THE STAR OF BETHLEHEM
a.k.a. the Christmas star
Matthew 2:2 and 2:9 describes how the Magi (perhaps Zoroastrian astrologers) followed a star that they believed
signaled the birth of the king of the Jews. In the King James Version
(KJV) of the Bible, the passage is somewhat confusing at this
point. It says that the astrologers saw the star in the east, and yet they
traveled west to Jerusalem, while apparently following the star. This appears to
be a mistranslation in the KJV of the Bible, that has been corrected in more
This passage has triggered much speculation as to the exact nature of the
object that they were following. If the "star" could be identified, then the
time of Jesus' birth could be calculated by astronomical observations, perhaps
giving an exact year, month and perhaps even day.
Among those who believe that the "star" is an astronomical object:
||Some believe that it was a super-nova (an exploding star). But the only super-novae
recorded by ancient sources were at 134 BCE and 173 CE. 4
||Others believe that it was a comet. There were comets recorded in 17, 5 & 4 BCE and
66 CE. However, a comet is not a likely candidate, because they were considered
harbingers of doom by astrologers.
||Still others look for an unusual configuration of planets in the sky. There was a triple
conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn during 7 BCE, when the two planets passed each other
three times in Pisces - a constellation long associated with the Jewish people. But the
passage in Matthew refers to a star, not an arrangement of planets.
Problems with the "star" and an astronomical object:
No consensus has been reached as to the nature of the heavenly body that guided the
Magi. It seems most unlikely that the "star" was a either a super-nova, comet or
arrangement of planets. Matthew 2:9 describes how the star stopped over
the place in Bethlehem where the child was. Since Bethlehem was a built-up area, the
"star" could only have been a few hundred feet above ground level in order to
pinpoint a specific building where Jesus was living. If it were a nova, comet or
collection of planets, it would have been millions or tens of millions of miles
away from earth. It would not have stopped over a building; it would have risen in
the east and set in the west.
Residents of 1st century Palestine believed in a three-part universe: a flat earth, a
rigid dome a few thousand feet above the earth, and heaven above the dome of the sky.
Angels were believed to push the sun, moon, stars and planets across the
underside of the sky. In such a universe, it
would have been reasonable for them to assume that God hung out a star from heaven to
indicate the location of Jesus' birth. But the universe is not really built like that. The
sun and planets are tens or hundreds of millions of miles from earth; the stars are dozens
of light-years and more away. (1 light-year is the distance that light, at 186,000 miles a
second travels in one year.) Stars simply cannot pinpoint a place on earth.
What the Bible says:
The Star of Bethlehem has fascinated Christians for 19 centuries. It is mentioned only once in the Christian
Scriptures -- in the Gospel of Matthew.
Matthew 2:1-11: "Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of
Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,
Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him... Then
Herod...inquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.
And he sent them to Bethlehem... 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.
When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his
The original Greek word "aster" is translated as "star"
in the Jerusalem, King James Version, Living, New English, New American, New
American Standard, New International, New Revised Standard, Phillips, Revised
Standard Bible, Rheims, and Today's English versions of the Bible. It is not an
translation; actually, "aster" can refer to any heavenly body:
star, planet, comet, meteor, etc.
The phrase "we have seen his star in the east" in the
King James Version appears to be a mistranslation that has been replicated
in almost all other versions. Today's English Version is somewhat more
accurate; it translates the phrase as "we saw his star when it
came up in the east." A better rendering would be "we
have seen his star appear [briefly] in the first rays of dawn." 4
Many artists' paintings of the birth of Jesus show a comet above the
manger and the three Magi (wise men). But this is not an accurate portrayal.
According to Matthew 2:16, Herod allegedly ordered the extermination of all
male children in Bethlehem and surrounding area who were under the age of
24 months. He is said to have based the age limit on the time when the
magi first saw the star. This would imply that Jesus was about 1 year old when the Magi
arrived. Although the shepherds, newborn Jesus, his parents, the manger
scene, star and Magi are all lumped together in the typical nativity play,
the events are described as occurring over about a one year period in the
Herod ruled from about 40 BCE until his death in 4 or 5 BCE. Thus, if
Matthew is accurate, Jesus' birth must have happened on or before that
time. Other studies have shown that he was born
in the fall, probably in September or October, some year between
4 and 7 BCE.
||There were three wise men.
||They were kings.
||They have been given the names of Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar.
