What do you know about the Star of Bethlehem?


                          CHRISTMAS: STAR OF BETHLEHEM

 Stars, in the words of the astronomer, Michael Shara, are born, age, evolve and eventually die like people. They form as large amounts of Hydrogen gather and due to their own gravity press together, heat-up and finally start burning in a nuclear fusion process. The heat makes it expand, while gravity in the star makes it contract. To keep going, large stars burn much of their nuclear fuel quicker to balance the gravity inside. Some stars are giants and super giants, up to 400 times the size of the Sun and can be brighter, up to one million times more than the Sun in luminosity. Stars are so many that they cannot be counted and about 8,000 of them are visible to the naked eye from Earth.

Small stars may just die and fade away after burning-up their nuclear fuel. Giant stars get so hot that a part may explode and, sort-of, peel-off into what is known as a Supernova. A Supernova outshines all the billions of stars in a galaxy. The gases and other elements released from such an explosion may gather to later form another generation of a star.

Supernovas are rare. In the Milky Way, only three have been observed in one thousand years. Astronomers have been recording about 10 a year in the entire observable galaxies. The last Supernova in the Milky Way was reported in 1604. Many scientists trying to resolve what the Star of Bethlehem actually was believe it would have been a Supernova. A Supernova moves and can burn out over a position in some hours to a few days or more and could have led the wise men to where Jesus was born. The gospel of Matthew 2:9 shows that the star moved: “…the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was.”

Could the Star of Bethlehem be a shooting star? A shooting star, or falling star, is really not a star, but a meteor. It starts as a solid ball called meteoroid that enters a planet like Earth’s atmosphere and moves rapidly and vapourizes from the heat from friction. The remains are called meteorites when they reach the Earth’s surface. A shooting star moves but fades out in seconds so, it is an unlikely candidate.

There are people who believe the Star of Bethlehem could have been a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn, such that they appear as if they are nearly touching, when viewed from Earth, and therefore bright. There was such a conjunction on May 27, 7 B.C. Such a conjunction occurs once in 20 years. There was a second, a double conjunction, on October 6, 7 B.C. and a third, a triple conjunction on December 1, 7 B.C. It is possible to have more than one conjunction in a year because the two planets move in elliptical, not circular, orbits and at different velocities. Such a triple conjunction occurs once in about 139 years. The closest conjunction to occur about the time of the birth of Jesus was in 10 B.C. Though conjunctions have been seen as important astrological events, they cannot move and stop as the Star of Bethlehem was described in the Bible.

The Bible did not give the number of the wise men, but it is believed they were three because they presented three gifts to baby Jesus. They would have known if it was a Jupiter-Saturn conjunction and that it was not a star. Saturn is the farthest planet in our Solar System visible to the naked eye. Astrologers try to use your date of birth and the Zodiac signs, or horoscope, to say how the heavenly bodies will affect your life and personality and what you will ultimately be. The wise men were therefore astrologers, not astronomers, who are solely scientists. Astrologers still persist today and you can read them in columns like “Your Star Today” and “Your Horoscope” in daily newspapers and internet.

 The Bible gave useful clues, not just on the Star of Bethlehem but also, on other events that led to the birth of Jesus Christ. Luke 2:1-7 said Caesar Augustus made a decree for a census of the whole world. At this time Quirinius was governor of Syria, and Joseph took his betrothed, Mary, to Bethlehem, the city of David, to be counted as he was of the lineage of David. While they were there, the time came for Jesus to be born and Mary wrapped him up in swaddling cloth in a manger because there was no place for them in the inn. Historians believe the census was for the purpose of taxing the Roman world and took place in 5 B.C. Augustus Caesar who decreed the census was born 23 September, 63 B.C. and died 14 A.D. at the age of 76 years. He ruled from 27 B.C. to 15 A.D. Herod was titled King of Judea in 40 B.C by Marc Anthony. He however, did not sit on the throne until 37 B.C.

The first century Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, wrote that Herod died soon after a lunar eclipse before Passover. There was a partial lunar eclipse on March 11, 4 B.C., and total lunar eclipse on January 9 – 10, 1 A.D., both before the Passover in the year they happened. Other historical accounts say Herod died at about 70 years of age and lived from 74 B.C. to 4 B.C. There is controversy over the period Quirinius was governor of Syria. Tertullian, the Roman historian, in his account wrote that Quirinius was appointed governor of Syria in 6 A.D. and died in 22 A.D. 

The gospel of Matthew made it clear that Jesus was born when Herod was king of Judea (Matthew 2:1) and he summoned the wise men secretly to ascertain when the star appeared (Matthew 2:7) and that the wise men rejoiced exceedingly when they saw the star (Matthew 2:10). Matthew’s gospel further said that Joseph took Mary and the child Jesus to Egypt to escape King Herod and remained there until Herod died (Matthew 2:14 and 15); and that Herod ordered the massacre of all male children from two years of age and under in Bethlehem and surrounding districts to eliminate Jesus, the new-born king (Matthew 2:16).

Putting all the facts together, many scholars believe the Star of Bethlehem was a Supernova and that Jesus was born between 10 and 5 B.C.

 Non-uniformity of early calendars makes dating difficult. There were several ancient calendars but, in 45 B.C., Julius Caesar, on the advice of Greek astronomer, Sosigenes, was said to have instituted the Julian calendar and gave a year as 365 days and leap year every four years. This was known as the Roman calendar. The week had come about because Christian traditions required rest every seventh day. Romans named the days after Sun, Moon gods and other planets. The Gregorian or Christian calendar started by Pope Gregory XIII came with the birth of Christ, A.D. (anno domini or Latin for “In the year of our Lord”) and going to B.C. (Before Christ). The birth of Jesus Christ was given as 25 December, 1 B.C.

 Obiechina Obba, a science journalist, writes from Abuja.