when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of King
Herod, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying
"Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we
have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him."...Then
Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them
what time the star appeared; and he sent them to Bethlehem,
saying, "Go and search diligently for the child, and when
you have found him bring me word, that I too may come and worship
him." When they had heard the king they went their way;
and lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before
them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was.
When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great
joy, and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his
mother, and they fell down and worshiped him.
Matthew 2:1-2 and 2:7-10
For hundreds of years pundits have speculated
about the nature of the star in the Christmas story. Some skeptics
have suggested it never existed, but was added by the author
of the gospel to show the significance of Jesus' birth. Others
think that it was a special miracle of divine nature that cannot
be explained. It was created by God for this one event and perhaps
not visible to any but those who needed to see it.
However, there is a third possibility. Suppose
the star was an actual astronomical event (though with divine
timing)? Are there phenomena in space that could explain what
the wise men saw? Can we find evidence beyond the scriptures
of its existence?
The first thing that needs to be established in
a search for an astronomical star of Bethlehem is the date of
Jesus' birth. This seems a simple matter, December 25th the
year "0," right? Unfortunately there is reason to
believe that neither the date nor the year is correct. Until
what we refer to as 535 A.D., the years were numbered not from
the birth of Christ, but by dates based on Roman history. By
535 A.D. Christian practices had replaced most of the pagan
Roman religions that proceeded it and at that time the task
to change the numbering of years was given to a Scythian monk
named Dionysius Exiguus. Dionysius based his new calendar on
the birth of Christ. He calculated the date of that event by
working backwards through the reigns of Roman emperors.
While mostly successful in building this new calendar,
it appears Dionysius made some mistakes. The first is that he
omitted the year zero, making the calendar jump from 1 B.C.
to 1 A.D.. Also, scholars working in the first and second century
A.D. who had access to better documentation than Dionysius seem
to place the birth of Christ up to five years earlier. Many
modern scholars figure the birth to be somewhere between 6-4
The day of the year we celebrate Christmas has
little to do with Jesus' birth, but was chosen to replace pagan
holidays that occurred during the winter. The Bible tells us
that angels announced the birth of Christ to shepherds in the
fields. It can be argued that it is most likely the shepherds
were in the fields overnight with their sheep in the spring.
During late March and early April, ewes would have been giving
birth to lambs and would have needed the extra attention and
protection of their keepers nearby. However, there were flocks
whose shepherds slept with them in the fields almost year around,
so it is hard to pinpoint any particular season for the nativity.
The wise men, sometimes referred to as Magi,
came from the "East" according to the book of Matthew.
But where in the east? Tradition tells of the three "kings"
that visited the baby Jesus bearing presents. Nowhere in the
Bible, though, are either the number of wise men noted (early
bible commentators probably inferred three from the number of
gifts) or that they were of noble blood. In fact, the Bible
does not even state that the wise men all came from the same
place "in the East!"
Many authors on this subject believe that the
wise men came from the area of Babylon and there is much to
support this theory. Babylon is almost directly east of Jerusalem.
The Babylonians were considered to be great astrologers that
kept astronomical records reaching back two-thousand years before
the birth of Christ. Perhaps, most importantly, in 586 B.C.
the Babylonians invaded and captured Jerusalem. Thousands of
Jews were forced to relocate and live in Babylon. Though many
returned to Jerusalem at the end of this "Babylonian captivity,"
the area continued to have a large Jewish population for many
centuries. This made it likely that wise men of Babylon knew
of and were interested in the prophecies of a coming Jewish
Messiah. It is even possible that the Magi themselves were descendants
of original captive Jews that never left Babylon.
Some claims have been made that the Magi were
Persian, Arabian, or even Greek. Whoever they were, they must
have had a good understanding of the Hebrew messianic prophecy.
