This article by David Weintraub is republished here with permission from The Conversation. This content is shared here because the topic may interest Snopes readers; it does not, however, represent the work of Snopes fact-checkers or editors.
Bright stars top Christmas trees in Christian homes around much of the world. The faithful sing about the Star of Wonder that guided the wise men to a manger in the little town of Bethlehem, where Jesus was born. Theyre commemorating the Star of Bethlehem described by the Evangelist Matthew in the New Testament. Is the stars biblical description a pious fiction, or does it contain some astronomical truth?
To understand the Star of Bethlehem, we need to think like the three wise men. Motivated by this star in the east, they first traveled to Jerusalem and told King Herod the prophecy that a new ruler of the people of Israel would be born. We also need to think like King Herod, who asked the wise men when the star had appeared, because he and his court, apparently, were unaware of any such star in the sky.
These events present us with our first astronomy puzzle of the first Christmas: How could King Herods own advisors have been unaware of a star so bright and obvious that it could have led the wise men to Jerusalem?
Next, in order to reach Bethlehem, the wise men had to travel directly south from Jerusalem; somehow that star in the east went before them, til it came and stood over where the young child was. Now we have our second first-Christmas astronomy puzzle: how can a star in the east guide our wise men to the south? The north star guides lost hikers to the north, so shouldnt a star in the east have led the wise men to the east?
And we have yet a third first-Christmas astronomy puzzle: how does Matthews star move before them, like the taillights on the snowplow you might follow during a blizzard, and then stop and stand over the manger in Bethlehem, inside of which supposedly lies the infant Jesus?
The astronomer in me knows that no star can do these things, nor can a comet, or Jupiter, or a supernova, or a conjunction of planets or any other actual bright object in the nighttime sky. One can claim that Matthews words describe a miracle, something beyond the laws of physics. But Matthew chose his words carefully and wrote star in the east twice, which suggests that these words hold a specific importance for his readers.
Can we find any other explanation, consistent with Matthews words, that doesnt require that the laws of physics be violated and that has something to do with astronomy? The answer, amazingly, is yes.
Astronomer Michael Molnar points out that in the east is a literal translation of the Greek phrase en te anatole, which was a technical term used in Greek mathematical astrology 2,000 years ago. It described, very specifically, a planet that would rise above the eastern horizon just before the sun would appear. Then, just moments after the planet rises, it disappears in the bright glare of the sun in the morning sky. Except for a brief moment, no one can see this star in the east.
We need a little bit of astronomy background here. In a human lifetime, virtually all the stars remain fixed in their places; the stars rise and set every night, but they do not move relative to each other. The stars in the Big Dipper appear year after year always in the same place. But the planets, the sun and the moon wander through the fixed stars; in fact, the word planet comes from the Greek word for wandering star. Though the planets, sun and moon move along approximately the same path through the background stars, they travel at different speeds, so they often lap each other. When the sun catches up with a planet, we cant see the planet, but when the sun passes far enough beyond it, the planet reappears.
And now we need a little bit of astrology background. When the planet reappears again for the first time and rises in the morning sky just moments before the sun, for the first time in many months after having been hidden in the suns glare for those many months, that moment is known to astrologers as a heliacal rising. A heliacal rising, that special first reappearance of a planet, is what en te anatole referred to in ancient Greek astrology. In particular, the reappearance of a planet like Jupiter was thought by Greek astrologers to be symbolically significant for anyone born on that day.
Thus, the star in the east refers to an astronomical event with supposed astrological significance in the context of ancient Greek astrology.
What about the star parked directly above the first crche? The word usually translated as stood over comes from the Greek word epano, which also had an important meaning in ancient astrology. It refers to a particular moment when a planet stops moving and changes apparent direction from westward to eastward motion. This occurs when the Earth, which orbits the sun more quickly than Mars or Jupiter or Saturn, catches up with, or laps, the other planet.
Together, a rare combination of astrological events (the right planet rising before the sun; the sun being in the right constellation of the zodiac; plus a number of other combinations of planetary positions considered important by astrologers) would have suggested to ancient Greek astrologers a regal horoscope and a royal birth.
Molnar believes that the wise men were, in fact, very wise and mathematically adept astrologers. They also knew about the Old Testament prophecy that a new king would be born of the family of David. Most likely, they had been watching the heavens for years, waiting for alignments that would foretell the birth of this king. When they identified a powerful set of astrological portents, they decided the time was right to set out to find the prophesied leader.
If Matthews wise men actually undertook a journey to search for a newborn king, the bright star didnt guide them; it only told them when to set out. And they wouldnt have found an infant swaddled in a manger. After all, the baby was already eight months old by the time they decoded the astrological message they believed predicted the birth of a future king. The portent began on April 17 of 6 BC (with the heliacal rising of Jupiter that morning, followed, at noon, by its lunar occultation in the constellation Aries) and lasted until December 19 of 6 BC (when Jupiter stopped moving to the west, stood still briefly, and began moving to the east, as compared with the fixed background stars). By the earliest time the men could have arrived in Bethlehem, the baby Jesus would likely have been at least a toddler.
