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Science

Scientific mystery in the skies above old Bethlehem

For centuries, myths have orbited the star of Bethlehem. Was it a comet? Perhaps a supernova? Today, astronomers and physicists still struggle to form a clear image of how the famed star came about.

A bright star in the sky

The Christmas Star has held the attention of sky-watchers for centuries

In the Bible, only the Gospel of the Apostle Matthew makes reference to the star above that guides the three wise men from the Orient to the new-born baby Jesus. It was said to have been a bright, tailed star, and has become the subject of much speculation by scientists and artists alike.

On many a canvas and nativity scene, this symbol is shown, beaming and brilliant. In fact, the yuletide star has often been represented in such a dazzling fashion that many have come to the conclusion it must have been a meteor streaking across the sky.

Residents of Nazareth reenact the Nativity scene in 'Nazareth Village'

The Christmas Star is said to have led the three-wise-men to the baby Jesus

And why not? The sky is littered with such intergalactic objects. The Hale-Bopp Comet, last witnessed in winter skies back in 1997, is one such example. The comet has a diameter of around 60 kilometers (37 miles) and moves through space at speeds of more than 44,000 kilometers per second.

"With its beautifully bright tail, it looked somewhat like a flying arrow," says physicist Sandra Vogel from the Olbers Planetarium in the northern German city of Bremen.

Despite their beauty, however, comets have been seen as the bearers of bad tidings since time immemorial, which is why many have said that such a dangerous ambassador could not have been chosen to signal the birth of the savior Jesus.

To cite an example from antiquity, the appearance of Halley's Comet over Rome in 12 B.C. was largely held responsible for the death of the statesman and general Agrippa.

Stellar explanation

A supernova explosion

Supernova emit enormous amounts of energy

"Another candidate [for the Christmas Star] would be an exploding star, a supernova," explains Vogel. "The flash from such an explosion would have illuminated the night sky as bright as day. And a luminous cloud around the cooling star would still be visible for weeks."

But the physicist counters her own thought: "Astronomers have searched the skies in vain for traces of a 2,000-year-old supernova."

How then has this story of the glowing star with a tail in the sky developed? What are its origins?

Modern astronomers and sky-watchers would tell you it was most likely a special planetary constellation. The German astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) calculated that in the year 7 B.C. the planets Jupiter and Saturn where positioned rather uniquely in the solar system.

"The classical star hunter Kepler saw Jupiter as the king of the planets. Saturn, with its characteristic rings, represented Israel," says Vogel. In December 7 B.C., she explains, both planets seemingly fused together in the sky - as it would have appeared from Earth - to form the zodiac of Pisces. "And this zodiac stood for Palestine and for birth."

For astronomers and astrologers of that era, the interpretation of this constellation would have been undeniable: In Palestine, the long-awaited king of the Jews has been born. They may have also had knowledge of the prophecies of the Hebrew Bible, which gave Bethlehem, the birthplace of the legendary King David, as the birthplace of the new king.

Attention grabber

A rare positioning of planets Venus, top left, and Jupiter, top right

A rare positioning of planets Venus, top left, and Jupiter, top right

Skeptics, however, have argued that two planets, side by side, would not be recognized by onlookers to be anything particularly special among the thousands of other stars in the sky.

But for Sandra Vogel, this argument is weak. She says that in February 1999 Jupiter and Venus appeared like a floodlight in the sky when they moved so close to one another that they seemed to touch.

According to Vogel, hundreds of calls were made to the fire service and the police by excited civilians who thought they'd just witnessed a UFO.

"Two small points of light in the sky were enough to grab the attention of so many people," Vogel says. "Why then would people 2,000 years ago have been any less attentive?"

Author: Andreas Ziemons / dfm
Editor: Toma Tasovac

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