A summary of the Star of Bethlehem as Acrux:
1. The Bethlehem Star is Acrux (Alpha Crucis) from the Southern Cross.
2. The Magi were observing the helical rising of Acrux from the vantage point of Jerusalem.
3. The star rose to the east and was last visible at dawn as it was just above Bethlehem to the south. The town of Bethlehem was used as a landmark on the southern horizon.
4. The Magi described the star with observational facts (rising in the east and stopping over Bethlehem) and by describing the closest constellations to Acrux (Crux imagined as a newborn baby lying on its back, which is right next to the legs of Centaurus – a horse/man). It is common practice to imagine people and animals in the constellations. Every culture projects its own images on the constellations, and often these projections differ from culture to culture, and through time. Crux was not always known as the Southern Cross.
5. The people in Herod’s court misunderstood the description of Acrux by the Magi, and didn’t recognise the star being pointed out to them. The star Acrux was visible every year and is not unusual. It is a normal star. This point is central to the story of the Bethlehem Star. Herod and his court did not see the star.
6. The people in Herod’s court added their own cultural interpretation of the Magi’s information, as described in the New Testament. They took the description of the star literally: imagining an actual newborn baby, lying on his back (obviously in a manger) right next to where horses and other animals are kept in a stable – somewhere physically in the town of Bethlehem.
7. Nativity scenes based on the New Testament combine these two narratives – the empirical observation of Acrux with the cultural interpretation of Herod’s court in Jerusalem – to create a third new archetypal narrative of the birth of Jesus.
8. There is also a misunderstanding in time scales in the story as described in the Bible. The observations of the Magi were made in one night at Jerusalem – following the star after it rises in the east until the star was no longer visible above Bethlehem. The New Testament assumes the Magi followed the star from the East to Bethlehem over a few months. No celestial object could be followed in one direction for months, as all stars, except the pole star, are constantly moving in the sky. A conjunction of planets can be observed anywhere in the middle east.
9. Hence the mystery of the Bethlehem Star – the story combines historically real events into an archetypal narrative. Only the star Acrux from the Crux constellation can combine these narratives in a consistent and reasonable way.
This is a rational and modern explanation for the Star of Bethlehem. The cultural significance of this story and the meanings that this symbol has acquired over time are what make the Star of Bethlehem truly miraculous. Science and culture, reason and faith are held together with the help of this Star…
The main questions are:
- From which reference points on the ground would a bright star or celestial object be seen to be stopping over Bethlehem?
- And why would the town of Bethlehem be used as a reference point for this star?
- If the Star of Bethlehem was indeed a star, which fixed stars could it possibly have been?
- What are the reasons for singling out this one particular star?
- Why didn’t anyone else apart from the Three Wise Men (Magi) see this star. For an answer to this question see the post at Mystery of the Bethlehem Star
By considering these questions, one of the most likely contending stars would be Alpha Crucis from the Crux constellation. A further question is about the motivation of the Three Wise Men to seek out that star. Axial Precession could provide an answer to that question, as the Southern Cross is no longer visible above Bethlehem today. These claims can be independently verified with astronomical software (such as Stellarium and SkyChart). An outline of the argument and an animation of the night sky above Bethlehem about 2000 years ago are provided below…
A natural vantage point next to the Old City of Jerusalem is the Mount of Olives which is 80 meters higher than the old city. Bethlehem is about 10 kilometers south from Jerusalem. Looking south from the Mount of Olives to a star that was barely above the horizon would make the location of Bethlehem on the skyline a natural reference point. Bethlehem was used as a local reference point for the observation of a star. It makes no sense to use a town as a reference point if that town is not in sight…
Why Alpha Crucis
Alpha Crucis (Acrux) of the Southern Cross is one of the brightest stars in the night sky. It was visible before sunrise to the south of Jerusalem during a few weeks of the year in late November and early December about 2000 years ago. It is no longer visible in the southern night sky from Israel/Palestine due to axial precession. Some Astronomers of the time would have known about the star and wanted to gain a better view of it. It is one of the 20 most brightest stars.