Matthew wrote to convince his readers that Jesus was the prophesied Messiah. Given the astrological clues embedded in his gospel, he must have believed the story of the Star of Bethlehem would be convincing evidence for many in his audience.
David Weintraub, Professor of Astronomy, Vanderbilt University
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
- The Sky This Week from February 21 to March 1 - Astronomy Magazine - February 24th, 2020
- Astronomers Have Detected Molecular Oxygen in Another Galaxy For The First Time - ScienceAlert - February 24th, 2020
- Could alien life hitchhike to Earth on space rocks from other stars? - Astronomy Magazine - February 24th, 2020
- Controversial simulation creates galaxies without using dark matter - Astronomy Magazine - February 24th, 2020
- How Interferometry Works, and Why it's so Powerful for Astronomy - Universe Today - February 24th, 2020
- Heather Couper, 19492020 - Astronomy Now Online - February 24th, 2020
- Star Betelgeuse's mysterious dimming has the attention of UA astronomer - Arizona Public Media - February 24th, 2020
- Molecular oxygen has been spotted beyond the Milky Way for the first time - Science News - February 24th, 2020
- Heather Couper: Astronomer who brought the stars to a wide audience - The Independent - February 24th, 2020
- These 60 Hyderabad kids are falling in love with astronomy at BMBSC. Do you know how? - EdexLive - February 24th, 2020
- How a Single Image Taken in 1995 Revolutionized Astronomy - Fstoppers - February 24th, 2020
- Look up: Astronomical event on the way - WOODTV.com - February 24th, 2020
- Astronomers look to preserve the night sky as thousands of satellites set to launch - CBC.ca - February 24th, 2020
- SETI and other alien-hunting strategies are dealing with new tools and new troubles - GeekWire - February 24th, 2020
- Watch out, Avengers: This asteroid has a more violent track record than Thanos - SYFY WIRE - February 24th, 2020
- On Student Success, This Astronomer Walks the Walk - UANews - February 17th, 2020
- Astronomers Have Aired Concerns About Musk's Starlink in a Paper, And It's Intense - ScienceAlert - February 17th, 2020
- Orion and its dimming star Betelgeuse shine over a stargazer in this sentimental night-sky photo - Space.com - February 17th, 2020
- When Betelgeuse goes supernova, what will it look like from Earth? - Astronomy Magazine - February 17th, 2020
- The Sky This Week from February 14 to 23 - Astronomy Magazine - February 17th, 2020
- Planetesimal Arrokoth is helping astronomers understand the formation of the planets - Firstpost - February 17th, 2020
- How many planets are there in the universe? - Astronomy Magazine - February 17th, 2020
- What is a neutron star? | Astronomy Essentials - EarthSky - February 17th, 2020
- Astronomers Simulated How the Universe Would Look Without Dark Matter - Universe Today - February 17th, 2020
- What is a fast radio burst? What causes the signal from space? - Vox.com - February 17th, 2020
- SpaceX's next Starlink volley remains stuck on Earth to glee of astronomers everywhere - The Register - February 17th, 2020
- Weekly Round-Up Of Space And Astronomy Opportunities For Africans - Space in Africa - February 17th, 2020
- Astronomers Discover Eleven Dangerous Asteroids That Could Impact the Earth - SciTechDaily - February 17th, 2020
- Astronomers want you to help them count the stars this Valentine's Day - CBC.ca - February 17th, 2020
- Scientists theorize that space aliens may already be here, but we dont recognize them - San Francisco Chronicle - February 17th, 2020
- Indian Astronomy And Mathematics: When Kerala Became The Locus Of Genius - Swarajya - February 17th, 2020
- Cosmic Rays from beyond Solar System Affect Atmosphere of Titan | Astronomy - Sci-News.com - February 17th, 2020
- astronomy | Definition & Facts | Britannica - February 12th, 2020
- Astronomy | Definition of Astronomy by Merriam-Webster - February 12th, 2020
- What is Astronomy? Definition & History | Space - February 12th, 2020
- Benefits Of Astronomy As A Subject In Primary And Secondary Schools Curricula - Space in Africa - February 12th, 2020
- The Sky This Week from February 7 to 16 - Astronomy Magazine - February 12th, 2020
- Solar Orbiter is on its way to study the Sun - Astronomy Magazine - February 12th, 2020
- Astronomers Find Three Massive Exoplanets Orbiting Evolved Star | Astronomy - Sci-News.com - February 12th, 2020
- The Night Sky Will Never Be the Same - The Atlantic - February 12th, 2020