There is no justification for any of this folklore.
Three common interpretations of Matthew 2:
The precise meaning of many biblical passages depends upon the assumptions that the
reader makes about
the Bible itself. Matthew 2 is no exception. Verses 1 to 11 have been interpreted in three main ways. Each
approach assumes a different intent by
the author of the gospel:
||The star existed because the Bible is inerrant: Conservative
Christians generally believe in the inerrancy (freedom of error) of the
entire Bible. They also interpret passages literally where possible. The author
of the gospel is seen as accurately reporting a real astronomical event. The three Magi
actually followed a real heavenly body that pinpointed the building in
Bethlehem where Jesus was born. The author was
inspired by God and thus could not have made a mistake when writing the
gospel. Our only task is to find out what kind of heavenly body the
star of Bethlehem was.
||The star probably did not exist because the passage in Matthew is
not intended to be interpreted literally: Midrash is a method of looking at the Bible from a totally
different perspective. As eloquently explained by Bishop J.S. Spong: 1
"Midrash is the Jewish way of saying that everything to be
venerated in the present must somehow be connected with a sacred moment in
the past...It is the means whereby the experience of the present can be
affirmed and asserted as true inside the symbols of yesterday."
It is not useful to ask the question whether the Christmas star actually existed.
It almost certainly did not. A more meaningful question,
phrased by Bishop Spong in connection with the four "parting of the
water" stories in the Hebrew Scriptures is: 2
"What was the experience that led, or even compelled, the
compilers of sacred tradition to include this...event inside the interpretive framework of their sacred past?"
The author of Matthew decided to include a fictional description of a nonexistent heavenly body. His intent
was to tie Jesus' birth back to those of Abraham, Isaac, and Moses -- births
that Jewish tradition says were also accompanied by heavenly phenomena.
The Christmas star never existed. The author's purpose in adding an
imaginary star was to demonstrate that Jesus' birth
and future life were truly remarkable. Since three major Jewish personalities in
the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) had stars announcing their birth, Jesus must
have at least had an equivalent astronomical event when he was born.
||The star did not exist because the whole birth story is a myth: There were dozens of
well-established religions within the Roman Empire during the
1st century BCE, well before Jesus was born.
Each of these faiths worshiped
their own version of a godman. Although called by different names, such as Adonis, Aion, Antiochus, Asclepius, Attis,
Bacchus, Dionysus, Osiris, Mithras, etc., their life stories were very
similar. They were typically born about
DEC-25 of a human virgin in a cave or cowshed. Their father was a god. Their
birth was prophesized by a star in the heavens. Dozens of occurrences in
Jesus' life, as described in the gospels, are
identical or very similar to events in the legends of these godmen. Many
magical and miraculous factors in Jesus' life were simply copied from
pre-existing religions. The star of Bethlehem was one of these. The
adoption of Pagan myths was necessary in order for Christianity to compete
with other religions in the Empire. Otherwise, it would not have attracted
The author of the Book of Mark wrote the gospel circa 70 CE. His
writing started with John's baptism of Jesus. He seems to have been unaware of any unusual
occurrences associated with the birth of Jesus -- including a virgin
birth or special
star. Those theologians who are not conservative Christians have
largely reached a consensus on the sequence in which the synoptic
Gospels were written: Mark was first; Matthew was
written circa 80 CE; it was largely based on the earlier gospel of
Mark. It is apparent that Matthew
copied much of Mark and simply tacked on a birth and genealogy story
as a prefix to the gospel. He may have invented the story, using
elements from surrounding religions. He may have incorporated stories
of Jesus that were spread orally.
Beliefs promoted by believers that the "star" was a heavenly body
As each Christmas approaches, the media present possible explanations
for the star of Bethlehem. Authors of newspaper articles and producers of
TV specials all seem to assume that the star was real. They
rarely consider the possibility that the star was a symbol or a myth.
