Volume 13, Issue 51 ~ December 22 - December 28, 2005

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Sky Watch

by J. Alex Knoll

When You Wish Upon a Star

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."

–Matthew 2:12

What, if anything, brightened the sky some 2,000 years ago to inspire such awe and to cause such fear that King Herod ordered the death of all males two and under? The above words and others in the New Testament’s Book of Matthew are the Bible’s only mention of the Star of Bethlehem. But computerized star charts today can easily recreate the night sky of millennia ago — or at least those objects with predictable and recurring paths and those that follow the laws of physics.

Miracles aside, several astronomical events coincide with Christ’s birth, the exact date of which is arguable.

On May 19, 3bc, Saturn and Mercury passed less than one-half degree of one another. Then, on June 12, Saturn pulled equally close to Venus. And on August 12, Venus and Jupiter paired within one-half degree of each other in the early dawn.

These conjunctions only grew more spectacular in June the next year, when Venus and Jupiter joined again, this time so close that they shone as a single light, a spectacular beacon rising in the east at sunset and setting in the west at sunrise.

Then, on August 27, 2bc, Jupiter and Venus, now barely discernible as two objects, pulled into a tight cluster with Mars and Mercury.

Adding potency to all these pairings was their location within the constellation Leo, the Lion of Judah to the Israelites. Between 605 and 530bc, Daniel had prophesied that 490 years would pass before the messiah would come to rebuild the kingdom of Jerusalem.

So these celestial conjunctions may well be what the Magi saw — what we call the Star of Bethlehem.

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