What Was the Star of Bethlehem?

The only clues to the true identity of the Star of Bethlehem lie in the Bible.

It’s a scientific detective case, really, not unlike some modern UFO reports: cold clues, conflicting observers, many possible explanations, lack of data from people who should have seen what others reported, plus a need to come up with an answer. The nature of the Star of Bethlehem, or the Star of the Magi, used to come up every year around December and was the subject of planetarium shows all over the Western world. It was the case of trying to identify a historical event using available records, modern knowledge of the sky, ancient astrology, and was subjected to the errors of interpreting extinct tongues.

Three front-running theories for the star that were supposed to have announced the Christian Era are that it was: 

  1. A grouping of planets
  2. A nova, or exploding star
  3. A miracle

To these may be added a fourth; that the story is pure myth, adduced by overzealous partisans to confirm ancient prophecy. (No major personage of ancient history was born without some celestial spectacle being claimed to announce the event.)

Of one thing we may be reasonably sure: Jesus was not born on December 25, A.D. 1. The person who established our modern year-numbering system was the monk Dionysius Exiguus, or Denys the Small, in the 6th century. He consulted writings of Clement of Alexandria, circa A.D. 220, which placed the birth in the 28th year of the reign of Augustus Caesar. Today we know this emperor ruled the Roman Empire for four years under his given name of Octavian before being declared Caesar by the Senate. Thus Denys was at least four years too late in placing the birth. (The first official use of the A.D. notation wasn't until 605, and it wasn't in regular use until the 9th century).

When Did the Star Appear?

The historical records that mention the star exist in the New Testament and in some non-Biblical texts of the same era. Many accounts were written long after the event. These must be our sources of data. Herod the Great was alive at the time of the birth, since he quizzed the Magi who had seen the star. Jewish historian Flavius Josephus says that Herod died between the time of a lunar eclipse and Passover. Astronomical calculations show that these occurred close to one another in 4 B.C. There was a partial lunar eclipse the night of March 12–13. Herod thus died between March 12 and April 11 of that year. Shortly before his death, Herod decreed the death of all male children less than two years of age, leading us to think that it was that long since the Magi had consulted with him (and had disobeyed his orders to return and report to him). So Jesus was probably born about two years before Herod's death, around 6 B.C.

The Bible says that Jesus's parents were in Bethlehem for a census, or taxation. Luke reports "...that all the world should be taxed. And this tax was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria." That translation of Luke must be in error, since Cyrenius did not become governor until A.D. 5 or 6. Some modern scholars think that it should read, "And this tax was made before the one when Cyrenius was governor of Syria." This makes more historical sense, since the taxation at the time of Cyrenius led to a revolt, and Luke is making the point that this is not the taxation he meant.

Confirmation of the years of taxation came only in the 20th century, on Roman ruins uncovered in Ankara, Turkey. They record that one tax was decreed in 8 B.C. Since the news took a while to travel, and it took still more time for Mary and Joseph to journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, we can convincingly place them in Bethlehem in 7 or 6 B.C.

It is recorded that "...there were shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night." This they surely would not do in December, for winter is cold and damp. Talmudic tradition says that sheep were kept indoors between November and March. It was in the spring, at lambing time, that the shepherds stayed overnight with their flocks.

This would place the birth in the spring, but other records show that it could just as well have been in the fall. Jesus was said to be about six months younger than John the Baptist, and evidence exists that John was born around the end of March. 

So why do we celebrate on December 25? The best answer is that it was camouflage. A Roman pagan holiday, the Saturnalia, was held around that time in connection with the winter solstice. The sun stops its southward motion and starts to return northward once again—it is reborn, and a new year begins. Early Christians may have adopted this date as a way of disguising the reason for their own celebrations. Christmas has been celebrated only from about the 4th century, and some groups still celebrate it on another date.

What is the Star of Bethlehem?

What was this "star" that we believe appeared in about 6 B.C.? We must recall that in classical times almost anything in the sky was called a "star" of some sort. There were fixed stars, planets were wandering stars, comets were hairy stars, meteors were falling stars, and novas were new stars.

The passage from Matthew's gospel about the star has been translated as saying that the star was seen "in the East." This could mean that the Magi were in the East when they first saw it (as they certainly were) or that the star itself was seen in the eastern sky, near the time of dawn. Scholars still disagree on which meaning is correct. Clearly the star lasted for sometime, as the Magi followed it.

Among the possible "stars" we can rule out meteors as too ephemeral and too common in the clear desert skies. (One astronomical wit has remarked that if the star followed by the Magi was a meteor, it would have been the wildest camel ride of all time!)

