Is there scientific evidence for the star of Bethlehem?

Q: Is there any scientific evidence for the star mentioned in the Gospel, which guided the Three Kings to adore Baby Jesus, or is it just a literary image used to make a spiritual point? I have heard both sides. — A reader in Franconia

A: The answer to this questions lies not only in the scientific evidence, but also the spiritual significance of that evidence.

Let’s begin with the scientific evidence. Over the years, several findings have been presented to identify the star. Keep in mind that any dating is problematic due to variations in calendars (Julian versus Hebrew versus Gregorian) and record keeping. Nevertheless, some possibilities include the following: First, about 10 B.C., Halley’s Comet was visible (although not known as “Halley” at the time); however, comets usually indicated doom and disaster, so this does not seem to be a good contender.

Second, Johannes Kepler (d. 1630), who wrote Laws of Planetary Motion, proposed that the conjunction of the planets Jupiter, Saturn and Mars caused a brilliant light (about 7 B.C.). Kepler had observed such a phenomenon in 1604, and calculated that this would have occurred at about the time of Christ’s birth. He posited that a supernova occurred simultaneously which would have caused an intense, brilliant light that lasted for weeks.

Third, the Austrian astronomer Konradin Ferrari d’Occhieppo in 2003 proposed that the star was the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in the constellation Pisces in 7-6 B.C. He wrote, “Jupiter, the star of the highest Babylonian deity (Marduke), entered its brightest phase when it rose in the evening alongside Saturn, the cosmic representation of the Jewish people.” Commenting on this finding, Ferrari d’Occhieppo posited that astronomers in Babylon (an ancient center for astronomy) would have interpreted this phenomenon as a universally significant event, namely the birth of a king in the land of the Jews who would bring salvation. I think the constellation Pisces has a significance, since Pisces represents “fish” and Our Lord said to the apostles, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Mt 4:19). His work was cited by Pope Benedict XVI in his book Jesus of Nazareth, Volume I.

Finally, astronomer Roger Sinnott using evidence from Bryant Tuckeman’s Planetary, Lunar, and Solar Positions, 601 B.C. to A.D. 1 (American Philosophical Society, 1979), presented a most interesting finding: In 3-2 B.C., three unusual planetary alignments (a triple conjunction) of the planets Jupiter and Venus with the star Regulus in the constellation Leo occurred. Interestingly, the splendor of this event would have climaxed Dec. 25, 2 B.C. Jupiter was named for Jupiter, the king of the Roman gods; Venus, named for Venus, the Roman goddess of love and motherhood; Regulus, a star that means “little king” and symbolizes a scepter; and Leo, the lion, the symbol for the tribe of Judah. One could suggest that here was a symbolic revelation of the Father (the King) sending His Son (the little King) into this world through Mary (the mother) to the land of Judah (the lion), the people of the covenant.

Remember, too, we read in Gen 49:9-10: “Judah, like a lion’s whelp, you have grown up on prey, my son. He crouches like the lion recumbent, the king of beasts — who would dare rouse him? The scepter shall never depart from Judah, or the mace from between his legs.” Sinnott posited that the Magi would easily have interpreted this event as a sign of the birth of the Messiah. Astrophysicists also cite such an alignment occurs about every 38,000 years. Perhaps this explanation is the best.

Archaeologists also have found evidence of some unique star being observed at the time of Our Lord’s birth. Egyptian records (5-2 B.C.) indicate that in the month Mesori, the star Sirius, the dog star, rose at sunrise with extraordinary brilliance. Mesori means “the birth of a prince,” and the Egyptian astrologers interpreted this event to mean “the birth of a new king into this world.” Chinese records show that about 4 B.C., a brilliant star appeared in the sky for a long time.

The Jewish prophecies also pointed to a star that would announce the birth of the Messiah: “A star (anatole) shall come forth out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel” (Num 24:17). In the Canticle of Zechariah, we read, “All this is the work of the kindness of our God; He, the Dayspring (anatole or “rising star”), shall visit us in His mercy to shine on those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Lk 1:78-79).

Whatever the “star” actually was, God used this phenomenon to announce the birth of His Son, our divine Messiah and Savior. Moreover, He used it to excite the Magi, the Gentiles, to come searching. The Magi were probably from the area of Babylon (present Iraq), where astrology was popular and the observatory of Sippar existed; archaeologists have found cuneiform tablets where the observatory existed that speak of this star. Moreover, they probably knew the prophecy concerning the Jewish Messiah; after all, the Prophet Daniel was King Nebuchadnezzar’s chief Magus. Of course, we sometimes refer to them as “the Three Kings” because of their precious gifts — gold for a king, frankincense for a priest and myrrh (a burial ointment) for the victim who would die. Sometimes we refer to them as the Wise Men, yet wise enough to know they did not know everything. We also know them as Melchior, Caspar and Balthasar, and recognize them as saints, whose relics are kept at the cathedral in Cologne, Germany.

In sum, St. Gregory Nazianzen said, “The very moment when the Magi, guided by the star, adored Christ the new King, astrology came to an end, because the stars were now moving in the orbit determined by Christ.” As we continue our Christmas celebration, may we, too, orient our lives — spiritually, emotionally, economically, politically, socially, in a word, totally — to Jesus. May we follow the true Light that penetrates the darkness and allow His light to shine forth in our own lives.