Marianne Dyson December 2016
One of my favorite Christmas carols is “We Three Kings” which includes the chorus, “Star of wonder, star of night, star of royal beauty bright. Westward leading, still proceeding, guide us to thy perfect Light.” Was this star a light from God only visible to the kings, or was it perhaps an actual astronomical event?
To answer this question, the first thing to know is when Jesus was born. Although Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25, no one knows the actual date or year of his birth. These were adopted in A.D. 354 to supplant the Roman festival of the winter solstice and the birthday of the sun god Mithra.
Jesus’s birth year can be narrowed down by historical references. “Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.” [Matthew 2:1-2]
In his 2011 book, The Zodiac: Myths and Legends of the Stars, astronomer Richard Hall explains that Herod died shortly after an eclipse of the Moon, and that Passover was celebrated after a period of mourning. There was an eclipse in 4 B.C. in March, 29 days before Passover. There was another in January of 1 B.C., 88 days before Passover. Thus Jesus was born some time before 1 B.C., and likely before 4 B.C. (Hall notes the inconsistency of this date with A.D. 6, the year of the census by Roman Emperor Augustus that required Joseph and Mary to go to Bethlehem. Some suggest Jesus was 12 in A.D. 6 and references to his separation from his mother and being wrapped in cloths refer to his Bar Mitsvah.)
Checking the List
So what astronomical phenomena occurred around 4 B.C.? The Chinese recorded a nova in the constellation Capricorn in 5 B.C. that lasted 70 days. Nova are old binary stars that suddenly brighten and then fade. Many people feel this nova is a perfect fit for a sign in the heavens.
However, Astronomer Johannes Kepler suggested in 1606 that a triple planetary conjunction in 7 B.C. was the Star of Bethlehem. [Ref. Martin Gardner. “The Star of Bethlehem” CSI. 1999.] Hall notes that such an event occurred three years before the birth of Moses and was expected (by the wise men of the day) to occur prior to the birth of the messiah. The triple conjunction involved three encounters between Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation Pisces (considered the sign of Israel) on May 29, October 3, and December 4. Hall suggests the wise men left from Babylon in May and arrived in Jerusalem around the time of the second conjunction in October, just after Jesus’s birth on the autumn equinox.
Hall favors an autumn birth interpretation because in Jewish tradition, all important events occur on equinoxes or solstices. For Jesus to be a king of the Jews, he had to be born close to the autumn equinox. However, the only time shepherds watched their flocks at night (another biblical reference) was during lambing which would indicate the spring equinox. There’s currently no way to know for sure.
But as a scientist and a Christian, I have no need for the Star of Wonder to be identified as an astronomical event or to prove that Jesus was born on an equinox or solstice. There is wonder enough for me in knowing that life exists because of stars and that babies are miracles worth celebrating whenever they are born. I also enjoy a good mystery and thank God for keeping me entertained trying to figure out all these cool puzzles!
I hope this holiday season that you take the opportunity to stop and look up at the night sky, and consider the wonder of it all.
Writing about Space
Because of the NatGeo Mars special, I’m offering The Callahan Kids, Tales of Life on Mars Kindle edition for only 99 cents Monday to Monday, December 5 to 12th. For 10 percent off the print copy (offer never expires!), grab the code off my website and order via CreateSpace. All proceeds go toward a future art contest for kids.
If you need some gifts or just a good read on the plane, check out more than 300 reviews of space-related nonfiction, fiction, and children’s books on the National Space Society’s Reading Space page. Use the Amazon links to benefit NSS’s educational programs without costing you anything extra.
Speaking about Space
Watch my website Contact Page for appearance updates & Twitter for photos.
Note the podcast of my November 15 appearance on The Space Show is available for download.
January 14, 2017, speaking at the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP) at Rice University.
January 26, 2017. “The Business of Writing.” 7 pm. Bay Area Writers League. Clear Lake Park (5001 NASA Road One, Seabrook). Free and open to the public.