Looking south from near Jerusalem, the Magi would have seen Acrux rise in the east and move west. It was not very high above the horizon. The star would have kept moving west until it was no longer visible due to the daylight from the rising sun. The star would have last been visible somewhere over Bethlehem – from the perspective of someone looking south from near Jerusalem during the few weeks in November and December about 2000 years ago. It would have appeared to have stopped BEING VISIBLE over Bethlehem from this perspective.
The Magi may have been astronomers who were specifically trying to gain a good view of this star, given that it would gradually disappear from view in their everyday vicinity due to axial precession. They would have wanted to travel to a high mountain in a location that was safe from bandits; they would have been careful to travel between cities and towns. From Jerusalem, the three Magi continued traveling south to follow the star. Bethlehem is higher than Jerusalem and would have provided a better vantage point of a star which was visible only just above the horizon for a few hours before daybreak for only a few weeks of the year.
The meaning behind this explanation may not match the traditional meanings of the Bethlehem Star in Christianity. As a symbol, however, this new interpretation of the Bethlehem Star would provide a new meaning in the modern world about the life of Jesus.
The star would have risen each year and would have been unremarkable for the people of Jerusalem. The court of Herod obviously thought the Magi were speaking about something else. The enthusiasm of the Magi was like that of people who had waited all their lives to see something special and unique that knew about and that they were willing to travel through dangerous lands to glimpse. The Southern Cross features in the night sky of the southern hemisphere and is one of the only constellations to feature by itself on a national flag (the Australian and New Zealand flags are two examples). The Southern Cross is indeed a special constellation.
Some more details to the reasoning
The Wikipedia entry lists the conventional explanations for the Star of Bethlehem.
One problem with the conventional interpretations is that a conjunction of planets can be seen almost anywhere. There is no reason to go to Jerusalem or Bethlehem to see a planetary conjunction. From Jerusalem, a planetary conjunction would be nowhere near Bethlehem as a landmark on the horizon. The Magi could have pointed directly at the stars and planets on the ecliptic and the people in Herod’s court would have certainly known about the wandering planets. There would have been no confusion. And astrological reasoning about regal stars being associated with certain marginal tribes can sound silly at times. Every culture would have significant associations for prominent stars like Regulus. The Magi were from a different culture.
Software such as Stellarium and Cartes du Ciel (Skychart) can be easily used to verify these astronomical claims about Acrux. Google Maps shows that Bethlehem is about 10 kilometers to the south of Jerusalem. I am unaware of any other credible references that propose that Acrux could be the fabled Star of Bethlehem.
Finally, Acrux is indeed a ‘star’, unlike other proposed phenomena, and it meets all the criteria for the Star of Bethlehem. The reason why the Three Wise Men from the East were passing through the vicinity of Jerusalem/Bethlehem may not match the Biblical accounts, but you could credibly say that such a visit was possible if they were actually following the star Acrux in the hope of seeing it better.
A previous post about the Bethlehem Star includes an animation of the stars to the south before sunrise. Click on image below to see the animation.
This new interpretation for the Star of Bethlehem proposes that there was a cultural misunderstanding between the Magi and the people in Herod’s court. The story in the Gospels is from the perspective of the people of Jerusalem who witness these mysterious visitors from the east and wonder at why they would want to travel to Jerusalem in the first place (and possibly bestowing lavish gifts upon the king – Herod – seemingly in order to guarantee safe passage for their through-fare) and then to see them leave to the south (in the direction of Bethlehem) in such a hurry. The story is as the people of Jerusalem would have understood it given their limited understanding. The story’s content may have become embellished in the time leading up to when the Gospels were written – as is common with mythology (see Mircea Eliade, The sacred and the Profane: The nature of Religion, Harcourt, New York, 1959). This new interpretation is a hypothetical framework for what could have actually happened.
The basic premise of this new interpretation is that the Magi were astronomers who had traveled a long distance to gain a better view of a particular star they knew was gradually disappearing below the horizon. They would have known that they had only a small window of time during the year to make their observations and they must have been ecstatic once they achieved their goal. Depending on where you happen to be on the planet and which star you were following, most stars would rise in the east, move the the west and either set below the horizon or stop being visible at sunrise – and that would happen just about on every night when an observation is possible.