In the Old Testament Book of Numbers, the soothsayer Balaam
says, "I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near-a
star shall come forth out of Jacob and a scepter shall rise
out of Israel..." At least some Jewish scholars would have
interpreted this passage and others to say that at the birth
of the Messiah there would be a celestial sign. By the end of
the first century B.C. they might have been looking for this
sign for almost a thousand years. Whatever the sign was it would
have to be unique, otherwise the wise men, or their predecessors,
would have had made useless trips to Jerusalem many times during
the millennia proceeding Jesus' birth.
the star a Comet?
were sometimes known as "long-haired stars"
Comets have often been mentioned as a possible
candidate for the Bethlehem's star. These objects, composed
of ice and rock, often move around the sun in highly elongated
orbits that may take them out to the edge of the solar system
before they swing back again toward the sun. As they enter the
center of the solar system, the warmth of the sun slowly melts
the ice, causing the head of the comet to be surrounded by a
haze of vapor and dust. The solar wind catches the vapor and
blows it back toward the edge of the solar system in a characteristic
tail. Since comets change position in the sky (unlike regular
stars), could explain how the magi's star was first seen in
the east, then later was seen directly in front of the wise
men as they traveled south from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Many
comets are visible for several months, just the amount of time
the Magi would have needed to mount an expedition and travel
to Jerusalem if they were coming from Babylon.
Some sixteenth century astronomers proposed that
not only was the star of Bethlehem a comet, but an earlier appearance
of the most famous comet of all time, Comet Halley. The famous
English astronomer Edmond Halley had successful predicted the
return of this visitor from the edge of interstellar space in
1759 (though Halley himself was dead by then) by noticing its
reappearance every 76.5 years. By calculating backwards, it
seemed likely that the comet had been visible around 1 B.C.
Though most people were disappointed by the showing
of the Comet Halley when it came by the Earth in 1986, its appearance
in the skies at the beginning of the first millennia would have
been a spectacular sight, making it an obvious candidate for
the star. Unfortunately, further refinements of the orbital
period of the Comet Halley show that it takes almost 77 years
on average to travel around the sun. That means it would have
appeared in the skies in 12 B.C., too early to be the star the
If not Comet Halley, could it have been some other
comet? Records kept by Chinese astronomers through this period
do not record any spectacular celestial object that would obviously
be a comet. There are also some historical reasons to think
the star was not a comet. In general, comets were thought to
be evil omens. More often they would signal the death of a king,
not a birth. When a comet appeared in 79 A.D., astrologers wondered
if it would mean the death of Emperor Vespasian. Vespasion,
alluding to the term "long-haired star" used for comets,
joked that the comet must have been meant for the Parthian King,
who wore his hair long, not for himself, Vespasian, who was
bald. Despite his clever pun, Vespasian died within a year.
Could the star have actually been a planet like
Venus or Jupiter? It seems extremely unlikely. The Magi, as
professional astrologers, would have been very familiar with
these heavenly bodies and not mistaken them for a "star."
However, there is a case to be made that the star was not a
single planet, but a conjunction of two planets. Conjunctions
occur when planets, which travel in roughly along the same circle
through the sky, pass each other. Conjunctions are rather common
and would not seem to be a significant enough event to send
the Magi on a five-hundred mile trip to Jerusalem. More rare
is a triple conjunction. This occurs when a planet appears
to travel backward in the sky in a movement known as retrograde
motion. This can cause two planet to pass each other, then
one backs up and they pass each other again, and finally pass
each other a third time as normal forward movement is resumed.
A triple conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn
occurred in 7 B.C. and has been mentioned as a possible candidate
for the star of Bethlehem. Even making the display more impressive
was a massing (a massing is when several planets move into close
proximity in the sky) of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn that immediately
followed the conjunction. The conjunctions and massing also
occurred in the constellation of Pisces which was often identified
with the Jews.
Astronomer Mark Kidger, author of Star of Bethlehem:
An Astronomer's View, argues that even a triple conjunction
was too common to qualify, in itself, as the star. The interval
between triple conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn can be as
short as 40 years or as long as 377 years with an average of
around 180 years. Kidger reasons that if the triple conjunction
alone was the event for which the Magi were watching, a triple
conjunction in 146 B.C. should have sent the wise men or their
predecessors on their way almost 150 years too early.
Michael Molnar, an astronomer at Rutgers University,
has suggested that the star might have actually been an occultation
of Jupiter by the moon. An occultation occurs when the moon
passes in front of another body, making it disappear from the
sky. Molnar, also an expert in ancient coins, came up with the
theory after purchasing a coin minted in Antioch in 13 A.D..
The Antioch coin shows a ram looking at a bright star close
to a crescent Moon. Molnar, author of The Star of Bethlehem:
The Legacy of the Magi, thinks that the coin shows that
occultations were of great significance to these ancient peoples.
