To explain the Star of Bethlehem we need to bring together a series of elements.
· It must be a rare phenomenon; otherwise the Magi would have gone to Bethlehem at the wrong time, or several times over the course of history.
· It must have been a highly significant phenomenon to the Magi.
· It must have occurred at the right time, close to the Nativity.
· It must have appeared in the right part of the sky.
· It must have lasted several weeks to allow the Magi to see it still when they reached Bethlehem.
All the theories that have been proposed in the past fail one or other of these points:
· If the Star was a very normal comet, why should the Star be that one and not one of the tens or hundreds of comets that the Magi and their forefathers would have seen?
· If the Star was a conjunction, why one in particular and not one of the hundreds of others that would occur over a few decades?
· If the Star was an occultation, why one in particular when occultations of bright planets by the Moon are rather common?
· If the Star was a nova, why one particular nova when bright novae occur every 20 or so years?
The conclusion is that none of these events, on it own, could have been the Star.
This leaves us with the alternative that it might be a combination of events. What if the Star was a moderately common event that was seen in a special way? How might this have happened?
Let’s suppose that the Magi were, as I assume, Persian astrologers. What might they have been looking for? The obvious answer is that they wanted to see a series of signs, or portents in the sky. These would warn them of the imminence of an important event. The signs would tell them what kind of event it would be. The Star would then be the result of a long process of sky watching.
The key events were probably the following:
The 7BC triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn – Saturn and Jupiter (the king of planets come together three times in 7 months in a constellation often stated to have been the constellation of the Jews... Pisces). This event is traditionally stated to have indicated an event relating to a King of the Jews.
The 6BC planetary massing of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn in Pisces – Although it is often stated that this event occurred too close to the Sun to be visible, this is not true. It would have been quite prominent, low in the evening twilit sky. Mars, the bringer of war would have suggested a king who would bring war to his people. As Judea was, at that time, under Roman occupation, it is logical to suppose that the king would be the one to liberate his people from the Romans. If the Magi were Persians this would have interested them greatly given the military rivalry between the two empires; a Jewish king who loosened the Roman grip in Judea and the surrounding territory would help Persian interests in the region (the enemy of my enemy is my friend).
The 6BC occultation of Jupiter in Aries – Michael Molnar at Rutgers University in the USA has very cleverly argued the importance of this event. He argues that Aries and not Pisces was the constellation of the Jews. Even though the event would not have been visible without a telescope (which we are sure that the Magi did not possess), if the Magi were somehow able to calculate that the occultation was going to happen it would have had great symbolic importance for them. An occultation suggests a death. In this case, a royal death as Jupiter is the king of planets. The reappearance of the planet suggests the birth of a new king. Aries would suggest, according to Molnar, that the new king would be a king of the Jews. [As time passes I find more difficulty in accepting this theory, but there is no doubt that it has been an important and original contribution in the field]
These portents in the sky would potentially tell the Magi what great event to expect and where to expect it (the birth of a great king of the Jews who would liberate his people). It only needed the final portent to tell them when to start their journey...
The 5BC nova en Aquila – This was the Star. It was the great event that set the Magi on their journey. When the nova appeared the Magi knew that now was the moment to make their journey.
This nova would have been seen rather low in the east in the pre-dawn sky. Its period of visibility (more than 70 days) suggests a bright nova at maximum. It would certainly have been visible for long enough for the Magi to reach Jerusalem from Persia, great odyssey though that voyage was.
However, the Star could not have gone before them if the came from the East – it was behind them. How can we explain this?
Matthew only says that the Star that they had seen in the East went before them as they travelled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. All stars though rise 4 minutes earlier every day – this is just a consequence of the Earth’s movement in its orbit – and a star that was in the East at dawn would, in two months, move to the south at the same hour. Where is Bethlehem in relation to Jerusalem? Almost due south! If the Magi took around two months to arrive in Bethlehem the Star would genuinely have gone before them in the dawn sky and would genuinely have appeared to hang over Bethlehem. There is no mystery here. Below we can see the sky as it would have appeared for the Magi if they had set out for Bethlehem from Jerusalem at dawn on April 30th 5BC. The Nova, the yellow star, would have been exactly due south at this time, hanging directly over Bethlehem on the road.
It is hard to imagine another, simpler explanation for the Star.