S is for Star of Bethlehem

Wednesday 21 December 2011

In Christian tradition, the Star of Bethlehem (also called the Christmas Star) revealed the birth of Jesus to the magi and led them to Bethlehem. The star appears in the nativity story of the Gospel of Matthew, where magi "from the east" are inspired by the star to travel to Jerusalem. The star eventually leads them to Jesus' house in Bethlehem, where they pay him homage, worship him, and give him gifts.

Many Christians see the star as a miraculous sign to mark Christ's birth. Some theologians claimed that the star fulfilled a prophecy, known as the Star Prophecy, while astronomers have made several attempts to link the star to unusual astronomical events. Current contenders for the Star of Bethlehem include:

1) A series of three conjunctions of the planets Jupiter and Saturn occurred in the year 7 BC (proposed by the German astronomer Johannes Kepler in 1614). However, modern calculations show that there was a gap of nearly a degree between the planets, so these conjunctions were not visually impressive.

2) An astronomical event where Jupiter and Saturn were in a triple conjunction in the constellation Pisces (as argued by Dr. Karlis Kaufmanis).

3) A comet. Halley's Comet was visible in 12 BC and another object, possibly a comet or nova, was seen by Chinese and Korean stargazers in about 5 BC. This object was observed for over seventy days with no movement recorded. Also, ancient writers described comets as "hanging over" specific cities, just as the Star of Bethlehem was said to have "stood over" the place where Jesus was in the town of Bethlehem. However, in ancient times comets were generally seen as bad omens.

4) Uranus, which passed close to Saturn in 9 BC and Venus in 6 BC. However, this is unlikely because Uranus moves very slowly and is barely visible with the naked eye.

Did you know...?
The star often appears in representations of the manger scene found in Luke, although the star and the wise men do not appear in Luke's nativity story.

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You will find many other such tasty morsels of information in my book What is Myrrh Anyway?- and its American counterpart Christmas Miscellany: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Christmas.


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