The star of Bethlehem has attracted scholars for centuries and recent advances have pinned down the years to search the skies to between 3 and 2 BC.
One more factor accounts for your hearing about the Star now instead of long ago: Computers. When Kepler calculated a sky map, it was laborious, and when the calculations were complete, he had a picture of the sky at a single moment of time. If he had selected the wrong day to search for the Star, he might find nothing. But Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion are playthings for a computer. The equations are solved almost instantaneously by modern astronomy software available to anyone for about $50.
With software that incorporates Kepler’s equations, we can create a computer model of the universe. In minutes we can produce thousands of the sky maps, which were a great labour before computers. We can animate the universe in real time at any speed we choose, make months pass in moments or wind back the clock. We can view the sky precisely as it moved over Jerusalem 2000 years ago.
And when we look up, examining the correct years, we find remarkable things.
We now know much about the Star.
It signified birth.
It signified kingship.
It had a connection with the Jewish nation.
It rose in the east, like other stars.
It appeared at a precise time.
Herod didn’t know when it appeared.
It endured over time.
It was ahead of the Magi as they went south from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.
It stopped over Bethlehem.
Knowing these qualifications, we are in a position to disqualify most astronomical phenomena as being the Star. Remember that if any of the nine Biblical features of the Star is absent, then the phenomenon we are examining may be interesting, but isn’t likely the Biblical Star.
A meteor is a small fragment of material or even celestial dust that enters Earth’s atmosphere at great speed glowing brightly as its outer layers vaporize.
While often a physically small thing, a “shooting star” can be beautiful viewed from Earth and could be a dramatic means of making an announcement in the heavens. But such a sign would fail most of the nine tests. Most obvious is the fact that shooting stars don’t rise in the east like other stars, they do “shoot” across the sky. Because they display suddenly, only once and for mere moments as they burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere, it is not obvious how the Magi could form associations with kingship, birth, the Jews, the Messiah’s birthplace and all. And meteors don’t endure long enough to satisfy the Biblical criteria. The Star was very likely not a meteor.
Perhaps a comet? A comet is an object that has a very large orbit about the Sun, an orbit of many years’ duration. You may be familiar with Halley’s Comet. Halley’s, like many comets, is a block of ice, in Halley’s case a few miles across. It orbits the Sun in a 75.5 year circuit, and like all comets, it is easily tracked using Kepler’s equations. Comets do rise in the east and endure over time. But there are several problems with the comet hypothesis.
The first problem is sociological. At this time in history (and all the way into the middle ages), comets were regarded as omens of doom and destruction, the very opposite of good tidings. This was in part because of comet behaviour. They were perceived in ancient times to break into the sky ignoring the highly ordered and repetitive clockwork movement of the heavens. The Almighty could have chosen to use an ominous sign for the birth of Christ. Presumably, He can do whatever He likes. But if the purpose of the Star was to communicate something joyful to man, a comet seems an unlikely choice.
A bigger problem is that there do not appear to have been any comets in 3 or 2 BC. Several civilisations maintained records of such phenomena, notably the Chinese. These records have been preserved to the present day, and no comets are recorded for these years.
Finally, comets are obvious things. Anyone could and would have seen a comet. Herod would not have needed to ask the Magi when such a thing appeared. The Biblical Star was very likely not a comet.
What about a nova? A nova is an exploding star. A nova appears suddenly at a point in time, endures over time, rises in the east like other stars and can be spectacular. However, none appears in the ancient records for this time period.
And like comets, a nova is an obvious thing. Many of us have been to locations, such as high mountains or the desert, far from modern artificial light (which astronomers call “light pollution”). We marvel at how clearly the heavens can be seen under such conditions. Unless weather interfered, Jerusalem was like that every night, and common people were far more familiar than are we with the appearance of the night sky. If a nova suddenly appeared, almost everyone would know about it. Herod would not have had to ask the Magi when it appeared. If the Star was a real astronomical event, it was very likely not a nova.
What’s left? If the Star wasn’t one of the spectacular astronomical objects we’ve examined, what’s left? Biblically, that Herod had to ask when the Star appeared is a powerful clue. Anyone can glance up and see planets and stars. That is the nature of things in the sky. But, apparently, one could look up at the Star without realising it. Herod didn’t know of it. It took magi to explain it. But once the Star was pointed out, all Jerusalem went abuzz, and Herod jumped into murderous action. A reasonable hypothesis is that the Star must have been something in the normal night sky, which was striking when explained.
Did anything interesting happen in the ordinary night skies over the Middle East in 3 or 2 BC? Absolutely, it did. But whether the phenomenon can be fully explained remains to be seen.