Oh Christmas Star, Oh Christmas Star, How I Wonder What You Are.
+ Von Del Chamberlain +
December 10, 1997
Over the centuries, many have speculated about the "star" reported to have drawn the Magi to Bethlehem some 2000 years ago. Books and articles have been written on the subject. Planetarium shows are presented each December exploring this interesting topic. In fact, this is the most frequently presented planetarium show of all. For many, going to the planetarium has become part of the Christmas ritual, along with singing carols around the tree, telling stories by the fireside and reading scriptures that tell about the very first Christmas.
Those scriptures refer to a "star" that had attracted the attention of wise men from the east, directing them to the land of Jerusalem, indeed to the town of Bethlehem, with presents to honor new born king. As one who has dealt with this subject for most of the past 40 years, I want to explore this fascinating topic one more time. I choose to do so in a two part series, beginning with this article and continuing with the one scheduled to appear on Christmas Eve this year. In the limited space available, I must be brief, but I will attempt to share some highlights as I see them from my perspective.
We can quickly dismiss many of the possibilities that were once proposed: things such as bright meteors, called fireballs, and comets which were typically considered to be signs of catastrophe and evil rather than to signal the birth of a savior or king. On the surface, one of the best sounding possibilities would be a nova, or even a supernova, stars that suddenly brighten, often becoming visible where no star had been noticed before. This remains a possibility, but no convincing evidence has been found for such an event during the era when Jesus was born. If we should discover either records of such an event, or the remnants of a supernova that could be dated to the right time, this would suddenly become the favored theory.
Those who have studied the question of identity of the Star of the Magi, over and over again, keep returning to the topic of planets. This seems entirely appropriate because the Magi were most likely believers in astrology, and this means that they would have always been paying special attention to how the planets moved and where they were at any particular time in the sky. As astrologer priests, they would have believed that the relative positions of planets could foretell events of great importance in their own land and in distant places.
I agree with others that the most interesting scientific interpretations of the Christmas Star involves planets. There are two primary theories that are favorites of the scholars who have studied the question. One of them, involving Jupiter and Saturn and their relative movements within the constellation Pisces, took place during the years 7 and 6 B.C. The other theory, which I find to be the most interesting and engaging, took place in 3 and 2 B.C. We will briefly look at this latter event.
Here, very briefly, is the series of planetary events that occurred in 3 and 2 B.C., along with comments that suggest astrological interpretation that would have been significant at that time. I leave out a number of events and details in order to focus on the ones of greatest interest.
In August of 3 B.C. both Jupiter and Venus were bright in the early morning sky. Jupiter was thought of as King of all the planets and it was located in the constellation Leo the Lion, king of all the beasts. This constellation was an important symbol of Judah. Throughout the mediterranean Venus was considered a symbol of femininity and fertility. These two bright planets moved closer together in the morning sky until they nearly merged, in the constellation Leo, on the date of August 12, 3 B.C. The symbol of fertility and that of a king stood very close together as a bright heavenly light located in the kingly constellation. This was a sight worthy to draw the attention of any astrologer as well as nearly everyone else. The conjunction of bright planets was near the brightest star in Leo, Regulus, the "Royal Star," heart of the kingly constellation of the zodiac.
The two brilliant planets separated and Jupiter, moving against the background of stars approached the star Regulus, until on September 14, 3 B.C., it stood in close conjunction with Regulus. The kingly planet and the royal star were together in the sky, visible well before dawn. Then Jupiter continued its movement eastward in Leo, but it seemed to change its mind, stopped and reversed its motion. Today, we know that such retrograde motion is due to Earth, moving faster than Jupiter, pulling around between the planet and the Sun. This reversed motion, considered to be one of the qualities that made people consider planets to be deities in the sky, caused Jupiter to come back into conjunction with Regulus a second time on February 17, 2 B.C. Retrograde motion carried it a bit west of Regulus, then ended, and as the planet resumed its usual eastward motion among the stars, it came into conjunction with Regulus a third time on May 8, 2 B.C. Astrologer priests would certainly have been paying attention to all this powerful symbolism suggesting birth, a king and the land of Judah. During these months the constellation Leo, together with Jupiter, moved westward until by June they were in the west as it grew dark after sunset. Then it was that a marvelous thing transpired. Beautiful Venus had appeared in the evening sky, slowly brightening and moving higher as the days went by. Venus and Jupiter drew closer and closer together, recalling in the astrologer mind their earlier conjunction of nearly a year before. Closer and closer they came, until on the evening of June 17 people could have watched them merge into one great light in the evening sky. This was a truly spectacular sight! It doesn't take much stretching of imagination to combine all the powerful symbolic elements together in that sky over Bethlehem in 2 B.C. This surely could have attracted astrologer priests to the land of Judah to search for a new born king.
In outline form, those were the events that, in my mind, provide the most interesting of the scientific theories attempting to identify the Christmas Star. This will not satisfy everyone and will not end research and speculation. Some will always prefer to believe that the star was supernatural, beyond the bounds of possible scientific identification. The topic will remain an open question of interest to many, and it will remain a favorite one to explore in planetariums during December.
What a sky full of "stars" we have this Christmas season! All of the planets we have been considering here are easily visible to us. High in the south at eventide is Saturn, located in the constellation Pisces. Brighter than Saturn, Jupiter, in the constellation Capricornus, is easy to find in the southwest as darkness comes. Brighter still and also in the southwest, is Venus. Near Venus all month long is dim and ruddy Mars. It will be in close conjunction with Venus, on December 21: the two will then be separated by only about one degree. If you want to see another of the planets, one which few people ever notice, you can easily do so on Christmas eve, if skies are clear. Uranus will be easy to find, slightly above Mars on that night. Since it is very dim, use binoculars to see it. The Moon will be new on December 29, and it will parade through the bright assembly of planets on New Years eve and New Years Day. Beautiful and magnificent are the Christmas lights to be seen in the sky this year off to the southwest as it gets dark.
This grand grouping of planets decorates our Christmas 1997 sky, and over the days we can watch them maneuver and think about how some of them might have looked above Bethlehem so long ago. Was it these objects that caused the Magi to undertake a long and difficult journey in honor of the birth of a king, now considered by so many to be the savior of the world? Take the time to go out, look around, enjoy the beauty of what you see, and wonder about the multitude of interesting ways people have interpreted what you see out yonder.