"Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and have come to worship him" (Matthew 2:1-2)
"... and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was." (Matt.2:3-10).
Here is the synopsis: Two of the Gospels (Matthew and Luke) give stories of Jesus's birth, and in Matthew a star appeared signaling the birth of a new King of the Jews. This star was mystic (or mythic) enough to cause some Magi to come to Israel to find him. The Magi met the ruling King of the Jews (Herod) and told him that the star foretold a new king being born. The ruling King proceeded to put out an order to kill all male children 2 years and younger. The Magi found Jesus and gave him gifts. Jesus's family escaped into Egypt and lived there until the death of Herod.
Not much more to the story but a lot in that little bit. A 'star' could be a whole variety of stellar objects, but some of the more interesting can be rejected. A meteor is too short lived. A comet is usually attributed to evil or bad tidings. A nova would be good - it would correlate a new star to a new king - but the only known candidate novae are too dim to have warranted all the attention.
Most likely the star was a conjunction of planets. And many have been proposed. Kepler (who started all this speculation) proposed a conjunction of Jupiter (the King planet) with Saturn (the defender planet of Palestine), later joined by Mars, in the constellation Pisces (associated with the Jews, as well as with epochal events) in 7 BC. A similar epochal formation of planets occurred in 6 BC, with all seven planets in the pre-dawn sky, arrayed around the heavens, with Jupiter as the kingpin. Jupiter later went into retrograde orbit, then stopped in the sky when it went back to the normal procession across the ecliptic - which seems to fit the Gospel account of the Star wandering then stopping over Bethlehem. Others have proposed a Jupiter conjunction with multiple planets during its retrograde orbit in 3 BC, and again in 1 BC.
(Note on dates for those who know the Gospels: The Gospel of Matthew has Herod the Great still alive during the birth of the Christ. Most historians place his death at 4 BC, although there is an argument he died in 1 BC. The Gospel of Luke dates the birth from a census that most historians attribute to one conducted in 6 AD, based on the name of the governor of Syria mentioned in Luke. This puts it so outside the range that our earnest Star gazers ignore Luke, and indeed this inconsistency is cited as a major historical problem with the Gospels. The Bible, however, oft surprises. The named governor had also served an earlier term as a legate or military commander to Syria, and during his first tenure were two suitable censuses - one in 8 BC that would have gotten the family in Bethlehem in time for a birth in 7 BC, and the other in 3 BC.)
Problem with all of these suggestions is we lack sufficient historical knowledge to know the context - what event would have gotten the Magi to come all that way?
Who were these Magi? The root is the same as "Magician", and means Wise Man or Wizard. Probably astronomers, or astrologers, or both. According to a 1999 analysis by Molnar, they may have been Zoroastrian priests - the Zoroastrian philosophy included the expectation of a Messiah born of a virgin - from the great Parthian Empire, which at this time rivaled Rome. Could have possibly been an embassy to the Israelites to suggest an alliance with the new king. Probably were surprised by the can of worms they had dug up when Herod went after the newborn kids.
How would they have known Jewish myths? In around 600 BC the Jews had been captured and brought to Babylon. During that period a prophet Daniel had predicted the Messiah, and gave timing. (Interesting, his timing can calculate out exactly to Apr 3, 33 AD, when most scholars believe Jesus was crucified.) The Jews were allowed back to Israel, but many stayed on. Quite possibly the Magi were steeped in their myths and history. There is a lot that has been stripped from history of this period. My own investigations suggest that Judeo-Christianity has roots in religious notions of the Megalithic people who built Stonehenge, and were the world's first great astronomers (that we know of). The design of the Jewish Temple, for example, has pillars with sight lines to the summer and winter solstices, and the Temple was oriented to take advantage of various solar angles.
In addition to Daniel there were other Prophets of the Messiah, especially Isaiah. And various books of the Bible discuss stars, including a reference in Numbers:
[T]here shall come a star out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel. (Num.24:17)
We can assume the Magi knew all of this and more, the more being lost in history.
Hence if the Star story is real, the Star must have been something which connected to Jewish mythology of a Messiah or King. It could not be any old King, or they would not have come at that particular time. Many of the candidate conjunctions of various planets in various constellations for the Star could have applied to any King of Israel, and so lack uniqueness to the one and only Messiah.
(BTW it is not clear if the Star story is true. It sounds remarkably like another Star story, from 63 BC, that Magi came to the Roman Senate to announce that a King of the Romans had been born. A half-hearted attempt was made then to weed him out, but the Romans were losing their superstitions. Turns out to have been prophetic - it was the birth year of the first Emperor, Augustus. Maybe the Christians added their version to add legitimacy to the Gospels.)
That is why I think this Star must have been not just predictable but actually foretold, and the Magi were watching for its emergence.
The reason for the confusion over the Star is lack of context - we no longer know what would have been a convincing Star in that period. Indeed, this very mechanistic search for some stellar event, so symptomatic of our scientific times, is the wrong way to find the Star. The Star first and foremost had religious significance, and our search for the Star needs to start there - with Judaism, and the prophecies of a Messiah.
