As children, we all learned about the Star of Bethlehem
Many of us remember hearing how the three wise
men followed the star, which led them to baby Jesus.
For many centuries, scientists and historians have
used mathematics and biblical writings to try and understand its
It's only now that we can truly start to understand
exactly what it might have been.
With modern computer software, it's easy for astronomers
to calculate the positions of stars thousands of years ago, at the
click of a button.
Before computers, ancient astronomers had to plot
the stars and planets using nothing more than paper, ink and lots
It would often take them days to make one plot
representing one instance of time.
Now we can use software that will do the same
thing in seconds.
The Star of Bethlehem
The Nativity church in Bethlehem, Israel
We can get some very important pointers to the
origin of the Star of Bethlehem from the Bible.
The wise men said "We saw his star in the east,"
they didn't say "We saw his star whilst we were in the east".
This tells us that the star they saw was rising
in the east, just as most celestial objects do.
They then believed from this that a king had been
born, so whatever they saw suggests it represented the birth of
Later the bible refers to King Herod asking the
Wise Men the exact time the star appeared.
This suggests that the star did actually just appear,
rather than being an object that can always be seen in the sky.
Herod then sent the wise men to find the child.
The bible goes on to say:
"They went on their way, and the star they had
seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place
where the child was."
The moving star
Is all this possible? Did a star guide them there?
Bethlehem is, and was, only about five miles south
from Jerusalem on the main road.
So the star wasn't really needed to guide them
to Bethlehem - they'd have had quite a job to miss it.
If the star had moved like all other night sky
objects, then it could easily lay south by the time they reached
Jerusalem, having moved from its position in the east as it rose.
As they travelled to Bethlehem, the star would
have stayed roughly ahead of them, heading south.
Finally, and much more crucially, it stopped over
Bethlehem. Another way to interpret this is that the star stopped
shining when they reached Bethlehem.
What was the star?
So, with all that information what could the star
have possibly been?
The most popular hypothesis explains how it could
have been a nova. A nova is simply an exploding star.
If it was nearby, then it would certainly have
been rather bright in the sky. They do suddenly appear, as if by
magic and do often disappear as quickly.
So could the Star of Bethlehem have just been an
exploding star that just happened to 'lead' the wise men to Bethlehem?
Science seems to think so but we may never know
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