Most people in these islands, whether Christian or not, know the story:
In Israel, at the time of Herod – a local king under the Roman Empire – a virgin named Mary conceives a child by the aid of God. Joseph, to whom she is engaged, takes her with him to his tribal town of Bethlehem as a census of the Jewish people has been ordered by Caesar Augustus. On entering the town, Mary finds that she is about to bear the Holy Child but as there is no room at the local inn, the couple find refuge in a stable where Jesus is born. Angels then appear at night to shepherds who are watching their flocks in the area, telling them of the great news that a Saviour has been born in Bethlehem and that they will find Him there, lying in a manger.
The story of the Star then makes its entrance. Three Kings from the Orient – or lands to east of Israel – visit Herod in Jerusalem, saying that a Star, the sign of a King of the Jews, has led them to his country and they ask where exactly the Child has been born. Herod consults his chief priests who tell him that the Christ is prophesied to be born in Bethlehem. King Herod passes on this information to the three Kings who then find that the Star has reappeared, leads them to the stable and then remains overhead.
This compilation comes from the Books of Matthew and Luke in the New Testament and of course, the Star might be just what it appears to be to the Three Kings, a moving miracle. But over the past few centuries astronomers have tried to explain it in a more mundane way – perhaps as a particularly bright meteor, a comet, a nova or a supernova, or even a conjunction of planets. However, there are problems, the first of which is exactly when this ‘Star’ appeared.
Certainly, Christ was not born on 25th December of the first year AD. To start with, the Roman abbot Dionysius Exiguus, who calculated the AD calendar in the 5th Century, was unable to insert the number ‘0’ between 1 BC and 1 AD as it had not, at that time, been calculated. Secondly, modern historical research suggests that Herod may have died sometime between 4 BC and 1 BC, and for reasons which I shall explain later, the Star must have appeared at least two years previously to these dates. As to the time of year, if the shepherds and their flocks were in the fields at night when an Angel appeared to them, then it was more likely that the birth of Christ took place in the spring.
In any case, no actual date for the birth is given in the Bible and the 25th December was the date of the Roman Festival of the Sol Invictus, the Unconquerable Sun, which was adopted at the time of the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century AD to ease the transfer to Christianity as the official Roman religion. So, the Star could have appeared over the Middle East in the spring between 6 BC and 3 BC. But how would the Three Kings have recognised it as a portent?
Another error with the story of the Star is that the Three Kings, as they have become known in popular legend, were not Kings but were in fact three Wise Men. According to the Apocrypha – the books which were excluded from the New Testament during the early centuries of Christianity – they were Wise Men or Magi who, although devotees of Zoroastrianism which was the main religion of Persia (present-day Iran) and the surrounding lands at that time, had studied the prophecies of the Hebrews. They were the astrologers/astronomers of their day and would have recognised any heavenly body which they had either seen for themselves or had seen recorded from ancient times. But this Star was obviously something completely outside of their experience. Moreover, this was not a brief sighting.
When we see the conventional Nativity scene, the Christ Child is shown lying in a crib with his mother Mary and Joseph close by, surrounded by lamb-bearing shepherds and the Three Wise Men with their gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. But according to the Book of Matthew, the Magi visit Jesus in a house in Bethlehem, not a stable, for this could be up to two years after the shepherds found Him lying in a manger. To begin with, the Magi might have had a journey of up to 1,000 miles (1,600 km) if they had come from Tehran and, allowing for accidents, ill-health and finding the best route, it could well have taken them that time to reach Jerusalem – after all, it took the Jews 40 years to travel from Egypt to the Promised Land at an earlier epoch! Also, the ‘two years’ would tie in with the fact that when the Magi started for home, King Herod, jealous for his position as King of the Jews, ordered all male children of two years and under to be killed.
Do we know of any extraordinary events in the night sky at that time which might have given rise to their belief that this was something very different indeed and which would have lasted in the heavens for a considerable amount of time? A meteor would have flashed across the sky in too fast a time to lead the Magi from their own country to Israel. A comet would last longer but in those days was invariably a portent of disaster and surely not suitable to herald a great King of the Jews. A nova or supernova – the flaring into prominence or complete destruction of a star – would have been noted by astronomers throughout the world. A conjunction of planets is more likely and, certainly, on 25th February in 6 BC, a conjunction of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn did take place in the constellation of Pisces, the Fishes, and the sighting would have lasted until December 5th of that year. So, although it would have been seen by people on earth for only a few months, could this conjunction of planets have been the Star of Bethlehem?
As it happens, a few days ago, on 21st December 2020, there was a great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, the closest in nearly 400 years.
If the conjunction of 6 BC was not the Star of Bethlehem, what was?
If it was, then what might the current conjunction portend?