The Star of Bethlehem – Found once more!

In the western sky at dusk on June 17, 2 BCE, a strange, brilliant "star" dominates the Bethlehem horizon among the more familiar stars of Leo. (Chart from Starry Nights.)
star

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East [or at its rising] and have come to worship Him. When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. – Matthew, New King James Version

Is this the star of which Matthew wrote? A recent newspaper headline seems to indicate it is.

Astronomer Dave Reneke believes he has solved the Star of Bethlehem mystery

* Software maps Star of Bethlehem
* ‘Solves mysteries’
* ‘Pinpoints star’s location, date of Jesus’ birth’

I don’t think so.

In fact, I believe anyone can find the Star of Bethlehem – just look in your heart and if you can find it there it will blaze forth for you in the smile of a child, in the brilliance of Venus in this year’s western sky at dusk, in the bouncing joy of a puppy, or in the kind gesture of neighbor, friend or enemy, for the star is simply a symbol of the Christian spirit of Christmas – nothing more, nothing less.

Still, every year at this time I, like anyone with a little knowledge of the night skies, gets questions and suggestions about that wondrous star – the one the Wise Men in the East saw at it’s rising. The one they told Herod about. And the one that went before them as they journeyed to Bethlehem and stopped and in some miraculous way told them which house it was over and so they entered. They did not, as so many Christmas scenes represent, kneel before a child in a manager. What they found, the Bible says, is Mary and a “young child” in the house. In fact, using the information he got from the Wise Men, King Herod calculated that the child was as much as two years old, so he ordered all children under the age of two killed.

(Hmmm. . . is there a lesson for us there – about how human beings can take a piece of news and turn it into a horror story through their reactions?)

This story – with its truly horrible ending – is told in only the Gospel of Matthew. It is not mentioned elsewhere in the Bible and there is no indication in Matthew’s account that anyone except the Wise Men was aware of this star. So even from the Biblical account I think it’s reasonable to assume there was no really obvious change in the heavens, but a change that could only be detected by Wise Men – people who followed and interpreted the meaning of the stars – what today we would call astrologers. It’s obvious such changes took place – but it’s impossible to prove they were connected to the birth of Jesus.

However, many people assume there really is some blazing Christmas star that was seen 2,000 years ago and they want to know if they too can see it. The issue, with all it’s spiritual overtones, can’t be proven one way or the other. I find searching for it as hard, provable fact about as satisfactory as searching for the historical Jesus – and a meaningless exercise in either case. As I said – yes you can find the Star of Bethlehem – just look in your heart for the Spirit of Christmas – look for all those things the Christians brought to the pagan celebration of the return of the Sun after the winter solstice – the spirit of love, of joy, of peace on earth and good will to men – a spirit of universal harmony which is certainly dear to me. I’m serious. Find that and it will be the most wondrous “star” you will ever “see.”

OK – that obviously doesn’t satisfy a lot of literally-minded people and many have sought the “real” star. My friend Dom – who is not so literally-minded – thought a recent news story from Australia would interest the amateur astronomer in me and it does. It is of one more “discovery” of this star. Take a moment and detour off to take look here.

I think that story is wrong in many ways – not the least of which is the implication that a fancy computer is needed to do the kind of calculation referenced in the story. It isn’t. I can do this on my computer using Starry Night software – and I’ve done so. You could too with any of a number of software packages. And planetarium directors have spiced up countless Christmas shows with one version or another of the star story using their special projectors and they have been doing this throughout my lifetime. In fact about 40 years ago I wrote a feature story for the local newspaper about one such planetarium director’s theory of the Star of Bethlehem. He attributed it to a triple conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn. He had a very clever interpretation involving the retrograde movement of the planets which made the “star” – in this case “star” was taken to mean an astrological sign – in fact stand still before the Wise Men. And to the naked eye when a planet – a wandering star – switches from normal to retrograde motion it does for a few days appear to stand still. How in the world you would coordinate this action with a specific house and decide to enter that house is anyone’s guess – but astrology involves lots of interpretations which I think are pure guesswork and fantasy. (Yes, it drives me crazy when people confuse astrology with astronomy!)

But long before the computer, long before the fancy planetarium projectors, wise men were doing the math and working backwards and “discovering” all sorts of explanations for the Star of Bethlehem. One such wondrous explanation came from none-other than the genuinely great scientist Kepler who 400 years ago was the first to discover that planets moved in ellipses about the Sun – not circles – and through his calculation learned about that long ago triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn that my friend the planetarium director used. (That one was in 7 BCE, as I recall – not 2 BCE.)

But Kepler didn’t think that conjunction was the star – though it is often reported that this is what he thought, Kepler actually thought that the triple conjunction somehow spawned a later nova – a brilliant, exploding star. He came to this incredible conclusion because he witnessed a nova – new star – and such a planetary conjunction had occurred a year or two before in the same area of the sky. So he reasoned that there was some connection between a spectacular – and rare – planetary conjunction and nova. There isn’t, of course – a planetary conjunction is a mere alignment of the planets so that from our point of view they appear to be very close to one another when in fact they remain hundreds of millions of miles apart. And there are trillions of miles between them and even the nearest stars, so again any alignment is simply how we see things.

