The Daily Broadside

Christmas Eve

Posted on 12/24/2022 5.00 AM

JCM 12/17/2022 3:21:15 PM

Posted by: JCM

vxbush 12/24/2022 6:36:17 AM

Fabulous pancakes, JCM! 

So the following has been fully lifted from my skywatching app, Night Sky, but I am providing citation and name of the author. 


Tomorrow, Christians around the world will be celebrating their primary religious festival — Christmas. So, today, Night Sky looks at an ‘astronomical’ event often associated with Christmas — the Star of Bethlehem. The story of how three wise men (or kings) followed this ‘star’ to the newborn King of the Jews is a common feature of Christians’ celebrations. Christians put a star on top of their Christmas trees and sing about a ‘Star of Wonder’. Christians believe the Star of Bethlehem was a miracle sent to announce the coming of Christ. But could it have been an actual astronomical event?

It’s easy to see how such a real event could become part of the story of the nativity. Astronomers have often wondered about this and have made various suggestions as to what this ‘star’ could have been.

But there’s a problem. The gospels say that the wise men travelled first to Jerusalem to inform King Herod of the appearance of this portentous star. Then they travelled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to greet the new born King. But Bethlehem is directly south of Jerusalem whereas the star appeared ‘in the east’. So, how could the wise men follow a star in the east but be travelling south? The answer probably lies in the translation of ‘in the east’. The original Greek is en te anatole which doesn’t literally mean ‘in the east’ — it was a technical term for what astronomers now call a ‘heliacal rising’.

The stars are fixed in the sky relative to each other and only move across the sky because the Earth rotates. But the planets, the Moon and the Sun move through this backdrop of fixed stars. Occasionally, the Sun will be close to a planet, making it invisible in daylight, but eventually the Sun will move far enough away that the planet becomes visible again. That time, when the planet reappears again for the first time, and rises in the morning sky just moments before the Sun, is called a ‘heliacal rising’. At the time of Christ such heliacal risings were thought by astrologers to be particularly portentous. So, ‘in the east’ isn’t quite what it seems; it simply means a particularly significant astronomical event. It should be pointed out though that some scholars believe the ‘east’ in the gospels doesn’t refer to the star itself but that the wise men themselves were ‘in the east’ when they spotted it.

But, we still have a problem. The gospels say the Star of Bethlehem came and ‘stood over’ the infant Jesus’ crib. However, again there is something lost in translation. The original Greek word was epano which also had an astrological meaning. It refers to the moment a planet stops its westward motion in the sky and begins to back-track to the east. Today, astronomers call this ‘retrograde motion’ and it is the result of the Earth catching up and lapping the planet during its orbit around the Sun. So, we can easily interpret the gospel writings in an astronomical sense rather than an astrological sense and possibly come up with a natural explanation for the Star of Bethlehem story.

Now, modern theologians who have studied religious texts closely believe that Christ was born sometime between 7 BC and 1 BC, but most likely in 4 BC. We can easily calculate the positions of the stars and planets during these years to see if anything interesting happened.

In 7 BC there were three conjunctions of the planets Jupiter and Saturn. A conjunction is when the planets appear very close together in the sky (actually it is when the objects’ right ascensions are equal). This alignment of Jupiter and Saturn only happens about once every 900 years. So this may well have seemed very important to the astrologers of the time. Although a conjunction of bright planets doesn’t exactly match the events in the Bible, it may well have led to the popular story we tell today.

Several comets appeared in the sky at around this time; one in 5 BC and another in 4 BC. But since comets were usually thought to be harbingers of doom and disaster, it’s unlikely they would have given rise to the Star of Bethlehem story.

But during an eighteen-month period between 3 and 2 BC a remarkable sequence of events occurred. First Saturn and Mercury were in conjunction, then Saturn and Venus, then Jupiter and Venus twice, and finally, four planets, Mars, Jupiter, Venus and Mercury, all appeared very close together in the sky. At one stage Jupiter and Venus were so close that they would have looked like a single very bright star. And to top it all off Jupiter twice came very close to a star in the constellation Leo called Regulus (‘prince’ or ‘little king’), a star often associated with the birth of kings. Such a sequence of events only happens once in 3000 years!

