What The Star of
theories have been proposed to explain the Star of
Almost every year Venus can
be seen around Christmas time. In 2006 Venus is an evening object visible just
after sunset, very low on the horizon. In 2007 it will be a morning star and in
the year 2008 an evening star again at Christmas – on both occasions it will be
high in the sky and beautifully visible. Inevitably, many people will ask
whether or not it could have been the Star of Bethlehem and others will think
that it is the Star of Bethlehem.
Venus is a glorious sight
when it is high in the sky after dark and, because of this,
it is an unlikely Star of Bethlehem. We are as certain as we can be of anything
that the Magi were assiduous watchers of the sky and would certainly have known
Venus and recognised it for what it is. Similarly, apart from a period of a few
nights around superior and inferior conjunction (when Venus passes
either behind the Sun, or in front of the Sun), the planet is always visible.
It would not have appeared suddenly to the Magi.
Even so, one Russian group
did suggest quite seriously in the 1960s that Venus was the Star of Bethlehem.
However, as Patrick Moore, the British astronomer and populariser
is so fond of saying: "if the Wise Men were fooled by Venus they couldn’t
have been very wise!".
Comet Halley is another
perennial favourite candidate amongst the public as the Star of Bethlehem. In
this case the suggestion has much more merit. During the 18th
Century, after the return of Halley’s Comet was successfully predicted people
realised that, if it returned every 76.5 years, it would have been visible very
close to the time of the Nativity and, for this reason, suggested that Halley
was the Star of Bethlehem.
In fact, contrary to
popular belief, the period of the comet over the last 2000 years is almost
exactly 77 years and it was soon realised that Halley had returned a few years
too early. In fact, the Chinese observed Comet Halley in August and September
of 12 BC and left quite a detailed description of its appearance.
If Jesus was born in 5 BC,
the Magi would have taken 7 years to arrive in
A popular theory for many
years was the idea that the Star of Bethlehem might have been a brilliant
supernova. Unfortunately, this can be discounted. Many old supernovae are known
around the sky – some, like the 1054 supernova, have left a prominent nebula
(the Crab Nebula), others, like Tycho’s supernova, in
1572, have left a bright radio source. No supernova remnant is known which is
of about the right age to have been the Star of Bethlehem, in the position of
any bright object seen by the Chinese which might have been a supernova. There
is no possibility of error. Between the Chinese chronicles and radio maps of
the sky we think that we know all supernovae of the last 2000 years. The
nearest in date to the Nativity was seen in 185 AD – almost 200 years too late.
This theory has been
championed, in various guises, by Patrick Moore. He suggests that the magi saw
a bright meteor, or possibly two bright meteors – one to tell them when Jesus
was born, the other to tell them that they had arrived at their destination. An
alternative which he has proposed is a "Cyrillid"
meteor shower. The Cyrillids were a meteor shower
seen on just one occasion, early in the 20th Century, when a string
of bright meteors crossed the sky from one side to the other, all appearing and
disappearing at approximately the same points in the sky. Such a shower would
be truly compelling to the Magi, especially if the meteors all aligned from
east to west and, if so, would have suggested to them that they should travel
west. Unfortunately, this theory has the handicap that a meteor lasts only for
a very few seconds. One could invoke a double meteor – one appearing initially
to send them on their way, a second telling them when to stop, but such an
explanation is artificial and very unlikely (very bright meteors do not appear
"on demand". Even a stream like the Cyrillids,
assuming that such streams occur occasionally, rather than having been a
one-off event, would last for only an hour or so at most and not the weeks that
the Magi would need for their journey; unless the Magi had some extremely rapid
camels indeed, they could not have followed a meteor or a meteor shower across
the desert to Jerusalem.
This is one of the most
unlikely theories that I have met, although compellingly argued! It states that
Uranus would have been close to Jupiter and Saturn around the time of the
Nativity and the attention of the Magi might have been drawn to the planet as a
result. In fact, Uranus was in conjunction with Jupiter on February 27th
7BC and with Saturn on February 5th 8BC. Neither conjunction would
have been easy to observe, as the both occurred very close to the Sun in the
sky. In fact, I doubt that they would have been visible at all. Similarly,
Uranus moves so slowly that the Magi would hardly have noticed its displacement
in the sky and, even if they had seen it, would have had no reason to think
that it was anything other than a faint star.