(The following is a revised version of an Update article from 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.
In the meantime, there always seems to be a new popular theory coming along, sometimes every Christmas. Planetariums often put on shows for the public that attempt to provide an answer. Authors have written books hundreds of pages long on the subject, all very well documented and citing considerable extra-Biblical evidence. Enthusiastic readers will claim that this author “has got it,” that this person is finally the one person in 2000 years to come up with the answer. Yet the Star of Bethlehem is only mentioned in the Holy Bible in four verses of the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. There is simply not enough information given in Scripture to draw a definitive conclusion.
These theories typically attempt to give a rationalistic, naturalist explanation of the Star of Bethlehem. But 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.
What Does The Text of Scripture Say?
To illustrate the difficulty in trying to answering this question, here is the text of Matthew 2: 1-14. The instances of the star are shown in bold underlining:
1 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,
2 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.
3 When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
4 And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.
5 And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet,
6 And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.
7 Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.
8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.
9 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.
10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.
11 And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh.
12 And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.
We have to always be careful to not read too much into the text and infer information that is not there. For example, the text only says “wise men” (the Greek magoi (μαγοι) i.e. “Magi”). The text does not say that they are kings or that there were three of them or that their names were Caspar, Melchior, or Balthazer, as according to tradition. (But the text does say that the wise men brought three gifts.) So if we can forget everything we ever learned about the Nativity story that is not actually in the text of Scripture, we can consider the scanty information provided in this passage about the Star.
1. It’s called a “star” (variously the Greek astera, asteros, and aster (αστερα, αστερος, αστηρ)). So it must have at least had a star-like appearance, though it did not behave like a fixed star.
2. The wise men saw the Star in the east and it compelled them to travel to Jerusalem seeking the newborn king, that they would worship him. No information is given as to the wise men’s culture, prophecies, etc. that would suggest a reason for this response.
3. Based on Herod’s enquiry, the Star apparently appeared at a certain time, suggesting that it was not visible and then it became visible.
4. As the wise men left Jerusalem for Bethlehem, the Star “went before” them and “stood over” the location of Jesus, apparently to the very house.
5. The Star led the wise men to rejoice.
This is the only information provided in the text. Neither a natural star or planet behaves in a manner that comports with this description, as will be explained in detail below.
When Exactly Was Jesus Born?
Whenever people ask about the Star of Bethlehem, what they want to know is whether 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.
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 about the Nativity 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 the “wise men from the east,” traditionally regarded as Persian astrologers.
Over the years, people have attempted to argue that the Star of Bethlehem was a supernova, a comet, or a conjunction of planets. Let’s consider each of these:
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. And it would have looked star-like and “appeared” as suggested by Herod’s enquiry to the wise men. The problem is, there is no historical or scientific evidence of such a supernova. The Chinese did not record any new stars within the suitable period of time.
Also, supernovae leave behind a remnant in the form of a nebula that can be seen today 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.
Conjunction of Planets
In recent years it’s become popular to think that the Star of Bethlehem was a conjunction of planets. This concept was depicted in the movie The Nativity Story, which showed the wise men following two “stars” that were moving into position. There’s also an idea circulating in articles about the Grand Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn of 2020 that the astronomer Johannes Kepler proposed that a similar event in 7 BC might have been the Star of Bethlehem. However, I’ve read many of Kepler’s works and have never encountered such a statement, nor have I ever heard of that before 2020, nor have I seen any citations of a source.
It must be considered that a well-developed Greek astronomy tradition existed in the Roman world of the first century. Most people in the time of the New Testament would have understood the difference between a fixed star (astera) and the planets that moved in regular cycles through the zodiac. Moreover, a conjunction does not “appear” according to Herod’s enquiry of the wise men. It comes together over a span of weeks and months.
One popular conjunction theory 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 over a span of months. This theory appears 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 purportedly signifies kingship in astrology, passed three times very closely to the brightest star of Leo the Lion, 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.
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.
A conjunction of planets is also the subject of a popular DVD on the topic of the Star of Bethlehem. Though a compelling case is made, a conjunction of planets is not a “star” per se (astera) but rather an alignment of well known celestial objects. Such conjunctions come together over a period of weeks and months and not “appear” as Star of Bethlehem described in the Gospel account. And the fact remains that neither a conjunction of planets nor any natural celestial object or objects could have led the wise men to the exact location within Bethlehem of the young Jesus. So if we are to consider an apparition in the sky that conforms with the description given in Scripture, we must rule out any planetary conjunctions.
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.
A comet fits the Scriptural description of the Star in that it “appears,” being invisible and then becoming visible. But comets do not look star-like. Comets were well known in New Testament times and could have been identified as such by the Gospel writer.
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 which 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.
At any rate, in 1985 NASA sent a space probe called Giotto to study Halley’s Comet upon its return to the inner solar system in 1986.
Another comet theory of the Star of Bethlehem 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 Was The Star of Bethlehem Anyway?
In my opinion, all the above naturalistic theories are, at best, 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 a fatal flaw: 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.
All natural celestial bodies in space, as seen from the Earth, rise in the east, reach their highest point in the sky 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 them” 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. Further, neither Jupiter nor Regulus nor any other planets 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.” It needed to point to the specific location of Jesus within Bethlehem, not just locate the town itself.
Since Bethlehem and Jerusalem are only six miles apart, there is virtually no difference in latitude, nothing that assist in the celestial navigation between these cities. Any star at the zenith of Bethlehem would also be at the zenith of Jerusalem. Also, any natural object would only pass briefly through the zenith, but would not “stand over” a place, at least not for longer than a moment.
Also, after talking to Herod, the wise men knew they were going to Bethlehem and the town lay along a certain road. There would have been no need to look at the Star at that point, at the zenith or otherwise. All they needed to do was stay on the road if it was enough to merely find the little town of Bethlehem. But the text of Scripture states that the Star led them to the actual location of Jesus, not just the town.
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. The Star, as described in Scripture, would have to move around in space, and then hold a geosynchronous position in the sky against the apparent motion of the sky due to Earth’s rotation, and then indicate a specific spot within Bethlehem for the wise men to follow.
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 have understood that the object that led the wise men to young Jesus did not behave as a natural celestial object.
An excellent visualization of the Star of Bethlehem and the Scriptural description of its movement is found in the opening scene of Ben Hur, the 1959 movie starring Charleton Heston.
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