The Star of Bethlehem has puzzled scholars for centuries. Some have skeptically dismissed the phenomenon as a myth, a mere literary device to call attention to the importance of the Nativity. Others have argued that the star was miraculously placed there to guide the Magi and is, therefore, beyond all natural explanations.
Most, however, take a middle course that looks for some historical rationale for the Christmas star. Several interesting theories have been offered.
- The Greek term for the star in the Gospel account, “aster,” can mean any luminous heavenly body, including a comet, meteor, nova, or planet (Greek: wandering star).
- The Chinese have more accurate and complete astronomical records than the Near East, particularly in their tabulations of comets and novae.
Perhaps this was the star that reappeared to the Magi once King Herod had directed them to Bethlehem in Matthew 2:9. Comets do not display all the characteristics described in the full Nativity story. A planet or planets seems more likely.
The astronomer Johannes Kepler noted in the early 17th century that every 805 years, the planets Jupiter and Saturn come into extraordinary repeated conjunction, with Mars joining the configuration a year later. Since Kepler, astronomers have computed that for ten months in 7 B.C., Jupiter and Saturn traveled very close to each other in the night sky, and in May, September, and December of that year, they were conjoined.
Mars joined the configuration in February of 6 B.C. The astrological interpretation of such a conjunction would have told the Magi much if, as seems probable, they shared the astrological lore of the area. Jupiter and Saturn met each other in Pisces, the Fishes.
In ancient astrology, the giant planet Jupiter was considered the “King’s Planet,” for it represented to the Romans the highest god and ruler of the universe: Marduk to the Babylonians and Zeus to the Greeks.
The ringed planet Saturn was seen as the shield or defender of Palestine, while the constellation of Pisces, which was also associated with Syria and Palestine, represented epochal events and crises. So Jupiter encountering Saturn in the sign of the Fishes would have meant that a divine and cosmic ruler was to appear in Palestine at a culmination of history.
There was a recent but much less dramatic “Great Conjunction” of Jupiter-Saturn between December 16-31, 2020. But it was in the constellation of Aquarius rather than Pisces.
Recent Christmas Star Research
Meanwhile, more recent research on the star based on recently available astronomy software and historical research on 1st-century Jewish-Roman historian Flavius Josephus‘ manuscripts is being conducted and collected at bethlehemstar.net
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian