The Star of Bethlehem: History or Mystery?

The German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, remarked that there are two things that thoroughly fascinated him:  the moral law within and the starry skies above.  Ethics examines the moral law and astronomy studies the skies.  Yet the knowledge gained by these two pursuits leaves much to be understood.  They begin solidly planted in reason, but soon enter the domain of mystery.  How does it come about that order can be inscribed in two such widely disparate areas?   Perhaps it is true that God is everywhere.  And yet He, Himsxelf, remains a mystery

The most fascinating story concerning the “starry skies” is the account we find in Matthew 1 about the Magi who followed a star that led them to Bethlehem and to the new born babe, the “King of the Jews.”  Was this story, which has been enjoyed and celebrated for more than 2,000 Christmasses throughout the world, a historical event or is it a mystery that belongs to the world of myth?  Has it been in any way corroborated by astronomers who laid their claims on the basis of pure science?  And who would these astronomers be?

Friedrich Wieseler, (1811-1892), was a classical archeologist and philologist at the University of Gottingen.  He appears to have discovered a reference in Chinese chronological tables that in the year 4 B. C. “a bright star appeared and was visible for quite a long time.”  The great astronomer, Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) calculated that around 7-6 B. C. (which is the likely time of Christ’s birth), there was a conjunction of Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars.  He concluded that the planetary conjunction at the time of the Nativity must have been accompanied by a supernova explosion.  This is how he explained the appearance of a bright star over Bethlehem in purely astronomical terms.

The Viennese astronomer, Konradin Ferrary d’Occhieppo (1907-2017) has pointed out that Babylonian astronomers could have calculated the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn around 7-6 B. C. in the constellation of Pisces.  D’Occhieppo, himself, affirmed that the star of Bethlehem was brought about by the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn.  In his words, taken from Der Stern von Bethlehem, “Jupiter, the star of the highest Babylonian deity, entered its brightest phase when it rose in the evening alongside Saturn, the cosmic representative of the Jewish people.”

The great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation of Pisces around 7-9 B. C. is now regarded as a scientific fact.  This is history and not mere mystery.  The Magi were astronomers and were familiar with the Old Testament.  There is good reason to believe that when the observed the dazzling display in the heavens, they had more than an inkling as to its theological meaning.

The science of astronomy can go only so far.  The story of the Magi, in order to be complete, must include something drawn from theology, tradition, scripture, and human psychology.  At any rate, we know enough about the narrative to find the words of St. Matthew entirely credible:  “Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem saying, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?  For we have seen his star in the east, and have come to worship him’.”

The Star of Bethlehem belongs to both history, as astronomers have attested, and to mystery, associated as it is with numerous incidents that neither science nor history can explain.  We can set our star atop the Christmas tree and rejoice with the Magi that Christmas is about the birth of a King and recall the gladness the star brought to three wise men: “When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” (Matthew 2:1).  


Photo by Rodion Kutsaiev on Unsplash

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Dr. Donald DeMarco is Professor Emeritus, St. Jerome’s University and Adjunct Professor at Holy Apostles College.  He is is the author of forty-two books and a former corresponding member of the Pontifical Academy of Life.  Some of his latest books, The 12 Supporting Pillars of the Culture of Life and Why They Are Crumbling, and Glimmers of Hope in a Darkening World, Restoring Philosophy and Returning to Common Sense and Let Us not Despair are posted on amazon.com.  He and his wife, Mary, have 5 children and 13 grandchildren.  

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