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Venus bright enough to be part of Christmas star
Post by Noah on Dec 22nd, 2003, 11:27am

Venus bright enough to be part of Christmas star


Was the Star of Bethlehem a supernova? A comet? A rare conjunction of planets? All of these have been suggested as scientific explanations for the star mentioned in the Bible.

Whatever it was, this year we have a fine substitute the planet Venus, the night sky's most luminous star-like object.

To see it, just look to the southwest around 6 p.m. It's unmistakeable, glistening like a polished diamond.

According to one theory, Venus was part of the Star of Bethlehem phenomenon.

The entire story of the Star pivots on a single New Testament account, Matthew Chapter 2, in which the Magi or Wise Men (likely Zoroastrian priests) journey to Bethlehem from what is modern-day Iraq asking: "Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east and have come to worship him."

Despite the tradition of Christmas illustrations, the New Testament does not state what the star looked like. But we do get some additional information:

"And lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was."

Most biblical scholars interpret the twice-repeated phrase, "in the east," as a reference to where the Magi were when they saw the star, rather than the direction they were looking.

The thrust of modern research has been to identify a phenomenon the Magi would have interpreted as significant enough to portend the birth of a king.

The Magi were keenly interested in the night sky, particularly the motions of the planets among the constellations.

Two millennia ago, planets were regarded as magic stars and nobody had any idea why they wandered about while the rest of the stars stayed put.

It was an easy leap of logic to think the planets were trying to send a message and the Magi were considered experts in such interpretation.

Today, computers can track the motions of the planets between 2 and 6 BC, the period that would include the birth of Jesus.

A rare event that would interest the Magi occurred on June 17, 2 BC, when Jupiter and Venus produced a spectacular conjunction, appearing so close together they seemed to be a single object.

Moreover, it happened as darkness fell in the Middle East.

At dusk on June 17, the two planets seemed to be almost touching. An hour later, they appeared to merge into one brilliant object.

Anyone who studied celestial happenings at that time would have been fascinated by this conjunction and perhaps motivated to seek a larger meaning from it. That's the theory anyway. And this year, it will be easy to see how Venus could attract such attention.

On Christmas Day, Venus will be joined by the crescent moon. As the sky darkens (especially between 5:45 and 6:15 p.m.), these two brilliant celestial objects will stand side by side in the southeast, a beautiful cosmic duo. The sight will be especially memorable when viewed through binoculars.