Dike describes how, under the right circumstances, a comet recorded in 5 BC could have produced both the night without darkness and the Star of Bethlehem, allowing him to propose a detailed timeline for the events surrounding Christ’s birth.
In this article, Charles Dike proposes that a comet observed by the Chinese in March of 5 BC corresponds to the Star of Bethlehem, and argues that its passing—in conjunction with a strong Coronal Mass Ejection (CME)–could have produced enough light to create a night without darkness in the Western hemisphere, as described in 3 Nephi 1. Drawing in part on the work of physicist Sir Colin Humphreys, Dike strongly favors a comet over other potential options, such as a nova or supernova, since a nova would have been described as a “second sun” rather than a series of
“great lights”, which Dike instead identifies with aurora. Combined with information from scripture, Dike’s proposal allows him to create a detailed timeline for the events surrounding Christ’s birth. (Note that Dike includes several helpful figures that allow us to visualize the comet and its path.)
After describing the basic characteristics of comets, Dike describes the comet as a sungrazer which passed close to the sun as a steep (4.5-degree) angle, ultimately heading toward the star Algedi. It may have had an approach that prevented it from being seen until after it orbited near the sun (similar to the Great September Comet of 1882). In terms of producing enough light to create a night without darkness (which Dike estimates as between 2,000 and 111,000 lux), Dike explores the possibilities of Zodiacal Light and Gegenschein, two phenomena involving interplanetary dust, as well as by the previously-mentioned aurora.
The latter could conceivably been produced (and reached the equatorial area of the American continent) by a large CME. Producing such light without it being noticed on other continents would’ve required the CME to interact with the tail of the comet such that it hit the Earth at a specific range of angles. Dike sees in this comet as potentially fulfilling a variety of scripture, from Samuel’s prophecy, to references to the paschal Lamb to a new star arising, in addition to the New Testament account itself.
To skilled observers with the right tools, the first appearance of this comet would’ve been a unique event, with it emerging from the sun’s corona, looking as if it had been literally born from the sun. This birth would’ve taken place just as new lambs were being set apart for Passover. Assuming that the wise men had the requisite skills, they may have seen the comet before King Herod’s astronomers, appearing first in the east (within the morning sun’s rays) and then moving westward through the sky. The comet would’ve disappeared for a time before briefly reappearing, potentially increasing in brightness up to 300 times as it aligned with its own tail—enough for the wise men to follow it southwest of Herod’s palace toward Bethlehem.
As someone who had always imagined a supernova when reading through 3 Nephi 1, I went into this article prepared to wield a fair bit of skepticism. But Dike’s proposal is nothing if not thorough, and he has me thoroughly intrigued at his comet’s potential. All of the obvious concerns I’d had about the idea of a comet—its ability to generate the requisite brightness and how it might have gone previously unnoticed—have had at least had tentative paths hacked through them by what he’s presented.
Dike is aware that his proposal requires a substantial amount of conjecture. For instance, he proposes that the single location of the comet recorded by the Chinese represents the last point where it was visible, rather than the first. He also makes a number of assumptions about the nature of the comet, including the specificity of the comet’s path and its appearance in conjunction with the CME. He’s in no way suggesting that this sort of event happens all the time, because of course it doesn’t. We’ve only had one recorded night without darkness, and such an unusual event could be expected to have an unusual explanation.
What I like most about Dike’s proposal, though, is how well it ties together the various elements of Christ’s birth narrative. The thought of a celestial object appearing to burst out of the sun, streaking its way across the sky, and then disappearing as it drifted gently over a house containing the young Christ child—that’s a tantalizing image, and almost an irresistible one. I probably won’t be able to imagine the Star of Bethlehem in any other way—a testament to the work that Dike, Humphreys, and others have put forward.