The Star of Bethlehem: We can never know for certain what it was that the Magi saw and were following. But I did some research on Astronomical History and was fascinated by what I found.
For example, astronomers over the years have identified the paths of many of the stars and planets so accurately, that they can tell you where these stars and planets were in the sky and where they were relative to each other on any specified day in history, even 2,000 years ago. In fact, they can even give you the angular dimensions between any two of them.
Can you imagine the mathematics necessary to be able to do that? The dimensions that I read fascinated me because they were so precise. I see the stars and planets as pinpoints of light in the night sky. But to be able to determine where those pinpoints of light were 2,000 years ago, and to define the angular dimension between them expressed in degrees, minutes, seconds and tenths of a second, to me was awesome!
But I wondered, if they can be that precise, can they identify the Star of Bethlehem? And I discovered that they do make an attempt to do so.
For example, modern astronomers say that in the year 7 B.C. Jupiter and Saturn met, or were joined, three times. A phenomenon that occurs only once every 900 years! They know that at that time, these two planets never got closer than two diameters of the moon. So they could hardly have been seen as a single star. But this was significant to the astrologers of that time, because Jupiter was known as the “Planet of Kings” and Saturn was the known as the “Protector of the Jews”. So the joining of these two planets would have been significant to the astronomers and astrologers of the time.
Then in 6 B.C., Jupiter, Mars and Saturn came within 8 degrees of each other. An event that occurs only once every 800 years! Again, significant to the astronomers! A nova then appeared in 5 B.C. and remained visible for 70 days. But Matthew said the Star of Bethlehem moved, and this nova would have remained stationary with respect to its background. So this couldn’t have been The Star!
The Chinese recorded the appearance of two comets in the sky, one in 5 B.C. and another in 4 B.C. But no serious astronomer would mistake a comet for a star.
All of these events would have been exciting to astronomers and astrologers of the day, but they pale in comparison to the events of an 18 month period during 3 B.C. and 2 B.C.
The modern astronomers say that this was the most remarkable period, in terms of celestial events, in the last 3,000 years.
In May of 3 B.C., Saturn and Mercury come very close together. Then Saturn moved eastward and came very close to Venus in June of that year. And if this weren’t enough, in August, Jupiter and Venus came very close to one another. Then 10 months later, in June of 2 B.C., Jupiter and Venus met again. This time they were even closer. Extremely close together! They were so close on this second meeting that they would have appeared as a single bright star in the morning sky. It would have been impossible to see them as two stars with the naked eye. Then, in August of 2 B.C. Jupiter came very close to the star called Regulus.
This meeting would have been significant to the astrologers of the day because Jupiter was the “King Planet” and Regulus was the “King Star”.
And then, to make it even more spectacular, the natural path of Jupiter made it appear to circle around Regulus over the next 10 month period. This circular motion of the “King Planet” around the “King Star”, in all probability, would have signaled to the astrologers of that day that a Great King was destined to appear.
I should clarify one thing. In our world today, there is a clear distinction between astrology and astronomy. But during that period of history 2,000 years ago, there was no clear distinction between the two. The motion of the planet and stars were charted, and the astrologers of the day would have used this information to determine the events in history. And the Magi were astrologers.
Some modern day astronomers say that, in their opinion, the conjunction of Jupiter and Venus in June of 2 B.C. would have been significant enough to start the Magi out on their trip to Jerusalem. Because in viewing this conjunction from Mesopotamia, they would have seen its brilliance in the western sky, precisely in the direction of Judea. It would have been visible to them for a short time each day before its setting in the western horizon.
This modern day interpretation continues by saying that the one thing that all of these astronomical events had in common was the planet Jupiter.
The Magi would have seen Jupiter moving westward each morning. This westward motion would have led them to Jerusalem. Jupiter’s natural motion would have made it appear to stop in the sky. And, if you were in Jerusalem, Jupiter would have been directly to the south, over Bethlehem, when it stopped. And they say it would have come to a normal stationary position at dawn on December 25th in the year 2 B.C. The planet would have stopped in the constellation Virgo, and it would have remained there for six days. So they contend that the star that the Magi were following was the planet Jupiter.
As I said earlier, we can never know for certain what it was that the Magi saw and were following. But I think it interesting how modern science, in its attempt to explain the unexplainable, has tried to answer the question. But Sacred Scripture does tell us that, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” (Psalm 19:1) And the stars in the heavens announced the birth of the King of Kings. Praise God!