Jupiter isn’t a star. Neither is Saturn. But for one night only, on the winter solstice, they will be.
If we look up at the sky at the right time, we will see the great conjunction of 2020. Low on the horizon for most observers, Jupiter and Saturn have been visibly moving toward each other for days. On the evening of December 21, these two planets will be so close that they will appear to the naked eye as almost one—a bright star in the heavens.
Before that, the most famous great conjunction occurred in 7 B.C.—auspiciously close to the birth of Jesus. Close enough that some believe that the great conjunction is the Star of Bethlehem. Could it be?
Star of wonder, star of night
It seems like every year we’re eager to offer another speculation or theory for this piece of the Christmas story—a detail in a single Gospel account that has come to loom large in our retellings and depictions of Christ’s birth.
Nativity scenes in storybooks and light-up lawn displays are topped with a telltale twinkling star. It’s a sign that from the moment Christ was born, he caught people’s attention and drew them to worship.
Our obsession with the star phenomenon is somewhat unusual since we modern people rarely look up to study the skies, given the glitter that exists today below the horizon. But the movement of stars in the sky attracted attention in the ancient world.
Today, stargazing is a quaint activity of a bygone era, but in the ancient world it was the raw materials for calendars and omens, mythologies and agricultures, dreams and divinations.
The stars had many uses. Stars also had many interpretations. For ancient peoples, stars were the greatest reminder that there was purpose in creation, a purpose that unfolded night after night as they watched the stars trek across the night sky.
Even as the stars fascinated—and sometimes frightened—ancient peoples, from the Babylonians to the Romans, their wise men worked diligently to understand their movements and signs. The same is true of the most famous star from the ancient world, the Christmas star—if it even was a star. To this day, it is a mystery.
There seem to be almost as many theories about the Christmas star as there are descendents of Abraham. It’s a question that has interested theologians, astronomers, and everyday believers for centuries, and judging by the attention toward the latest planetarily aligned “Christmas star,” it still does.
The theories trying to explain the Star of Bethlehem tend to fall into five categories. A bit of a Christmas countdown, then:
5. The star was extraterrestrial.
Although “extraterrestrial” today makes us think of UFOs and little green men, ancient Mediterranean peoples believed in a menagerie of off-world creatures that interacted in the heavens. For example, the Roman leader Cicero, like many Romans, believed that the stars were lesser deities. John Chrysostom, the archbishop of Constantinople, wondered whether the star was an actually angel due to the precision of its movements.
4. The star was symbolic.
Although a staple of Christmas everywhere, the Star of Bethlehem only appears in Matthew’s gospel. Since Matthew views Jesus as a king, a descendent of David, he may use the star as a sign that the Magi use to announce the birth of Jesus. This could be the point of Balaam’s final oracle: “A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel” (Num. 24:15–19).
3. The star was supernatural.
Another belief is that the Christmas star was supernaturally conjured: The Father made a light for his Son. And that’s that, a kind of divine #micdrop within the miraculous Christmas story.