Other than the Virgin Birth, perhaps the most significant aspect of the Christmas story is the Star of Bethlehem. For many Christians, it’s enough to simply believe there was a magical event in the skies. But there is nothing about the story to deny the possibility that this was a natural event, one that was perhaps interpreted by some as having supernatural meaning. And if you look at astronomical happenings in the period around 3-2 BC, there are several possibilities. Maybe the most likely concerns the planets Jupiter and Venus. From August 3BC through the winter and spring of 2BC, Jupiter (known as the King planet) had danced with the star Regulus (as it was known by the Romans, meaning “Regal”), or Sharu as it was known to the Babylonians, meaning “King”. Because of the way the outer planets (Mars out to Pluto) move in relation to the Earth, at certain times these planets will appear to move slowly backwards through the sky over a period of several weeks, then move forward again. So over a period of several months, Jupiter caught up to Regulus, passed it, appeared to turn around and pass it going the other way, the passed it again, each time passing very close to the star, and even appearing to merge with it. It would have followed this with a conjunction (conjunction is the apparent meeting of two astronomical objects) with the planet Venus (known as the Mother planet) on June 17, 2BC, also very near the star Regulus, and visible primarily in the Middle East.
Stop for a moment and think about how bright Venus often appears in the morning or evening sky. It shines with a clear, white light, and is the brightest object in the sky except for the Sun and Moon. Jupiter is generally the next brightest object (after Venus). These two appearing to merge would have created an extremely bright evening star, and given that the astrologers (or magi) of the time constantly read the skies for portents of the future, it is easy to imagine this being interpreted as the birth of a king, and it’s position in the sky would have steered those in the area we know as Iraq and Iran towards the west. I’m not saying this was definitely the Star of Bethlehem. There were other possible astronomical events in the period from about 6BC until 1 or 2 AD that could also qualify. I’m just pointing out that there were things happening around this time that were fairly rare, and would certainly have been noticed by those who watched the skies. And so I leave you with a simple Merry Christmas, Peace, Goodwill to men and women everywhere.