What was the Star of Bethlehem?

Yeah, no one knows for sure just what really took place. There is an incredible amount of artistic license use, as I will call it, surrounding the Christmas story. There is strong evidence that the manger birth wasn't in the winter since shepherds aren't watching over sheep in the field at that time.

The Josephus account of Herod's demise gives some interesting clues and I think most favor a 4BCE birth event.

The three magi -- it is assumed there were three since there were three gifts presented -- were likely somewhat wealthy Persian astrologers or very active amateur astrologers (borrowing from those here who appreciate amateur astronomers). Something inspired them to saddle-up there camels and make what was likely a fairly long trip.

Aries is one of the more popular constellations assigned to Judea, though there are a few others, apparently.

So, as to what may have happened that triggered this inspiration, here is a slightly abbreviated list of events that I found using Starry Night Pro from a few years ago. They are based on observations from Baghdad...

6 BC:

Jan. 1: Jupiter & Saturn close in Pisces

Jan. 23: Saturn equidistant between Jupiter and Moon in Pisces (pointing to Aries?)

Feb. 20: Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and new Moon all within about 3 deg. radius

In Pisces at 7pm on western horizon

Mar. 4: Jupiter and Mars conjunction at sunset

Horizontal alignment with Saturn directly below

Mar. 19: Lunar occulation of Saturn (not visible, too close to Sun and below horizon)

Mar. 24: Venus and Saturn conjunction at dawn in Pisces

Apr. 16: Lunar occulation of Saturn, 12:50 pm in Pisces. (not visible, daytime)

Apr. 17: Lunar occulation of Jupiter, about 12:45 pm (daytime)

Apr. 18: Annular Solar eclipse (not visible from Middle East)

Apr. 24: Saturn and Venus only 42 arcmin separation in Pisces

Seen only briefly around 4:30 am on horizon (4 deg alt.)

May 8: Conjunction of Jupiter and Venus (34 arcmin in Aries).

Visible only on horizon from 4 to 5:30 am

May 13: Lunar occulation of Saturn in Pisces (not visible from Middle East)

11 pm but 46 deg below horizon. Venus and Jupiter reasonably close by.

May 15: Lunar conjunction of Jupiter in Aries (< 6 arcminutes)

Visible about one and one-half hours before conjunction.

Venus-Jupiter-Moon-Saturn aligned (Aries region)

May 16: Venus and very thin crescent Moon proximity (3 deg) in Taurus

Seen only briefly about 4:30 am

Jul. 2: Venus & Mars conjunction at dusk

Jul. 10: Mercury & Venus conjunction at dusk (Mars nearby)

Jul. 22: Saturn begins retrograde between Cetus and Aries

Aug. 22: Jupiter begins retrograde back into Aries

Sep. 2: Mars visible within 50 arcminutes of Regulus at 4:30am in Leo

Sep 14: Lunar occulation of Venus (far below horizon, not visible)

Nov. 7: Mars about 2 deg. from Moon when it rises in East (2 am in Virgo)



5 BC: [Most activity too close to Sun]

Mar. 11: Lunar conjunction of Venus with Jupiter and Pleiades very close

Region between Taurus and Aries asterisms.

Actual conjunction only 1 arcmin separation but well below horizon

Mar. 23: Total Lunar eclipse, 9:30 pm, 38 deg. alt., in Virgo

Sep. 15: Total Lunar eclipse, 11:20 pm, 50 deg. alt., in Pisces



4BC: [Most activity too close to Sun]

Jan. 30: Lunar conjunction with Mars in Pisces

30 arcminutes at 3pm, 1 deg. at 6 pm.

Mar. 6 & 7: Conjunction of Saturn and Mars (~ 2 deg)

Seen near western horizon around 7:30 pm, in Aries

Mar 13: Lunar eclipse (1/3 partial umbra passage), 3:30 am in Virgo (33 deg alt.)

May 9: Conjunction of Saturn and Mercury, dawn, in Taurus

May 17: Conjunction of Mars and Venus at dusk near horizon (Jupiter nearby)

May 23: Conjunction of Venus and Jupiter at dusk near horizon in Gemini

Sep 5: Lunar eclipse (2/3 umbral passage), but at 2:15 pm (daytime) and well below horizon
 
3BC

Apr. 2: Saturn, Venus, Mars grouping in Taurus

Jun 13: Saturn and Venus conjunction, seen rising at 3 am in Taurus

Aug 12: Jupiter and Venus close conjunction, seen rising at 5 am in Leo

Sep 5: Lunar occulation of Jupiter near Regulus in Leo

Not visible until 1 deg. separation when rising at 3 am.

