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Monday, December 21, 2009

The Star of Bethlehem

One question that often comes up around this time of year is what the star of Bethlehem was.  The star of Bethlehem is the star that heralded the birth of Jesus Christ.  Many theories have been suggested as to what it could have been.  It's difficult to determine exactly what it was because not much was actually said about it.  Here is an excerpt from chapter 2 of the book of Matthew:

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, Wise-men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying,
Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we saw his star in the east, and are come to worship him.
And when Herod the king heard it, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
And gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ should be born.
And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written through the prophet,
And thou Bethlehem, land of Judah, Art in no wise least among the princes of Judah: For out of thee shall come forth a governor, Who shall be shepherd of my people Israel.
Then Herod privily called the Wise-men, and learned of them exactly what time the star appeared.
And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search out exactly concerning the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word, that I also may come and worship him.
And they, having heard the king, went their way; and lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.
And when they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.

Matthew keeps it simple, he just says they saw a star.  Apparently a star that can move, and not just along the normal progression of the stars in the night sky.  There have been several suggestions as to what the star might have been.
  • Comet - A comet would explain the sudden appearance of a star and could even appear to stay in the same place for a while.  Although we base our calendar today on the birth of Jesus, most people seem to think Jesus was actually born around 4 BC, as opposed to the year 0.  Halley's comet is said to have flown by around 12 BC, but that would be too early.  I suppose it's possible another comet could have gone by, possibly a comet that rarely ever passes by earth and has not been recorded before.  There is a whole universe out there, so I guess we shouldn't necessarily assume we have recorded every comet that ever has or ever will pass by the earth.  However, there is a flaw in the comet theory. A comet may appear suddenly and appear to stay in one spot, but therein lies the problem.  The star of Bethlehem didn't stay in one spot.  It moved over to the location of Jesus' house.  
  • Supernova - A supernova is an exploding star that would give off an enormous amount of light.  This could account for the sudden appearance of another star.  It's possible it may have been too faint to see, but after going supernova, the added brightness may have made it visible.  Still, we have the problem with the movement of the star.  A supernova wouldn't move outside of the normal progression of stars.
  • Astrological conjunction - Considering that the magi from the east were probably astrologers, this sounds like it might be a good explanation.  Here is one suggestion of what the astrological sign might have been:
  • John Mosley, program supervisor for the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles believes the Christmas star was a rare series of planetary conjunctions that took place in during the years 3 B.C. and 2 B.C. "The show started on the morning of June 12 in 3 B.C., when Venus could be sighted very close to Saturn in the eastern sky," says an MSNBC article about Mosley's findings. "Then there was a spectacular pairing of Venus and Jupiter on Aug. 12 in the constellation Leo, which ancient astrologers associated with the destiny of the Jews. Between September of 3 B.C. and June of 2 B.C., Jupiter passed by the star Regulus in Leo, reversed itself and passed it again, then turned back and passed the star a third time. This was another remarkable event, since astrologers considered Jupiter the kingly planet and regarded Regulus as the 'king star.' The crowning touch came on June 17, when Jupiter seemed to approach so close to Venus that, without binoculars, they would have looked like a single star."
    It appears to be in the right timeframe and may even explain how the star was able to move in the sky.  Even the astrological significance of the event sounds kind of fitting.  However, the passage in Matthew says that the star went and stood over the location where Jesus was.  It doesn't say the star just moved in the sky and then the wise men went towards the direction of the star until they bumped into Jesus' house. Perhaps that is what it meant, but that isn't what it actually says.  It said it stood over the house.                                                                                                   
    (Update 11/26/12: I've come to prefer this explanation since I originally wrote this piece.  See my new posting about this here.)
  • UFO - In the strictest definition of the acronym, I suppose you could say the star was an unidentified flying object.  That's not to say it was necessarily a metal spaceship built by aliens, it's just saying that it was an unidentified flying object.  But, some kind spaceship would explain how it was able to change positions in the sky.  
These are the most common explanations.  We now know that stars are actually big balls of burning plasma, and they maintain a normal progression in the sky.  So we know that a star itself didn't just move out of its normal progression because stars can't do that.....

