The Christmas Star


Sky of Jerusalem at 7BC-11-12 at about 7:30PM local time – Click to View Larger image

With all the hullabaloo about politically correct “Happy Holidays” greetings, as done up in electric lights on top of the Sierra Nevada Brewery, I thought the Christmas Star would be an appropriate topic.

About 2,006 years ago, according to a widely accepted historical and biblical accounts, a star rose in the east and guided three eminent thinkers, known as the Magi, to the scene of an event that was to change the face of the world.

Since that time, astronomers and theologians have been baffled as to the precise nature of the star which, as told in the Gospel of St Matthew, led the Magi to the stable in Bethlehem where Christ was born.

Was it a miracle, a divine intervention to herald the birth of Christ? Was there a star at all, or was it simply added to the Bible to fulfil an Old Testament prophecy? Or was there some actual astronomical event that gave rise to the story of the Star of Bethlehem?

These questions have intrigued scores of scientists, writers, and artists ever since.

Evidence drawn from modern Biblical scholarship, recent findings in space and ancient Chinese history to suggest that evidence of the star’s existence could be at hand.

A British astronomer, Mark Kidger suggests that the Nativity may well have taken place at some time in March or April rather than in December.

Christ’s birth is said to have taken place while shepherds were watching their flocks at night, he notes, something that takes place at lambing-time in the spring rather than in the depths of winter. If the local inns were full, as the Gospel of Matthew insists, this would be because of the Jewish Passover, which also occurs in the spring.

Kidger concludes that Christ was born some time around March in 5 BC, taking account of the generally accepted fact that the inventor of the Christian calendar, the 6th century monk Dionysius Exiguus, was five years out in his calculations.

Ther have been several theories, including the “star” could have been an unusual sighting of Venus, or perhaps Halley’s Comet, a supernova, or a meteor shower.

More plausible is the popular theory that what the Magi saw was a planetary conjunction, which occurs when two planets pass very close to each other in the sky, often producing a very striking configuration.

As shown in the picture above, generated by a computer program known as Starry Night, one such conjunction took place in 7 BC when Jupiter and Saturn came close to each other three times in seven months and were then joined by Mars, an event known to have been observed in Babylonia, well to the east of Bethlehem.

A more recent idea is that the Star of Bethlehem may have been an occultation of Jupiter by the moon that occurred in 6 BC, the re-emergence of the royal planet from behind the moon’s disc suggesting a royal birth.

However Kidger points out that the event would have taken place so low in the twilight sky of the region it would have been impossible to observe directly.

For his “best guess” at solving the Star of Bethlehem riddle Kidger looks to an ancient Chinese chronicle called the Ch’ien-han-shu which states that an object, probably a nova, or new star, was observed in March in 5 BC and remained visible for 70 days.

The object would have appeared in the east and remained in the sky long enough to have guided the Magi — Babylonian astrologers, according to some scholars — across the desert to Bethlehem.

“It’s hard to believe the Star of Bethlehem could have been anything else,” Kidger says of the nova, citing the coincidence in date, the duration of visibility and its position in the sky. And proof of its identity may soon be possible by looking for its telltale remains when the successor to the Hubble telescope goes online in 2011.

When a star goes nova, or supernova, if it has any planets, those planets usually become toast in the process. It may be that our birth of Christianity was heralded in by the destruction of another planet, possibly an entire civilization. As they say, God does work in mysterious ways.

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Jack Lee
December 22, 2006 12:30 pm

Excellent piece, enjoyed very much it as did five others in my family.
As a suggestion for a future article, maybe you could tell us about the the Arecibo radio telescope. Do radio waves travel faster than light waves? Also, I think Arecibo has only made one broadcast in the past 5 years…wonder why, do you think they are afraid somebody/something unfriendly might find our planet?

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