Harry Warren tries to unravel the mystery of the Star of Bethlehem which is credited with showing the way for the Three Wise Men, or Magi, to find the baby Jesus.
One of my happiest memories as a child was walking home on a cloudless and frosty night after attending Midnight Mass with my parents. Even though it was well past midnight I was wide awake and I was excitedly looking forward to the following Christmas day.
The night sky twinkled with thousands of stars. I noticed one single star that was the brightest star in the heavens by a wide margin. I asked my father in wonder, “Dad, is that the Christmas star, the star of Bethlehem?”
Peering at the sky and giving a quick wink to my mother he smiled and said “Well, now son, it’s bright enough to be the star and it is in the eastern part of the sky, so it might be the star all right.”
I found it fascinating and I kept glancing and staring at the star all the way home, remembering the story of the Three Wise Men following the star all the way to Bethlehem bearing gifts for baby Jesus.
I now know as an amateur astronomer that what I witnessed was an extremely bright planet – Venus, a member of our own solar system. It was perfectly placed in its orbit around the sun that year to be the brightest star-like object in the sky.
So, what was the Star of Bethlehem as mentioned in St. Matthew’s Gospel? Did it really exist? Did the gospel description of the star tell of a real cosmic event, or was it a pious fiction bearing a sincere truth, a beautiful Christian symbol to illustrate the light coming into the world, the birth of Jesus?
Astronomers have attempted to identify what the Three Wise Men may have seen in the sky. But that brings another question, who were the Three Wise Men? The noble pilgrims ‘from the East’ who followed a miraculous guiding star to Bethlehem, where they paid homage to the infant Jesus as King of the Jews (Matthew 2:1–12).
The Gospel of Matthew (2:1–12) speaks of the Magi, or the Three Wise Men. Traditionally named as Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar. Identified in the bible as ‘Magi’ who were highly respected Babylonian astrologer-priests. As Magi they would have had a deep knowledge of the forerunner of scientific astronomy i.e., of astraology, and have been very much aware if anything new had appeared in the sky.
The Babylonians had star catalogues as early as 1300 BC which contained information about constellations and patterns in the stars. The Magi studied the stars and the movement of the planets and interpreted cosmic events as omens, important portents of the future.
Whatever they witnessed it was so important that they interpreted it as foretelling the birth of a new-born king.
So, what astronomical object might they have witnessed as the Star of Bethlehem?
One explanation is that the star was actually a comet. These ancient objects are leftovers from the formation of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago. Comets are made of frozen rocky debris, and ice. They orbit the Sun elliptically from the outer to the inner solar system. When they pass near the Sun their surface evaporates and the melting ice and dust produces a bright object with a beautiful long streaming tail.
Sometimes they are visible for months in the night sky. Ancient Chinese historical records have two possible sightings of comets at about the right time, one in March 5BC, and one in April 4BC. In ancient cultures however, comets were viewed as very bad omens conveying warnings of disaster. It seems unlikely that they would be viewed as heralding the birth of a king or messiah by the Magi.
Could the Magi have witnessed a bright meteor? Small pieces of rock that travel through space are known as meteoroids. If they enter Earth’s atmosphere and burn up, they are then seen as meteors or a ‘shooting star’.
Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own