As it turns out, something was happening in the skies around then. It didn't involve stars, though; it was all about the planets.
Who were the wise men?
The wise men likely were Zoroastrian priests and astrologers from Persia, who watched the skies carefully for omens and portents.
Much of the time, the “Star of Wonder” presentation notes, they focused on five “wandering stars.” These stars weren't fixed in space the way countless others were. They moved around, sometimes in surprising ways.
They were, of course, five of the planets in our solar system. And some of them would've given the Zoroastrians quite a show in the months leading up to Christ's birth.
Like Earth, the other planets orbit the sun. From time to time, one planet seems to catch up with another; although they're separated by a vast gulf of space, it looks as if they're very close together, almost in danger of smashing into each other. This is called a conjunction.
During the relevant time period, Jupiter and Saturn entered into an interesting conjunction. Jupiter, which the Zoroastrians considered the chief god in space, appeared to chase Saturn across the sky — drawing near, overtaking Saturn … and then going backward.
“Because Earth is also a planet moving around the sun, as Jupiter is moving and Earth is moving faster, it can catch up and make it look like Jupiter is going backward,” Harris-Wyrick said. “It's called retrograde motion. … It's not real. It's an illusion. Jupiter passed Saturn right at a point where Earth was about to pass both in space.”
From the ground, watchers would have seen Jupiter pass Saturn (which was regarded as the protector god of the Hebrews) going one direction, then reverse to pass Saturn going a different direction, then revert to its original direction and pass Saturn a third time.
“A few months later, the baby was born in Palestine, in Bethlehem,” Harris-Wyrick said. “Here's the chief of the Gods (Jupiter) visiting the protector God (Saturn) three times. The Zoroastrians knew this was the house of the Hebrews. If you believe everything in the sky is telling you something, how are you going to interpret that? A very powerful king was being born on Earth.”
So there's your explanation: The Christmas star was a conjunction of two planets. Three, really, since the Earth's position relative to the other two made Jupiter appear to move forward and back.
But it's not the only explanation.
In her 2012 book, “Unraveling the Christmas Star Mystery,” Irene Baron argues that astronomers like Harris-Wyrick are only half-right.
Baron, a former high school and college science teacher, used NASA astronomy programs to see what would've been visible in the skies over a 15-year period ranging from 7 B.C. to 7 A.D. (Technically that's a 14-year period, since there is no year Zero, but Baron included a zero in her calculations.)
“In researching ancient astronomers,” Baron said in a phone interview from her home in Ohio, “I learned they did not make their observations at night but at dawn and in the pre-dawn hours. Most modern astronomers were looking at the night sky. … I set my search for 6 a.m. Bethlehem time. I looked and looked and looked. I finally did find the Christmas star.”
Which was Saturn.
Ancient astronomers would have watched as Saturn wound through a series of alignments and eclipses, she said. Then they would have watched the wandering star climb higher in the sky throughout November of 4 A.D. By early December, Baron said, the planet would have seemed to be over Bethlehem at daybreak.
“The astronomers, with their mathematics and planning, knew all these celestial events would happen and knew when and where they would all end,” she wrote. “By going to the location below the Saturn god, they would find the birth place of the new Earthborn God, just outside of Bethlehem. Jesus Christ must have therefore been born in early December” of 4 A.D.
Baron's theory isn't the only alternative, either. Some suggest the star was a long-term comet modern man doesn't know about. Others say it was the conjunction of a planet and a bright star, a one-of-a-kind celestial event or even an alien spaceship.
Many believe it was a miracle.
“The Jupiter and Saturn conjunction may be the answer,” Harris-Wyrick said. “But in the end, we're just speculating. We could be off a little bit in all these things. Ultimately, it could be nothing scientific at all. …
“What matters is what it signifies.”