A Christmas star on top of a building. Photo: Clarence E. Hsu / Unsplash
On December 21, 2020, Jupiter and Saturn will cross each other in the night sky and for a brief moment they will appear to shine together as one body. While planetary conjunctions like this are not daily events, they are not particularly rare either.
This year’s conjunction is different for at least two reasons. The first is the degree of alignment of the two planets. Experts predict that they will appear closer during this conjunction than they have in nearly eight centuries and even brighter.
But the second factor, and what has brought this event into the spotlight, is that it will occur on the winter solstice, just before the Christmas holidays. The timing has led to speculation as to whether this could be the same astronomical event that the Bible reports led the sages to Joseph, Mary, and the infant Jesus – the Star of Bethlehem.
As a scholar of early Christian literature writing a book on the three essays, I argue that the upcoming planetary conjunction is probably not the legendary Star of Bethlehem. The biblical story of the star is intended to convey theological rather than historical or astronomical truths.
The story of the star has long fascinated readers, both ancient and modern. Within the New Testament, it is found only in the Gospel of Matthew, a first-century account of the life of Jesus that begins with the story of his birth.
In this story, wise men arrive in Jerusalem and say to King Herod of Judea: “Where is the child who was born king of the Jews? Because we have watched his star rise and have come to pay homage to him. “The star then leads them to Bethlehem and stops at the house of Jesus and his family.
Many have read this story with the assumption that Matthew was referring to a true astronomical event that occurred at the time of Jesus’ birth. Astronomer Michael R. Molnar, for example, argued that the Star of Bethlehem was an eclipse of Jupiter. within the constellation of Ares.
There are at least two issues involved in associating a specific event with Matthew’s star. The first is that scholars are not sure when Jesus was born. The traditional date of his birth can differ by as much as six years.
The second is that measurable and predictable astronomical events occur with relative frequency. The quest to find out what event, if any, Matthew might have had in mind is therefore complicated.
Beliefs about the star
The theory that the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn could be the Star of Bethlehem is not new. It was proposed in the early 17th century by Johannes Kepler, a German astronomer and mathematician. Kepler argued that this same planetary conjunction in or around 6 BC could have served as an inspiration for the story of the star of Matthew.
Kepler was not the first to suggest that the Star of Bethlehem may have been a recognizable astronomical event. Four hundred years before Kepler, between 1303 and 1305, the Italian artist Giotto painted the star as a comet on the walls of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy.
Scholars have suggested that Giotto did this in homage to Halley’s comet, which astronomers determined was visible in 1301, on one of its regular flights beyond Earth. Astronomers also established that Halley’s comet passed close to Earth around 12 BC, between five and ten years before most scholars claimed that Jesus was born. It is possible that Giotto believed that Matthew was referring to Halley’s comet in his story of the star.
Attempts to discover the identity of the Matthew star are often creative and insightful, but I would say they are also misleading.
The star in Matthew’s story may not be a “normal” natural phenomenon, and Matthew suggests it in the way he describes it. Matthew says that the wise men come to Jerusalem “from the East”. The star then leads them to Bethlehem, south of Jerusalem. The star then makes a sharp left turn. And astronomers will agree that stars don’t make sharp turns.
Also, when the sages arrive in Bethlehem, the star is low enough in the sky to lead them to a specific home. As physicist Aaron Adair puts it: “the Star is said to stop in place and hover over a particular housing, acting like an ancient GPS unit.” The “description of the star’s movements,” he noted, was “outside what is physically possible for any observable astronomical object.”
In short, there seems to be nothing “normal” or “natural” about the phenomenon described by Matthew. Perhaps the point that Matteo is trying to make is different.
Matthew’s star story draws from a body of lore where the stars are connected to rulers. The rising of a star means that a ruler has come to power.
In the biblical book of Numbers, for example, which dates back to the fifth century BC, the prophet Balaam foretells the arrival of a ruler who will defeat Israel’s enemies. “A star will come out of Jacob, [meaning Israel]… will crush the borders of Moab. “
One of the best known examples of this tradition from antiquity is the so-called “Sidus Iulium”, or “Julian Star”, a comet which appeared a few months after the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC. Roman authors Suetonius and Pliny the Elder report that the comet was so bright that it was visible in the late afternoon and that many Romans interpreted the spectacle as proof that Julius Caesar was now a god.
In light of such traditions, I believe that the story of the star of Matthew does not exist to inform readers about a specific astronomical event, but to support the claims it is making about the character of Jesus.
In other words, I argue that Matthew’s goal in telling this story is more theological than historical.
The impending conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn is therefore likely not a return of the Star of Bethlehem, but Matthew would likely be pleased with the awe it inspires in those who anticipate it.
Eric M. Vanden Eykel, Associate Professor of Religion, Ferrum College.
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