The Star of Bethlehem that marked the birth of Jesus Christ may not have been the simple beacon described in verse, song, story and scripture for nearly 2,000 years.
Brigham Young University astronomy professor Jay Moody says the "star" was most likely a triple conjunction of planets that few people saw and even fewer understood."We suspect that the Christmas star is something that is subtle and it is not this blazing point of light that everybody had seen," Moody said. "Maybe only the wise men saw it because they were educated and knew what to look for."
Drawing from the Bible, the Book of Mormon, historical and astronomical records, Moody outlines what may have happened.
Scriptures record there were "shepherds in the field" at the time of Christ's birth. Shepherds took to the fields only during the spring lambing season, Moody said.
"He was not born in December. That is a pagan holiday that Christians adopted to be not so obvious about when they would observe Christ's birth. Back in those days, it was sometimes dangerous to be a Christian."
In scriptural accounts, the shepherds make no mention of a new star appearing in the sky. Unlike the wise men, the shepherds were unfamiliar with astrology and may not have known how to interpret a heavenly sign.
A caravan including wise men "probably came out of Medea and Persia, which today is Iraq and Iran," Moody said. "That was kind of a hotbed of astrology, where it originated. They understood the sky and might be well-versed in the alignment of the planets."
The "star" was likely a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn, which occurred in May, October and December of 7 B.C., said BYU astronomer Kimball Hansen. In February 6 B.C. a third planet, Mars, moved into the grouping. According to many scholars, Christ's birth occurred in April of 6 B.C.
Jupiter is the star of the king of Judea, and Saturn was believed to protect the people of the eastern Mediterrean, Moody said.
"The Medians and Persians would have been reasonably superstitious and interpreted the alignment to mean that some good thing was going to happen with a king in the Jewish nation," Moody said. "That's something subtle, something the wise men would pick up but not the shepherds."
The alignment of planets, which occurs every 120 years, fits with other scriptural and historical information used to pinpoint Christ's birth. When the wise men tell King Herod about the star, the king pretends to be pleased and asks when the star appeared.
The wise men say the star is no longer visible, indicating it appeared some time ago and that they'd been journeying for a while.
"We don't know what the wise men told Herod, but they said something because when he got the information, he went out and had all the kids two years and younger killed," Moody said.
Also, there was a tax decree/census in 8 B.C. There was no postal service or media communication in those times; it took a couple of years to get the word out and then some time for people to travel to their appropriate hometowns.
Scholars also use the death of King Herod in 4 B.C. as a tool to gauge the birth.
There are other theories than the one described by Moody, however.
According to John P. Pratt, an Orem astronomer who researches chronology and ancient calendars for the Ashton Research Corp., the star described by the wise men may actually have signified Christ's conception.
In a paper published in "The Planetarian," Pratt proposes the wise men tracked the alignment of Jupiter and Venus near the star Regulus in the Leo constellation on June 17, 2 B.C. The two planets were so close they appeared as one, Pratt said.
"It's hard to know how the magi might have read signs in the heavens, but it has been noted that Jupiter/Zeus was the father god and was often associated with the birth of kings, that Venus was the mother or goddess of fertility and that Leo, with the bright king-star Regulus, was the `king' constellation associated with Judah and royalty," Pratt said. "This combination seems to be a natural to be interpreted as the coming of the king of the Jews."
Pratt sets Christ's birth at the Passover in April 6-8, 1 B.C. and Herod's death in 1 A.D.
Planets in the sky
That brilliant star in the west just after sunset is not the Star of Bethlehem, says Patrick Wiggins at the Hansen Planetarium. It's actually the planet Venus. The "star" just to the right of Venus is the planet Saturn.