'Following Yonder Star'
What Was 'the Star of Bethlehem?'
Standing in the garden, pointing out the brightest stars to my ten-year-old on a clear winter's evening, I was pleased with myself for being able to answer his questions on astronomy correctly - all except one: "Which one was the star of Bethlehem?"
"I don't know," I replied in all sincerity, unable to shed further light on the subject.
"You don't know!" he exclaimed, aghast at my ignorance.
"Well, no one really knows." I hoped that this qualification would somehow salvage his confidence in me. "Come on, let's go in and have some hot chocolate and we can take a look in your Encyclopaedia Britannica."
"On 17th June 2 BC," I quoted from the knowledgeable volume, "the bright planets of Venus and Jupiter would have appeared to observers in Babylon to have merged just before setting in the general direction of the west."
"But Jesus was born at Christmas," my son objected.
"The calendars were all a bit different in those days," I explained. "And if the wise men set out on their journey in June it would have taken them a few months to get to Bethlehem." I decided to pack him off to bed early in case I lost my patience with his inquisitiveness altogether, promising I'd pay a visit to the local library in search of further information.
"But libraries are like dinosaurs," he protested on his way upstairs, "All my friends have got the Internet now."
"Well, you'll just have to wait and see what Santa brings won't you?"
He didn't reply but threw me one of his harrowing glances which told me another elf had just died. Ten is an awkward age, too old for fairy tales but not yet ready for harsh reality and if he wasn't careful he wouldn't make it to eleven.
By now his thirst for knowledge had intrigued me too. What was the Star of Bethlehem? Was it a unique cosmic phenomenon - a sign from God to announce the birth of his only son? Or simply a coincidental conjunction of planets as The Encyclopaedia Britannica describes? Maybe the scriptures would reveal something enlightening.
Map To Find The Star Of Bethlehem
What Does The Bible Say?
I dug out the family Bible and after removing a thick layer of dust looked up "Star" in the index. I found only a few sentences concerning the dramatic cosmic event:
Matthew 2: 1-2 of The King James Version states:
"Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the King, behold there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying: Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east and have come to worship him."
And verses 9-10 state:"When they had heard the king they departed; and lo, the star which they saw in the east went before them till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star they rejoiced with exceeding great joy."
The Plant of the Same Name
Another Star of Bethlehem
Well, that's not a lot to go on; I could have gleaned that information from the Christmas card section at Woolworth's. Perhaps the Gospel writers didn't view the star's appearance as that significant.
So I embarked on my very own search for the Star of Bethlehem just like the three wise men (Now there's a thought...The Holy Bible doesn't actually say there were three and there's no mention of them making their journey by camel either!)
I phoned an elderly aunt but she wasn't very helpful: "Oh yes... I know all about The Star of Bethlehem... your uncle used to spend many an evening in that pub," was all she could come up with. And a neighbour who's an avid gardener told me a great deal about the cultivation of the bulb Ornithogalum, more commonly known as "Star of Bethlehem," which interestingly flowers in June, the same month as the 2 BC alignment of planets. Is there a connection there? Or was I just desperate for data?
An Astronomer's Explanation For the Star of Bethlehem
Further Facts About the Star of Bethlehem
An "Encyclopaedia of Unknown Facts" didn't reveal anything and I even searched diligently through my back issues of the Reader's Digest, some of which dated from the 1970s.I found innumerable articles on weight loss and how to improve your sex life but nothing about The Star of Bethlehem, not even in the December Issues (if researching a subject was proving to be this difficult then maybe getting the Internet wasn't such a bad idea after all).
And then I came across a Jehovah's Witness' "Awake" magazine which put a rather sinister angle on things. Apparently, they believe that Satan, not God, was the perpetrator of the unidentified cosmic phenomenon, placing it in the night sky so that the baby Jesus would be swiftly found and killed by Herod's men. This theory worries me because if Satan is capable of that sort of cosmic trick why didn't God, who we assume to be omnipotent, deal with his adversary once and for all?
At the library, I soon discovered that Sir Patrick Moore, the renowned astronomer, had written a book entitled (surprise, surprise) "Star of Bethlehem," but they didn't have a copy, which was a pity as I wanted to get this article finished to read at my writer's circle by Christmas. But I managed to find a few interesting facts in the astronomy section nonetheless:
Evidently, "Star" can mean most of the heavenly bodies we're accustomed to seeing in the night sky, including comets and meteors, and therefore the Bethlehem star could have been any one of these or perhaps even a combination of several. Theories are plentiful and some I discovered were downright outlandish but the one thing astronomers seem to agree on is that it was definitely not a supernova. This is when a star explodes, burning with the intensity of a million suns as it exhausts its remaining fuel. Throughout history, their appearance has been well-documented and no occurrence corresponds with the time of Jesus' birth which is largely accepted as being between 3 and 2 BC.
Going back to the conjunction of Jupiter and Venus of 17th June 2 BC (at 17.53 to be precise) this was one of several alignments which happened within a space of fifteen months, although such events usually only occur centuries apart. Remarkable spectacles as bright as these have never been repeated since, and in the clear, pollution-free skies of long ago with no glare from electric lighting, such phenomena would obviously be deemed by the ancients as supernatural.
The astrologers of the time were expecting the birth of a king because of Old Testament prophecy and believed this "star" would lead them to him. The conjunctions they bore witness to were seen in Leo, known as the royal constellation (the lion being the king of beasts) near Regulus, the king star, and involved Jupiter, the king planet. No wonder the Magi assumed that the skies were heralding a world-changing event or the appearance of a messiah. We may never know for certain, but an alignment of planets is one of the more plausible theories for The Star of Bethlehem.
There are more improbable theories such as two meteorites in collision and even appearance of U.F.O.'s. Or it was possibly a special one-off event which no one has seen the like of before or since.
The Journey of the Maji
Bible Quotes About Stars:
If we go back to the Bible we can find many thought-provoking passages such as:
"The heavens are declaring the glory of God,"
"He telleth the number of stars; he calleth them all by their names."
And:"There is one glory of the sun and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars: for one star differeth from another star in glory."
From the above quotations it seems that the God of the Bible is the greatest astronomer of all and whether we choose to believe in him or not, whatever created us and put us on this planet is infinitely wiser than we are and we should perhaps look to the heavens as a clue to future events as well as those of the past.
This 'Twilight Zone' Episode Places A Whole New Angle On the Star of Bethlehem Phenomenon!
Do you believe the Star of Bethlehem was a real astronomical phenomenon?
Further Reading About The Star Of Bethlehem
Whatever or whoever created us is infinitely wiser... we should thus look to the heavens as a clue to future events as well as those of the past— Stella Kaye
© 2015 Stella Kaye