- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 25, 2001

Maybe it was a star.
Or a planet.
"There is no real agreement or consensus on the topic," says Elise Albert, an astronomer in the U.S. Naval Academy physics department. "I suggest it was the conjunction of Jupiter, Saturn and the sun in the constellation Pisces in 7 B.C."
Not only was the twinkling heavenly body featured in Christmas carols and greeting cards an actual astronomical event, but it happened twice in the same year, she says.
"In the book of Matthew in the Bible, it appears two times," she says. "First, when the magi saw it in the east and took it as an omen to travel. Second, when they were heading from Jerusalem toward Bethlehem."
The magi, who were thought to be either astronomers or astrologers, may have been Jewish or at least familiar with Jewish texts. They are widely believed to have come either from Persia or present-day Iraq, the site of the ancient city of Babylon, to where thousands of Jews were exiled in the fifth century before Christ.
Although Ms. Albert teaches her students that the star probably occurred as a group of planets, "There was a comet observed in 5 B.C. and in 4 B.C.," she says. "It could have been one of those."
The lack of certainty over the exact year of Christ's birth, complicates determining the nature of the Bethlehem star. Some historians believe that Jesus arrived between 8 B.C. and 4 B.C. Others argue that Mary delivered Christ between 3 B.C. and 1 A.D.
"The date of Jesus' birth is something no one agrees on, either," Ms. Albert says. "It can be narrowed to within a few years. King Herod [the Great] died after the birth of Christ. Herod's death is dated by a lunar eclipse. There were two lunar eclipses during that period, March 13, 4 B.C. and Jan. 10, 1 B.C. We can't be certain when Herod died."
Gretchen Walker, observatory coordinator in the University of Maryland astronomy department, says scholars who adhere to the 3 B.C. to 1 A.D. dating of the birth of Christ usually reject the idea of the star as a comet or supernova.
"Across cultures, there is no record of them during that time," she says. "If it was a supernova, the Chinese and the Europeans would have seen it. The wise men of India and Persia did track moving planets."
In ancient times, people used the word "star" to refer to planets, so, "Anything in the sky emitting light was a star, especially planets," Ms. Walker says. "Planets shine the brightest."
John Mosley, astronomer at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, says a rare series of planets converged during 3 B.C. and 2 B.C. and speculates that one of these conjunctions acted as the Bethlehem star.
"Over 10 months, there were three conjunctions of Jupiter, which was considered the 'kingly planet,' and Regulus, which was considered the 'king star,'" he says. "There were also two conjunctions of Jupiter and Venus."
Mr. Mosley believes the wise men viewed the star as the fulfillment of Numbers 24:17, which says, "A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel." He believes the star served as a sign for them to head to Jerusalem, the capitol of Judea, to look for a "king of the Jews."
This was unwelcome news to King Herod.
"Herod viewed this birth as a rival to the throne," he says. "When the magi arrived in Jerusalem, he told them that the Christ was to be born in Bethlehem. He ordered all the boys in its vicinity who were age 2 and under to be killed."
Robert C. Newman, professor of New Testament at Biblical Theological Seminary in Hatfield, Pa., speculates the star appeared as a conjunction of Jupiter and Venus in the constellation of Leo on June 17, 2 B.C.
Mr. Newman, who also holds a doctorate in astrophysics, also says Venus moved within 1/100th of a degree of Jupiter. When this happens about once in every 6,000 years the conjunction appears as a single object to the naked eye.
"The shepherds mentioned in the Bible would have been in the fields at that time because it was the off season for grain growing," he says. "They would be in the fields feeding their flock on the stubble after the grain was harvested."
Mr. Newman, whose Web site is www.ibri.org, says the Bible explains it all.
"In Genesis 49, the lion is the symbol of the tribe of Judah from which a savior will come," he says. "Virgo is right next to Leo in the sky. That constellation represents a virgin. It looks like the passage in Revelation 12 with a pregnant woman clothed with the sun and the moon under her feet. This applies to the constellation Virgo, which would have been in that configuration on Sept. 11, 3 B.C., nine months before the close conjunction. I think that event marks the conception of Christ."
Frederick Larson, president of the Star Project in Bryan, Texas, says Matthew 2 gives nine clues to the nature of the star, such as birth, kingship and a connection with the Jewish nation. Using Starry Night, a computer program, Mr. Larson says he reproduced the skies of 2,000 years ago. He suggests on his Web site, www.bethlehemstar.net, that Jupiter hovered over Bethlehem spinning backward to stay in place on Dec. 25, 2 B.C.
"Jesus wasn't born on that day, but I speculate that the wise men found him then," he says. "I'm not against miracles, but this actual natural event satisfies all the evidence we have in Matthew. It would be far more miraculous because the universe was planned far from the beginning of time to work this way."
Mr. Larson suggests the wise men were actually some of the best scientists of the day.
"They may have had some superstitious beliefs, but they had a good understanding of the natural order," he says. "The book of Matthew was not endorsing the principles of astrology. The Jews dictate star worship as having a penalty of death. Astrology assumes that stars cause earthly events, while the Bible assumes that they are messages."
Donald DeYoung, author of "Astronomy and the Bible" and a professor of physics at Grace College in Winona Lake, Ind., believes that the star existed as a temporary light, seen only by the wise men.
"The Creator reveals Himself with bright light several times in the Bible, like with Moses and the burning bush," he says. "The star could have been an angel with a torch. People have been debating the Star of Bethlehem for years. Just maybe this can't be explained."

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