According to German historian Warren Keller,1 the story of the Star of Bethlehem has fascinated men for centuries. In Matthew’s account of the gospel, this extraordinary phenomenon is recorded in unmistakable terms. What was it — a comet, an exploding star, a conjunction of planets — that the Wise Men of the East observed?
Recent archeological digs have unearthed a wealth of ancient writings, contained astonishingly detailed information about astronomical occurrences stretching back over thousands of years. Astronomers now possess notes and observations from Greek, Roman, Babylonian, Egyptian, and Chinese sources. After sifting through all this information, astronomers now can accurately pinpoint one of the phenomena that corresponds closely to Matthew’s description of the Star of Bethlehem.
In Mr. Keller’s words,
…shortly before Christmas 1603, on December 17th, the Imperial Mathematician and Astronomer Royal Johannes Kepler was sitting through the night high above the Moldava in the Hradcyn in Prague, observing with his modest telescope the approach of two planets. Conjunction is the technical name for the position of two celestial bodies on the same degree of longitude. Sometimes two planets move so close to one another that they have the appearance of a single larger and more brilliant star. That night Saturn and Jupiter had a rendezvous in space within the constellation of Pisces.
Looking through his notes later Kepler suddenly remembered something he had read in the rabbinic writer Isaac Abrabanel, referring to an unusual influence which Jewish astrologers were said to have ascribed to this same constellation. Messiah would appear when there was a conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in the constellation of Pisces.
… Kepler checked his calculations again and again.... The result was a threefold conjunction within the space of a year. Astronomical calculations gave the year as 7 BC…
[Again]… in 1925 the German scholar P. Schnabel deciphered the papers in Neo Babylonian cuneiform of a famous professional institute of the ancient world, the School of Astrology at Sippar in Babylonia. Among endless series of prosaic dates of observations he came across a note about the position of the planets in the constellation Pisces. Jupiter and Saturn are carefully marked in over a period of five months. He reckoned by our calendar the year was 7 BC….
Mr. Keller clocks the journey of the wise men, relating it to the three sightings of the conjunction of the planets. He has them arriving in Israel towards the end of November of 6 BC, when they visit King Herod in order to get direction about the sighting of the star, saying, “Where is he that is born the King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the east…” (Matthew 2:2-3).
The wise men are then sent to Bethlehem to find this new King. The author then calculates that this part of their journey exactly coincided with the last sighting of this conjunction of the planets on the 4th of December. The Bible says that as they headed south, “they rejoiced with exceeding great joy,” for “the star, which they saw in the east, went before them!” (Matthew 2:9-10).
Mr. Keller goes on to say,
…. five miles from Jerusalem lies the village of Bethlehem. This ancient highway… lay almost due north and south. At their third conjunction the planets Jupiter and Saturn appeared to have dissolved into one great brilliant star. In the twilight of the evening they were visible in a southerly direction, so that the Wise Men on their way from Jerusalem to Bethlehem had the bright star in front of their eyes all the time. As the gospel says, the star actually “went before them…”