The Christmas Star

Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him. – Matthew 2:2

 

b7_wise_men_1For ten years before becoming a firefighter, I wrote and produced astronomy programs at the McLaughlin Planetarium in Toronto. One of those shows looked at possible astronomical explanations for the Christmas Star. So at this time of year I’ll swap my fire hose for a telescope and turn my gaze skyward.

There are three main ways to approach the subject. The first is to simply accept the Christmas Star as a miraculous phenomenon completely separate from anything astronomical. In that case our investigation would end here.

Annunciation to the Shepherds by Jacob Willemsz de Wet the Elder

Annunciation to the Shepherds by Jacob Willemsz de Wet the Elder

At the other extreme is the view held by many modern biblical scholars that the star is “pious fiction”. To begin with Matthew is the only Gospel which mentions the star. Only Matthew and Luke tell of the birth of Jesus. Luke has shepherds and angels, instead of wise men and a star. Much of Matthew’s description of the birth of Jesus is constructed to show him as the fulfillment of Old Testament messianic prophesy. One of these is a passage in the Book of Numbers:  I see Him, but not now; I behold Him, but not near; A Star shall come out of Jacob; A Scepter shall rise out of Israel.

These days the night sky is all but drowned out by city lights for most of us. Only the very brightest stars can penetrate the glare and few people bother to give the night sky more than a passing glance. That was not the case for our ancient ancestors.

In biblical times it was commonly believed that the terrestrial and celestial realms were intimately linked; that important events on earth were mirrored by equally significant events in the sky. Such a view may well have influenced the author of Matthew.

It is generally accepted that Matthew was written somewhere between 80 and 90 AD. Just prior to this a group of Magi visited the emperor Nero after Halley’s Comet was visible in 66 AD. Could Matthew have taken this event as a model for his own narrative?

If we wish to find a real astronomical phenomenon for Matthew’s star, we need to acknowledge that we are entering the realm of speculation. There is no single object whose description and behavior matches Matthew’s account. If, however, we are willing to grant Matthew some degree of poetic license, there are a few candidates worth investigating.

Adoration of the Magi by Giotto di Bondone

Adoration of the Magi by Giotto di Bondone

Bright comets are certainly an impressive sight. They appear seemingly out of nowhere and disappear just as mysteriously. While comets do not stand over one particular spot on the Earth, as Matthew’s star does over Bethlehem, a comet’s tail could be seen as pointing towards something. Giotto di Bondone shows a comet in his painting of the Adoration of the Magi, but this is likely due to his having witnessed Halley’s Comet in 1301, rather than any historical reference.

Comets were noteworthy events and were recorded by several ancient civilizations. The Chinese in particular were diligent in recording and dating the appearance of significant comets. There were none recorded from 6 to 4 BC, the period normally accepted for the birth of Jesus. Moreover, comets were generally seen in the Greco-Roman world as being evil omens.

A nova or supernova have also been suggested as candidates. These phenomena include several different events, but all are violent, occurring in the final stages of a star’s life, and result in a dramatic increase in brightness. In the case of a supernova, the exploding star can outshine an entire galaxy, releasing more energy in a few weeks than our Sun will in billions of years.

Such an event occurring nearby would have disastrous consequences for us here on Earth. Though life might survive in the deep oceans, the sudden flood of radiation from a supernova within 30 light years would likely mean the end of human life on Earth. Fortunately supernovae are very rare events. There are no stars within 30 light years that are likely to explode within the next several million years. No need to cancel your retirement plans.

Seen from a comfortable distance though, a nova or supernova appears as a new point of light in the sky. Like comets, the Chinese kept careful records of these “guest stars” as they were called. The records indicate the appearance of a possible nova in 5 BC, but it was not very spectacular. It would have stayed fixed in one position, appearing for all intents and purposes like an average star, before gradually fading away.

The Crab Nebula as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope. It is the remnant of a supernova seen in 1054. This supernova occurred 5,000 light years from earth.

The Crab Nebula as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope. It is the remnant of a supernova seen in 1054. This supernova occurred 5,000 light years from earth.

Supernovae can be quite spectacular. Two of the most recent, one in 1054 AD and another in 1604 were bright enough to be seen in broad daylight for over three weeks. The one in 1054 left behind what we know as the Crab Nebula, the shattered glowing remains of a massive star. There are no known supernova candidates in the appropriate time frame to serve as the Christmas Star.

We are likely on firmer ground if we look for something with direct astrological significance. The word Magi is Greek “μαγοι” (Matthew wrote his Gospel in Greek). It is the root of our word magic and magician. Magi has usually been translated as “wise men” but in Matthew’s context a more accurate translation would probably be “astrologer”. The most significant events to an astrologer are those that occur to the Sun, Moon and planets.

Some writers have suggested an occultation of Jupiter by the Moon. This is where the Moon passes in front of Jupiter causing it to disappear for a time and then suddenly reappear. However these are fairly common events and the occultation in question, in 6 BC occurred so close to the sun that it would have been all but impossible to observe.

A more likely candidate is a triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn between the months of May and December of 7 BC . A conjunction is when two planets pass each other in the sky. Jupiter and Saturn do this roughly every 20 years. However because we on the Earth are also moving around the Sun, it can appear as if the planets back up and passes each other again in reverse, as we move by them on the inside track. Jupiter and Saturn then resume their direct motion and pass for a third time. This triple conjunction is quite rare occurring only every few centuries on average.

jupiter-saturn

Jupiter and Saturn as seen by the Voyager spacecraft. These are two separate images pasted together into one.

Jupiter was seen as the planet of kings. The triple conjunction of 7 BC occurred in the constellation of Pisces, often associated with the Jews. Matthew indicates that the Magi came from the east, likely Babylon. Clay tablets survive which show that the Babylonians observed and recorded of this triple conjunction. Finnish archaeologist Simo Parpola claims that in the Babylonian astrological system it could have been interpreted as signifying “the end of the old world order and the birth of a new king chosen by God.”

Matthew states that after the Magi’s visit Herod ordered the death of all boys in Bethlehem under the age of two (the Slaughter of the Innocents). This could indicate that the Magi’s visit occurred up to two years after the triple conjunction – in 5 BC.

It’s far from an air tight case. Much of the evidence is circumstantial and based on conjecture. Maybe when we try to pin down something like the Christmas Star to an historical event or an astronomical phenomenon we’re missing the real point.

Regardless of its origin, the true importance of the Christmas Star is that it stands as a beacon of hope and renewal, that peace is possible between people of good will.

For those interested in a scholarly analysis of biblical accounts of the birth of Jesus, I highly recommend The Birth of the Messiah by Raymond Brown, Yale University Press 1999, ISBN 978-0300140088. Though a scholarly work, it is quite accessible to the layman.

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