Astronomers ponder different explanations that could have given life to the iconic star of Bethlehem.
During the Christmas holidays, one of the most significant traditions in homes is the placement of the tree and then decorating it with ornaments and colored lights. But perhaps the most important element of all is the Christmas star, and this is in the representation of the star that guided the three Wise Men to Bethlehem to bring their offerings to the baby Jesus, according to the Bible. But, did the Christmas star really exist? And if so, was it an astronomical phenomenon?
There are very few clues about the star of Bethlehem
The concept of the Christmas star has been widely spread and is part of the traditions of this time of the year, but there are very few clues about its existence and description. In fact, the Gospel of Matthew in the New Testament is the only biblical record where this bright light is mentioned, and even there, the information is also scarce. The most relevant reference is in Matthew 2:9:
“They, having heard the king, went their way; and behold, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, until it came and stood over where the young child was.”
Historians and even astronomers face several problems in deciphering whether the Christmas star really existed. The first is that if the biblical description is taken literally, then the star could not have been any kind of known natural phenomenon, for the simple fact that no celestial body behaves in such a way.
But if we give some artistic credit to the writer, then the possibilities open up that it is a poetic description of an event that actually occurred. In this case, there are a few possible explanations.
A supernova or a comet?
Although it is often believed that Jesus was born exactly in December of the year 0, the truth is that this turning point is more a reference to the accounting of time than to the birth of Jesus. To date, historians have not been able to discover the exact date of birth, but it is believed that it may have been between 7 and 4 BC.
Furthermore, the date of December 25 does not coincide with the biblical clues about the birth of Jesus. According to Luke 2:8, on the night of the birth, the shepherds were in the field “keeping watch over their flock by night,” something very unlikely to have happened in winter and more likely to have occurred in spring.
If an astronomical phenomenon did occur that gave rise to the idea of the Christmas star, it had to have occurred in the spring of any of the years stipulated above and although there are very few astronomical records, the Chinese documented the appearance of a comet in year 5 that was probably also seen in 4 BC. The central problem with a cometary star is that comets are only seen for a few moments in the sky, and this one could not have lasted long enough in the sky to guide a group of humans in the desert.
Another possibility described by astronomers is that the star of Bethlehem was actually a planetary conjunction of at least two planets and perhaps even three: Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. According to the calculations of skywatchers, between 6 and 5 BC, the sky was the scene of a series of several conjunctions that occurred in the constellation of Pisces.
The last of the possibilities is that the star of Bethlehem was a supernova, in which case it would explain the appearance of a beam of light never seen before that suddenly shines in the firmament. According to Chinese astronomical records, a star with these characteristics appeared in the sky in the spring of 5 BC and was seen for more than two months. However, this explanation faces its own problem in that the supernova appeared in the constellation of Capricorn and, according to the celestial map, it would not have indicated the way to Bethlehem, as the Bible explains.
Unfortunately, none of the explanations fully fit the description of the star that led the three wise men to the home of Jesus, so it may have been more of a poetic device that became a matter of faith.
Story originally published in Spanish in Ecoosfera