Ravi loves writing within the realm of relationships, history, and the bizarre—where boundaries are blurred and possibilities are immense.
What Is a Conjunction?
Astronomers use the word ‘conjunction’ to describe meetings of planets and other objects within our sky. And the term ‘great conjunction’ is used when two large planets, Jupiter and Saturn, meet each other and appear as one ‘big shining star.’
Technically speaking, both these planets, Jupiter and Saturn, are 456 million miles (734 million km) apart, but they meet once every 20 years to create a spectacular cosmic view. And the last meeting happened just days back on 21st Dec 2020, when they came as ‘close’ as a fifth of the diameter of a full moon.
The 2020 great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn was the closest since 1623. It will not be matched again until the Jupiter-Saturn conjunction of March 15, 2080, as Florent Deleflie from the Paris Observatory talks about it.
“The Grand Conjunction refers to the period when two planets have relatively similar positions in relation to Earth. Seeing with the naked eye they appear merged into a “highly luminous” double planet.”
Now we come to the big question.
Could the Star of Bethlehem be caused by a ‘great conjunction’ of the bright planets Jupiter and Saturn? Did such a cosmic sight coincide with the biblical first Christmas? Or was it only a pious fiction invented by St. Matthew?
Astronomers have been debating this question with multiple different interpretations over the centuries.
The Book of Matthew
The story of the Star of Bethlehem appears only in the Book of Matthew.
As the story goes, three wise men saw the star as a sign of the birth of the King of the Jews, so they set out for Jerusalem to worship him. As Matthew says.
“When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.”
What did the three wise men exactly see? Over the centuries, many astronomers have tried to explain the event.
Some astronomers believe it was a comet. Chinese and Korean astronomers recorded comets in the years seven to four B.C., respectively. Comets also shine like stars, have long bushy tail, and creates the impression of ‘not moving’ if seen by the naked eye.
However, in the ancient world, comets were seen as bad omens. Therefore, it is unlikely the birth of the Messiah would be linked by the wise men to a comet that was mostly seen as a harbinger of bad events.
Astronomers Have Different Theories
Again, some astronomers believe that it might be a supernova. A supernova is an explosion of a massive supergiant star; at its peak, it would shine with the intensity of 10 billion suns. And moreover, a supernova is a very rare phenomenon, with the last known occurrence in the year 1054.
Yes, a supernova is an intriguing possibility. Still, the only problem is that there are no records of a known occurrence of such an event in the region over Bethlehem during the birth of Christ. Therefore, this disqualifies this theory of a star of Bethlehem being a supernova.
Ok. How about a ‘great conjunction’ similar to that of Jupiter and Saturn we saw in 2021?
The famous astronomer Johannes Kepler proposed this theory in 1614 when he determined that a series of conjunctions of the planets Jupiter and Saturn occurred around the time of Jesus's birth. These series of conjunctions also perfectly with St. Matthew’s remarkable descriptions of a ‘star ‘appearing', 'disappearing', and then 'reappearing' to the three wise men on their long journey to meet the messiah.
The problem is that conjunctions are not very rare, and the ancients would surely know about such an event if it happened. Moreover, the Bible specifically uses the singular ‘star’ and not the plural ‘stars.’ So, this particular ‘star’ has to be something really special ( or an extraordinary astronomical event) for St. Matthew to mention it in his gospel.
And the last and the most bizarre of all theories is that , the star was not a known cosmic object at all. Rather it was an unidentified flying object that followed the wise men all the way to Bethlehem. Although why a UFO should choose to do that is just as unexplainable as it is mysterious.
The Mystery Persists
The truth is, none of the theories proposed match the descriptions closely as mentioned in the gospel of Matthew. The ancients knew about the skies far too well, so expecting them to get confused with conjunctions, comets, or supernovas would be a grave disservice to their intelligence.
Some have suggested that the Star of Bethlehem might not have been a celestial event at all. Rather it might have been a spiritual metaphor symbolizing the birth of a messiah who would free the world of all the tyrants.
In the end, we will likely never know what really inspired the biblical story of the Star of Bethlehem. But it is a question that will continue to pique the curiosity of scientists, astronomers, archaeologists, and theologians alike for years to come.
As Mathews, a professor of theoretical astrophysics and cosmology at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, says.
"Nothing in science is ever case closed, nor is it in history. We may never know if the Star of Bethlehem was a conjunction, astrological event or a fable to advance Christianity. Maybe it was simply a miracle."
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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Ravi Rajan