The Star of Bethlehem is a significant feature in the Christmas story. It is not however, the most significant nor even necessarily one of the many “miracles” associated with the nativity. The fact that almost every Christmas tree is crowned with a beautiful and inspiring star or angel is evidence of the importance of imagination to minds that are today not inclined to believe in the miraculous. The Star of Bethlehem does not have to be naturally explained by science, although, it can be. It could simply have been a supernatural light completely outside the experience and knowledge of man, a singular act of divine majesty to herald the most important event in all of creation – when the true Light, the Shekinah Glory, was made flesh, and dwelt among us.
Chinese astronomers documented a new star in the constellation of Capricorn in March-April, 5 B.C. which was visible for over two months. This new star may have been a nova, appearing in the east several hours before sunrise. Capricorn is far from the galactic plane where most of our stars are found, and a nova occurring there would be a very rare and notable event. The Star of Bethlehem could have been any of several exciting, scientific scenarios, although once again, it could have simply been “spoken” into existence.
On the morning of August 12, 3 B.C., about an hour and twenty minutes before sunrise, Jupiter, having just left the Sun, rose as a morning star conjunct with Venus. Known astrologically as “Father of the Gods”, Jupiter symbolizes deity. Associated with the birth of kings, it is also called the “King Planet”. To the Magi of Mesopotamia Venus was Ishtar the Mother, and the Goddess of Fertility. By August 27, all the major planets, except Saturn, had rendezvoused in Leo, with Jupiter at 142.6°, Mars 142.64°, Venus 141.67°, and Mercury 143.71°. Magi watching Jupiter that September saw it “touch” the star Regulus. The name Regulus is derived from the same root as regal. To the Babylonians Regulus was Sharu, and to the Romans Regulus was Rex, both mean king. This close approach of celestial bodies is called a conjunction. The Babylonian magus would have observed this spectacle while facing toward Judea. As the Moon enters Leo and the Sun enters “The Virgin”, the Planet of Kings crowns the Star of Kings, and three “Wise Men” mount their camels, and begin their journey into history.
These wise men (some New Testament translations call them astrologers) came from somewhere east of Jerusalem. They were probably not Jewish since they didn’t know biblical prophecy of a Jewish king to be born in Bethlehem. Tradition later raised the wise men’s status to kings and defined the number to three (3 gifts = 3 men), named Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar.
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. So they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet: ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are not the least among the rulers of Judah; For out of you shall come a Ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also.” When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. (Matthew 2:1-9: New King James Version)
The “Star” that went before the Magi, led them to the small village of Bethlehem (House of Bread), about six miles south of Jerusalem. This is difficult to explain scientifically since every natural object in the heavens moves from east to west due to the earth’s rotation. The Bible says the Magi followed the “star” until it “stopped over the child”. On December 25th, 2 B.C., just before dawn, as viewed from Jerusalem, Jupiter came to a stationary position on the meridian directly over Bethlehem at an elevation of 68°. Fixing itself in the center of the constellation of the Virgin, the “King Planet” ceased its lateral motion through the stars to pay homage for six days. Coincidentally?, while Jupiter was “standing still” over Bethlehem, the Sun was also “standing still” (Solstice means “Sun stands still”). With God’s glorious spotlight upon the newborn Jesus, our three “Wise Men” dismount to worship the “Lion of Judah” with their gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Planets often appear to reverse course and move backward through the sky. Miraculous to early man, the explanation is simple enough. Faster moving planets catch up with and fly past slower moving ones, just as slower cars on the freeway appear to be going backwards to the vehicles that are passing them. Astrologers (and astronomers) call this optical effect retrograde motion. In 3/2 BC, Jupiter’s retrograde motion would have garnered the Magis’ attention. After concluding its royal visit with Regulus, Jupiter continued for a bit on its path through the galaxy. But then, it “changed its mind” and moved backwards for a second conference with Regulus. Continuing retrograde for a while, it reversed course again for yet a third summit with Regulus, a triple conjunction.
A rare “triple pass” like this, especially between these two heavyweights, might well have given our astute stargazers whiplash. The triple conjunction, commencing with the Jewish New Year, occurred in the constellation of Leo, demonstrating a clear connection with the Jewish tribe of Judah (and prophecies of the Messiah). The association of Christ with the Lion of Judah is more than just a clue, and ancient astrologers, particularly if they were interested in Jewish religion and history, must have determined that they were witnessing unmistakable signs of a Jewish king. Watching the King Planet tripping the light fantastic with the King Star in the King Sign of Leo would have meant only one thing to the sages – a King. And, what a King this must be!
The wise men had little time to catch their breath, because, as Jupiter and Regulus were performing their coronation dance another astonishing sign presented itself in the sky. Virgo is the constellation that rises in the east behind King Leo. When Jupiter and Regulus were conjunct on their first pass, the Virgin rose clothed in the Sun (as John says in Revelations) with the new moon symbolically birthed at her feet. The unprecedented concentration of symbolism in the cosmos at this moment is phenomenal. Jupiter, having finished investing Regulus moved on toward another spectacular rendezvous, this time with the Mother Planet Venus. This conjunction was so close and bright that it is today featured in planetariums throughout the world. Jupiter appeared to dissolve into Venus. No one alive had ever witnessed such a conjunction. The two planets, so close as not to be distinguishable with the naked eye, and both contributing their full brightness, became the most brilliant “star” ever seen by man. Perhaps, this was “The Star of Bethlehem”. Or, again, God could have simply said, “Let there be a light!”.
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