Thanks to a link supplied by Alice Linsley over at Just Genesis, I’ve discovered what I find an absolutely fascinating blog devoted mostly to the subject of the Star of Bethlehem. Although I will summarize one of the articles here, I recommend you read the whole thing for a wealth of explanatory details.
It's written by Rick Larson. First, Larson identifies nine characteristics of the Star we can glean from the biblical narrative:
1. The heavenly phenomenon the Wise Men saw must have had some association with birth.
2. It must somehow signify kingship.
3. It must show a connection with the Jewish tribe of Judah (and prophecies of the Jewish Messiah).
4. It must rise in the east and set in the West.
5. It must appear at a precise, identifiable time.
6. It must be a heavenly happening not immediately obvious to everybody, but only to experts. (Herod was unaware of any great celestial portent).
7. The phenomenon must take place over a span of time sufficient for the Magi to see it both from the East and upon their arrival in Jerusalem.
8. It must have appeared ahead of the Magi as they journeyed toward Bethlehem.
9. It must have stopped when the Magi reached Bethlehem.
Rick Larson describes a heavenly phenomenon (actually a combination of astronomical events) accounting, he believes, for all these biblical data.
In September of the year B.C. 3 (which I shall write from now on as -3), The planet Jupiter came into conjunction with the Star Regulus. Read the article for further discussion of why the year -3 was important; it has to do with the probability that Herod died in -1. Larson also discusses in detail why both Jupiter and Regulus were associated, in ancient times, with kingship.
Jupiter passes Regulus, well, regularly, every 12 years, so this is nothing unusual. That it should come into conjunction with Regulus (appearing, to the naked eye, to touch the star) was a bit more unusual, and would certainly have been noted by ancient astronomers (Magi). But it was what happened next that really grabbed their attention. Jupiter passed on by Regulus, leaving it behind, but then it entered into retrograde, meaning that because of our planet’s movement, Jupiter appeared to be moving backward. So backward it moved, and came into conjunction with Regulus a second time. And then Jupiter went forward again, leaving Regulus behind a second time, and then it went into retrograde again and formed a third conjunction with Regulus! It appeared that Jupiter was dancing around Regulus, forming a sort of halo, or crown. This triple conjunction of the King Planet with the King Star would have given our wise men the notion that a king was being announced.
There’s more. All this began on or about the Jewish New Year. And it all took place (over months, of course) in the constellation Leo. And guess what Leo, the lion, was associated with? You guessed it: with Judah, whose symbol was and is the lion. In fact, from the east where the wise men were, as they observed these conjunctions, they were facing Judea. This bright conjunction was setting over Judea. It made sense to the ancient star-gazers that a king of Judea was being announced in the skies.
Next constellation over from Leo was, guess what? Virgo. The Virgin. And things were so positioned then (September of -3) that at the “feet” of the Virgin lay a new moon, which over the succeeding days was “born” into crescent moon, then a quarter moon, and so forth. Remember the pregnant Woman clothed with the Sun, with the moon at her feet? Right.
Skip forward nine months, on the theory that all the foregoing announced a royal conception and nine months later comes the birth. We’re now in June of -2. Rick Larson tells it better than I can:
Jupiter had finished crowning Regulus. The Planet of Kings traveled on through the star field toward another spectacular rendezvous, this time with Venus, the Mother Planet. This conjunction was so close and so bright that it is today displayed in hundreds of planetaria around the world by scientists who may know nothing of Messiah. They do it because what Jupiter did makes such a great planetarium show. Jupiter appeared to join Venus. The planets could not be distinguished with the naked eye. If our magus had had a telescope, he could have seen that the planets sat one atop the other, like a figure eight. Each contributed its full brightness to what became the most brilliant star our man had ever seen. Jupiter completed this step of the starry dance as it was setting in the west. That evening, our Babylonian magus would have seen the spectacle of his career while facing toward Judea.The idea then, is that the September -3 events correlate with the conception of the mysterious King of the Jews, while the June -2 display announced His birth.
No one alive had ever seen such a conjunction. If the Magi only began their travel plans in September, when they saw this sight nine months later, someone may have shouted "What are we waiting for? Mount up!"
Some months later (presumably) the Magi arrived first in Jerusalem, the logical place to inquire where the King of the Jews had been born. Herod sent them on to Bethlehem because the Scriptures said that was where Messiah would be born.
We don’t know how long it took the Magi to arrive in Jerusalem, but we do know that in December of -2, if you were traveling from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, the conjunction of Jupiter and Venus would have been ahead of you.
On December 25 of 2 BC as it entered retrograde, Jupiter reached full stop in its travel through the fixed stars. Magi viewing from Jerusalem would have seen it stopped in the sky above the little town of Bethlehem.
(The December 25 date is interesting, but by this theory Jesus would have been some 6 months old by then.)
Now I find this theory awe-inspiring and fun and to me, it seems to give scientific corroboration; it tells us the Star of Bethlehem wasn’t just some non-credible myth. This, even though we would never read into the stars what the ancient Magi did. So I rejoice to have found this information.
Demetrios, on the other hand, thinks we ought not to seek natural explanations for supernatural events. He says this theory contradicts “Orthodox theology”, which says the Star was an angel.
I think the angel bit is not theology proper, but a pious opinion.
We both agree that matters of faith do not require scientific confirmation. I think it’s always nice to have it, though.
If you read the article, I’ll be very interested in your point of view.
There are some companion articles in the same blog, one of which is about the heavenly and earthly occurrences that happened on the day of the Crucifixion. It’s very interesting, too.
Oh, and while I’m recommending things, check out this very good article by Fr. Andrew Damick on people who are “spiritual but not religious.”
UPDATE: Dr. Patrick Fodor has graciously provided a link you can use to see all these stellar movements in animation.