Christmas Stars and Conjunctions — What Was the Original Star of Bethlehem?
One of the things we associate with Christmas is stars. To Christians, the Star of Bethlehem is an important signal; it guided the Wise Men or Wise Kings to the place of Christ’s birth in time to give certain valuable and symbolic gifts.
So it’s not really surprising that many have equated the Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn that occurred yesterday (sadly I missed it due to That One Annoying Cloud) with the Star of Bethlehem.
So, was the Star of Bethlehem, or whatever started the story historically, a Great Conjunction? Let’s poke around and see what we know.
Jesus Wasn’t Born on December 25
Sorry, people. Like the Queen of England, Jesus has a real birthday and an official one.
December 25 was originally the supposed birth date of Mithras, who’s cult was extremely popular with the Roman military. In order to placate the soldiers when Rome officially adopted Christianity, they gave Jesus Mithras’ birth date.
Tracking the history of Roman censuses tells us that the historical Jesus was born some time in the spring. Obviously, this is important when we try to trace what historical astronomical phenomenon the “Star of Bethlehem” might have been.
So, Was the Star of Bethlehem a Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn?
Jupiter and Saturn come into conjunction every 20 years, but the Great Conjunction is only as close as it was this year about every 180 years. Usually they get as close as the diameter of the moon then dance away again.
The last time we saw a conjunction like this was July 16, 1623, or rather, people on Earth did;; the 1623 conjunction would only have been visible to people living close to the equator.
The best view was on March 5,1226, when they were even closer together, and in that case most people would have seen it. They probably thought it meant something.
Interestingly, the next one will only be in 2080, meaning some people now alive might actually get to see this twice.
Now, there is a possibility for this. In 7 BC, Jupiter and Saturn did a full blown dance number, conjoining not once, not twice, but three times. This could well be the Star of Bethlehem, which appeared, disappeared, appeared…
The third conjunction was on December 5, and that gels with the fact that by the time the Magi arrived, Jesus was far from a newborn. Of course, it doesn’t gel with them still being in Bethlehem, but some scholars think the entire Bethlehem story was kind of invented anyway. And the time of day was right. “In the east” would have meant a conjunction visible at sunrise, which was correct for this particular pas de deux.
What Else Could it Have Been?
But that’s not the only theory as to the identity of the Star of Bethlehem.
There are certain other planetary conjunctions that have been put forward, including a very bright conjunction of Jupiter and Venus in 3 BCE. Which also was followed by a celestial dance, which resulted in a full conjunction in June.
Astronomers of the time would have considered any of these to be a potential omen.
What we can determine from the story is that the star was not a meteor (it was around far too low).
It was also not a supernova. Sorry, but there isn’t a candidate supernova it could have been; supernova events have been recorded going back thousands of years and we can’t find a nebula that would gel with one. There was a supernova in 185 A.D. that was recorded by the Chinese, and that’s literally the closest one.
Was it a comet? That’s a reasonable suggestion. There was a large, bright comet in 5 BCE that could be a potential candidate. However, comets have always been considered bad omens rather than good ones. You certainly wouldn’t go following after one.
I’m not Christian, but if there was a historical Jesus…and a historical star of Bethlehem…looking at the story in Matthew, I would say that if Jesus was born in March, the wise men arriving in June/July would actually fit perfectly.
So I’m going to go with it being the Jupiter/Venus conjunction.
At the same time, the one we got this year might give some idea of what such a “star” would have looked like.
For those of you who didn’t have one pesky cloud right in the way *grumble*.