Matthew 2, verses 2 and 9 describes how the Magi (perhaps Zoroastrian
astrologers) followed a star that they believed signaled the birth of the king
of the Jews. If the "star" could be
identified, then many people believe that the time of Jesus' birth could be calculated
from astronomical observations. We might be able to compute an exact year, month and perhaps even day.
The following explanations have been proposed:
||It was a miracle: God placed some sort of fiery object in the
sky a short distance above the manger where Jesus was born. Not having
seen such an event in the past, the author of Matthew called it a
star. This was a unique occurrence, a miracle which involved the
suspension of gravity and other laws of nature. |
Others have suggested that the star of Bethlehem had miraculous powers
and was visible only to the Magi; it would not have been visible to
the public or included in any star charts. The "star" did
have unusual properties according to Matthew. He seems to have implied that the Magi lost
track of the star for a while before it reappeared over Bethlehem.
||It was a nova or super-nova: Near the end of their life
cycle, some stars explode "and increase in brightness a
millionfold or more for a short period of time. In the case of
particularly tremendous explosions ("supernovae") among
stars reasonably close to ourselves, the result may be the sudden
appearance of a star that will grow as bright as the planet Venus in a
spot where previously no star bright enough to be seen by the naked
eye had been visible." 3These
events happen at random times, averaging once every few hundred years.
One source states that the only super-novae recorded by ancient sources were at 134 BCE and 173
CE. 4 Another claims
that Chinese astronomers recorded a nova in 05-MAR/APR BCE. 7
difficulty with the super-nova theory is that the "star" of
Bethlehem is said to have guided the Magi to the house where Jesus lived. This would
mean that the light would have had to be relatively stationary and
only a few hundred feet above the earth -- in the manner of landing
lights of a helicopter. A light that was 10 miles from earth could not
identify a single building. A star which was uncounted trillions of
miles away from earth could not hover over a single location. |
||It was Halley's comet: This comet appears every 76 years and
was visible for about 56 days from 12-AUG to 12-OCT BCE. Some sources state
10 or 11 BCE; they appear to be in error. But if this was the
Bethlehem star, Jesus would have been 42 to 45 years of age when he
was executed by the Roman army. Theologians generally agree he was in
his early thirties during his ministry. Like all of the other natural
explanations, a comet could not have identified a single building in
||It was some other comet: A comet appeared between 05-MAR-10 and
05-APR-27 BCE. It was visible for about 70 days. A second comet was
recorded in 04-APR-24 BCE. A comet is not a likely
candidate for the star of Bethlehem, because astrologers normally considered
them harbingers of doom. In support
of the comet theory is the implication in the Matthew text that the
"star" disappeared for a while before reappearing over
Bethlehem. Comets cannot be seen when they pass behind the sun.|
||It was the planet Jupiter: Michael Molnar, author of "The
Star of Bethlehem: The legacy of the Magi," has analyzed the
motions of the planet Jupiter, using ancient Greek astrological
methods that were in use throughout the Roman Empire in the 1st
century BCE. He concludes that Jupiter was the Christmas star. During
the year 6 BCE, Jupiter underwent two occultations
("eclipses") of the moon. It also reversed its direction on
AUG-23 and DEC-19. Molnar reports that "there is confirmation
from a[n ancient] Roman astrologer that the conditions of April 17 BC
were believed to herald the birth of a divine, immortal and omnipotent
person born under the sign of the Jews, which we now know as Aries the
Ram." Further, on the APR-7 occultation, Jupiter
emerged as a morning star - "in the east" as
mentioned in Matthew 2. 5
One book reviewer at
Amazon.com points out that the APR-17 occultation happened during
daytime when Jupiter was very close to the sun and could not be seen.
Also, with mathematical techniques available to the Magi, its position
could not have been determined by calculation. So, the astrologers
would have been unaware of the occultation.|
||It was Jupiter and Saturn:
There was a triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn during 7 BCE, when the
two planets appeared to come very close to each other on three nights: MAY-29,
OCT-3, and DEC-4. This type of event only happens about once every 900
years. They did not actually approach each other; they were
merely aligned so that they seemed to be on top of each other when
viewed from Earth. This conjunction happened when the planets were in the constellation of Pisces -
a collection of stars long
associated with the Jewish people. Jupiter was called the "planet of
kings." Saturn was called the "protector of the Jews."
