The Star of Bethlehem Myth

For centuries, the Star of Bethlehem – the star that is said to have guided the three wise men to the birth of Jesus – has fascinated astronomers and theologians alike. Great astronomers like Johannes Kepler made attempts to decipher what event in the sky could have caused the seeming appearance of a new, brilliant star over Bethlehem that would be interpreted by wise men as a symbol of a Messiah. Several theories now exist as to the scientific and astronomical causes behind this seeming miracle.

One of the more common theories is that it was a comet that the wise men witnessed – Halley's Comet would have been visible around 12 BC, and most likely would have been very visible in the sky. However, a comet overhead would have been seen as anything but a symbol of a miracle. Comets in that era were considered bad omens and would have been feared and avoided. Halley's Comet most decidedly would not have been seen as a guiding light, even by the more educated men of the time.

A somewhat more plausible theory is also one of the ones most accepted by biblical scholars. This theory holds that what the wise men witnessed was a triple conjunction of Jupiter and Regulus, both associated with kingship, as Jupiter went past Regulus, briefly moved retrograde and passed it again, and then resumed normal movement across the sky to pass it a third time. Jupiter then had a very strong conjunction with Venus, associated with motherhood and femininity, which would have appeared almost as if they had fused into one bright star. This would obviously be a very interesting symbol for a wise man and astrologer with an understanding of the planets and stars, and might well have indicated the birth of a king and a Messiah. The main issue with this theory is that it puts Jesus' birth many years later than it is meant to be, meaning that King Herod would have had to live much longer than records indicate to do what he is indicated to do in the Bible.

Perhaps one of the most plausible explanations is that the new star that the wise men were able to see was, in fact, a supernova or hypernova in the Andromeda galaxy. Science is able to tell that there was a fairly recent nova in that galaxy, but finding a precise date is impossible. If it did occur around the birth of Jesus, it would have looked to the learned and educated men like a star they did not know had simply appeared in the sky, blazing brightly. It might well have even appeared in the direction of Bethlehem, guiding them to their destination.

In truth, the exact nature of the Star of Bethlehem may never be fully understood. There are many theories that might be true, but there is no easy way to prove any of them right or wrong. Perhaps, in the end, it was simply a miracle of the supernatural, or perhaps it was some natural miracle like a supernova or a conjunction. Whichever it was, the question will no doubt fascinate astronomers for years to come.

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