Astronomers, as well as many other people, have often wondered whether the Star of Bethlehem was an astronomical event or a miracle. In an attempt to answer this question, astronomers have been able to calculate backward in time the approximate positions of most celestial objects during the time the Star of Bethlehem appeared. However, in order to do this, they first needed to know exactly when Jesus was born. This was not an easy task.
Today’s calendar originated from the Roman monk Dionysius Exiguus in the year 533 A.D. He wanted the starting point of his calendar to coincide with the birth of Jesus. Unfortunately, he made a few errors such as neglecting the four years when the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus ruled under his own name of Octavian. In addition, he forgot that the year numbered zero should have been inserted between 1 B.C. and 1 A.D. Jesus, therefore, must have been born during or before 4 B.C.
About 70 years ago, archaeologists working in Ankara, Turkey discovered a list in which orders had been issued for tax collections. Years corresponding to 28 B.C., 8 B.C., and 14 A.D. were listed. Remember, however, that these dates indicate when the order for tax collection was issued. Considering communication, and mode of travel at the time, it was probably 7 B.C. or 6 B.C. before Mary and Joseph received news of the tax, and began their long 80 mile journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem.
Christmas is celebrated on December 25, but probably does not represent the day of the year when Christ was born. St. Luke tells us, “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.”
Meteorologists have studied the weather in Judea, and find that it hasn’t changed much in the last 2,000 years. Bethlehem is quite cold by December 25, and animals and their shepherds are inside at this time. The flocks were put out in March, and brought in again by early November. The shepherds watched their flocks only when new lambs were being born which was in the spring time. Therefore, it appears that the birth of Jesus occurred sometime in the spring of 7 B.C. or 6 B.C.
From an astronomical standpoint, there are many theories as to what was the Star of Bethlehem. Of these theories, a comet, a supernova, and a conjunction of three planets are the most prominent.
Comets are basically large dirty snowballs with a large rock in the center. They appear as fuzzy looking stars with tails as they get close to the Sun. Each century, a few comets are bright enough to be seen in broad daylight. Comets can be visible for several weeks at a time, and they have been recorded long before the birth of Jesus. Could the records have been lost or did a bright comet just not appear during this time.
A supernova is a new star. During its lifetime, a star might suddenly increase in brightness nearly a million times. The star’s sudden increase in brightness is due to a terrific explosion that happens within the star. Supernova are bright enough to be visible in broad daylight. They also occur very rarely, about two or three times every thousand years.
In the year 1054 A.D., a new star could be seen in the sky even in broad daylight. It remained visible for several months. This star was located in the constellation known as Taurus, the Bull. This was a supernova. The star’s remnants are continuing to expand today, and appear in a telescope as a cloud of shining gas and dust now known as the Crab Nebula. However, no evidence has been found that a supernova appeared at the time of the birth of Christ.
As the planets in our solar system orbit the Sun, they vary in position in the sky. Sometimes from our line of sight here on the Earth, they seem to get very close together. This is referred to as a conjunction of planets which means that they have the same celestial longitude (Right Ascension) in the sky. If you recall, I mentioned that the planets Venus and Saturn would be in close proximity to each other on November 27 of this year.
Three times during 7 B.C., the planets Jupiter and Saturn were in conjunction in the constellation of Pisces, the Fish which is one of the constellations of the zodiac. According to Jewish tradition, the constellation of Pisces was the sign of Israel, and the sign of the Messiah. The planet Jupiter was associated with royalty, and Saturn was the protective planet of Israel. Any celestial event occurring in the constellation of Pisces would have significant meaning to the Jewish people.
In 6 B.C., an even rarer event occurred, a conjunction of the planets Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn took place in the constellation of Pisces. Could this have been the Star of Bethlehem?
Whether the Star of Bethlehem was an astronomical event or a miracle no one knows. The glory of Christmas comes not from the star said one minister, but from the love that came upon us when Christ was born. MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL!