Mystery of the Christmas Star
A casket in the German Cathedral of Koln may be the resting place of the Three Kings from the Biblical story of the birth of Jesus. When they died, so did their knowledge of the celestial body -- the Star of Bethlehem -- that led them to the baby Jesus.
Clues to discover what the object was are hidden in the universe and in the gospel accounts of Matthew and Luke.
Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem as a result of an order for taxation. Such an order was issued by the Roman government in 8 BC, but it may have taken over a year for the order to spread throughout the empire.
The Three Kings (Magi) were most likely astrologer priests from the region of Babylon. The Babylonian priests observed the sky from ziggurats (terraced step pyramids), created the constellations of the Zodiac, and interpreted the motions of planets to predict events on Earth.
The Magi travelled east, following the star that they heard would lead them to the King of the Jews. Near the end of their journey, they met with Herod the Great, who sent them to Bethlehem in search of this new king. When they did not return with news of their findings, Herod ordered the death of children under the age of two.
Mary and Joseph were warned in a dream to leave. They spent two years in Egypt until the death of Herod, which took place between an eclipse of the Moon and the Jewish Passover. Eclipses would have been seen in 4 BC and 1 BC, so the events around the Magi's journey must have taken place between 8 BC (the time of taxation) and 1 BC (the last eclipse).
In the time of the Magi, the word "star" was associated with many things that could have been seen. Besides the fixed stars, there were wandering stars, falling stars, hairy stars, and new stars. Today, we know stars are objects like the sun, and the wandering stars are worlds.
What could the “star” have been? Chinese and Babylonian writings recorded only one bright comet. It appeared in 5 BC. Comets were considered to be omens of bad times.
Meteors, and even bright fireballs, are common events but far too brief in duration to lead the Magi on a long journey.
Novas and supernovas leave behind expanding shells of gas. Measuring the expansion and working backward, it is possible to determine when the bright star would have been visible in the sky. A pulsar in the constellation Aquila indicates a nova was visible in 4 BC.
Herod and his priests were not aware of any event in the sky. Their beliefs did not allow for astrological interpretation of the motions of planets. The Magi did believe in the motions of planets and in conjunctions (alignment of planets, moons, and the Sun in the same longitude), in particular those which they saw as signs that could foretell future events.
In 2 BC and in 7 BC, there were significant conjunctions of planets. One of these may account for the Christmas Star. The 2 BC event was a very close conjunction of Jupiter and Venus in the constellation Pisces. The 7 BC event was the beginning of a rare triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. The event would have lasted several months, the amount of time that the Magi traveled to reach Bethlehem.
The Christmas Star remains a mystery. It may have been a planetary conjunction -- but could it have been a true miracle with no natural explanation?