The Star needs be compelling enough to have drawn the Magi on a long journey from (mostly likely) Persia to Bethlehem, yet not so obvious as to have risen to Herod's attention - he had to have the Star explained to him by the Magi. Once explained, he then took it so seriously he sought to kill all the newly born in Bethlehem.
What would help make it so compelling is if it were predicted or prophesized. The premise that the Star was an unexpected, singular event that somehow the Magi figured out, like a puzzle in the sky, is ahistorical. Messiahs were in the water, so to speak. Daniel's prophesies had including timing, and it was expected that the Messiah would come around the First Century. Perhaps the Star was similarly predictable? If so, its appearance would have signaled to the Magi that the prophesized events were coming to pass.
It would also need to tie in Jewish history.
The star-like object in Jewish history is the Shekinah, often described as the Light of God. It is usually described as the presence or Light of God. Burning Bush - Shekinah light. Pillar of light in the sky - Shekinah light.
It is not today attributed to a star, but what if our interpretation has evolved, and in those days among the Jewish priesthood it was known to be a rare but recurring stellar event? This is the premise for a new candidate Star of Bethlehem.
Historically, we know the Shekinah appeared at the dedication of the Temple of Solomon in 967 BC. It also provided the light at night during the Exodus, and shone at Moses's birth.
In 967 BC, there was a conjunction of Venus and Mercury in the morning sky. Could this be the Shekinah? These planets come close off and on, but every 480 years they come very close, when both are very bright. They would appear as a brilliant dagger - or a cross - in the morning sky, pointing down. In 7 BC, this conjunction happened again. Could this be the Star of Bethlehem?
The Shekinah is described as coming and going depending on God's will, not in a regular pattern. The conjunction happens more often than 480 years, with varying levels of brightness and closeness. Hence the Shekinah could sometimes appear bright, but often not, and without seeing the larger pattern, could appear a bit random. This period of 480 years is very long, much longer than the experience and astronomical knowledge of most societies. But if nothing else, the ancients were attentive astronomers, and a few 'Magi' may have noticed the 480 year pattern and kept it a tradition passed down to the priesthood over generations. It certainly corresponds to periods mentioned in the Bible. Jewish tradition has the Exodus as 480 years before the dedication of the Temple, and 960 years after the Flood. While we no longer believe these reflect the real periods of time between those events, the important point is for some unexplained reason, these periods are related to 480 years.
If we call that 480 year period a Shekinah Period, we find that 7 BC is two Shekinah Periods from the dedication of the Temple, three Shekinah Periods from the Exodus and five Shekinah Periods from the Flood - a remarkable confluence of periods worthy of some great event, such as the birth of the Messiah.
The Shekinah has not been noted in history since. It would have re-emerged in 472 AD, about the time of the end of the Roman Empire. But its influence lives on, at least within the heady world of Templars, Freemasons and students of exotic history. Rosslyn Chapel, the center of speculation in The Da Vinci Code as the resting place for great secrets spirited out of the ruins of Solomon's Temple, was built beginning in 1441 AD - three Shekinah periods from the birth of the Christ, had He been born in 1 AD - which they had no reason not to believe back then. Perhaps a coincidence, or perhaps the builders of Rosslyn were aware of the significance of the Shekinah period.
Why would Venus and Mercury matter so much? While we picked up from the Romans the importance of Jupiter, Venus was much more important to ancient people. It provides a very accurate clock. Even up to the 1950s when atomic clocks were created, modern astronomers used to set time via Venus. It makes a circuit every 8 years in the shape of a five-pointed star, and every 40 years returns precisely to where it started.
This Venus knowledge goes way back. The Megalithic People built observatories like Stonehenge to track not just the sun and moon, but also Venus. They also built mysterious buildings with narrow light corridors that opened into rooms surrounded by crystals. (We also see these light corridors in the Great Pyramids - sight lines to stars.) Investigations have determined that some of these mysterious buildings were designed for the crystal room to glow when Venus rose in the morning before the Sun. People used to think the sight lines were for sunrise but they were not quite placed correctly for that. The purpose seems to be rituals surrounding a new king being born. The crystal rooms have a resting place or notch in an altar sized for a baby, but not designed for sacrifice. Speculation is that the new king was placed in the altar in the wee hours so when Venus rose, the Venus light would shine into the crystal room, and the new born babe would receive the blessings of the gods - or perhaps would receive the very soul of the former King, now returned from the heavens and transmuted into the baby. An ancient resurrection myth.
Ancient wisdom was that the rising of Venus presaged a new King being born, hence it is more likely Venus is the key planet in the Christmas Star than Jupiter. In the Gospels, Jesus is compared to Venus, as the new rising star in heaven, but never to Jupiter.
We often wonder what ancient secrets were burned with the Library of Alexandria, or lost in the perishing of ancient religions and cultures. The Shekinah Period and the Star of Bethlehem may be one of those heretofore lost secrets.
What the actual connections were that led to the Magi story are probably truly lost to history. It is quite remarkable speculation that came up with this Venus/Mercury as the Star, and the Star as the Shekinah.The authors of this theory have done a remarkable job of scholarship mixed with speculation, and their new work, The Book of Hiram, is a fascinating journey through history.