After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.” Matthew 2:1-2
These wise men followed a light in the sky that they called a star and ever since Astronomy was ushered in as a branch of science by Johannes Kepler, scientists have sought to determine the source of this light.
Theories have ranged from a close conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, Halley’s comet, a variable star, a meteor and a supernova. The most likely explanation is a supernova and there are accounts in Chinese records of a very bright supernova in 5 BC which many have taken to be the mysterious star in the sky during the birth of Jesus.
All stars have a birth, life and death cycle and the type of death a star will undergo is determined by its mass. Our star, the Sun, will have a relatively minor death in about 5 billion years – It’ll expand to a red giant star that will engulf Earth and then turn into a planetary nebula with a small white dwarf star at its core. But stars that are 1.5 more massive than our sun will undergo a rather violent end to their lives. Depending on their mass, as they expend the fuel in their core, they’ll collapse, explode violently and end up as a neutron star or a black hole. Those explosions of far distant and massive stars (even those in distant galaxies) burn so bright that they are visible to the naked eye on Earth.
There was a Harvard journal which goes through a very detailed investigation that seems to point to either a type Ic hypernova in the neighboring Andromeda galaxy or a type Ia supernova in a globular cluster in our galaxy as the source of the Bethlehem star and for those so inclined you can read the whole paper here.
It is interesting that the account in Matthew 2:9 talks about “the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.” The Magi, being “wise”, would have understood the celestial sphere and how the stars appear to rotate during the night. As we now know, this rotation of the stars is really due to the rotation of the Earth and as the Magi followed the star and arrived at Bethlehem the star would have been at its zenith and would have indeed been directly overhead.
Other than Divine intervention, the supernova explanation sounds like the most plausible to me and we’ll probably never know for sure but it’s still fun to go through this exercise. I am a Christian but I don’t have any problem with looking at the science behind what I read in the Bible and that goes for everything from Creation (which can be reconciled with Evolution) to Revelation. God gave us brains and the ability to think analytically and if, as I believe, God created this wonderful Universe then I feel that He is comfortable with us validating His Word through whatever tools we have available. He even stated that in II Timothy 3:16 – “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.”
Have a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Holidays or whatever reason you have to celebrate these coming days.