- Astronomers Find Ultramassive Galaxy From The Early Universe That Suddenly Died - ScienceAlert - February 12th, 2020
- Astronomers have found a deep space radio burst that pulses every 16 days - MIT Technology Review - February 12th, 2020
- Scientists detect an unexplainable radio signal from outer space that repeats every 16 days - USA TODAY - February 12th, 2020
- Here are some astronomical LEGO facts in honor of LEGO Masters upcoming space-themed episode - FOX 10 News Phoenix - February 12th, 2020
- Ask An Astronomer: Here's All You Need to Know About Decade's First Supermoon on February 9 - The Weather Channel - February 12th, 2020
- The economic cost of destroying nature is astronomical - Fast Company - February 12th, 2020
- Darkest county in Georgia has its own astronomy village - 13WMAZ.com - February 12th, 2020
- The 2020 'Super Bowl of Astronomy' Kicks Off in Hawaii - Space.com - January 5th, 2020
- Crater found from asteroid that covered 10% of Earth's surface in deb - Astronomy Magazine - January 5th, 2020
- East Haven Coffee Shop To Host Astronomy Night on January 24th - East Haven, CT Patch - January 5th, 2020
- Astronomy 2020: Every major meteor shower, supermoon and more - The Know - January 5th, 2020
- Rocket Launches, Trips to Mars and More 2020 Space and Astronomy Events - The New York Times - January 5th, 2020
- The Sky This Week from January 3 to 12 - Astronomy Magazine - January 5th, 2020
- Hubble Team Produces 30th Anniversary Calendar for 2020 | Astronomy - Sci-News.com - January 5th, 2020
- Thousands of astronomers are gathering in Honolulu as TMT discord looms - Honolulu Star-Advertiser - January 5th, 2020
- Astronomy Before the Telescope set - The Greater New Milford Spectrum - January 5th, 2020
- Astronomy VLOG: What the 2020s Mean for Space Travel - WAVY.com - January 5th, 2020
- The Steady State: When Astronomers Tried to Overthrow the Big Bang - Discover Magazine - January 5th, 2020
- We Have Absolutely No Idea Whats Out There Astronomers 2019 Views on Extraterrestrial Life (Weekend Featu - The Daily Galaxy --Great Discoveries... - January 5th, 2020
- What is the asteroid belt? | Space - EarthSky - January 5th, 2020
- Wanda Diaz Merced is a blind astronomer who hears the science of the stars - Boing Boing - January 5th, 2020
- What the interstellar medium tells us about the early universe - Astronomy Magazine - December 13th, 2019
- Astronomers find 19 more galaxies missing their dark matter - Astronomy Magazine - December 13th, 2019
- Europe's XMM-Newton Telescope Celebrates 20 Years of X-Ray Astronomy - Space.com - December 13th, 2019
- See interstellar comet Borisov on its way toward the Sun - Astronomy Magazine - December 13th, 2019
- The Sky This Week from December 6 to 15 - Astronomy Magazine - December 13th, 2019
- Mars 2020's landing site could be a good place to hunt for fossils - Astronomy Magazine - December 13th, 2019
- 'Monster Black Hole' Discovery Found to be Incorrect But That's How Science Progresses - Space.com - December 13th, 2019
- This Is How Astronomers Know The Age Of The Universe (And You Can, Too) - Forbes - December 13th, 2019
- Milky Way's Thick Disk is 10 Billion Years Old, Astronomers Say | Astronomy - Sci-News.com - December 13th, 2019
- Science needs true diversity to succeed -- and Australian astronomy shows how we can get it - The Conversation AU - December 13th, 2019
- Astronomers Discover MAMBO-9, Most Distant Dusty Star-Forming Galaxy We Were in Doubt if It Was Real - SciTechDaily - December 13th, 2019
- Merging Pair of Dusty Star-Forming Galaxies Spotted 13 Billion Light-Years Away | Astronomy - Sci-News.com - December 13th, 2019
- Astronomers look inside meteorites and find the sugars needed for life - Astronomy Magazine - November 24th, 2019
- That Starlink Problem Astronomers Were Worried About Is Totally Happening - ScienceAlert - November 24th, 2019
- Will SpaceXs Starlink Mega-Constellation Ruin Astronomys Biggest Ever Eye On The Sky? - Forbes - November 24th, 2019
- A weird, orbital dance keeps these moons of Neptune safely on track - Astronomy Magazine - November 24th, 2019
- Astronomers Finally Find the Neutron Star Leftover from Supernova 1987A - Universe Today - November 24th, 2019
- Astronomers Observe Host Galaxy of Extremely Bright and Long Gamma-Ray Burst | Astronomy - Sci-News.com - November 24th, 2019
- Meet the NASA Engineer Who Secretly Practices Astrology - Free - November 24th, 2019