What Was the Star of Bethlehem?
- Tuesday, December 09, 2008
One of our most frequently asked questions, especially around this time of year, is "what was the Star of Bethlehem?" I don't like this question and always wince every time it comes up. The truth is, I don't know the answer, and in fact, no one else does either, in spite of what you might hear. If there was a clear-cut answer to this question, everyone would already know the answer and wouldn't have to ask.
Whenever people ask about the Star of Bethlehem, they want to know if there was an actual recorded astronomical event that accompanied the birth of Jesus. But one of the many problems with trying to answer is that we do not know for sure exactly when Jesus was born. Also, even if we suppose a range of years when Jesus might have been born, there are no clear cut astronomical events within that range that would meet all the requirements of the Star of Bethlehem according to Scripture, science, and secular history.
Thus, there are a number of theories that attempt to give a rationalistic, naturalist explanation of the Star of Bethlehem, and it seems that new popular theories make the rounds all the time. After pondering the evidence and the various theories over the years, I've concluded that the Star of Bethlehem must have been a supernatural event, not a natural occurrence of astronomy. We'll look at some of that evidence in this article.
When Was Jesus Born?
Ironically, though Jesus is the most important person in history, there is not a lot of specific information about His life outside the Gospels, and Scripture does not provide a great amount of detail. Modern chronology can give us accurate dates for the births of Julius Caesar, Caesar Augustus, and a great number of other ancient personages, but not of Jesus himself.
The Bible gives us many clues but none that can be specifically correlated with recorded historical events. For example, Luke 2:1-2 indicates "a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed" which occurred "when Cyrenius was governor of Syria." Scholars debate back and forth when this might have been, based on the sketchy records that have survived of the early Roman empire.
Matthew 2:1 states that "Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king." Traditionally, Jesus' birth is dated to 4 B.C based on a clue recorded by Flavius Josephus, the first century Jewish historian. Josephus wrote of the execution of two seditionists, both named Matthias, stating "and that very night there was an eclipse of the moon." Modern astronomy has dated this eclipse to the night of March 13, 4 B.C.
Since Josephus indicates the death of Herod as being soon thereafter, many scholars infer that Jesus must have been born sometime in that year. It also happens that since 4 B.C. was the 750th anniversary of the founding of Rome, and the 25th year of Caesar Augustus' rule, scholarship concludes that this was a likely time for Caesar to order a census. If all this sounds like a stretch, it should at least indicate the difficulties in trying to draw conclusions from scanty historical evidence.
So what was the Star of Bethlehem?
In addition to the chronological problems with dating the birth of Jesus, we then must determine whether there are historical records of any astronomical events that meet the requirements. Also, no one is sure exactly what sort of celestial event would have signified the birth of the "King of the Jews" to "wise men from the east," traditionally regarded as Persian astrologers.
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