Searching the skies for a symbol

'Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men,

THE STAR OF BETHLEHEM: AN ASTRONOMER'S VIEW By Mark Kidger Princeton University Press

Yes Virginia, there may have been a real Christmas star. But it's appearance was merely the last act in the celestial drama that got the Magi going. It wasn't the whole show.

Astronomers who think they have identified a timely nova, comet, or planetary conjunction miss this key point. They fail to make a convincing case because they read the legend reported in Matthew's Gospel with modern eyes. Mark Kidger has a more productive perspective. Along with a few other scholars, he tries to see any relevant astronomical events through Magi eyes.

They were astrologers. They saw significance in astronomical events only when these fit meaningfully into their arcane astrological system. A spectacular nova (exploding star) that would wow a naive astronomer could be ho-hum to them. Their predecessors for centuries past had seen novae, comets, and conjunctions come and go without correlation with earthly events.

Ancient observers - especially in China - recorded the appearance of a bright nova in the constellation Pisces in February or early March of 5 BC. That's within the 7 to 4 BC time frame many scholars assign for Jesus' birth. Furthermore, the nova was in a constellation associated with Judea. It persisted for at least 70 days. That's time enough for Magi in Babylonia or even Persia to mount camels and reach Jerusalem before the nova had completely faded. They first saw it as an early dawn star rising in the east. By the time they arrived in Jerusalem, the normal rotation of the sky as Earth moves along its orbit would place the star in the south, shining over Bethlehem.

Here's an obvious candidate for the Christmas star. But that's hindsight. If its sudden appearance were all the Magi had to go on, they probably would have said, "Been there. Seen that."

The key question is why this particular nova would seem so significant to them. Kidger provides a plausible answer. He identifies a series of astronomical events that he says were "so unique that they can happen together only once in several thousand years."

First, there was a triple conjunction in Pisces, with Jupiter and Saturn passing by each other three times between May and December in 7 BC. Three times in six months these important planets met and parted in the constellation associated with the Jews. In the following year, Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn massed together in Pisces. In February 5 BC, the crescent moon passed close to Jupiter while Mars and Saturn paired up nearby. Then the nova burst forth. Kidger speculates that the Magi took the preceding events as warnings that something important would happen in Judea - perhaps the long-anticipated birth of the Jewish messiah. The nova signaled that the birth had occurred.

We'll never know if this intriguing - and plausible - scenario is even approximately correct. We do know that those astronomical events occurred. But we don't really know what the Magi would have made of them.

An astronomer himself, Kidger has made solving the Christmas star mystery a personal quest. The charm of his book is to take readers along on this journey. He explores relevant ancient traditions, examines the astronomical record, and follows many of the false trails that have led other Christmas star detectives to dead ends.

In the end, he leaves us with good reason to believe there probably was a real Christmas star. It wasn't miraculous. But oh, what a marvelous coincidence!

*Robert C. Cowen writes about science for the Monitor.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.