Right after the sun sets at 8:26pm, head outside and look west. Just above the horizon, you’ll see a bright object in the night sky as Jupiter and Venus come within 1/3 of a degree of each other. Viewing conditions will be best about an hour after sunset when the sky is darker but the planets are still above the horizon. If you wait too long, the planets will set below the horizon and you’ll miss it.
Tonight’s close conjunction of Jupiter and Venus on the western horizon fits closely with what many astronomers have theorized for years was the type of alignment that could have been the Star of Bethlehem described in the Bible.
The two planets are millions of miles apart, but to earth viewers, they have been aligning closer in the night sky throughout June, and will appear very close together tonight.
“They will be a third of a degree apart, closer than the moon is wide,” said David Weigel, director of the Christenberry Planetarium at Samford University. “It will be close and certainly impressive in the night sky. It will be exciting.”
Traditional depictions of the Star of Bethlehem show it as a blazing beacon pointing the way toward the baby Jesus in the manger, but stargazers who offer natural explanations of the “star” tend to believe it may have been a convergence of planets.
“There are so many possible explanations,” said William Boardman, a retired professor of physics at Birmingham-Southern College who now lives in Northport.
“It wasn’t necessarily an unusual happening,” Boardman said. “Everyone in Jerusalem seemed to think the sky was pretty much normal. You see this big, bright star pictured on Christmas cards, which has sort of led us astray.”
The only New Testament account of the Star of Bethlehem occurs in the Gospel of Matthew, where the magi arrive in Jerusalem during the reign of Herod the Great, asking about a newborn king of the Jews, having seen “the rising of his star.”
In a 1991 article in The Planetarian journal, William Bidelman, former chairman of the astronomy department at Case Western Reserve University, put forth two conjunctions of Venus and Jupiter in 3 B.C. and 2 B.C. as the most plausible Christmas star.
In the October 1991 Omni magazine, astronomer Fred Schaff also pointed to the rare series of Venus and Jupiter conjunctions on Aug. 12, 3 B.C.; and June 17, Aug. 20 and Oct. 14 in 2 B.C.
Despite the momentum for the alignment of the planets in 2 and 3 B.C. as a natural explanation for the Star of Bethlehem, most historians are reluctant to date the death of Herod that late.
“It’s really all tied up with the time of the death of Herod,” which is widely dated as 4 B.C., Bidelman said. “If Herod died in 4 B.C., then Christ must have been born sometime before. Several people have concluded in recent years that he didn’t die for several more years.”
Ernest Martin, in his 1991 book “The Star That Astonished the World,” argues for the later date of Herod’s death.
Craig Chester, president of the Monterey Institute for Research in Astronomy, also argued in the December 1993 issue of the journal Imprimis that Herod died in 1 B.C.
Chester noted that the year 2 B.C. marked the 25th anniversary of Caesar Augustus’ rule and the 750th anniversary of the founding of Rome and an enrollment, or census, was planned.
The Gospel of Luke describes a census that prompted Joseph and Mary to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem.
“This enrollment, described in the Gospel of Luke, which brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, always has been a mystery since no regular taxation census occurred at this time,” Chester wrote.
But the enrollment associated with honoring Caesar Augustus fits perfectly, he said.
Chester said that in September of 3 B.C., Jupiter came into conjunction with Regulus, the star of kingship, the brightest star in the Leo constellation. Leo was the constellation of kings and associated with the Lion of Judah. So the royal planet approached the royal star in the royal constellation representing Israel – the kind of astrological symbol that would arouse the interest of the magi.
Just the month before, Jupiter and Venus almost seemed to touch. The conjunction between Jupiter and Regulus repeated twice in February and May of 2 B.C. Then in June, Jupiter and Venus, the two brightest planets, appeared to touch; to the naked eye they became a single object above the setting sun.
“This exceptionally rare spectacle could not have been missed by the magi,” Chester wrote. Yet those not attuned to the movement of the planets and their perceived symbolic importance would not have noticed. Herod was taken by surprise when the magi approached him, the Bible said. He ordered them to return to him with news after they found the king they were looking for.
After the magi did not return to him with news, Herod ordered the death of boys in Bethlehem under age 2, which many interpret to mean the magi took two years to find Jesus.
But that doesn’t mean Jesus was still living in Bethlehem when he was 2, or that the magi were visiting a toddler rather than a newborn.
“Mostly, he wasn’t taking any chances,” Bidelman said of Herod. “In Hebrew custom, a child was considered 1 year old when he was born, so there’s a question about the actual age.”
The magi were astrologers and could predict planetary movements, so they could have timed their trip, and may have associated a certain alignment with conception rather than birth, he said.
“When the magi saw this object in the sky, they either thought that it signified the birth of somebody important or that it indicated the time of the conception,” Bidelman said. “It might well have taken them six or seven months to make the trip, if they came from Persia.”
Bidelman said the gospel indicates Joseph and Mary probably moved from the manger to a house for a few months in Bethlehem.
“Matthew states that they came to his house,” Bidelman said. “They did stay for a while in Bethlehem, I think.”
Boardman also said the gospels simply don’t give much information on that. “The story of Christmas told in the Bible is very sketchy,” he said. “Jesus could have been as old as 2 years old when the magi came, or they could have seen it coming and went in anticipation.”
Such dabbling in possibilities is fun, but Boardman said he holds no hope of finding an astronomical answer. “It’s almost too many possibilities rather than too few,” he said.
Weigel said there are more likely explanations for the star of Bethlehem, and he discusses them in the annual December shows at the planetarium. “It is one of the possibilities,” he said of Jupiter and Venus. “It’s extremely bright.”
Although cloudy weather may inhibit tonight’s viewing, the two planets will remain no more than two degrees apart each night through July 4.