The Star of Bethlehem: Paranormal Event?

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Was it a comet, planetary conjunction, a UFO, a myth... or a miracle?. Photo: Ryan Lane / Getty Images

Was it a miracle or an extraordinary astronomical event?

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, "Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east, and have come to worship Him." (Matt. 2:1-1)

The above is the New Testament account of the appearance of the "star of Bethlehem" -- one of the enduring symbols of the Christmas season.

But its true nature has has also been the focus of controversy and debate.

Was the star of Bethlehem a paranormal event -- a miracle -- proclaiming the birth of the Messiah? Or was it a natural, if spectacular, celestial event that happened to take place at the same time that some historians reckon that Jesus was born?

THE BIBLICAL ACCOUNT

The Gospel According to Matthew is the only book of the New Testament that mentions the mysterious star. According to Matthew's account of the story, the "star" did behave in a supernatural manner:

And having heard the king, they [the Magi] went their way; and lo, the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them, until it came and stood over where the Child was. And when they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. (Matt. 2:9-10)

The star -- or whatever it was -- moved. Stars, in their apparent relation to other stars in the night sky, don't appear to move.

They appear to move only in their progression -- from east to west -- across the night sky as the Earth rotates. They also appear to progress across the sky, again from east to west, over weeks and months as the Earth orbits the sun.

The Magi (also known as the Three Kings) saw the star in the east and followed it, presumably as it moved toward the west.

Now this is all well and good if we are to say they followed its progression across the sky over a number of days or weeks... but then this celestial object did something unusual -- it stopped and "stood over where the Child was." So whatever this object was, stopped in its progression in the sky, according to Matthew, so the Magi would know where this child was to be found. No mention is made of all the stars stopping. Just this one.

So what was this "star"? Other than the observation that it stopped, Matthew gives it no other special attributes. The account does not say that it was extraordinarily bright, colorful, twinkly, or anything else unusual. Tradition paints it as an unusually bright star because it somehow got the attention of the Magi. But some research indicates that the Magi were astrologers from Persia. So this star -- which could have been quite ordinary in appearance -- held some astrological significance for them. But that still does not explain how it was able to stop in the sky.

Next Page: Other Theories, Silly and Serious

VARIOUS THEORIES

There are several theories -- some logical, some wacky -- as to what this extraordinary "star" could have been:

A supernova. A supernova is a star that, entering a new stage of its life, explodes and gives off enormous amounts of light. In this case, the star could have been one that had been too faint to see with the naked eye, and in this new brilliance was new and significant to astrologers.

British astronomer David H. Clark and two associates reported in The Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society that a supernova explosion occurred in the spring of 5 B.C. in the constellation of Capricorn.

A comet. A comet also would have been noticed by astrologers -- and would have separate apparent movement in the sky with relation to stars. And, depending on its trajectory, it could have appeared to stand still for time in the sky. As it turns out, Halley's Comet passed overhead in 12 B.C. (No one knows for sure exactly when Jesus was born. Although our calendar is based on his birth as being in the year 0, best guesses today place it somewhere around 2 to 7 B.C.) Worth noting, too, is that comets were considered harbingers of change -- but usually in a negative sense. Ancient Chinese astronomical records show that two objects were unexpectedly seen in the heavens around that time.

One of these was a comet that appeared in the vicinity of Alpha and Beta Capricorni in March of 5 BC. Then another comet appeared in April of 4 BC near Altair in the constellation Aquila.

A UFO. Many who believe that the god or gods of tradition were actually alien visitors advance the idea that the "star" could have been a UFO -- an extraterrestrial spaceship -- that led the Magi to Bethlehem.

As ludicrous as this idea is, it's the only one that explains how the object could have suddenly appeared, moved, and stopped for the apparent purpose of pinpointing Jesus' birthplace.

Matthew made it up. The story of the miraculous star being such an amazing one, it's remarkable that none of the other three writers of the gospels picked up on it. In fact, Luke's is the only other gospel that relates the birth of Jesus (Mark and John skip all that and go right to his adulthood), but Luke makes no mention of the wandering star.

So is the story of the star just a myth created to validate the divinity of Jesus? Martin Gardner writes in the Skeptical Inquirer: "In my not-so-humble opinion, the story of the Star is pure myth, similar to many ancient legends about the miraculous appearance of a star to herald a great event, such as the birth of Caesar, Pythagoras, Krishna (the Hindu savior), and other famous persons and deities."

Next Page: Best Theories

BEST THEORIES

The theories given the most credence today are that the star of Bethlehem was a planet or conjunction of planets:

A planetary conjunction. Astronomer Johannes Kepler proposed in the 17th century that the star of Bethlehem could have been the conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn. Such a rare conjunction took place in 7 B.C. in the constellation Pisces, a zodiacal sign sometimes connected to the Hebrews.

Kepler actually preferred the supernova explanation, however.

John Mosley, program supervisor for the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles believes the Christmas star was a rare series of planetary conjunctions that took place in during the years 3 B.C. and 2 B.C. "The show started on the morning of June 12 in 3 B.C., when Venus could be sighted very close to Saturn in the eastern sky," says an MSNBC article about Mosley's findings. "Then there was a spectacular pairing of Venus and Jupiter on Aug. 12 in the constellation Leo, which ancient astrologers associated with the destiny of the Jews. Between September of 3 B.C. and June of 2 B.C., Jupiter passed by the star Regulus in Leo, reversed itself and passed it again, then turned back and passed the star a third time. This was another remarkable event, since astrologers considered Jupiter the kingly planet and regarded Regulus as the 'king star.' The crowning touch came on June 17, when Jupiter seemed to approach so close to Venus that, without binoculars, they would have looked like a single star."

The planet Jupiter. Dr. Mike Molnar, as astrophysicist, believes he has found good evidence that the Bethlehem star might have been Jupiter in the form of an ancient coin. The Roman coin depicts the astrological sign for Aires, the Ram (the sign of the Jews) and a bright celestial object. Molnar believes this object is Jupiter: "Jupiter underwent two occultations (eclipses) by the Moon in Aries in 6 BC.

Jupiter was the regal 'star' that conferred kingships - a power that was amplified when Jupiter was in close conjunctions with the Moon.... In particular, there is confirmation from a Roman astrologer that the conditions of April 17, 6 BC were believed to herald the birth of a divine, immortal, and omnipotent person born under the sign of the Jews, which we now know was Aries the Ram."

What do you think? Was the star of Bethlehem the work of aliens, a natural if remarkable celestial event or just a fable? Or was it what many faithful have believed it to be for centuries: a miracle?