This is a unique time for humankind to look up at the heavens. For the first time in history telescopes are powerful and penetrating enough to in principle view almost every star that now shines in the entire visible universe.
It is the nature of astronomers and astrophysicists to look up at the stars with wonder, searching for answers to the still-unsolved mysteries of the universe. At this time of year, we’re reminded of one of those mysteries that has been pondered by scientists, theologians, and historians for centuries – the origin of the Star of Bethlehem.
Where and when did it appear? What did it look like? Of the billions of stars out there, which among them was the one shining bright on that day so long ago? Was it a star at all?
Modern astrophysics is how we attempt to explain one of history’s greatest astronomical events.
I and many others have studied historical, astronomical and biblical records, looking for clues to what led the Magi — Zoroastrian priests of ancient Babylon and Mesopotamia — on their journey.
The astronomical archives have been scanned to identify possible known comets, novae, or supernovae that could be the event noted by the Chinese astronomers who kept careful records of events in the sky, going back more than 1000 years BC.
Ultimately, however it was probably not a comet, a nova or supernova. It seems much more likely that the “Christmas Star” was an extremely rare planetary alignment occurring in 6 B.C., and the likes of which may never be seen again.
During this alignment, the Sun, Jupiter, the Moon and Saturn were all in Aries. Venus was next door in Pisces. Mercury and Mars were on the other side in Taurus. And, at the time, Aries was the location of the Vernal Equinox. The presence of Jupiter and the Moon signified the birth of a ruler with a special destiny. Saturn was a symbol of the giving of life, as was the presence of Aries in the vernal equinox – also marking the start of spring. That the alignment occurred in Aries signified a newborn ruler in Judea because it was recorded that Aries was the constellation associated with that geographical region.
The Magi would have seen this in the east (meaning a morning star) and recognized that it symbolized a regal birth in Judea ultimately leading them in search of the newborn ruler. Running my calculations forward, I estimate it will be more than 16,000 years before a similar alignment is seen again — and even then, the vernal equinox will not be in Aries. IN my calculations, another alignment like the one known as the Bethlehem Star was not seen going out as far as 500,000 years at which point I stopped because no longer could rely on the accuracy of the calculation
At this time of year, I feel a kindred connection to the ancient Magi, who earnestly scanned the heavens for insight into the truth about the nature and evolution of the universe, just as we do today.
In the end we must keep in mind, that the Magi were not really seeking star at all. They were seeking the light of the World. Even to this day that light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.
Grant Mathews, professor of theoretical astrophysics and cosmology in the Department of Physics in the University of Notre Dame’s College of Science