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What Was the Star of Bethlehem?

  • Jay Ryan Signs & Seasons
  • 2020 20 Nov
star of bethelem

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.

The Star of Bethlehem in Scripture

Matthew 2:1-11 "After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was."

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.

Three Theories on 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.

Over the years, people have tried to say that the Star of Bethlehem was a supernova, a comet, or the latest popular notion — a triple conjunction of Jupiter and the star Regulus. Let's consider each of these:

The Star was a Supernova 

From time to time in history, a nova was seen in the night sky, a "new star," from the Latin word for "new." Modern science defines a supernova as an exploding star, which shines very brightly for a short time and then goes away. Throughout history, a number of novae have been observed in the night sky. Ancient Chinese astronomers kept a careful record of such new stars, though no such records survive in any Greek, Roman, or other western sources. 

It would be very tempting to suppose the Star of Bethlehem would have been a supernova. Such a unique occurrence is very rare and would be a very conspicuous sign in the sky that would attract a lot of attention. The problem is, there is no historical or scientific evidence of such a supernova. The Chinese did not record any new stars within a suitable period of time.  

Also, supernovae leave behind a remnant in the form of a nebula that can be seen through telescopes on the Earth. The most famous example is the Crab Nebula in the constellation Taurus, the remnant of a supernova that the Chinese observed in A.D. 1054. If there were a supernova that was visible over the latitude of Bethlehem in or around 4 B.C., a remnant nebula should be visible in a certain region of the sky. However, no such object can be found.

The Star was the Triple Conjunction of Jupiter and Regulus

One theory that has been popular in recent years is the notion that the Star of Bethlehem was a very rare triple conjunction of the bright planet Jupiter with the star Regulus in the constellation Leo. In this astronomical event, Jupiter would have had a retrogradation in Leo such that it would have passed this bright star three times. This theory is compelling in that it is full of astrological symbolism that might indicate to a Persian magus that a king was born in Judaea. 

Such a triple conjunction event did actually occur over a span from September, 3 B.C. through May, 2 B.C. Blazingly bright Jupiter, which signifies kingship, passed three times very close to the brightest star of Leo, which might signify Judah (as from the Blessing of Israel, Genesis 49:9). No doubt this was at least a spectacular sight to anyone who saw it at the time. A planetary alignment similar to this was depicted in the recent movie, The Nativity Story

The triple conjunction theory makes the rounds every Christmas and is explained in detail in a DVD from http://www.bethlehemstar.net/. Though a compelling case is made, this triple conjunction event is not a "star" per se (astera, as stated in the Greek text of Matthew 2:2) but rather an alignment of a well-known star and planet.  This triple conjunction is a series of close approaches of these objects spread out over an eight-month period. For these reasons, I personally find this to be an unsatisfying explanation to account for the Star of Bethlehem.  

Also, this conjunction series occurs after the traditionally accepted date of the death of Herod in 4 B.C. as suggested by Josephus. However, scholars are constantly debating over the skimpy facts, so a strong element of guesswork is involved in any of these chronologies or Star theories. 

The Star was a Comet

Over the years, one popular idea is that the Star of Bethlehem was a comet, a celestial object with a long tail that passes through the solar system for a short time. This theory has been around since at least about A.D. 250, with the Christian writer Origen, who wrote:

The star that was seen in the east we consider to have been a new star, unlike any of the other well-known planetary bodies, either those in the firmament above or those among the lower orbs, but partaking of the nature of those celestial bodies which appear at times, such as comets, or those meteors which resemble beams of wood, or beards, or wine jars, or any of those other names by which the Greeks are accustomed to describe their varying appearances.

One popular notion that made the rounds for a while was that the Star of Bethlehem was an appearance of Halley's Comet. It was the astronomer Edmund Halley who, in A.D. 1715, discovered that a number of the famous comets of history were actually reappearances of the same comet. One such reappearance was in A.D. 1305. This reappearance might have been observed by the Italian artist Giotto di Bondone. That very year, Giotto painted a famous fresco entitled Adoration of the Magi, which included a very comet-like depiction of the Star of Bethlehem. However, the arithmetic of the cycle of Comet Halley indicates that it would have revisited the Earth in A.D. 12, much too late to have been within the lifetime of King Herod. 

Another comet theory is explained by astronomer Colin Humphreys who considers a number of historical sources and scientific data, including Chinese observations of comets from the period, concluding that the Star of Bethlehem might indeed have been a comet.   

So What Really Was the Star of Bethlehem Anyway?

In my opinion, all the above theories are in the category of "maybe, maybe not." They all have their compelling arguments and yet none fit all the available facts of science, history, and Scripture. However, as far as I'm concerned, all rationalistic, naturalistic theories to locate a celestial object as the Star of Bethlehem suffer from one major problem: the Star of Bethlehem as described in Scripture does not behave like a natural celestial object. The text of Matthew 2:9 states:    

When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.

So after their audience with Herod in Jerusalem, the star "went before" the wise men, and "stood over" the place where Jesus was. The distance from Jerusalem and Bethlehem is about six miles, maybe a three or four-hour walk. So the wise men could have reached Bethlehem the same night. 

However, natural celestial bodies rise in the east, reach their highest at the meridian, and set toward the west. However, Bethlehem is nearly due south of Jerusalem. Any natural star would pass to their left or right as the wise men headed south from Jerusalem, and would not have "went before" as Scripture indicates.

Also, for a star to have "stood over" a place, it would have to pass through the zenith, otherwise it would appear off to the north or south. There are no visible supernova remnants that pass through the zenith at the latitude of Bethlehem, and neither Jupiter nor Regulus pass overhead at Bethlehem's latitude. A comet could have passed overhead at the latitude of Bethlehem, but there's still a Scriptural problem that every natural celestial body cannot overcome . . . 

Even if a star passes overhead at the latitude of Bethlehem, the text clearly states that the Star of Bethlehem "stood over where the child was." After talking to Herod, the wise men knew they were going to Bethlehem, but the text suggests that the Star led them to the actual location of Jesus, not just the city.

The text of Matthew 2:9 clearly describes an object that "went before" the wise men and "stood over" a precise location. This is not a description of a natural celestial body.  Also, any natural object would pass briefly through the zenith, but would not "stand over" a place, at least not for longer than a moment. A "star" as described in Scripture would have to move around in space and hold a geosynchronous position in the sky against the apparent motion of the sky due to Earth's rotation. 

As mentioned many times in the Update and in our Signs & Seasons curriculum, classical astronomy was well understood for centuries before the New Testament period, and anyone reading the text at that time would likely understand that the object that led the wise men to young Jesus was not a natural celestial object.

Scholars and other modern "wise men" can sort all this out by bogging down with semantics or creatively interpreting the passage.  Either way, as we've seen, Scripture does not supply very much detail, secular history does not offer much support, and science does not offer a plausible naturalistic explanation. 

Given all the above, I just choose to stick with a simple acceptance of the Biblical text and don't attempt to reconcile it with naturalistic speculations. As for me and my house, we choose to understand the Star of Bethlehem to be a supernatural event that guided the wise men, like the angelic hosts that directed the shepherds to the manger.


How Did the Wise Men Know to Follow the Star

How Herod and the People of Jerusalem Missed Out

This article is from the Classical Astronomy Update, a free email newsletter for Christian homeschoolers.  Jay Ryan is also the author of "Signs & Seasons," an astronomy homeschool curriculum.  For more information, visit his website www.ClassicalAstronomy.com.

This article is part of our larger Christmas and Advent resource library centered around the events leading up to the birth of Jesus Christ. We hope these articles help you understand the meaning and story behind important Christian holidays and dates and encourage you as you take time to reflect on all that God has done for us through his son Jesus Christ!

What is Christmas? Understanding History, Origin and Traditions
When Was Jesus Born? History of December 25th
Where Was Jesus Born? 5 Things to Know about Bethlehem
The Birth of Jesus: Bible Story and Scripture Verses
Why Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh Were Given to Baby Jesus
Christmas Bible Verses & Scripture Story

Photo credit: ©Unsplash/AlexanderAndrews

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