The OCT-3 conjunction happened on the
Jewish Day of Atonement. Thus, the Magi might well have associated
this most unusual astronomical event with the birth of a baby who
would become king of the Jews - the Messiah. But the passage in Matthew refers to a
single heavenly body, not a group of planets.|
||It was Mars, Jupiter and Saturn: During 06-FEB, Mars Jupiter
and Saturn came within 8 degrees of each other and were seen together
low in the western sky.|
||It was a series of amazing planetary conjunctions: During 3
& 2 BCE, there were a number of remarkable displays in the
||03-MAY-19: Saturn and Mercury were within 40' (arc minutes) of
||03-JUN-12: Saturn and Venus were separated by only 7.2'
||03-AUG-12: Jupiter and Venus approached to within 4.2'
||03-SEP-14: Jupiter came to within 20' of the star Regulus, the
||02-FEB-17: Jupiter once more moved close to Regulus -- within
||02-MAY-8: Jupiter made a third conjunction with Regulus, within
||02-JUN-17: Jupiter and Venus were within 6'' (arc seconds) of
each other. They would have appeared as a single source of light -
a most unusual event.
||02-AUG-17: Mercury, Venus, Mars, and Jupiter were close.
An additional complication that makes the super-nova, comet and planet
conjunction unlikely is that the object would have risen in the east and set
in the west every night. Thus, it could not have stood over a cowshed or cave in Bethlehem.
Residents of 1st century Palestine believed in a three-part universe: a flat
earth, a domed sky over the earth, and heaven above the dome of the sky where
God lived. The Angels were believed to drag stars, planets, the sun and moon
across the sky. In such
a universe, the author of Matthew would have no problem with the idea that God hung
star from heaven to indicate the location of Jesus' birth. But the universe is
not really built like that. The sun and planets are tens or hundreds of millions
of miles from Earth; the stars are at least many light-years and more away. (1
light-year is the distance that light, at 186,000 miles a second travels in one
year.) Stars simply cannot pinpoint a place on earth.
J.S. Spong, "Resurrection: Myth or Reality?", Harper
Collins, San Francisco CA (1994), Page 8-9.
- Ibid., Page 11.
Isaac Asimov, "Asimov's guide to the Bible: The Old and New
Testaments," Wings Books, (1969) Page 791.
Werner Keller, "The Bible as History," Morrow, (1981),
Pages 325 to 333. Review/order
M.R. Molnar, ""The Star of Bethlehem: The legacy of the Magi,"
Rutgers Univ. Press, (1999). Review/order
the book. He has a webpage which discusses the book at: http://www.eclipse.net/~molnar/
E.L. Martin, "The star that astonished the world,"
Associates for Scriptural Knowledge," Reported
as out-of-print by Amazon.com
Nick Strobel, "The star of Bethlehem: An astronomical perspective,"
Additional websites dealing with the star of Bethlehem:
||Marc Airhart, "The star of Bethlehem revisited,"
||W.P. Bidelman, "The Bimillenary of Christ's birth: The astronomical
evidence at: http://www.griffithobs.org/IPSBidelman.html
||S.S. Carroll, "The star of Bethlehem: An astronomical and
historical perspective," at: http://sciastro.net/portia/articles/thestar.htm
||K.W. Collins, "The star of Bethlehem," at: http://www.kencollins.com/Why-01.htm
||Bill Dietrich, "Star of wonder: Astronomical events that
cold have shone down on Bethlehem," Seattle Times,
1996-DEC-24 at: http://seattletimes.com/extra/browse/html/
||H.M. Morris, "Star Witness," Institute for Creation
Research, at: http://www.icr.org/pubs/imp/imp-150.htm
||J. Mosley, "Common errors in 'Star of Bethlehem' planetarium
shows," at: http://sciastro.net/portia/articles/thestar.htm
||"The star of Bethlehem: What was it?" Christian
Information Ministries (CIM) at: http://www.fni.com/cim/briefings/star.txt
Copyright © 1999, 2000 & 2002 by Ontario Consultants
on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 1999-DEC-26
Latest update: 2002-AUG-4
Author: B.A. Robinson