January Sky from Keeble Observatory
Last month, we began a discussion of the "Star of Bethlehem." With the arrival of Epiphany on January 6, let's finish the discussion. I remind you that most of this is derived from an interesting little book by Ernest Martin, "The Star that Astonished the World."
The traditional approach associates the "star" with a series of planetary conjunctions in 7-6 BCE, in particular the planet Jupiter. Known in Hebrew as "Sedeq" ("Righteousness"), Jupiter underwent a series of close alignments with Venus, Saturn, and the "Royal Star" Regulus in Leo ("The Lion of Judah"). Another bright conjunction in 3 BCE, between Jupiter and Venus, may have been melded in memory with the death of Herod, supposedly in 4 BCE.
First century historian Flavius Josephus gives an extensive account of events surrounding the death of Herod. The narrative begins with a lunar eclipse, followed by Herod's death and funeral, and his son's accession to the throne before Passover. A lunar eclipse in 4 BCE on March 13 was thought to be the first event, with Passover following 29 days later. But, let's re-examine this scenario. First of all, the eclipse was only 40% total - hardly spectacular. A messenger from Rome arrived some 5 days before Herod's death, but after the eclipse (which coincided with some political executions ordered by Herod). Second, Josephus gives an extensive account of the funeral "celebration" which makes this seem even less likely. A funeral procession carried the embalmed body some 25 miles to the burial site. Walking in bare feet, as required in mourning, and covering only 1 mile each day. We are told that word of Herod's death had reached Rome, and a Roman legate was dispatched to protect the royal treasury before the crowning of his successor. The legate apparently was present at the installation of Herod's son Archelaus, who also had time to issue several decrees before the Passover. Martin estimates that nearly 10 weeks would have been required for all the events surrounding the death and funeral to be accomplished, not a mere 29 days if the 4 BCE scenario is to be believed.
So, when did this all happen? There was a total lunar eclipse on January 10, 1 BCE, 12 ½ weeks before Passover. The War of Varus, known to have followed Herod's death, can be dated to 1 BCE as well. So, if we move Herod's death to 1 BCE, we should look for the Star in 3-2 BCE.
2 BCE marked the 25th year of Augustus' rule, and the supposed 750th anniversary of the founding of Rome. To honor the emperor, the people were to rise "as one" and name Augustus "pater patriae" - "Father of the Country." In order to make this happen, a census was ordered! And ..
Jupiter was in conjunction with Regulus in September. And the conjunction was repeated twice in February and May of 2 BCE. In June of 2 BCE, Jupiter and Venus made a conjunction so close that their disks appeared to merge into a single, spectacularly bright star. Also on 11 September, 3 BCE, the Sun was in the constellation Virgo, on the day marking the beginning of the Jewish new year. And ... The words in the Bible, which tell us that the Star "stopped" over the site where the Magi found Jesus, can also be translated as the astronomical term "stationary." Jupiter was stationary on the 25th of December (!) and would have been due south as seen from Jerusalem - directly over Bethlehem, 5 miles to the south. (The date is likely a coincidence - the Christmas holiday was timed to counterbalance the page festival of Saturnalia, not to commemorate a birthday.)
Lunar phases for January: Full on January 1st at 9:49 pm, Last Quarter on the 9th at 9:22 am, New at 10:46 am on the 17th, First Quarter on the 24th at 2:15 pm. A second Full Moon (a "Blue Moon") will occur on the 31st at 11:06 am.
Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn are the planets to watch in the evenings this month. Jupiter is visible at dusk above the southwest horizon. Saturn will be visible at dusk, high over the southeast horizon. Venus will begin the month low in the WSW, but gets higher as the month goes on. Mars and Mercury are visible in the pre-dawn. Mars will be to the south, with Mercury low to the southeast.
The mid-winter constellations are dominated by Orion, easily identified by the distinctive "belt" of three stars. Beneath the belt we find the "sword" - a closer look with binoculars reveals the middle star of the sword as the spectacular Orion Nebula. This nearby star-forming region (some 1500 light years distant) has been well-studied by astronomers using the entire array of observing tools, from radio telescopes to the Hubble Space Telescope. Incipient solar systems can be seen in Hubble images, back lit by ionized gas from the nebula. The brightest star "following" Orion is Sirius, in Canis Major. Sirius is the brightest star in the night sky, and is actually a binary with a white dwarf companion. Above and to the west of Orion lies Taurus, marked by bright Aldebaran and the Pleiades cluster. This cluster is somewhat older than the stars illuminating the Orion Nebula (tens of millions of years vs a few million at most) but is also somewhat closer, lying within 400 light years. Above and to the east we find the bright pair Castor and Pollux in Gemini. Closer to the eastern horizon, we see Leo rising. The Milky Way divides the sky from northwest to southeast a few hours after sunset, with the constellation Perseus directly overhead, and Cygnus disappearing below the northwest horizon.