On December 21, 2020, the planets Jupiter and Saturn appeared extremely close together in the sky in what folks have been calling “The Christmas Star.”
Astronomers have another name for the phenomenon, calling it a ‘great conjunction’ – referring to how close they appear in the sky (though they were actually about 465 million miles apart at the time). It’s also an exceedingly rare event; as you may have heard, the last time they appeared so close in the sky in a way visible to folks in the northern hemisphere, it was 1226 AD.
With all of the talk of the “Christmas Star”, could it be that something like this was what got the attention of the Wise Men and set them traveling to Jerusalem to seek the King of the Jews as described in the Gospel of Matthew?
I think it’s very plausible, with a few caveats.
The first caveat is that there is no physical object that would behave exactly like what is described in Matthew 2:9-10 where the star “stops” over the place where the child was. The image here seems more an echo of God’s guiding the people of Egypt in the wilderness through the pillar of fire and smoke. If so, that may be a more narrative element than intended as a descriptive one.
Which is the second caveat – attempts to scientifically ‘prove’ the genuinely miraculous aren’t necessarily helpful. From a Christian perspective, we aren’t surprised that a God who both created the universe and is active within it, can so work within creation that natural things happen at a time and place that accomplishes God’s purposes. From a non-theistic perspective, those could be called coincidences. But when we try to explain the truly miraculous, by which I mean things that are genuinely outside of the patterns of nature & laws of physics – they are intrinsically unprovable and unrepeatable by scientific methods. That’s not a slam on science, just describing its limitations. Events like the resurrection, the transfiguration, miracles of instantaneous healing; when we try to make them ‘rational’ to fit a materialistic worldview, it just doesn’t work.
All of that to say; if the Star of Bethlehem fits into the latter category, we’re not going to get too far with explanations.
But… there’s a reason Matthew tells the story of the Wise Men, and that suggests that God was communicating in a way they could understand, (kind of like the incarnation itself…).
First, we need to deal with some calendar stuff. You might know that we don’t actually know what day Jesus was born on – that December 25th is the date chosen by the ancient church to remember Jesus’ birth, but not claimed to actually *be* the anniversary of Jesus’ birth.
But what gets weird is that Jesus was actually born ‘BC’ – yep. Due to an error in the formation of the Anno Domini dating system in 525, which incorrectly dated the year of Jesus’ birth, the various sources of data we have point to Jesus being born sometime between 7 BC and 4 BC. The clue in Luke’s Gospel about the shepherds being out in the fields by night also point to a fall or springtime date for Jesus’ birth.
Ok, with that timeframe in mind, let’s start talking astronomy. Or rather astrology, because the Wise Men were actually ‘Magi’ – astrologers from Persia, people who (among other things) studied the night sky for omens and signs.
Astrology itself is based on the movements of the five planets visible to the naked eye (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn) across the constellations of the zodiac. Each planet and each constellation had different meanings. While the stars trace a regular path across the night sky each evening and season, the planets seemed to move around all over the place. The word planet itself in Greek means ‘wanderer’. The wanderings of these planets across the sky was often seen as a message to those down on the earth.
However — the movement of the planets are not random; we can calculate and predict their movements (as could many ancient astronomers), which lets us rewind and fast forward the night sky to see what was going on back then.
So, were there any special planetary conjunctions between 7 and 4 BC?
In 7BC – there was a triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in Pisces
- On May 29, 7 BCE
- On September 29, 7 BCE
- On December 4, BCE
In 6 BC there was a near conjunction of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn in Pisces where the three planets lined up close to the horizon, looking west.
In both cases, an argument goes that Pisces, symbolizing the fish, had special significance in regards to the Jewish people.
In August 12, 3 BCE – Venus and Jupiter have a close conjunction in the constellation Leo (which is understood to refer to kingship), and then another even closer one in 2 BCE where they appear to merge. The two brightest planets in the night sky merging as one would have been an impressive sight, and astronomer Roger Sinott made a case that the 2 BCE event was what the magi were referring to in Matthew chapter 2.
To be clear – I am not condoning or supporting astrology as an idea or a practice. The Bible itself condemns the impulse to worship the stars (Deuteronomy 4:19) and attempts to divine the future (Deuteronomy 18:9-12).
I do think that in this instance, it is possible God communicated with the Magi in a way they could understand, to point them to Jesus, the one who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Which again points us to a God who will reach out to us wherever we are, to draw us to the One who alone is the source of our life and hope.
May that then, be the invitation for us this Christmas – to not only be living with our eyes open for God, but the readiness to act on it, that Jesus may be king in our hearts and lives.
Blessings to you this Christmas season and always.
not an academic link but interesting for the topic: