Over the centuries, the story of the nativity – believed by Christians to be the birth of the Son of God – told, translated and re-told so many times over that we can’t be sure about how much detail we’re missing. Particularly when it comes to the bit about the mysterious men travelling from afar, gift in hand, with only a star to guide them (no Google Maps in those days).
When it comes to those three characters heading to Bethlehem, the story consistently conjures up images of “wise men”, possibly even “kings”, riding on camels across the desert, following a bright star to bring symbolic gifts to the newborn baby king lying in a manger. What a picture, and what a story!
Apart from the fact that there probably weren’t strictly three of them, and whether or not they were kings is also in doubt, the question still holds about what this star was and how they followed it.
So, who were these gift-giving geezers, and what were they up to following this mysterious star?
Three kings, wise men, or scientists?
The Bible never actually referred to these men as “kings” (it’s believed that this interpretation came a lot later in the 19th Century). But the Bible does call them “Magi”, the plural of magus – the Persian and Greek word for magician, or wise man. And that may have actually meant that they were Space experts!
Two thousand years ago (or 2022 years ago to be precise), astronomers were known as astrologers (the two names were sort of interchangeable). And these men who were said to have been following a star must have been astrologers/astronomers. In fact, many people believe that these men were religious scholars known as Babylonian astronomers/astrologers who would have pondered the stars and the planets to predict and explain religious events.
So, anything usual in the skies would have got their curious juices flowing, and their sciency senses set to red alert. They’d have followed the heck out of whatever was going on up there!
So what were they following?
Some modern-day astronomers have suggested that the wise men were following a massive comet. A comet is basically a big snowball flying through space. When it comes close to the sun, its ice melts and the solar winds blow it, giving it a huge tail of debris. This would have made it look like a ginormous arrow pointing from the sun down towards the Earth, like a big signpost.
Others have suggested that they were following a significant celestial event called a “triple conjunction” between Jupiter and Saturn. This is when two planets come close together in the sky three times in a short space of time. It’s a sort of alignment between the Sun, the Earth, Jupiter and Saturn… Quite the spectacle!
It’s no wonder that these men were somewhat alarmed, and packed up their stuff to head all the way (probably from Babylon) to Jerusalem to discuss this planetary portent with King Herod.
The truth is that we’ll never really know what happened on that night all those years ago. But what we can do is think about how far we’ve come over the last two thousand years in the field of astronomy.
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