The Star of Bethlehem

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Ah, Christmas. The joyous time of year where families come together and celebrate the birth of Christ.

As we approach Christmas, I recently went to a Church service with the family and the story of Jesus was told, including the Wise Men that followed the Star of Bethlehem to find the baby Jesus. As an astrophysicist, I have often wondered about the Star of Bethlehem, and what it could have been. Was it an astronomical event, or was it a sign from God?  So, as always, I did some research.

Everybody knows the story of the Star of Bethlehem. When Christ was born, three wise men were guided by a bright star in the sky, which led them to the stable in which Jesus was born. They saw the star, and deemed it a sign, followed it and found their savior resting directly under the star.

I have always wondered “Was it actually a really bright star, or was it something else entirely?”

My first thought was that, for something to be as bright as it was portrayed to be, it could have been a supernova. If it were close enough, a nearby supernova could literally be like a second Sun in the sky! I knew the star had to be bright, very bright actually, which is why I thought supernova. But if there were a supernova, then it would move across the night sky with the stars, which would mean the Wise men would end up walking in circles, never finding the baby Jesus. So, it would have to be something stationary, but the only way something would stay stationary above a single spot is if it were in geosynchronous orbit above the Earth. Or would it?

It took a while (you try Googling the science behind Jesus, I dare you!) but I eventually found a few articles on the subject, other scientists wondering along the same lines as I. And one believed he found the answer.

But it was not a star at all. Not even a supernova! It is postulated that it was something we are actually all familiar with.

It was Venus.

As we all know, Venus is known as the “Morning Star”. Being one of the closest planets to us, and having the unique properties to make it brighter than the other planets in our solar system, if you do happen to get up in the wee hours of the morning, you will see it just above the horizon shining stunningly bright. It’s because of how Venus’s orbits works in comparison to Earth’s that makes it most often only visible during the early hours of the morning, but sometimes, you can see it just after sunset as well!

So, what the Three Wise Men may have seen was in fact Venus, but not just Venus (oh yes, there is a twist in this story!).

The physicists that wrote the article I found wound back time in a simulation to calculate all the planet positions to find something very interesting (and in my opinion, very cool). During the time between the years of 1BC and 3AD, Venus and Jupiter would have been so close together in our night sky that they would have appeared as one large very bright object.

Yes ladies and gentlemen, the Star of Bethlehem might just have been Venus and Jupiter as a double act! Together, they would have easily have been the brightest thing in the night sky (excluding the Moon) and easily followed (in the early hours of the morning admittedly but still!). If it was Venus and Jupiter, then as Venus faded from view followed by the rising our the Sun, the Star would have disappeared but still given the Wise Men a direction to go in, and then the following morning the Star would reappear to confirm the direction the Wise Men needed to travel.

I just want to be clear, however, that this is not definitive. We cannot say “Oh, the Three Wise Men? They saw Venus. Done!” because we were not there. Maybe it really was a sign from God to man that his son had been born that day. Maybe it was actually a supernova. Or maybe it was a shooting star or comet. Or even maybe it was aliens! We will never know for sure.

All that we know for sure is that a little boy called Jesus was born during that time, and isn’t the birth of a child reason enough to celebrate?

Merry Christmas everyone!

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