Sep 14: Jupiter rises with Regulus in Leo

About 15 arcmin. Separation at 4 am, 24 deg. alt.

Oct. 3: Jupiter, Regulus, and crescent Moon within 3 deg. radius of Regulus (Leo)

Oct. 31: Close conjunction of Moon and Jupiter in Leo at 4 am,

About 30 min. separation at 60 deg. alt.



2 BC

Jan 20: Lunar eclipse below horizon in daytime (2 pm)

Mar 25: Saturn and Mars conjunction setting in Taurus (8:30 pm), Venus nearby

Apr 3: Saturn, Venus, Mars grouping (3 deg. radius from Venus) at setting

Apr 12: Moon, Regulus, Jupiter alignment

May 7: Crescent Moon close conjunction (2 arcminutes) of Venus in Gemini

But 20 deg. below horizon

May 10: Moon, Regulus, Jupiter alignment seen at midnight at setting

Jun 17: Venus occulation of Jupiter (8 arcsec separation), 9:18pm in Leo

Jul 17: Lunar eclipse below horizon in daytime (8:30 am)

Oct 14: Jupiter and Venus conjunction rising at 3 am in Virgo

Nearby is Mars close to Spica

Oct 24: Jupiter, Venus, Spica, crescent Moon grouping in Virgo (5 am)

Dec 8: Venus and Mars conjunction rising at 4 am in Libra



1 BC


Jan. 10: Total Lunar eclipse at 2:30 am.

Nov 8: Alignment of Mercury, Venus, Jupiter and Mars (briefly visible at 6 am in East; in Libra)

Jan 24: Saturn and Moon close (daytime, 9:30 am, 1.7 deg.)

Feb 16: Lunar (3.5 day old) occulation of Venus (below horizon, 2:25 am)

Feb 20: Saturn and Moon close ( daytime, 4 pm, 2 deg.)

Mar 18: Lunar (4.9 day old) conjunction with Mars, 9:21 pm

Mar 20: Saturn and Moon close ( 1:30 am, 1 deg)

Apr 11: Lunar occulation of Venus (below horizon, 2:30 am)

Apr 16: Vertical alignment: Mars, Moon, and Saturn (below horizon, 8 am;

within the body of Gemini)

May 13: Grouping of Saturn, Mercury and Moon (2 day old) in body of Gemini at sunset

May 13: Lunar occulation of Saturn at 11:18 pm, below horizon (-24deg)

Jul 8: Lunar occulation of Saturn, 4 am on eastern horizon. Mercury within 42 minutes of Saturn.

Aug 1: Conjunction of Saturn and Venus, eastern horizon, 3:50 am

Aug 4: Grouping of Saturn, Venus and 26 day Moon (8 pm, below horizon)

Sep 1: Lunar conjunction with Saturn (daytime, 11 am, 42 min sep.)

Nov 2: Grouping of Moon, Mars, Jupiter, Mercury and Venus, below horizon.

Nov 10: Conjunction of Mars and Jupiter (~ 37 arcminutes at 6am)

Dec 29: Lunar eclipse beginning at 3 pm (daytime), ½ umbral at 4:52 pm (Sun at - 2 deg alt, Moon at 1 deg. alt.); penumbral only at 6 pm (Sun at - 15 deg, Moon at 13 deg.)



1 AD

Jun 10: Total Solar eclipse, 9 am. [Saturn and Mercury nearby]

Jun 24: Lunar eclipse at 3:45 pm (penumbral only, daytime)

Nov 19: Lunar partial penumbral eclipse at 10:55 pm. [Not noticeable]

Dec 4: Solar eclipse, partial, and at midnight [Not noticeable in Israel.]

Dec 19: Lunar partial penumbral eclipse at 11:55 am. [Not noticeable]
 
Whatever triggered the travels to Jerusalem, the capital, to begin asking around about the new king, it certainly could have been one of those events listed. Thereafter, the "star" must be considered something abnormal.

No natural light from the celestial sky can plausibly pin-point a house, but a supernatural one could and it would be appropriate given the significance of the event. Of course, this becomes a matter of faith since we just stepped out of the realm of science.

There is a slight possibility, however, that a moon beam through a fortuitous and unusual hole in the cloud cover may have guided the magi. Such things aren't that unusual but it would be if the light was upon only one house. It wouldn't have lasted long but they knew to go to Bethlehem so they may have been nearby or already in town when that happened. This is just speculation, of course.
 

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