Science trips – Was there really a star of Bethlehem that could guide the Magi?

Astronomers have tried to explain the story of the Magi being guided by the Star of Bethlehem on their journey by reconstructing possible events in the sky 2,000 years ago.

The story of the Magi visiting the newborn Jesus is told in the New Testament of the Bible, in the Gospel of Matthew. According to the story, the Magi followed a star to the birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Although the story of the Three Kings is an important part of Christian tradition and is widely celebrated during Christmas, there is no historical evidence outside of the Bible to support the existence of the Three Kings or their visit to see Jesus, and therefore there is also no other proof that there was a new star in the sky to guide them. The Three Wise Men are not mentioned in any other historical or religious texts, and there is no other record of their visit to Bethlehem.

It is possible that the story of the Magi was added to the Gospel of Matthew to establish a connection between Jesus and the rest of the world, as the Magi were believed to be representatives of foreign lands and cultures. However, the story has a special appeal for science: it provides an astronomical fact (a new star) and this is something that scientists can verify. Based on astronomical calculations, these are some of the possible explanations:

The Star of Bethlehem was a supernova explosion

The idea that the Magi saw a nova or supernova explosion was suggested by the 17th century astronomer Johannes Kepler and has had many followers ever since.

However, there is no record of such an event in the West. Only Chinese records have a possible mention of a nova or supernova around the time of Jesus’ birth. There are also no known supernova remnants, which we would expect to find if there were a supernova at that time.

The Star of Bethlehem was a comet

This explanation has even older origins, going back to the first Christian theologian Origen in 248 AD Again, Chinese records can be relied on, but there is no record of a possible comet around 5 BC.

One advantage of the comet theory is that comets move across the sky over the course of months, and it has been argued that this fits the Gospel interpretation that the star “moved” while leading the Magi. However, this same argument could be applied to an object that moves with the stars if the Magi’s journey lasted, as proposed, a few months. Despite doubts, most classical representations of the Nativity show the “star” as a comet.

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The Star of Bethlehem was a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn.

Kepler is also associated with the idea that it was the close conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn that created the “star”. In fact, there have been three conjunctions where the two planets were close to each other in the sky, but not close enough to appear as a single object to the naked eye.

The Christmas star was a stationary point on Jupiter

Jupiter, on its apparent path across the sky, is usually seen moving east to west across the starry background as the nights progress. However, as with the other planets, due to Earth’s relative motions, this motion appears to slow down and stop when the planet reaches what is called a “stationary point”. The planet then appears to move backwards from east to west for a few days, before stopping again and resuming its west to east motion. One of the stationary points may have occurred when Jupiter was directly over Bethlehem at the same time of night for several nights. The bad thing is that this is nothing extraordinary, since it happens every year.

Leaving aside the possible conjectures about the astronomical phenomena of 2,000 years ago, other practical problems arise. The stars, planets, comets and other celestial bodies apparently move during the night (actually it is the Earth that moves), with the exception of the Pole Star. The star of Bethlehem appears in the Gospel of Saint Matthew “in the east”, but it is impossible for it to remain stationary there to guide the Magi, much less “park” on top of the manger. As with most mythical stories in the Bible, if miracles are excluded as an explanation, the whole thing is highly improbable.

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