The Star of Bethlehem —fact or fable?

Matthew 2:2 For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage

The much-loved scripture from Matthew appears year after year in Christmas greetings. But can we dare to believe such a star arose in the East to announce Christ’s birth?

Whilst learned people in biblical times were sophisticated in understanding the movement of stars and planets, it was nothing compared to what planetariums worldwide reveal today, using advanced technology. 

So I decided to carry out some research on how astronomers today view this 2000-year-old conundrum.

First, some basics: Imagine central London is the sun and all the vehicles on the M25 (motorway that circles London) are the planets and stars orbiting it. 

A blue VW travelling sedately on the inside lane might be overtaken by a black Range Rover in the middle lane; simultaneously, a red Jaguar overtakes the Range Rover in the outside lane. 

The blue VW driver will see a blur of red and black as the two cars hurtle by in CONJUNCTION. 

Also, the VW will appear to be going backwards as it overtakes the Range Rover driver. Likewise, the Range Rover will appear to be going back to the driver of the Jaguar as he overtakes that—these are optical illusions, of course, also known as RETROGRADE MOTIONS.

A triple pass-by like this is scarce and happens over months.

If this theory is correct, then during that time, the watching Magi would have seen the Planet of Kings (Jupiter) dance out a halo above the Star of Kings (Regulus), appearing to present a celestial coronation crown in the sky. No wonder it got their full attention!

I put this argument to a Lecturer of Astrophysics Research at the University of Hertfordshire, who kindly agreed to meet me to discuss the subject. 

He said it was entirely plausible that the Bethlehem star was a conjunction of Jupiter and Regulus. 

He agreed that the optical illusion of the retrograde motion could account for the ’star’ appearing to stop over Bethlehem. 

However, he also offered another plausible theory in which the planets in conjunction were Jupiter with ‘Saturn’ rather than with Regulus, known as the most incredible conjunction. 

Alternatively, he suggested, it might have been rare triple planet conjunction. He said these three conjunctions occurred in the area around that time.

It is not about the specifics of the planets and stars involved. The main thing is that modern-day science can explain how extraordinary cosmic displays in the sky could be amazing at that time. 

So, I say YES WE CAN dare to believe that a vision appeared in the sky heralding the birth in Bethlehem of Jesus the Messiah— as was foretold by the Old Testament prophet, Mica.

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