Kelly Rae on
December 25, 2009 at
Photo credit: NASA/ESA
A common query raised at Christmastime is whether there was an actual astronomical event that occurred at the time of Jesus’s birth that explains the Star of Bethlehem, which is chronicled in the Book of Matthew:
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”It is possible to evaluate the objects that could have been responsible for this reporting by looking at historical astronomical reports and using planetarium software that allows us to look at what was in the sky around this time.
The brightest star in the sky, Sirius, would not have triggered any reaction in the people of the time for it would not have changed from one night to the next. So the sudden appearance of a bright “star” may have been a different astronomical object such as a comet, supernova, or a meeting of two planets. However, on and around December 25, 1 A.D., there were no such celestial objects to cause a stir in stargazers.
Most scholars don’t believe December 25, 1 A.D. is a very accurate dating of Jesus’s birth. Instead, the consensus is that the birth occurred during a warmer month and between the years 7 and 1 B.C. With these new time frames in mind, we can examine impressive astronomical events that may have drawn the attention of ancient people to a bright light in the sky.
One of the better candidates for the Star of Bethlehem is a supernova in the year 5 B.C. A supernova, or exploding star, was once referred to as “guest star”. In March and April of 5 B.C. a supernova burst onto the scene and glowed brightly for 70 days in the constellation Capricornus.
In 4 B.C., a comet appeared to Earthly viewers but this comet was tail-less, giving it more of a stellar appearance. However, comets were seen as evil omens, and therefore it would have been unlikely for people to connect any good news with the appearance of this comet.
A number of planetary conjunctions occurred throughout this time period that might have had special meaning to astrologers. Astrologers were looked upon as scientists of their day, and meetings of planets in certain constellations were considered very significant. On both August 12, 3 B.C. and again on June 17, 2 B.C., the two brightest planets in the heavens, Venus and Jupiter, passed so close by each other in the evening sky that they appeared to merge. Both of these conjunctions occurred in Leo, which was considered a “ruler” constellation, and might have suggested to astrologers the birth of a new king.
Other astronomical events have also been cited as likely candidates for the Star of Bethlehem. But whether you believe it was an astronomical event, a miraculous apparition, or simply a story-telling device is for you to decide.
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Kelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She is currently the Feature Writer for Astronomy and Space at Suite101.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy