The Japan Times
December 21, 1999

Solution in sight for mystery of star that led Magi to Jesus


PARIS (AFP-Jiji) Two thousand years ago, according to a widely accredited source, a celestial body appeared in the east and guided three eminent thinkers to the scene of an event that was to change the world.

Since that time, astronomers and theologians have been baffled as to the precise nature of the star that, as told in the Gospel of Saint Matthew, led the Magi to the stable in Bethlehem where Jesus was born.

Was it a miracle, a divine intervention to herald the birth of Christ? Was there a star at all, or was it simply added to the Bible to fulfill an Old Testament prophecy? Or was there some actual astronomical event that gave rise to the story of the star of Bethlehem?

The question has intrigued scores of writers and artists as diverse as the astronomer Johannes Kepler, the painter Giotto and the science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke.

Now a British astronomer based in Spain has come up with a theory that he believes could lay the mystery to rest.

In his new book, "The Star of Bethlehem," Mark Kidger of the Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias in Tenerife examines evidence drawn from modern biblical scholarship, recent findings in space and ancient Chinese history to suggest that conclusive proof of the star's existence could be at hand.

Kidger begins by arguing that the Nativity may well have taken place at some time in March or April rather than in December.

Christ's birth is said to have taken place while shepherds were watching their flocks at night, he notes, something that takes place at lambing time in the spring rather than in the depths of winter.

Moreover if the local inns were full, as Matthew insists, this would be because of the Jewish Passover, which also occurs in the spring.

Kidger thus concludes that Christ was born some time around March in 5 B.C., taking account of the generally accepted fact that the inventor of the Christian calendar, the sixth century monk Dionysius Exiguus, was five years off in his calculations.

Kidger examines and dismisses out of hand several earlier theories, including the notion that the "star" could have been an unusual sighting of Venus, or perhaps Halley's Comet or a meteor shower.

More plausible, he says, is the popular theory that what the Magi saw was a planetary conjunction, which occurs when two planets pass very close to each other in the sky, often producing a very striking configuration.

One such conjunction took place in 7 B.C. when Jupiter and Saturn came close to each other three times in seven months and were then joined by Mars, an event known to have been observed in Babylonia, well to the east of Bethlehem.

A more recent conjecture is that the star of Bethlehem may have been an occultation of Jupiter by the moon that occurred in 6 B.C., the re-emergence of the royal planet from behind the moon's disc suggesting a royal birth.

However, Kidger points out that the event would have taken place so low in the twilight sky it would have been impossible to observe directly.

For his "best guess" at solving the star of Bethlehem riddle, Kidger looks to an ancient Chinese chronicle called the Ch'ien-han-shu, which states that an object, probably a nova, was observed in March in 5 B.C. and remained visible for 70 days.

The object would have appeared in the east and remained in the sky long enough to have guided the Magi — Babylonian astrologers, according to some scholars — across the desert to Bethlehem, traveling west to Judea, where their astrological charts would have indicated the birth of a king.

"It's hard to believe the star of Bethlehem could have been anything else," Kidger says of the nova, citing the coincidence in date, the duration of visibility and its position in the sky. And proof of its identity may soon be possible.

In 1925 a nova now known as DO Aquilae was seen very close to the position in the sky given by the Ch'ien-han-shu. It was not visible to the naked eye, but Kidger believes an earlier, greater explosion of the star could have been the star of Bethlehem. It could also have been a faint nearby star that exploded.

"But whatever it was, we are probably close to being able to identify the star of Bethlehem," he said. "If it was a nova, the telltale cloud of hydrogen gas that it ejected is probably still just detectable, and will one day give the star away."