SOUTH BEND, Ind., Dec. 1 (UPI) -- Grant Mathews, a professor of theoretical astrophysics and cosmology at the University of Notre Dame, suggests the "Star of Bethlehem" wasn't a star at all, but an exceedingly rare planetary alignment -- one that may never happen again.
Matthews surveyed historical, astronomical and biblical records in an attempt to recreate the night sky as seen from the Middle East at the time of Jesus' birth. His research revealed a unique arrangement of planets occurring in 6 B.C.
During this time, the sun, the moon, Jupiter and Saturn were aligned within the constellation Aries. Meanwhile, Venus was aligned with the constellation Pisces, and Mercury and Mars were positioned within the constellation Taurus.
The especially bright planets would have bolstered the luminosity of Aries, Matthews suggests, which at the time was in the position of the vernal equinox, marking the beginning of spring. Matthews crunched the numbers, and his simulations suggest a similar alignment won't happen for at least another 500,000 years.
"The Magi would have seen this in the east and recognized that it symbolized a regal birth in Judea," Matthews explained in a news release Thursday. "I feel a kindred connection to these ancient Magi, who earnestly scanned the heavens for insight into the truth about the nature and evolution of the universe, just as we do today."
The Magi were Zoroastrian priests of ancient Babylon and Mesopotamia, who, as the Bible tells it, set out "from the east" to worship the "king of the Jews," after seeing the "Christmas Star."
Matthews isn't the first scholar to attempt to link the Biblical story of the Star of Bethlehem with astronomical phenomenon. Astronomers, historians and Biblical scholars have offered planetary alignments, supernova, comets and other astronomical events as explanation for the Christmas Star.
It is undeniable that ancient philosophers and astrologers believed astronomical phenomena were linked with terrestrial events, and that many looked to the heavens for regal prophecies, but not all scholars agree that the Biblical story of the Magi and the Star of Bethlehem describe historical events.
Some historians suggest the tale is a form of pious fiction, a mythical account created to embellish messianic status of Jesus. Of the four Gospels that describe the Nativity, the Gospel of Mark -- believed to have been written around 66 A.D. -- is the only one to mention the the Magi and the Star of Bethlehem.