......or can they?  It wouldn't be the last time a star moved - or at least appeared to move - out of its normal progression.  In Fatima, Portugal in 1917, thousands of people saw the sun spin around and 'dance' in sky.  The dancing sun was accompanied by an apparition who called herself the Lady of the Rosary (presumed to be Mary, the mother of Jesus, by Catholics).   Of course, billions of other people didn't notice the sun doing this, so apparently the so called 'miracle of the sun' was only visible to those people assembled in the Cova da Iria fields in Fatima (and apparently not everyone in attendance there saw the sun do anything out of the ordinary).  But the fact that only a limited number of people observed the sun dance may be significant.  If you read chapter 2 of the book of Matthew, it seems that Herod and the Judeans hadn't noticed the star had appeared.  Not only that, considering the passage says the wise men  followed the star to Jesus' house, it may be that the wise men were the only ones that saw the star move.  I don't know what the Lady of the Rosary did to make the sun appear to move in the sky in front of thousands of people, but if she could do it, I suppose a similar event could have occurred a couple thousand years ago with another star.

Even if what the Lady of the Rosary did and what happened in Bethlehem in 2000 years ago are totally unrelated phenomena, I don't think we should assume that it wasn't some other kind of supernatural event.  I mean, it's not like it's the only supernatural event recorded in the Bible.  Unless you are someone who is 100% skeptical of anything supernatural, there's no reason  to assume that the appearance and movement of the star of Bethlehem couldn't have been a supernatural event.

However, there is another question about the star of Bethlehem that I think often gets overlooked.  People are so busy trying to figure out what it could have been, they don't bother to ask why the wise men associated the appearance of the star with the birth of Christ.  I've asked that question before, and no one seems to have a good answer.  Sometimes people don't seem to even understand the question when I ask.  They'll answer by trying to explain what the star was.  But that's not what I was asking.  What I'm asking is how did the wise men know exactly what the significance of the star was?  How did they know to travel west to Bethlehem to visit Jesus?  How did they know the star appeared because of the birth of Christ?

The only answer I've ever really gotten is the suggestion that maybe the Jews, who were held captive in Babylon and Persia for 70 years, passed along a story of a star appearing that would herald the birth of the Christ.  It sounds plausible that eastern astrologers might have learned about Jewish traditions while the Jews were held captive, however, there is no record of a Jewish tradition concerning a star appearing at the birth of the Christ.  Some people have suggested that Numbers 24:17 is a prophecy of the star of Bethlehem, but I disagree.  I think the passage has been taken out of context, and furthermore, the passage doesn't specify anything about what the star would look like or where it would appear in the sky.  So if Jews living during the Babylonian captivity passed along a tradition about a star appearing to herald the birth of the Christ, then that tradition has been lost to history.

So I'm still left wondering how the wise men knew what to associate the appearance of the star with.  If we knew the answer to that, we might be able to figure what the star was (or which one appeared to move).  I guess it's just one of history's mysteries though.

Update 11/26/12: I now prefer the astrological conjuction theory and have written a new posting about it.  Click the link below to read it.

The Star of Bethlehem revisited


  1. This is an interesting discussion. I know some people who think the star was the glow of the UFO dropping off the alien Jesus to teach us of our origins. Hmm... To each his own.

  2. Hi Jeff: Watch the Science Section in my UFO blogs today. I had picture I used last year that I linked this post of yours too. It's pretty neat.

  3. Cool...I checked out the picture, it looks good!

  4. I was very interested in this show but found some of what it said contrary to what I was taught in school. The Magi, we were taught, traveled 3 years to get to Bethlehem and Jesus was already 3 years old at the time of their arrival. We were also told that Jesus' birth started A.D. and that is why A.D. is called the "Year of our Lord" because it marked the beginning of the New Testament and his birth. That's the reason the calendar is off by 3 years or more. So Jesus was actually born B.C. (before Christ), but as he was the Christ the calendar had to be reset.

    1. Yes, it is also my understanding that the Magi arrived well after Jesus' birth. I was thinking more like 2 years than 3 though. But pinpointing a specific date for his birth can be rather difficult and may not even be possible at this pout. I wrote a post about the Christmas story here: http://www.historiesmysteriesandstrangeness.com/2009/11/christmas-story.html