Did the Star of Bethlehem really exist? According to the Gospel of Matthew, a bright star appeared in the East, portending the birth of the King of the Jews. Every year around this time, we debate what astronomical phenomenon could have inspired this story. But what’s the strongest candidate?
Asking what the Star of Bethlehem really was is like asking what Atlantis really was. Both were simply stories meant to illustrate one author’s theological and another author’s political beliefs. While they are literary inventions, they certainly may have been inspired by real-life events.
For instance, it’s pretty certain that Plato wove into his history of Atlantis details he’d heard of the eruption of Thera and the destruction of the Minoan civilization on Crete. But it’s a big — and not entirely justifiable — leap to say that Crete was Atlantis.
Likewise, there are any number of astronomical phenomena that were spectacular and noteworthy enough to have inspired the story of the Star of Bethlehem: novas, conjunctions, comets, etc.
One candidate was suggested a couple of years ago by Australian astronomer David Reneke. He found that there had been a close conjunction of the planets Venus and Jupiter in 2 BC. A conjunction occurs when two or more celestial objects, stars or planets, appear to be very close in the sky. Between 3 and 2 BC, there was a series of spectacular conjunctions, most of them involving the planet Jupiter.
In the case of the conjunction favored by Reneke, Jupiter and Venus would have appeared so close together as to seem to be a single, brilliant star. This would also have appeared near either the Eastern or Western horizon (since Venus is always relatively low in the sky). It also would not have been visible during the day. If we take the story of the Wise Men literally, they would have seen this brilliantly shining object in the eastern sky and might have decided that something of great portent was occurring or about to occur in that direction.
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