Christmas star is astronomical

December 20, 2008|By DON AINES

HAGERSTOWN -- It is referenced just three times in the Book of Matthew, but two millenniums later, the Star of Bethlehem is as ubiquitous a symbol of Christmas as the Three Wise Men who followed its glow to the manger.

No one knows for sure what the star was, but there have been plenty of theories over the centuries -- comets, meteors, a supernova or conjunctions of the planets, to name some of the possibilities reviewed Saturday by Rodney Martin, planetarium resource teacher for Washington County Public Schools, during a program titled "The Christmas Star" at Discovery Station at Hagerstown.

To even approach an answer to the question, Martin told visitors to Discovery Station it first is necessary to determine when it happened, who saw it and what astronomical event it could have been.

The Jewish historian Josephus provided some clues, noting that, according to Matthew, Jesus was born during the rule of King Herod and that Herod died after a lunar eclipse, but before Passover, Martin said. Dionysius Exiguus in the 6th century noted that Jesus was born in the 28th year of the reign of Caesar Augustus, he said.


Two eclipses, in March 4 B.C. and January 1 B.C., provide one point of reference and combined with the year cited by Dionysius, the Nativity likely took place between 7 and 1 B.C., Martin said. The date of Dec. 25, however, probably has more to do with the winter solstice celebrations of ancient civilizations, including one that the Romans called Natalis Solis Invicti, or "Birthday of the Sun," he said.

The Biblical account of shepherds in the fields at the time of Christ's birth possibly places Christ's birth in the spring, Martin said.

There were no significant comets during the period, although a supernova -- the death of a star -- was observed for 70 days in 5 B.C., Martin said. A meteor is an event of brief duration and is unlikely to have prompted a 600-mile journey by the Magi, he said.

That the Wise Men who traveled from Babylon were astronomers who "read the signs of the stars," the astronomical event that drew their attention might not have been apparent to other observers of the heavens, Martin said. Therein lies conjecture that the Star of Bethlehem could have been one of two conjunctions of the planets, one of which took place in 7-6 B.C., the other in 3-2 B.C.

In the earlier conjunction, Saturn and Jupiter met in the constellation Pisces, and later were joined by Mercury, Martin said. In the latter, Jupiter, the "King of Planets," rendezvoused with Venus and the star Regulus in the constellation Leo, a conjunction that would have made them appear to have merged into one celestial object, he said.

Both conjunctions have their proponents, Martin told the visitors, but no one can be certain what light in the night sky the Magi followed.

"If it was not astronomical, it would have had to have been a miracle," he said.

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