Published: 18-03-2010, 06:41

Star of Bethlehem

In the GOSPEL ACCORDING TO MATTHEW (2:2-14), we learn that the rising of an unusual star guided the MAGI to Jerusalem. The Magi interpreted this star as a sign that a great person was about to be born. They treated the star as a beacon, following it to the place directly above which it shone. There, in BETHLEHEM, they recognized JESUS as the newborn king whose birth was foretold by the star.

The GOSPEL ACCORDING TO LUKE says nothing of the Star of Bethlehem, yet the miraculous star plays an important role in Matthew’s account of Jesus’birth (see also GOSPEL ACCOUNTS OF CHRISTMAS).
What could explain this difference? Perhaps it has something to do with beliefs the ancient Hebrews held about astrology.
Many peoples of the ancient Near East, such as the Greeks, Romans, and Mesopotamians, thought that the stars influenced human behavior. Furthermore, unusual stellar events were widely believed to announce the birth of great individuals. Astrologers, therefore, cultivated knowledge of the stars in order to predict human events.
The ancient Hebrews seemed to be influenced by these beliefs, although for the most part their leaders rejected astrology. The Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament) reflects this ambivalence. On the one hand, certain passages denounce astrology as foreign and wrong. On the other hand, some passages suggest that unusual human events could be accompanied by the movement of heavenly bodies. One prophecy links the coming of the Messiah with the rising of a new star. It proclaims that “a star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel” (Numbers 24-17). In another prophecy, a rising star stands for the coming of the Messiah. The prophecy declares that “nations shall come to your light and kings to the brightness of your rising” (Isaiah 60:3).
The difference between Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ birth may reflect this same ambivalence towards astrology. Matthew wrote of the rising of an unusual star, implying that the birth of Jesus fulfilled certain Old Testament prophecies about the coming of the Messiah. Luke’s exclusion of the story of the star is consistent with the strand of Jewish belief that rejected astrology as a foreign religious doctrine.

Did a strange star appear in the heavens at the time of Christ’s birth? The question intrigues many scholars, from Bible experts to astronomers. A definitive answer still eludes them, however, because the two most important pieces of information necessary to solve the mystery are themselves unclear. First, Matthew’s gospel provides only a vague mention of the star. Second, the exact year of Jesus’ birth remains in doubt (see YEAR OF BIRTH JESUS). So researchers scan astronomical records from the years around 1 B.C. searching for unusual happenings in the sky.
Matthew’s description could fit any bright, irregularly occurring celestial phenomena. For instance, he might have been referring to a comet. Comets, however, were generally thought to herald disaster in ancient times. So it is unlikely that the appearance of a comet could have inspired the Magi to search for a newborn messiah. The Magi might have been spurred into action by a conjunction, which occurs when two or more planets appear to draw very near each other in the sky. Finally, they might have witnessed an exploding star, or nova.
The first European person to seek a scientific explanation of the Star was Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), the famous German astronomer and mathematician. He speculated that the Christmas Star might in fact have been a conjunction. By calculating the movements of the planets backwards in time, he determined that there had been a conjunction of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn in 6 B.C. Since that time a variety of astronomical explanations for the Star have been proposed. Until recently, most scholars agreed that the triple conjunctions of 7 B.C. presented themselves as the best candidates for the Christmas Star. Jupiter and Saturn drew near to each other on three occasions in that year, very spectacularly on May 22, and again on October 5 and December 1. Triple conjunctions of this sort are very rare, and the Magi, wise men who watched the stars, would have known that.
In recent years, another set of conjunctions has also begun to interest the experts. On August 12 in the year 3 B.C., Jupiter and Venus approached each other in the sky. The Magi might also have noted that this unusually close conjunction took place in the constellation of Leo. Leo, the lion, symbolized the people of Judah. This close conjunction was surpassed less than a year later when the two stars appeared to overlap each other in the early evening sky on June 17,2 B.C. This extremely rare event, called an occultation, would certainly have attracted the attention of the Magi. None of us has ever witnessed an occultation, since the last one occurred in 1818 and the next will take place in 2065. What’s more, between the dates of these two conjunctions, another set of three conjunctions occurred. The planet Jupiter and the star Regulus passed close by one another on September 14, 3 B.C., again on February 17, 2 B.C., and yet again on May 8, 2 B.C. This triple conjunction may have had special significance to the Magi as well. Both Jupiter and Regulus were associated with kingship by ancient Babylonian astrologers.
How do researchers decide which of these known astronomical events comes closest to fitting the description of the Christmas Star? They attempt to reconcile the dates of these events with other events that were supposed to have happened near the time of Christ’s birth. For example, both Gospel accounts of Christmas agree that Jesus was born during the reign of HEROD the Great. Most historians believe that Herod died in 4 B.C. Therefore, Jesus must have been born during or before 4 B.C., an assumption that rules out the possibility that the conjunctions of 3-2 B.C. could have been the star observed by the Magi. Yet other scholars contest the arguments offered by these historians and claim instead that Herod probably died in 1 B.C. In that case, the conjunctions of 3-2 B.C. become the best candidate for the Christmas Star.

Finally, many religious people feel that a scientific explanation for the Star of Bethlehem is not needed. Some feel that the story of the Star is a symbolic, rather than an historical, account, attempting to convey spiritual truths rather than material facts. Others believe that the Christmas Star really did rise over Bethlehem when Jesus was born. Some people who hold this opinion think that it was a natu-rally occurring phenomenon of some kind. Others believe that God caused this miraculous star to appear in order to proclaim the birth of the Savior. They do not expect anyone to find a logical, scientific explanation for the star.

Centuries of fascination with the Star of Bethlehem have made stars an important CHRISTMAS SYMBOL (see also CHRISTMAS IN THE PHILIPPINES; CHRISTMAS IN POLAND). They often top our decorated CHRISTMAS TREES and appear in other Christmas decorations. Old Christmas customs, such as the cavorting of the STAR BOYS, also make use of this symbol. Finally, many planetariums present special programs exploring the many theories about the Star of Bethlehem around Christmas time. These programs offer a new, scientific way to celebrate this ancient Christmas symbol.