The Christmas Star – Fact or Fiction?

by Tammy Plotner on December 12, 2008

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‘Tis the season… And every year around this time people notice the brilliant ‘star’ to the west just after sunset. For astronomers, we know it’s the appearance of the planet Venus, but noticing it for the average person brings on questions about the holidays. Was the Christmas Star real?

Regardless of your faith, the story of the ‘Star of Bethlehem’ is one of the most powerful and enigmatic symbols of Christianity. For centuries, scientists, scholars and historians have debated about the nature of this biblical light that heralded an event. Was it purely a divine sign, created miraculously to mark a special birth? Or was it an astronomical event in its own right?

David Reneke, news editor of Australia’s Sky and Space Magazine, believes astronomers may have found the answer – or at least something that fits all the known facts – basing his research on the highly esteemed gospel according to Matthew, the first of the four gospels in the New Testament. It would appear to be the first written and this version places key players together in the same time period. “It’s generally accepted by most researchers that Christ was born between 3 BC and 1 AD.” says Dave. With the aid of modern astronomy software programs astronomers can reproduce the night sky exactly as it was, thousands of years ago. Humans are curious and so was Dave, so he turned back the hands of time and the stars to the time of that long ago Christmas…

“We found out something startling.” said Reneke, “It looks like the ‘Christmas star’ really did exist,”

Two thousand years ago, astronomy and astrology were considered one and the same. The motions of the heavenly bodies were used to determine the events of history, and the fate of people’s lives. Of the various groups of priests and prophets of this period, those which commanded the most respect were the Magi – whose origins are not entirely clear. Known as ‘wise men’ , we can only assume they were actually priests who relied on their knowledge of astronomy/astrology.

Armed with an approximate date, Dave assumed the ‘Star of Bethlehem’ was not just a localized event and could be observed by sky-watchers elsewhere in the world, not just by the Magi. Historical records and modern-day computer simulations indicate a rare series of planetary groupings, also known as conjunctions, during the years 3 BC and 2 BC In fact, this was one of the most remarkable periods in terms of celestial events in the last 3,000 years!

“Like the final pieces of a difficult jig-saw puzzle, our fabled biblical beacon is starting to reveal itself,” David said. “On 12 August, 3 BC, Jupiter and Venus appeared very close together just before sunrise, appearing as bright morning ‘stars.’ It would have been visible in the eastern dawn sky of the Middle East from about 3:45 to 5:20 a.m.”

But it didn’t stop there. The crowning touch came ten months later, on 17 June 2 BC, as Venus and Jupiter joined up again in the constellation Leo. This time the two planets were so close that, without the use of our modern optical aids, they would have looked like one single, brilliant star. According to Dave’s research, Jupiter was known as the “planet of Kings” and Saturn as the “Protector of the Jews”. This could easily have been interpreted as a sign that the Jewish Messiah had been, or was about to be, born. Also, Leo was thought to denote royalty and power. An interpretation? Perhaps. But, do not forget the times in which this occurred. Astronomy and astrology intermingled. This whole sequence of events could have been enough for at least three astrologers to see this as sign in the heavens and make their way Jerusalem.

“Now, this doesn’t mean that astrology works,” Reneke said. “We haven’t ruled out other possibilities for the Star of Bethlehem but it does make our search more rewarding to find a truly interesting astronomical event that happened during the most likely time for the Nativity.”

Whatever the Star of Bethlehem was, it has had more impact on humankind than any star before or since. It is also possible that the mystery of the Star will never be completely solved. For many of us though, it is the mystery itself that drives us to find the solution.

David Reneke, one of Australia’s most well known and respected amateur astronomers and lecturers, has over 40 years experience in astronomy with links to some of the world’s leading astronomical institutions. David is also the News Editor for Australia’s Sky and Space Magazine, he teaches astronomy at college level, is an invited speaker at astronomy conventions throughout Australia, a feature writer for major Australian newspapers, and is a science correspondent for ABC and commercial radio stations. In these weekly radio interviews David regularly appears on about 60 networked stations around the nation with all the latest news and on general astronomy and space discovery issues. Look for his story about the “Christmas Star” to air locally on Good Morning, America. Our thanks to Dave for sharing with us!

