Was the Star of Bethlehem the Planet Jupiter?
Each year, countless Christmas trees are topped with a bright, ornamental star meant to represent the Star of Bethlehem, the star that led the Three Wise Men to the birthplace of Jesus Christ. But if you seek a more scientifically accurate tree topper this holiday season, you might want to consider the planet Jupiter instead.
For decades, interested astronomers have mulled over possible explanations for the night sky's miraculous activity that first Christmas Day, and almost all seem to agree: if the Biblical account is actually based in truth, the Star of Bethlehem was not a star.
Matthew's tale in the New Testament describes a bright star -- previously unknown -- suddenly flaring up in the east and moving before the Three Wise Men, leading them to Bethlehem.
"The astronomer in me knows that no star can do these things," Vanderbilt University astronomy professor David Weintraub wrote.
But there are a couple astronomical phenomena that can at least fill some of those descriptions. The luminous flare-up could describe a supernova in the galaxy Andromeda. A "moving" star could actually have been a comet.
These ideas both have drawbacks, however. There's no historical record of a supernova around the time, and comets, while undeniably striking to behold, were widely believed back then to herald "doom, death, disease, and disaster," says University of Sheffield astronomer David Hughes.
A more nuanced explanation is now starting to outshine the others, and it prominently involves the planet Jupiter.
The Three Wise Men – who likely hailed from Babylon, an ancient state in present-day Iraq – almost certainly were astrologers with knowledge of the Old Testament prophecy that a new king would be born of the family of David. Somewhere around April 17th in 6 B.C., they witnessed Jupiter rising in the east in the constellation Aries, then considered the symbol of Judea, after which Jupiter was hidden by the Moon. The wise men would have interpreted these heavenly events as a sign that a great Jewish king had been born or would be born soon, so they set off towards the Kingdom of Judah to search for him, arriving in Bethlehem eight months later.
Molnar combined both astronomical calculations as well as accounts from ancient astrology to produce the narrative, which has convinced a great deal of his colleagues as it is both scientifically rigorous and sensitive to historical contexts.
“The nature of the Star of Bethlehem must be astrological, not astronomical,” Louisiana State University astronomer Bradley Schaefer told OnWisconsin. “The scholarly community has largely been converted.”
After his own decade-long investigation, University of Notre Dame cosmologist Grant Matthews recently revealed an account that largely coincides with Molnar's. His calculations also show that Jupiter and the moon were in the vicinity of the constellation Aries in 6 B.C. Such a stellar grouping won't happen again for a very long time.