The Science of Christmas: the First Noel

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Virgin birth, the star over Bethlehem - you know the story. But does it have a basis in scientific fact? We take a look.

The Star of Bethlehem

Upon Christ’s birth, legend has it, a star appeared in the sky over Bethlehem, leading the three magi to the manger where Jesus lay. The question of whether it had a non-miraculous astronomical explanation - was there really an extra bright star that night? - has been debated for some time.

Two possible explanations are: a conjunction of Jupiter and Venus, which would have taken place about 2BC, and would have appeared as a single bright star; and a supernova, which was recorded by Chinese astronomers in 5BC. Since it turns out that King Herod, in whose reign Christ was supposed to have been born, died in the spring of 4BC, we can probably rule out the planetary conjunction theory.

So, you heard it here first: the Star of Bethlehem, if it really happened, was, probably, a supernova. Or a divine miracle, obviously.

Jesus's birthday

If the planetary-conjunction hypothesis is correct (we know we're suggesting it's not, but bear with us), we can put an exact date on Jesus's birth - 17 June, 2BC. Which would make Jesus a Gemini. Unfortunately, as we've seen, King Herod, who plays a significant part in the story, was almost certainly dead by then.

The more plausible supernova hypothesis places Christ's birth in March or April 5BC, making Jesus either Pisces, Aries or Taurus....

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