Starring role in birth of Christ
WAS THE Christmas star real?
A new dose of retrospective investigation or archaeo-astronomy by the Chronicle’s astronomy consultant Dave Reneke says “yes” – but it’s Venus.
“We see it every year around this time, blazing brightly overhead. A brilliant ‘star’ that heralds good times, holidays – and lots of great food. It’s Christmas time and you’re looking at the planet Venus, often mistaken as the Christmas Star shining brightly, just after sunset in the western sky.”
In this international year of astronomy, Mr Reneke says it is generally accepted by researchers that Christ was born between 3 BC and 1 AD.
“I’ve based my own research on the book of Matthew in the New Testament because Matthew places the key players together in the same time period.
“With modern astronomy software programs astronomers can reproduce the night sky exactly as it was, thousands of years ago. We’ve gone back to the night sky of Christ’s time and we’ve found out something startling. It looks like the Christmas star really did exist,” Mr Reneke said.
“Two thousand years ago, astronomy and astrology were considered one and the same. The motions of the heavenly bodies were used to determine the events of history and the fate of people’s lives.
“Of the various groups of priests and prophets of this period, those that garnered the most respect were the Magi. The origins of the Magi are not entirely clear. Known as wise men, they were actually priests who relied on astrology.
“Armed with an approximate date for the birth of Jesus we’ll assume that the Star of Bethlehem was not just a localised event and could be observed by sky-watchers elsewhere in the world, not just by the Magi.
“Now, historical records and modern-day computer simulations indicate that there was a rare series of planetary groupings, also known as conjunctions, during the years 3 BC. and 2 BC. In fact, this was one of the most remarkable periods in terms of celestial events in the last 3000 years.”
On August 12, 3 BC, Jupiter and Venus appeared very close together just before sunrise, appearing as bright morning ‘stars’. It would have been visible in the eastern dawn sky of the Middle East from about 3.45 to 5.20 in the morning.
The crowning touch came 10 months later, on June 17, 2 BC, as Venus and Jupiter joined up again in the constellation Leo. This time the two planets were so close that, without binoculars, they would have looked like one single brilliant star.
Jupiter was known as the “Planet of Kings” and Saturn as the “Protector of the Jews”. This could easily have been interpreted as a sign that the Jewish Messiah had been, or was about to be, born. Also, Leo was thought to denote royalty and power.
The whole sequence of events, says Mr Reneke, could have been enough for at least three astrologers to see this as sign in the heavens and make their way to Jerusalem to ask Herod: “Where is he that is born King of the Jews, for we have come to worship him?”
“This conjunction itself was unprecedented. It occurred during the evening and would have really lit up the night sky. Was this the fabled Christmas star? It seems so.
“Now, this doesn’t mean that astrology works,” David said. “We haven’t ruled out other possibilities for the Star of Bethlehem but it does make our search more rewarding to find a truly interesting astronomical event that happened during the most likely time for the Nativity.”