The exuberance of the magi, and their generous gifts, were misunderstood by the people in Jerusalem. They interpreted the behaviour of the Magi as if they were acting within their Hebrew culture. The more details the Magi gave of their empirical observation and the more embellished the attempts at translation, the more convinced people in Herod’s court must have been that they were talking culturally about the birth of their Messiah. They would almost certainly have spoken different languages and would have been unaware of each others’ cultures. The people in Jerusalem thought that the star had literally descended from the firmament (the sky as a solid vault) to hang just above Bethlehem and that the star signaled the birth of the Messiah. The Magi eventually fled once they realised things were amiss. Yet strangely enough, this event did signal the birth of Jesus who is now recognised around the world as the Messiah for Christians. The story is multi-layered. The actors themselves may not have even had an inkling of the roles they were playing at the time. This new perspective points towards a new engagement for Christianity with other cultures and the modern world. It is a positive development for Christianity.
Another summary of this perspective is at www.astronomy.com
Please feel free to leave a comment about these ideas below or write about this proposition on your own website or blog. An article published in a newspaper or journal would put this idea into the public domain so that it can be thoroughly debated and tested. I think this perspective is reasonable and that the ideas can be verified. I also think that this new perspective is with the spirit of the Christian message. Acrux is a link between the Christ-child as a historical baby born in Bethlehem and as an archetype stepping down from the heavens to walk briefly upon the earth… (many people today don’t really understand modernity, nor the power of symbols)
So the next time you look at the Star at the top of a Christmas Tree just think that it could be a representation of the star Alpha Crucis (Acrux) of the Southern Cross as it may have appeared just above the horizon in the early dawn of a new era – touching the tops of trees as the Star of Bethlehem around 2000 years ago when looking south from the vicinity of Jerusalem… What else could it be…
The Southern sky lacks a easily visible pole star so the Southern Cross with the Pointer Stars of Centaurus (Alpha and Beta Centauri) are used to locate the Southern Celestial Pole. Symbolically this is quite relevant and Alpha Crucis – in particular – is an appropriate candidate for being the Star of Bethlehem. The Southern Celestial Pole is a fixed point in the night sky. The Celestial Poles move in a 25,700 year cycle due to the precession of the equinoxes. In the Northern Hemisphere there is a bright star, Polaris, that is currently the closest to the Northern Celestial Pole. There will be other nearby stars that will take the place of the current Northern Hemisphere Pole Star Polaris during the 25,700 precessional cycle. The Southern Cross, by contrast, will always be pointing towards the Southern Celestial Pole and could always be relied upon as a reference point. Symbolically, this is important…
18 August 2011
The Three Wise Men may have indeed referred to the Bethlehem Star as belonging to the constellation that looks like a newly born babe. Imagine Acrux as a baby’s right foot, Becrux as the right hand, Gacrux as the left hand, Delta Crucis as the left foot and you will notice that Epsilon Crucis is strategically placed… The Southern Cross is indeed the baby of the constellations in the sky today, being the smallest in area. You might even imagine a halo in the following flag design. Its not a reason, only a symbol…
And what constellation is most prominent near Crux – the baby lying on its back? Centaurus is half horse and half human. The horses’ legs of the centaur are on either side of Crux. Just imagine that the people in Herod’s court misunderstood a description of constellations above Bethlehem in the early morning as an actual event on earth. In a small town like Bethlehem, where would horses (Centaurus) be kept? In a stable of course. How could a new-born baby (Crux) be lying on its back in a stable? In a manger? The story of Jesus’ birth in a stable with the Bethlehem star overhead points to a story derived from the heavens. After 70 or so years the story took on a mythical aspect and was recorded in the way we now know. Perhaps the Three Wise Men were a little too excited by the attention they were receiving in Herod’s court and their badly translated stories of the constellations were misunderstood.
Some pictures below demonstrate how the Southern Cross could be visualised as a new-born baby lying on its back. Originally posted in: http://becrux.net/2011/08/21/heavenly-baby/
The picture of the ‘Heavenly Baby’ is from the cover of the album “Chain Reaction” by John Farnham. The images of the Constellations is from the software Stellarium.
Finally, an aside: the common use of a star at the top of a Christmas Tree suggests to me a star that is moving just above the horizon – so that it looks like the star is touching the tops of trees.This practice again suggests Acrux as the Star of Bethlehem.
More posts about the Bethlehem Star are in the category http://becrux.net/category/bethlehemstar/