Q. What is the latest theory concerning the Star of Bethlehem?
A. Among the several theories about the Star of Bethlehem, one especially persists; specifically that it can be explained by a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn in the Constellation Pisces, which took place around 6-7 B.C.
Pope Benedict XVI leans toward this explanation in his trilogy, Jesus of Nazareth, “The Infancy Narratives” (2012). Pope Ratzinger also suggests that the aforesaid planetary conjunction was a phenomenon that the astronomers of Babylon, a center of astronomy in ancient times (in modern day Iraq), were capable of calculating.
Benedict cites the Viennese astronomer Konradin Ferrari d’Occhieppo in support of the Planetary Conjunction theory – one supported, incidentally, by archaeological data, including tablets with cuneiform signs regarding astronomical enigmas. Besides, the core of this theory was set forth by the German Johannes Kepler (d. 1630), who added a supernova to the theory. The same Viennese astronomer defends the position that ancient Babylonian scholars were capable of calculating (and, hence, identifying) the time of the Jupiter-Saturn astral phenomenon; specifically around 7-6 B.C. (which is a generally accepted date today for Jesus’ Nativity).
The narrative about the Star of Bethlehem derives, of course, from the Gospel According to St. Matthew (2:1, sqq.). It is enclosed within the story of the Magi and King Herod. Herod was an historical person, who represents the antithesis of Jesus, the real “King of the Jews” – a title that Herod absurdly arrogated to himself.
The Star of Bethlehem, whatever its origin, was surely recognized as a special sign by the Magi; indeed, it literally prompted them to set out on a journey of hope. Matthew describes them as being “wise.” Pope Benedict sees in this a yearning on their part to commit to a “search for truth.” Consequently, he adds, they were solid philosophers, who were attempting to elevate their intellectual probings into concrete reality. Thus in one way they symbolize Socrates redux, wise stewards of Truth profoundly engaged in a holy curiosity for the highest truths, forerunners of pilgrims of faith in every age.
How did the Magi come to be identified with kings? (See the carol, “We Three Kings…”) For one thing, the Gospel narratives about Jesus’ birth came to be read against the background of Psalm 72:10 and Isaiah 60. Therein, Pope Benedict reminds us, camels and dromedaries join the ox and the donkey. Furthermore, the regal character of the Magi reflects “the idea of universality” because they are often portrayed as representing the three known continents: Africa, Asia, Europe. Also, the journey of the Magi focused on a newborn king – Herod’s antithesis. And one of the Visitors’ gift from the East was gold; another, incense; both indicating Jesus’ royal state. Finally, Pope Benedict reminds us that the Magi prostrated themselves before the newborn King. The transliterated Greek word, proskynesis, refers to an act of homage to a king. This reference suggests, at least, a royal reception as a context.