During 6 B.C. two occultations of Jupiter by the Moon occurred
that were visible from the middle eastern region. The Magi would
have seen Jupiter, the royal planet, disappear and reappear,
perhaps signalling to them the birth of a King. The constellation
that these occurred in, Ares the Ram, was associated with the
a coin from the ancient city of Antioch hold the key
to the Christmas star?
One of the problems with this theory is that these
particular occultations would have been very difficult to see
from Jerusalem and one of them impossible to observe from Babylon.
Molnar argues, however, that the Magi were skilled enough to
know that the occultation had occurred without having seen it.
One difficulty of both the conjunction and occultation
explanations is that both involve multiple objects in the sky.
The passage from Matthew uses the Greek term "aster"
the singular, not "asteres" the plural. It is likely
that if the text referred to a group of objects in the sky the
word "astron," which means constellation, would have
been employed.. If the author knew that planets were involved
he could have also used the word "planes aster" that
specifically meant planet.
Could the star be a meteor, sometimes referred
to as a "shooting star?" These objects, most no larger
than a grain of sand, appear as streaks in the sky usually lasting
less than a second. They seem to be too common, however, to
be considered a candidate for the star. Rarely a large meteor
enters the atmosphere and does not burn up until it approaches
the ground. Such a phenomenon is referred to as a "fireball"
and may last 5 or 10 seconds, leaving a trail of glowing smoke
behind it. On extremely infrequent occasions, fireballs can
be seen for several minutes. Certainly an object observed in
the sky like this would have created much interest among the
Magi, especially if it appeared in the east and crossed to the
west toward Jerusalem.
For this theory to match the Matthew account,
two fireballs would be required, one to start the Magi on their
journey and another appearing as they approached Bethlehem.
Statistically this is unlikely, though it cannot be completely
Occasionally a white dwarf star, which is part
of a binary system, can blow off its upper layers in a violent
explosion that will increase its brightness. This is referred
to as a nova and can be as much as 50,000 times as bright
as our sun. The star could be nearly invisible to the naked
eye and within a few days become a bright star in the night
sky that may last from several months to over a year.
Sometimes stars end their lives by going supernova
in an explosion whose force can barely be conceived. A supernova
can be 100 billion times as bright as the sun and last up to
two years. If it occurs within our own galaxy it may be brighter
than the moon and visible in full daylight. Supernovas within
our galaxy are very rare and the list of probable and possible
supernova events that have been observed over the last 2000
years contains only nine entries. When supernovas do happen
they are spectacular. A supernova seen in 1054 left behind an
expanding cloud of gas and dust we now refer to as the Crab
Nebula. Earth may be treated to a spectacular supernova in the
near (next thousand years) future when Betelgeuse, a red giant
star 500 light years away, explodes. It is nearing the end of
its life and is very unstable. Indeed there is the possibility
that Betelgeuse has already exploded, but the light from this
event has not yet reached us.
Was the star of Bethlehem a nova or supernova?
Chinese records show no supernovas around 5 BC, however they
do report a new star appearing in the constellation of Capricorn
between March 10th and April 27th. This could have been a nova
or a comet on a peculiar path. Kidger argues that although this
star was not particularly bright, when combined with the earlier
sightings of conjunctions, massing and parings in the constellation
Pisces (identified with the Jews) it would have been enough
to send the wise men on their journey. Kidger points to the
triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 7 B.C. as the first
sign, a massing of Jupiter, Saturn and Mars together in the
sky in 6 B.C. as the second sign, and the pairing of the Moon
and Jupiter plus a pairing of Mars and Saturn in February 5
B.C. as the final sign proceeding the March appearance of the
new star. Kidger also notes that if the Magi had taken about
three months to make their journey, the star would have moved
from a position in the east to a position in the south ( the
direction of Bethlehem coming from Jerusalem) just because of
the seasonal movement of the night sky.
So what was the Bethlehem's star? A conjunction?
An occultation? A fireball? A nova or supernova? We can probably
never really know for sure without being able to get into the
Magi's heads to know what they thinking as they made their decision
to set off for Jerusalem. It will remain a mystery for us to
speculate on as we watch the beauty of the night sky and ponder
what role it played in the Christmas story.
Star of Bethlehem
Krystek 2000. All Rights Reserved.