Greeting all, this week I will be examining possible candidates for the the Star of Bethlehem. Don't forget to check the new blog on occultations below this post.The first is Conjunctions. From The Essence of Perfection:
Many scholars have suggested that the Magi were following a planetary alignment that led them to Bethlehem. But, many Christians prefer not to recognize anything that astrology has to offer. Perhaps if St. Augustine, whose influence on Western thought is as great as anyone’s, had not had such a love-hate relationship with astrology, then more Christians would take a more liberal approach to it and not cast it as an instrument of the Devil. It has been suggested by many scholars searching for a meaning to the Star of Bethlehem that is was not a “star” at all, but an astrological sign or a planet, perhaps Venus or Jupiter. But there are problems with this theory. The Magi more than likely would have been very familiar with these heavenly bodies and would not have mistaken them for a “star.” However, there is a case to be made that the star was a conjunction of two or more planets. Conjunctions occur when planets, which travel roughly along the same circle through the sky, pass each other.
Conjunctions are rather common and would not seem to be a significant enough event to send the Magi on a five-hundred-mile, or much longer, trip to Jerusalem. However, a triple conjunction may have excited the Magi. This occurs when a planet appears to travel backward in the sky in a movement known as retrograde motion. In retrograde motion, two planets pass each other, then one backs up and they pass each other again, and finally, they pass each other a third time as normal forward movement is resumed. The triple conjunction hypothesis appealed to many scholars because in Matthew the star somehow stood over Bethlehem to guide the Magi. This could indicate that it was an object in retrograde.
Retrograde motion may seem like a difficult subject to understand. But it is a natural occurrence. The next time you pass a car on the highway you will notice from your vantage point that the car, while traveling in the same direction as you, appears for a moment to be traveling backward. This is retrograde or retrogradation. The same phenomenon may be observed with planets, except that instead of watching from your car, you are watching from the Earth. Christopher Crockett neatly sums up the concept in an online article for EarthSky.org:
Typically, the planets shift slightly eastward from night to night, drifting slowly against the backdrop of the stars. From time to time, however, they change direction. For a few months, they’ll head west before turning back around and resuming their easterly course. Their westward motion is called retrograde motion by astronomers. Though it baffled ancient stargazers, we know now that retrograde motion is an illusion caused by the motion of the Earth and these planets around the sun.
A triple conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn occurred in 7 BCE and has been mentioned as a possible candidate for the Star of Bethlehem. Making the display even more impressive was a massing (a massing is when several planets move into close proximity in the sky) of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn that immediately followed the conjunction. The conjunctions and massing also occurred in the constellation of Pisces, which was often identified with the Jews. In December of 1996, Craig Chester wrote in an article for Imprimis about the possibility of a conjunction being the Star of Bethlehem:
According to him, “In 3 B.C. And 2 B.C., there was a series of close conjunctions involving Jupiter, the planet that represented kingship, coronations and the birth of kings. In Hebrew, Jupiter was known as Sedeg or “Righteousness,” a term also used for the Messiah.
176 Christopher Crockett, "What is retrograde motion?" EarthSky, February 6, 2017, http://earthsky.org/space/what-is-retrograde-motion.
177 Craig Chester, “Star of Bethlehem.” Imprimis 22(12) (December 1993): 1–7.
For more on the difference between conjunctions and occultations go NASA.gov
14 years ago I became interested in the date that Jesus was born. This led to several years of research, I quickly realized that there was no valid information that provided any real answers to this question. Since this website is getting some interest I will post from time to time some of the information I learned during this quest.