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Star of wonder
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. …
Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, inquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.
And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.
When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.
When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.
And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him; and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts: gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.
Matthew 2: 1-2, 7-11; King James Bible
You can't have the Christmas story without the star of Bethlehem … even though it may not have been a star at all.
The star is featured prominently in the biblical account of the birth of Jesus. Without it, the Magi would not have known where to go to find the new king. It was a guidepost for them, a long-lasting signal in the heavens.
But how did they know what the star foretold? What was the star? Was it a miracle, a one-time celestial event that has never been repeated, or something explainable by science?
No one knows for certain.
Meteors, novae, supernovae and comets often come up as possible explanations, said Wayne Harris-Wyrick, director and staff astronomer of the planetarium at Science Museum Oklahoma. None of them really match the description, though.
Meteors move quickly, producing a transient streak of light that's there one moment and gone the next, he said. That rapidity makes a meteor an unlikely candidate for the Christmas star. The wise men followed the star, suggesting that it hung in the heavens for the duration of their journey. If it had been a meteor, they would've missed it if they'd blinked.
A nova involves two stars that are close to each other. The smaller one, a white dwarf, draws in hydrogen from its companion star. After awhile, the white dwarf erupts in nuclear fusion, releasing energy and light for a limited period of time. A nova would grow in brightness in the night sky.
So would a supernova, but it would produce even more light.
“A supernova is a star that literally blows itself apart,” said Harris-Wyrick, 60, who is showing a “Star of Wonder” program at the planetarium throughout the holiday season. “It could happen by the same mechanism as a binary star, but it could also happen in other ways. A nova is a temporary brightening; a supernova blows apart.”
The duration of a nova or supernova would work with the biblical scenario. Both would be noticeable to those who watch the stars. Both would be visible for plenty of time.
No such explosions in the sky are known to have been observed around the time of Christ's birth, Harris-Wyrick said. Chinese astronomers observed the first recorded supernova (RCW 86) in 185 A.D., many decades too late to fit the timing of the Christmas star.
A comet makes more sense, especially since comets can be seen as lines in the sky, almost like arrows pointing to specific locations. Astronomers have tried to identify a comet that would fit the time period, but without success.
“The best match is an apparition of Halley's comet,” he said, “but that was 7 years too early.”
When was Jesus born?
How do we know what was too early and what was too late? Do we know exactly when Christ was born?
The short answer is no.
The long answer is … sort of.
Jesus was born during the reign of King Herod, who died in the winter of 4 B.C., Harris-Wyrick said. Christ's birth had to predate Herod's death.
Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem for a census, he said. They would be counted and taxed by the Romans. Only three censuses occurred under the rule of emperor Caesar Augustus; these took place in 27 B.C., 7 B.C. and 14 A.D. The first date is much too early; the last is much too late.
After Jesus' birth, an angel told Joseph to take his family into Egypt to hide from Herod, who was so desperate to eliminate Jesus that he ordered the deaths of children ages 2 and under. Jesus remained in Egypt until after Herod's death.