May 23, 2017

View your own Star of Bethlehem.

    Over the years, much ink (real and cyber) has been spilt over the astronomical origins of the Star of Bethlehem. Biblical references are scant in regards to what the wise men may have seen; we know that the star “went before them…” every morning until it lay over the manger; the rest was history. But what was it?

Can one go outdoors, this Christmas Day of 2007 A.D. and see anything comparable? Conjecture abounds as to what that star might have been. No known celestial object would physically go before a group of people, then promptly hover in one spot, helicopter like. If interpreted literally, the star would have to be a hands down miracle. If some room is given for biblical allegory, however, the star could have been a number of things. Three objects (alien visitations non-withstanding) make the cut. They are as follows;
1. A galactic nova or supernovae: These occur in a variety of forms, some when a massive star reaches the end of the nuclear fusion process and promptly explodes. This would have appeared as a new star in the early morning skies, surely an omen to the Wise Men. This theory, however, has some serious flaws. Are there any nearby supernovae that fit the bill? Supernovae are extremely infrequent in our galactic suburbs; the last one was Tycho’s Star in the early 16th century. Most are obscured from our view by gas and dust; we are certainly overdue for the spectacle. To fit the criterion, any supernova remenant would need to be about not more than 1,000 light-years distant, visible from north latitude 32 degrees north (the latitude of Bethlehem), and be around 2,000 years old. Unfortunately, none of the supernovae remnants surveyed in our galactic backwater fit the bill.
2. How about a bright comet? This is my personal favorite; a truly large comet like Hale-Bopp would have shown up as a cosmic arrow over successive mornings in the twilight desert skies. There are, however millions of comets lurking in the solar system. None of the observed orbits pose a good fit for a suspect; the only way this would ever be conclusively proven is if the same comet came blazing through our own modern skies, its orbit suspiciously two millennia old. Comets were often seen by ancient astrologers as an evil portent; it’s unlikely the Magi would take the sudden appearance of a bright comet as a Messianic sign.
3. Finally, what about a planetary conjunction? again, this is a tough conjecture to prove. Several conjunctions may happen on any given year; it would be easy for any would be astronomical historian to find one that suits their needs. Some debate has been raised in recent years about the significance of the constellation of Pisces to the ancient Hebrews; certainly, the symbol of the Fishes was significant to the early Christians. Pisces is also currently were the Vernal or spring Equinox now resides; the Earth slowly “wobbles”, completing one turn every 26,000 years. This is what is meant when astrologers talk of the “Age of Aquarius” or the movement of the Equinox into that sign. I would place a small bet that most modern astrologers have never heard of the Precession of Equinoxes, however. To be sure the Magi were astrologers and well versed in the movement of the heavens. But its still almost entirely conjecture as to what those movements meant to them. I have a suspicion that most forecasts were placed with a political or theological bent to them, to make personal gain or to give legitimacy to regimes.
And so the Star of Bethlehem remains a mystery. But this Christmas morning, I contend that you still can see your own Star. At about 5 to 6AM local, look to the east. The brilliant planet Venus hangs high in the winter sky, about 32 degrees above the horizon to the ESE in the constellation Libra. At magnitude -4, it is the third brightest object in the sky, and can cast subtle shadows on the snow covered ground. Just for us, Venus fills the role of the biblical Star this season. Go out, brave the northern hemisphere winter, (or bask in the warm southern hemisphere one!) and wonder just what the Magi might have seen.


  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by MyschaTheriault, David Dickinson. David Dickinson said: Xmas thoughts on the Star of Bethlehem; a classic Astroguyz post! [...]

  2. [...] will dust off and recycle their posts on the subject. Heck, even we couldn’t resist doing a post on the controversy as a fledgling blogger, oh so long [...]

  3. [...] now, the seasonal discussion will once again have reached a fevered pitch. Just what was the Star of Bethlehem? Mentioned only in the Book of Matthew in the New Testament of the Bible, this astronomical [...]

Speak Your Mind