You may remember that on 21 December 2020 there was a so-called ‘great conjunction’, a meeting of the two biggest worlds in the Solar System; Jupiter and Saturn. At their closest approach, Jupiter and Saturn were only 0.1 degrees apart, only 1/5 of the diameter of the Full Moon. This great conjunction was the first since the year 2000 and the closest one since 1623. It won’t be matched again until the one due to take place on 15 March 2080! Perhaps it was reminiscent of the event, whatever it was, that led to the story of the Star of Bethlehem.

Other suggestions for astronomical events giving rise to the Star of Bethlehem story have been proposed. Although none of them exactly match what the gospels say, or agree with the likely time of Christ’s birth, they are nevertheless compelling in the astrological sense. The wise men, or magi, were astrologers and they were well aware of the prophecies of the Old Testament that a new king would be born to the people of David. They had probably been watching the skies for decades for anything that foretold the coming of the king. Any one of the events (or sequence of events) mentioned above, could have been enough to set them on their journey to Bethlehem.

But, whether the Star of Bethlehem was a natural event or not, the story will always be an important part of the Christian religion.

Dr. Alistair Gunn


Occasional Reader 12/24/2022 8:12:15 AM

Reply to vxbush in 1:

It was… ALIENS.

Kosh's Shadow 12/24/2022 10:20:33 AM

Reply to Occasional Reader in 2:

Arthur C. Clarke short story The Star

doppelganglander 12/24/2022 10:42:02 AM

Reply to vxbush in 1:

Fascinating. Thanks for posting it.

We lost power overnight - it was 62 degrees downstairs this morning, though it's warmed up a bit now.

CyberSimian 12/24/2022 1:26:17 PM
In my family, we always give the birthday boy a hard time,. so...
JCM 12/24/2022 2:26:13 PM

Arizona judge rejects Lake's election lawsuit

Not unexpected but total miscarriage of justice. I've been following enough of it to know Lake's team presented more than enough evidence to prove intentional election fraud. Hobb's team perjured themselves, they had one answer on one day, and the opposite response the the next.

Basically the elections dept. under the control of Hobbs set up a system where votes for Lake where handle in a way that cause them not to be counted but set aside for later hand counting but never counted. Then number of ballots affect were several times more than the election margin.

Kosh's Shadow 12/24/2022 2:40:45 PM
Pub thread for tonight set up
doppelganglander 12/24/2022 2:50:04 PM
It just keeps getting better. A water pipe burst and I have squishy carpet in my living room. Fortunately, I caught it quickly and shut off the main. I filed a claim with my homeowners insurance- - they said they'll have someone here Thursday. So I called my plumber, and coincidentally they also got a call from my neighbor two doors down. They're going to come look at mine when they're done with my neighbor. Now I'm wondering about the house in between, where there's no one home.
CyberSimian 12/24/2022 3:34:16 PM

In #8 doppelganglander said: Now I'm wondering about the house in between, where there's no one home.

I would suggest breaking in to check, except that they might have left one kid behind to fill the place with lethal booby traps.

Kosh's Shadow 12/24/2022 4:22:39 PM

Reply to doppelganglander in 8:
Frozen pipes?

Kosh's Shadow 12/24/2022 4:27:53 PM

Reply to Kosh's Shadow in 10:

There is a program WCRB plays that is all organ music - the show is called "Pipe Dreams"

Kosh's Shadow 12/24/2022 4:30:58 PM

Reply to CyberSimian in 9:

Our neighbors' dog was out all day today, and it looked like they weren't home. He's a Leonberger, and probably can handle the sub-20's temperature, but we were concerned when he laid down for a while. Let our dogs to out to see if he'd get up and bark at them, and he did. They are back now.


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