None of this prevents the authority in the story from Australia from declaring that he has identified the Star of Bethlehem and it is in fact a conjunction of planets – in this case the two brightest ones we see, Jupiter and Venus. That’s cool because on December 1, 2008 many people all over the world saw a wonderful conjunction of Venus and Jupiter with the crescent Moon to form (in Australia) a smiley face – a frowny face over us – but by all means a spectacular sky event. (See this earlier post, and this one, and this one.)

I do believe that one problem with the conjunction suggested in this latest news story is that it would indeed be an awe-inspiring event to the general public – it would fit the usual popular interpretation of the Star of Bethlehem as a spectacular sign in the night sky. But Matthew seems to think that only the Wise Men were aware of this event.

The Jupiter-Venus conjunction – the focus of the latest story – took place on June 17, 2 BCE. The two planets are so close together I believe they would have been seen by the naked eye , for a brief time, as a single star of exceptional brilliance. The brightest objects in our sky are the Sun, Moon, Venus, and Jupiter in that order. So to combine the last two would result in the appearance of an unusally bright star. (In those days the only difference between a star and a planet was the star seemed to stay put and the planets “wandered.”)

By the way – this event, the conjunction in 2 BCE, has been known for decades, I’m not sure how long exactly, but I have found it mentioned in an article about planetarium shows printed in 1981, so I hardly see this as new. In fact that article is a great source for a variety of different explanations for the star.

But I understand the excitement. And if you are looking for a star to make your personal reminder of the Star of Bethlehem this Christmas, I suggest you look into the western sky – southwest for most of North America – and you’ll see brilliant Venus a bit higher each night at dusk as we approach Christmas. It will be easy to see – it is the first “star” to come out and it shines brighter than any other – absolutely dazzling in full darkness.

That is my personal Christmas Star this year – and it has been many other years, but not all. Venus goes through cycles where sometimes it’s a “morning star” and sometimes an “evening star” and these aren’t in sync with our calendar, so it is only some years that it happens to be prominent in our Christmas sky – either in the evening or the morning.

But for me it is simply a symbol – a reminder of something far more precious – the deep joy of the Christmas season where many people are inspired to think of the need for harmony and peace – and some are touched enough to act and discover once again that the only Star of Bethlehem that matters is the one in the human heart.
_____

Playing the Star of Bethlehem game

OK – the Amateur astronomer in me can’t resit playing some games with the Starry Night Software and this idea of the planetary conjunction in 2 BCE.

Here’s one difference I can’t explain – and it may be an error of the reporter, or the astronomer – or , of course me and my software. The news article says:

Similar to the planetary alignment of the “smiley face” witnessed across the Western sky last week, he said a “beacon of light” would have been visible across the eastern dawn sky as Venus and Jupiter moved across the constellation of Leo on June 17, 2BC. [Emphasis is mine.]

My problem is this – my software puts this event in the Western, evening sky. But oh my – what a conjunction it is! In a half a century of amateur astronomy I’ve never seen such a thing – and this was particular to Bethlehem. In other sections of the world it would not have been seen quite this way. However, if someone in Bethlehem in 2 BCE had owned a small telescope – and, of course, they didn’t because the telescope was still 1,612 years in the future – this is what they would have seen!

beth_2

See the two “stars” on either side of Jupiter – all on the same equatorial plane with the planet? Those are the four moons that Galileo discovered in 1610 when he first turned a telescope towards the giant planet. The smallest telescope will reveal them, but to have another whole planet in the same telescope view – that’s unusual. And to have it this close is extremely unusual. The software show the gap between them as less than 10 seconds of arc. The disc of each planet is obviously much larger than this gap.

But the reality, of course, is that the two planets are separated by at least 500 million miles. To put that in perspective at this particular instant in 2BCE Venus was about 60 million miles from Earth.

Look in your southwestern sky tonight and you’ll see a Venus about 8.5 degrees from Jupiter. There are 60 minutes in a degree and 60 seconds in a minute – so when you think that they were separated by less than 10 seconds in 2 BCE – well let’s see – right now they’re separated in our sky by about 30,600 seconds! In real terms right now Venus is about 87 million miles from us and Jupiter is about 539 million miles away. If someone were on Jupiter right now and trying to send a radio message to us it would take 46 minutes to get here – even though it would be traveling at the incredible speed of 186,200 miles a second!

Here’s Venus and Jupiter as they appear tonight about half an hour after Sunset.

vj_1209081

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3 Responses

  1. Hi,
    I so enjoy reading your blog and go out often to observe the beautiful winter sky. As soon as I am settled I always flash back to the wonderful year of astronomy you so generously offered us. It has transformed my view of the sky and my understanding of scale and proportion.

    Have a good and productive holiday season and perhaps our thoughts may intersect in the night sky as we simultaneously turn our faces upwards.
    Barbara

  2. Herod died in 4 BC

  3. Yep – another detail they were ignoring – but then I think the whole Herod story about killing the children is obviously bogus or there would be records of it elsewhere.

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