“It’s humbling how tiny we are,” said Edwin Faughn, managing director of Rainwater Observatory & Planetarium in French Camp.
Still, the Bible says the awesome sky above provided a sign of glad tidings some 2,000 years.
According to Matthew 2:1-2, “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’”
Christmas songs and stories celebrate the Star of Bethlehem and its message, but was it really a star? Could it have been a meteor, a comet, a supernova, a planetary conjunction or a supernatural event?
“These questions have been studied and debated by theologians, historians and scientists for centuries,” Faughn said.
He dove into scripture and scientific texts to explore the possibilities behind the Christmas Star. He recently shared his findings with an overflow crowd of about 130 people at the observatory.
“What then was the star?” Faughn said.
A case could be made that it was a meteor, a space rock that entered the atmosphere and blazed across the sky. They’re commonly called “shooting stars” or “falling stars.”
“Although they can be extremely bright and spectacular, it is doubtful that the Christmas Star was a meteor,” he said. “Primarily because they only last a few seconds at a time. The phenomenon that produced the Christmas Star needed to stay in the sky for a long time in order to guide the Magi on their long journey from the east.”
Comets are collections of cosmic rock, dust and ice that fly through the solar system and occasionally become visible to people on Earth. They have far more staying power than meteors, but there’s one significant knock against them.
“In general, comets were considered bad omens and harbingers of doom,” Faughn said. “These things might have scared the ancients to death. It looks like a ghost in the sky.”
Halley’s Comet was blamed for bringing the Black Death to England, and the Incas in South America recorded a comet that foreshadowed Francisco Pizarro’s arrival.
However, the artist Giotto uses what appears to be a comet to stand in for the Christmas Star in a painting of the Nativity from the 1300s.
Another possibility is a supernova, which happens when a star runs out of fuel, collapses onto itself and explodes. For a period of time, a supernova could outshine all the other stars in a galaxy.
“They can be visible to the naked eye in broad daylight and linger for weeks or months at a time,” Faughn said.
A supernova covers a lot of the criteria for the Christmas Star, but there are questions. The ancients tended to make note of such spectacular events and there’s nothing in the record for the time in question.
“The brightest recorded supernova was in the year 1006,” he said. “It was described by observers in China, Egypt, Iraq, Japan, Switzerland and possibly even North America.”
Planets in motion
A planetary conjunction occurs when a planet appears close to another planet or a star.
The Magi were learned men who studied objects in the night sky. They believed the movements of the heavens predicted the fates of kings and kingdoms, Faughn said.
Matthew is the only writer to include a star, and the gospel seems to suggest Herod was surprised by its appearance.
Matthew 2:7: “Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.”
“Perhaps the ‘star’ was not necessarily a spectacular sight attracting the masses but was something very significant to the highly trained eyes of the Magi,” Faughn said.
The case for a planetary conjunction must travel through the 1600s, when Johannes Kepler discovered the laws governing planetary motion.
“Through orbital mechanics, he was able to run the ‘celestial clock’ backwards and see if any planetary conjunctions occurred about the time of the birth of Christ,” Faughn said. “Though conjunctions are common, there were a number of interesting ones that occurred during this time, including a very rare and spectacular triple conjunction.”
Here are a few things the wise men of the day might have seen:
• Aug. 12, 3 B.C., Venus and Jupiter are less than a quarter of a degree apart in the morning sky.
• Sept. 14, 3 B.C., Jupiter and the star Regulus are in conjunction in the constellation Leo, “The Lion.”
• Dec. 1, 3 B.C., Jupiter begins a second conjunction with Regulus.
• May 8, 2 B.C., Jupiter and Regulus are in conjunction again.
• On June 17, 2 B.C. Jupiter and Venus align and appear as one very bright object, and Regulus isn’t far away.
Regulus was considered a “Royal Star” and Jupiter was the “King of the Planets.” In Hebrew, Jupiter was called “Sideq,” meaning “The Righteous,” and the word also is used as a synonym for “Messiah.”
The great unknown
Faughn made a solid circumstantial case for planetary conjunction, but he doesn’t expect the cosmic question to be settled.
“If it was a supernatural event, all bets are off as far as figuring that out,” he said.
Mysteries may be explored and knowledge gained, but the vastness of the universe will always have more secrets to uncover. To study the planets and stars, he said, is to embrace humility.
Job 26:14: “Indeed these are the mere edges of his ways, and how small a whisper we hear of him! But the thunder of his power who can understand?”