The three Magi depicted in the Hortus Deliciarum by Herrad of Landsberg in 1185 AD.
We’ll never know for sure what “star” the Magi saw when they set off from Babylon to Jerusalem seeking their newborn king, but that doesn’t stop us from wondering whether it might have had a natural cause. There are many possible explanations, a few of which we’ll explore here.
“For we have seen His star in the East (upon rising) and have come to worship him” reads the biblical account of the Three Wise Men. After meeting with King Herod, they rode south to Bethlehem:
“… and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.”
Precious little more was written about the star. If the Three Kings’ account had only mentioned a constellation or nearby star for reference, we could have narrowed down the possibilities. We do know the Magi’s general direction of travel and the accepted time frame of Christ’s birth between the years 7 and 2 B.C.
Bethlehem is 5.5 miles south of Jerusalem, where the Three Kings met with King Herod sometime around his death in 4 B.C.
We also know that whatever they saw moved from east to south. First visible in the east, the “star” next appeared over Bethlehem, located 5.5 miles (9 km) south of Jerusalem. As the Magi rode from Jerusalem they would have seen the apparition in the southern sky. Let’s now explore the possibilities:
I think we can rule out meteors or their brilliant cousins, fireballs, because they’re too brief a phenomenon, and the Kings saw the apparition on at least two occasions. Meteors also don’t “rise” but streak across the sky from any direction.
Woodcut showing destructive influence of a fourth century comet from Stanilaus Lubienietski’s Theatrum Cometicum (Amsterdam, 1668). Comets in the past were often described as “hanging” over a location much like the ”star” of Bethlehem, but were typically seen as augurs of doom.
Halley’s Comet would have been a bright naked eye sight in Gemini in the east before dawn in late August 12 B.C. and again in the northwestern evening sky in September. A tempting possibility but the time frame is wrong – too early for Christ’s birth.
But another comet recorded in the Book of Han was observed within the correct time frame by Chinese astronomers in 5 B.C.:
“Second year of the Chien-p’ing reign period, second month (5 B.C., March 9-April 6), a suibsing (tailed comet) appeared at Ch’ien-niu for over 70 days.”
The comet first appeared in the constellation Capricornus, which would have been visible in the eastern sky before dawn from the Middle East in early spring. Assuming it came into view just after perihelion (closest approach to the sun), it would have traveled to the west and into the southern sky roughly within the time frame required for the Wise Men to travel from the Babylon to Jerusalem and finally to Bethlehem.
Or the comet could have been seen in the east before perihelion and then crossed over into the west-southwestern evening sky as a brilliant post-perihelion sight. The Bible also mentions “shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night” at the time of the birth. This points to spring as being the likely season, the same as the comet’s period of visibility.
This almost sounds like an open and shut case except for a niggling detail. Comets were generally seen in ancient cultures as omens of doom and gloom, not bringers of good news like the birth of a new king. Comets scared people because they came out of nowhere and crossed the sky in unpredictable ways. To this day a bright comet’s appearance still stirs fears of impending catastrophe in some.
* Nova or supernova
A bright nova (temporary brightening of a white dwarf in a binary star system as it “feeds” on gas from its companion) or supernova would attract the attention of many. Most remain bright for weeks or months. Credit: creekandcave.com
Exploding stars are great candidates because they fit the description of a star, and in the case of a supernova, can appear as brilliant as Jupiter or Venus. That would certainly get the attention of the oriental astrologers, who kept a vigilant eye on the heavens waiting for the ancient prophecy of a “star” in Israel to be fulfilled.
Because of Earth’s revolution around the sun it’s even possible for a “new star” to appear first in one direction and then be visible a couple months later in another, especially if you factor in time of night. Unfortunately there are no records of novas or supernovas by the super-observant Chinese or anyone else occurring during the time frame.
* Conjunctions of bright planets
The western sky at the end of evening twilight on Feb. 25, 6 B.C. would have displayed a striking gathering of the planets Jupiter, Mars and Saturn. All three were within 7 degrees of each other. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software
Conjunctions occur when two or more bright celestial objects line up closely in the sky. A conjunction of two planets is not that unusual, but a gathering of three is and may have held great symbolic value in ancient times. One such triple conjunction involving Mars, Jupiter and Saturn took place in at dusk in the constellation Pisces on February 25, 6 B.C. Could this have inspired the Magi to begin their westward journey?
On Feb. 20, five days before the symmetrical gathering of planets , a very young evening crescent moon passed through the group. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software
Five days earlier the three were nearly as close and joined by a young crescent moon, an even more auspicious sight.
Of course there are problems with this scenario. The planets appeared in the western sky and the arrangement and number of planets visible would have changed months later when the kings rode to Bethlehem.
An amazing three conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn from late May to early December 7 B.C. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software
A recurring conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn played out between May and December in 7 B.C. when the two planets were separated by just one degree (two full moon diameters) on three occasions in the constellation Pisces. The first close pass took place in the eastern morning sky on May 29; the second on Sept. 30 (southern evening sky) and the final pairing on Dec. 5, also in the southern evening sky.
A bright planet duo over so many months rates as an eye-catcher and the directions fit the bill, but the Magi described the object as a brilliant star, not a pair of stars. Even though a degree is a relatively small distance, it would have been easy to see them as two separate objects.
Venus and Jupiter just 0.6 arc minute apart – merged into one – on June 17, 2 B.C. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software
That brings us to the dual conjunctions of the two brightest planets of all – Jupiter and Venus – in the eastern sky at dawn from the Middle East on August 12, 3 B.C. and again 10 months later on Jun 17, 2 B.C. On both occasions astrologers would have watched the two planets come so close together they would have briefly merged into one before separating again.
OK, a keen eye might have separated the pair on August 12 when they were 2/5 of a moon diameter (12 arc minutes) apart, but they would have been far too tight on June 17 – just 0.6 arc minutes – for anything but a good pair of binoculars or telescope to split them.
During the first conjunction, the Magi would have seen this brilliant pairing in the eastern sky; on June 17 the following year, they lit up the western sky.
Despite appearing as a solitary brilliant “star”, this conjunction would not have been seen in the southern sky on a journey to Bethlehem but in the west, unless we interpret the direction implied in the Bible passage more broadly.
So what’s your pleasure? My best guesses for the Bethlehem Star are the Chinese comet of 4 B.C. or the pair of Jupiter-Venus conjunctions in 3 and 2 B.C. Or it could have been a succession of events – multiple conjunctions and a comet – that led the Magi to conclude that the prophecy of Christ’s birth would soon be fulfilled.
There’s another possibility – the supernatural. But that takes us outside the realm of science. Either way, the star remains a mystery, since we’ll never know for sure what caught the eye of the Three Wise Men as they scanned the heavens looking for signs of what would come.
For more on the topic, click HERE and HERE.