The guest speaker at the Christmas society meeting was our good friend Mr Martin Lunn OBE FRAS, from Earby astronomical society. Having spent many years studying the astronomical explanations and reviewing the associated evidence, Mr Lunn presented a lecture on ‘The Star of Bethlehem’.
Astronomical objects or events, which would be of interest to serious stargazers of the time include:-
A planetary conjunction.
The three wise men were religious scholars known as the Magi – revered Persian astronomers and astrologists. They studied the stars and planets, interpreting the meaning behind cosmic events.
Anything very unusual was considered an omen, so the star must have been both rare and visually spectacular, said Mr Lunn. “It would have had a very clear message for the Magi”.
This leads him to conclude that the star of Bethlehem was probably not a star at all.
“If you read the Bible carefully,” said Mr Lunn (bearing in mind that there is very little mention of the Star in the Bible), “The Magi saw something when they were in their own country, so they travelled to Jerusalem and had a word with King Herod.”
According to the story, the Magi told Herod of the sign they had seen and, they left Jerusalem for Bethlehem, and they saw something again.
One explanation for this series of events is something known as a triple conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn; with the two planets coming close together in the sky three times over a short period.
This happens you get an alignment between the Sun, the Earth, Jupiter and Saturn. However such an occurrence did not take place around the time of the birth of Christ.
The second favoured explanation is a very bright comet.
While certainly spectacular and ethereal in appearance, comets are essentially “big, dirty snowballs” flying through space.
“When they come close to the Sun, this ice melts; solar wind blows this material out into space, so you get a tail of matter coming off the comet,” explained Mr Lunn.
This tail, which points away from the Sun, is one of the things that have made the comet idea popular.
“Quite a few people have said that comets seem to ‘stand over’ the Earth, because of their coma and tail sometimes looking like an arrow,” said Mr Lunn.
The most timely record was of a bright comet appearing in the constellation of Capricorn in 5BC, which was recorded by astronomers in China.
A less likely, but more famous candidate was Halley’s comet, which was visible around 12BC.
Those who favour this theory point out that the 5BC comet would have been in the southern sky as seen from Jerusalem, with the head of the comet close to the horizon and the tail is pointing vertically upward.
Quite a lot of people liked the comet idea, so it crops up in quite a lot of Christmas cards. “The snag is that they’re not that rare. They were also commonly associated with the ‘four Ds’ – doom, death, disease and disaster,” he suggests. “So if it did contain a message, it would have been a bad omen.”
The evidence that King Herod the Great died in late March or early April 4BC is generally regarded as conclusive. Thus it is thus generally supposed that the birth of Jesus took place between one and three years beforehand, between 7 and 5BC. This date is also coherent with the known date of a census that was ordered by Caesar Augustus in 8BC.
Another theory is that the star was light from the birth of a new star, or nova.
There are records; again from astronomers in the Far East, of a new star in the small, northern constellation of Aquila in 4BC.
“Nova and Supernova are new objects which appear in the sky and then dim to oblivion,” Mr Lunn explained, and they can put on the kind of show that first century astrologers would have noticed.
“A supernova in 1006, the brightest ever, was as bright as the sun,” he said. “It was visible to the naked eye for more than two years.”
According to Chinese records, there were supernova – or “guest stars” as the Chinese described them – that appeared in the sky right around the time when Jesus may have been born, in 4 and 5 BC.
The chronicle, the “Ch’ien-han-shu” states that:
“In the second year of the period of Ch’ien-p’ing, second month, a hui-hsing appeared in Ch’ien-niu for more than 70 days”.
Despite the use of the term “hui-hsing”, or “tailed comet”, the chronicle contains several elements that are inconsistent with this object being a comet, and more likely to have been a Nova. Said Mr Lunn.
The chronicle gives a fixed position over two and a half months, not reasonable if the object really was a comet. Bright comets were usually described in some detail in the oriental chronicles with the comet’s movement, tail length, form and even sometimes even the comet’s colour described; here though we have none of this information.
The most likely astronomical explanation according to Mr Lunn is a Nova recorded by both the Chinese and Koreans. Observed in northern Capricorn or southern Aquila in mid-March 5BC.
Oriental and biblical references are consistent with each other and the Star described in Matthew and in other early documents can be thus explained.
But the fact that there’s a possible scientific explanation to what the Magi saw, doesn’t mean to Mr Lunn that the event loses its transcendence.
“The symbolism is apparent. A small clear light, on a cold dark night, in a sometimes cold and dark world, leads the wise to the message of Jesus. The message tells us to love each passenger who journeys with us on this small, fragile, planet Earth.”