Epiphany and astronomy

Today is the Feast of the Epiphany. In the Church’s calendar, this is the day on which we celebrate the visit of the magi (wise men) to the infant Jesus. Anyone who has attended a church or school nativity play will be familiar with the story of the three wise men who, following a star, came from the east to bring gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the baby Jesus in Bethlehem. The star is a key player in this narrative, and many have wondered to what, exactly, the ‘star of Bethlehem’ refers.


This question was asked again over the Christmas holiday period by the programme The Sky at Night on the BBC. Among the possibilities that they suggested were a supernova, a series of conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn, and the heliacal rising (annual re-appearance of a star from behind the sun) of a star with the Arabic name Sa’d al Malik, which may have been associated in the ancient world with the birth of a king. Other possibilities included an especially bright meteor, such as the one seen in Russia in 2013, a comet and a nova. They ruled out the idea of a meteor, in part because meteor showers are common and in part because something as spectacular as the 2013 meteor would probably have been widely noted. They also ruled out a supernova because it, too, is spectacular and, as the programme pointed out, it seems that Herod and his astrologers took no notice of whatever it was that attracted the wise men. A supernova is not likely to go unnoticed, so this becomes an unlikely candidate for the ‘star of Bethlehem’. They dismissed the idea that it was the heliacal rising of a star, as this is an annual event meaning that there is no immediately obvious reason that it would be linked to an unusual or extraordinary event, such as the birth of a new king. The remaining three possibilities – the triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, a nova and a comet - were all strong contenders. They ruled out the triple conjuction, however, as being too common or ordinary an occurence.  In contrast, I’m quite taken by the idea of the triple planetary conjunction as the trigger for the wise men's journey, simply because it was exactly the sort of thing that ancient astrologers would have been on the look-out for, and to which they would have attached specific significance. The programme also ruled out the nova because, although it fits the criteria and, as they said, there isn’t strong evidence against, there is also no concrete evidence for it. The presenters decided that the most likely candidate for the ‘star of Bethlehem’ was a comet – it’s unusual enough to be noteworthy, but may be visible only at certain times of the day, so not necessarily seen by everyone; in the ancient world, comets were associated with events of national and international importance; a comet disappears behind the sun and then re-appears, which could explain why the wise men saw the star, seemingly lost sight of it, and then saw it again as they approached Bethlehem. And, as the programme pointed out, the comet’s tail, if viewed near the horizon, can appear to be pointing at a specific location. I have to admit, they made a compelling argument in favour of their choice.


One of the things I found particularly interesting about this programme was that it used science, not to try to disprove the biblical narrative, but to try and understand it. The biblical account was taken pretty much at face value as the starting point, and historical corroboration was sought that allowed the presenters to examine their possible candidates for the ‘star of Bethlehem’. Of course, from our distance in time from the events and with the rather vague description of the star given in Matthew’s Gospel, we will probably never be able to say conclusively what it was that the wise men saw that set them off on their journey to Bethlehem. But does that matter? It is, without doubt, interesting, even exciting, to speculate on the astronomical phenomenon involved, but from a theological point of view, what is important isn’t the astronomical event itself, but the interpretation and significance attributed to it – in theological terms, the revelation that accompanied it.


Even though we don’t know who the wise men were or exactly where they came from, we can make some educated guesses about them. They were probably astrologers working in the royal court of their own kingdom. They were the scientists of their day. For them, their ‘science’ of watching the stars and planets and their religious beliefs and understanding worked together to inform their understanding of the social and political events of their world. For us, exploration of what the ‘star of Bethlehem’ might have been is an instance of a record of an event written from a faith perspective and scientific knowledge being brought together to piece together and understand an unusual event that occurred some 2000 years ago.

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