The Star of Bethlehem an Astronomer
This is an astronomer's view of just what the Star of Bethlehem might have been.
It is probably the one star that most people have heard of yet we know virtually nothing about it. This begs the question, just what was the Star of Bethlehem? When we look at the problem we have three possible answers.
1. The star was a miracle
2. The star was a myth or legend
3. The star is a report of a genuine astronomical event.
We will look at the third possibility as the first two are beyond the scope of an astronomer to answer.
The only reference we have from the Bible is where it is mentioned just 3 times in Matthew chapter 2 verses 1-12. Very little about the star can be learned from the Bible.
The night sky 2,000 years ago was very similar to the night sky today, astronomers living then were every bit as good if not in some ways better than astronomers today. This certainly applies to the field of naked eye astronomy. They did not have telescopes and computers that astronomers take for granted now. They had just one computer, their brain. They were able to work the dates for eclipses of the Sun and Moon and the movements of the 5 naked eye planets, Mercury, Venus, Mars Jupiter and Saturn. So what ever the Star of Bethlehem was it would have come as a surprise to those astronomers.
The Christmas story is well known and many schools will tell it in their Christmas Nativity plays.
At the time of the birth of Jesus a large part of Europe was ruled by the Roma Empire and the emperor Caesar Augustus decreed that everyone who lived in the empire had to register as part of a census to make sure that everyone was paying their taxes. Joseph and Mary were on their way to Bethlehem which was the ancestral home of Joseph. We know that nature took over there were no spare rooms anywhere and Jesus was born in a stable.
Then we have the three wise men who were almost certainly not kings, they were more likely to have been priests or astronomers, they would arrive almost unnoticed as kings then as today would have been surrounded by a small army of soldiers to protect them. Which would have attracted a lot of attention.
Most people know the carol “We three Kings of Orient Are…….” yet we have no idea where they came from. They brought with them gifts.
Gold which is mined
Frankincense which comes from the Frankincense tree, Boswella Sarca. The frankincense is milked from the trees in the same way that rubber obtained. A yellow liquid oozes out of the tree slowly solidifies and gives rise to a resin that gives a sweet scent when heated or burned.
Myrrh comes from a shrub called Commiphora Myrrha and is produced in the same way. It can be used as a perfume or medicine.
In those days a major producing area for Frankincense and myrrh was in Southern Arabia and along the North Somalian coast. Does mean this is where the three kings came from? We simply don’t know.
If we are trying to find an astronomical answer to try to identify the Star of Bethlehem we need to know when Jesus was born.
We take time for granted it is all around us but time is complicated, very complicated. In the year 525 a Scythian monk named Dionysius tried to work out what the year was. Dionysius looked at the problem logically he went back to the beginning of the Roman Empire in 753BCE and noted how long every emperor had ruled for. It was a cracking idea but unfortunately he made at least 2 errors. He forgot the 0 year and he also missed that Caesar Augustus reigned under his given name of Octavian for 4 years. This means he made a 5 year error in his calculations.
In fact this error would not be noticed for another 1,000 years, this would be by another monk called Laurentitius who was Polish. Does this mean that we can see that Jesus was born in 5 BCE, well possibly.
To go back to our story, it was King Herod a puppet ruler for the Romans who ruled the area where Jesus was born. When he heard of the birth of Jesus he ordered that all boys under the age of 2 had to be killed. This was the slaughter of the innocents. We might assume that Jesus was about 1 year old when Herod heard of his birth. We also know that Herod died shortly after the slaughter and also just after an eclipse of the Moon but before the fast of Passover. This feast occurs during the Jewish month of Nisan we now have to convert the Jewish calendar to ours which means that Nisan becomes our month of March. I did mention that time is complicated.
Was there an eclipse of the Moon that fits this time line, well yes there was, an eclipse of the Moon occurred on March 23rd 4BCE, so does this imply that Jesus was born in 5 BCE, well possibly.
I have mentioned how complicated time is and some people reading this may have already worked out that this is not the year 2020 it is actually 2015. And for all those people who celebrated the millennium on December 31st 1999 you missed it. The millennium mark was passed in 1995.
So what could the star have been? Remember there were astronomers living at this time who knew the sky. What ever the Star of Bethlehem it caught the astronomers unaware.
Many people wondered if it could have been Halley’s Comet, it’s a good idea but sadly it does not fit our dates, it was visible in the sky in the year 12 BCE.
Another suggestion is that the star was a conjunction of planets, we will witness a conjunction of planets with Jupiter and Saturn on December 21st this year (2020). A conjunction occurs when two planets appear so close in the sky that they appear to touch each other. They are in fact separated by vast distances it is purely a line of sight affect. This is a rare, spectacular and wonderful sight in the sky, but the astronomers of the time would have known of such conjunctions, so although spectacular would not be unexpected.
Should we then consider the Star of Bethlehem as a star. The most obvious idea would be a supernova, this is a star that destroys itself in a massive explosion and becomes very bright in the sky. The last bright supernova in our galaxy was in the year 1604. They are rare. Luckily for astronomers when supernova explode they leave a radio source that can act as a fingerprint in identifying them. Unfortunately for our story there are no known radio sources 2,000 light years away. The closest supernova to the date we are looking at was in 185 CE.
If we are looking at the star option the only possibility left to us is a nova which is a less cataclysmic event when compared to a supernova. In the case of a nova we have a star system comprising 2 stars one a very hot white dwarf star which is a very old star and a larger cooler giant star. The white dwarf is a star in the process of dying. Our Sun will go through a white dwarf stage several billion years from now. The material that makes up this star is super dense or degenerate as is described by astronomers, a teaspoonful would weigh around 50 tons!!
The white dwarf pulls gas from the larger but less massive star and the material forms a disk or as astronomers call it a Roche Lobe. Eventually this cooler gas fills up the Roche Lobe and the cooler gas then cascades down onto the hotter star which then throws a shell of gas into space. Where once no star could be seen one suddenly appears. In medieval times people called these stars, Nova which is Latin for new, today astronomers realise that they are not new stars, however we still use the term.
Its a great idea, the only problem is we need a star, but is there one? Well yes there is.
In China, astronomers had been observing the sky for thousands of years before the birth of Jesus. The Chinese astronomers recorded a ‘Guest Star’ that is a star which appeared where none had been seen before. I am afraid we are going back to complicated time again The records tell us that in the 2nd year of the period CH’IEN-PING a guest star appeared. When we convert the Chinese calendar to ours we discover that the star was first observed between March 10th and April 7th in the year 5BCE the star was visible for 70 nights.
So can we say that Jesus was born in March rather than December. Well not for certain, but when we put all the information about the missing 5 years in the calendar, the death of Herod following an eclipse of the Moon on 23rd March 4BCE, the Jewish festival of Passover in March and then the star that the Chinese saw. We have an interesting story.
Science and miracles can some times work together and maybe the miracle here is that somewhere in our Milky Way Galaxy, a star went nova and the light reached Earth at the same time that Jesus was born.
If in this most difficult of years due to Covid 19 and if people are not able to celebrate Christmas on December 25th and postpone the celebrations to next year and hold their celebrations between March 10th and April 7th it could just be that these celebrations could just coincide with the time when Jesus was born.