Yorkshire scientists and scholars may have finally pinpointed the Star of Bethlehem. Martin Hickes reports.
For years, the wondrous image and myth of the Star of Bethlehem has vexed scholars, astronomers and religious enthusiasts alike.
Central to the story of Christmas for over 2,000 years, as well as many Christmas cards, the true identity of the "westward leading" star has remained shrouded in mystery.
But this Christmas, thanks to new technology, and perhaps a historical quirk, experts say they are closer than ever to revealing its true identity.
The revelations – using the latest computer wizardry – will be unveiled as part of a BBC documentary tonight which pinpoints the likeliest candidates for the Star – with major implications for the date of birth of Jesus.
The Bible recounts how the Magi – ancient astronomers in the pre-AD Middle East – were drawn westward by a star to the court of the Roman client king Herod, prophesying the birth of a saviour in Bethlehem.
Serious scientists – including astronomer Johannes Kepler in the 1600s – have long since dismissed the possibility of the object being a brilliant comet – the favourite theory for years.
Now, experts think the blazing star may well have been a brilliant triple planetary conjunction crucially, preceded by the movements of a significant planet such as Jupiter across the sky from the ancient skies of the east to the west in the Holy Land.
And it might just mean Jesus was born in late spring, rather than the traditional festive period.
"The latest computer programming technology
allows us to see the movements in the night sky from two thousand years ago," says
James Taylor, who produced
Star of Bethlehem – Behind the Myth.
"The specialist software can accurately predict the paths of the stars and planets in the future – and in the past. We can now understand the astronomical events that the wise men in the east could have witnessed.
"The ongoing debate about when exactly Jesus was born and a dispute over the date of the death of Herod, means that a number of different theories are emerging from the experts using computer simulations of the ancient night skies.
"Although the birth of Christ has been taken as the start of the Christian calendar, zero BC, mistakes were made when a monk called Exiguus calculated this dating system in the 6th century.
"It has since been established that Jesus must have been born in 4BC or earlier as King Herod, who was alive when Jesus was born, is recorded as dying in the year we now call 4BC.
"So astronomers are looking at astronomical events in 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 BC in search of an identity for the Star of Bethlehem.
"At the time of Christ's birth, comets were thought to be portents of death and destruction rather than a signal of positive events. So it's highly unlikely that a comet would have inspired the wise men's epic journey. With their detailed knowledge of the night sky, these stargazing priests may have attached great importance to unusual, if not visually spectacular, astronomical events that would seem unremarkable to most people."
Leading astronomer David Hughes, emeritus professor of astronomy at the University of Sheffield, believes he can identify such an event.
He says: "In 7BC, there was a rare series of meetings between Jupiter and Saturn in the night sky. In this triple conjunction, Jupiter, the royal star, and Saturn came together in the sky three times over the course of several months. Significantly, this occurred with the constellation of Pisces in the background, which is associated with Israel.
"There is even evidence that Persian astronomers predicted the conjunction on an ancient clay tablet, now in the British Museum. The tablet calculates solar, lunar and planetary activity for that year, and describes the conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation
"The wise men were literally that, and to draw their attention, whatever happened would have to have been something which occurred not just once every few years, but perhaps once every 800 years such as a Piscean triple conjunction."
European Space Agency astronomer Dr Mark Kidger says it would have taken more than unusual planetary movements to persuade such seasoned astronomical experts as the Magi to travel to Judea. He thinks the Magi could have seen a star entering its supernova phase – the massive surge of energy and matter would have been visible to the Magi as a new star.
He hopes future radio telescopes will be able to detect a faint bubble of expanding gas around the candidate – in the constellation of Aquila – and calculate when exactly the bubble started to expand.
But one final theory has the most surprising twist of all – Jesus may have really been born on December 25
Texan law professor and astronomer Rick Larson believes the crucial calculation of Herod's death, and therefore Jesus's birth, is inaccurate.
He says: "The 4BC date is based on the writings of the historian Josephus, but every Josephus manuscript I have studied dating before 1544 is consistent with Herod having died in 1BC.
"In 2BC, Jupiter – the 'king of the planets' – met up with one of the brightest stars in the sky – Regulus, known by the Persian Magi as the 'little king' in the eastern sky.
"Nine months later, the same planet Jupiter, travelling towards the West, met up with Venus, known by the Magi as the 'mother planet'.
"The meeting of the king and mother of planets would have been highly significant – as was the timescale involved.
"To the naked eye, the planets would have seemed so close that they would have looked like one bright light in the sky."
Professor Larson believes it is this light – low down in the west of mid June of 2BC – which prompted the Magi to travel to Jerusalem where they met Herod, who, fearing a Messianic prophecy, pointed them towards Bethlehem.
He even asserts as the Magi travelled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, Jupiter continued to move across the sky until
it reached its "retrograde stage" – a well known astronomical quirk – when it appeared to "stand still" in the sky. He claims this happened on December 25.
If this theory is right, then the first Christmas really did occur on the day we have come to celebrate it on.
Others believe Jesus was born in late spring, and that early followers "superimposed" the celebration of his birth onto the "established" Roman festival of December 25.
Sheffield's Professor Hughes adds: "I've been writing widely on the subject since the 1970s and it's an immensely emotive subject both from an astronomical and theological point of view. And it also has to be said a bit of minefield for us astronomers.
"We can approximate, using our wonderful latest technology to a fantastic extent – but as a veteran of this subject, I long for the finding of a conclusive piece of evidence – maybe in the form of a new scroll etc which will pinpoint a given event.
"According to Matthew, when the Wise Men arrived in Jerusalem they asked Herod, 'Where is he who is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east and have come to worship him'.
"Herod had no idea what they were talking about and had to summon his own advisers who, recalling Micah Chapter 5 Verse 2, prophesied a Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. It perhaps goes beyond the realms of astronomy, but we perhaps also have to be mindful that the Star may have been the object of useful Biblical spin – and perhaps wonder if it ever existed at all. Whatever the truth, as is evidently the case, it truly was a star of wonder."
Star of Bethlehem – Behind The Myth, BBC 2, today, 5.30pm.
Planets can appear to "stop" in the sky relative to the earth's orbit just as a speeding car on a motorway can appear to "go backwards" relative to another. It's called retrograde motion.
Much of the account of the appearance of the Star appears in the Gospel of St Matthew
The brilliant conjunction of Venus/Jupiter on June 17 2BC is well known in astronomy and can be viewed with any good astro software.
Experts think that the wise men were actually priests from Persia who rode to the Holy Land on horseback. Rather than kings, the Magi were priests of Zoroastrianism, the main religion of the Persian Empire.
The closest approach of Halley's Comet to the period was in approx 12BC.