About 

Tammy is a professional astronomy author, President Emeritus of Warren Rupp Observatory and retired Astronomical League Executive Secretary. She’s received a vast number of astronomy achievement and observing awards, including the Great Lakes Astronomy Achievement Award, RG Wright Service Award and the first woman astronomer to achieve Comet Hunter's Gold Status.

Kaje December 16, 2008 at 8:08 AM

I feel the article is referring to the fact that at least two major world religions have used that particular star as part of their formation stories.

The Sun’s impact is obvious!

David December 17, 2008 at 5:30 PM

Fascinating. If accurate, this sheds some light on the Gospel mystery of Herod’s slaughter of the innocence. The story goes that all boys under 2 in the area were executed based on the King’s questioning of the Magi about when the star first appeared.

Andrew James December 17, 2008 at 6:39 PM

David said… “Fascinating. If accurate, this sheds some light on the Gospel mystery of Herod’s slaughter of the innocence. The story goes that all boys under 2 in the area were executed based on the King’s questioning of the Magi about when the star first appeared.”

Yeah. but where’s he proof. Glib response to support as if the story is true. Good propaganda if you ask me.

Robin P December 19, 2008 at 4:03 AM

According to my research, Venus and Jupiter WERE indeed very close on 16th June 2002…however they were also very close to the Sun and only would have been visible at sunset.
Hardly a fixed point for any ‘Magi’ to follow though.

Robin P December 19, 2008 at 4:30 AM

Sorry!My bad it was the 17th!

Ranold December 20, 2008 at 10:12 AM

In the Qur’an (holy book of Muslims) the story of the birth of baby Jesus is stated in the following verses:

“Relate in the Book the story of Mary, when she withdrew from her family to a place in the East. She placed a screen to screen herself from them; then We sent her our angel, and he appeared before her as a man in all respects. She said: I seek refuge from thee to Allah Most Gracious: come not near if thou dost fear Allah. He said: Nay, I am only a messenger from thy Lord, to announce to thee the gift of a holy son. She said: How shall I have a son, seeing that no man has touched me, and I am not unchaste? He said: So it will be: Thy Lord saith, ‘that is easy for Me. And we wish to appoint him as a Sign unto men and a Mercy from Us: It is a matter so decreed. So she conceived him, and she retired with him to a remote place. And the pains of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a palm-tree: She cried in her anguish: Ah! would that I had died before this! would that I had been a thing forgotten and out of sight! But a voice cried to her from beneath the palm-tree: Grieve not! for thy Lord hath provided a rivulet beneath thee; And shake towards thyself the trunk of the palm-tree: It will let fall fresh ripe dates upon thee. So eat and drink and cool thine eye. And if thou dost see any man, say, I have vowed a fast to Allah Most Gracious, and this day will I enter into not talk with any human being. At length she brought the babe to her people, carrying him in her arms. They said: O Mary! truly an amazing thing hast thou brought! O sister of Aaron! Thy father was not a man of evil, nor thy mother a woman unchaste! But she pointed to the babe. They said: How can we talk to one who is a child in the cradle? He said: I am indeed a servant of Allah: He hath given me revelation and made me a prophet;And He hath made me blessed wheresoever I be, and hath enjoined on me Prayer and Charity as long as I live; He hath made me kind to my mother, and not overbearing or miserable; So peace is on me the day I was born, the day that I die, and the day that I shall be raised up to life again! Such was Jesus the son of Mary: it is a statement of truth, about which they vainly dispute. It is not befitting to the majesty of Allah that He should beget a son. Glory be to Him! when He determines a matter, He only says to it, “Be”, and it is. Verily Allah is my Lord and your Lord: Him therefore serve ye: this is a Way that is straight. But the sects differ among themselves: and woe to the unbelievers because of the coming Judgment of a Momentous Day!” (Qur’an 19:16-37)

The verse that got my attention is the one states:
“And shake towards thyself the trunk of the palm-tree: It will let fall fresh ripe dates upon thee.” (Qur’an 19:25)

Ripe dates are widely known for it’s season, which starts in the summer of June and ends in September.

I thought it was something interesting to know.

cosmotheoro December 22, 2008 at 12:42 PM

Colombian astronomer said that 10 years before that australian cientific. Astronomer autodidact German Puerta Restrepo book :
GUIA PARA VIAJEROS DEL CIELO 1997.

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