An enigma is that Herod and his priests did not notice the star, since they asked the Magi about it. Either they were not good observers (which is hard to believe since the beginning of the month is fixed by actual observation of the first crescent of the moon) or the star was some celestial event of no interest or importance to Jewish scholars of the time—but was to the Zoroastrian Magi, who were astrologers.

Could the "star" have been a comet? Comets have long been considered evil omens, bringing war, pestilence, plague, and death in their wake. They were seen as the finger of an angry god pointing to the earth, or sometimes as a flaming sword held over the heads of transgressing mortals. Aristotle considered them not to be astronomical objects but suspended high in the atmosphere. In A.D. 1456, Pope Calixtus Ill ordered public prayers against "the Comet and the Turk," and as late as 1910, when Halley's Comet last appeared, some people bought "comet pills" to ward off the evil influences! So it hardly seems that such a sign could be taken as predicting the birth of the King of the Jews. Also, there were no bright comets recorded around 6 B.C. Halley's Comet appeared in 12 and 11 B.C., which is too early, and again in A.D. 66, which is much too late. We would also expect that Herod would have seen a bright comet.

Location of the Star

There are, however, many instances of comets or novas recorded by Oriental astronomers that were not seen (or at least not recorded) by Western or Middle Eastern observers. British astronomers David H. Clark, John H. Parkinson, and F. Richard Stephenson claim this is what happened and that the star was a nova, or perhaps two novas, chronicled by Chinese and Korean astronomers in 5 and 4 B.C., in a part of the sky near what we today call the constellations of Capricornus and Aquila. A nova is actually an old star exploding and brightening near the end of its life. Appearing where no star had been known, it would appear new to the naked eye. Some become very bright. Another type of exploding star, called a supernova, sometimes becomes bright enough to be seen in the daytime.

The Protoevangelium of James, an infancy gospel not in the Bible, states that the star outshone all others. If so, why didn't Herod see it? No other source remarks on the brightness of the star, and so we are left in doubt. If it were bright, however, there should have been left behind a remnant detectable by modern instruments. None has been found in that part of the sky.

The more time-honored explanation is that the star was a triple conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn, to which grouping Mars later approached, in the constellation Pisces. This seems to have been first suggested about 1377 by someone at the Worcester Priory, but Johannes Kepler usually gets the credit since he spent much time on the problem in the first decade of the 17th century.

A conjunction is a close passage of one celestial object near another. Such events among the five planets visible to the naked eye are not uncommon. Jupiter and Saturn are in conjunction every 20 years, but astrologically, not every conjunction is alike. It depends on the part of the sky in which the conjunction takes place. The Jewish scholar Abrabanel, writing in 1497, states that the "small conjunctions" every 20 years merely announce the upcoming births of kings, and wars. There are "middle conjunctions" every 60 years, "great conjunctions" every 239 years, and "large conjunctions" every 953 years. These portend increasingly more important events and changes in history. Finally, he says, every 2860 years, in the Constellation of Pisces, there OCcurs a "mighty conjunction" that presages the birth of prophet's, miracle workers, and the Messiah. He further says that tradition associates the constellation Pisces with the Jewish people.

Planet Progression

As planets move through the sky as seen from Earth, they move mostly eastward among the stars. As the earth catches up and passes them, however, they seem to move backward, or westward, in the sky. This is called retrograde motion. In 7 B.C. both Jupiter and Saturn went through this retrograde loop de-loop in the constellation Pisces and thus were in conjunction not once but three times: a triple conjunction. They passed closest to each other on May 27, October 5, and December 1 of that year.

Jupiter and Saturn are the most distant visible planets in Babylonian astrology and thus the most important. The Magi were steeped in Babylonian tradition. Both planets are also associated with the affairs of Israel. So when the two came together in Pisces not once but thrice within a year, this was a major event, and one that could lead the Magi to remember the ancient prophesies of "a star out of Jacob." (One wonders how many other astrologically important events initiated fruitless journeys by other Magi over the centuries. Some scholars even claim that the visitation of the Magi is myth.)

The conjunctions of 7 B.C. were not especially close, certainly not so close as to blend the light of the two planets into one bright object. I doubted somewhat that this could have been a significant sign until this past summer, when Mars and Saturn passed each other closely. Many people who do not normally pay much attention to the sky noticed the conjunction —and even described the planets as looking like a pair of searchlights, even though they were not very bright.

So what was the "star"? The most we can say is that the best scientific explanation is that it was a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. Some think it was a nova. And some will continue to believe the star was a miracle—an answer that is not an explanation—and thus outside scientific consideration.

Like UFO sightings, the evidence is insufficient for us to know for certain.

What is certain is that religions across the globe are filled with astrological and cosmological mysteries such as these. Some have answers, some, like this case, can only be "solved" by our best guesses. 

Astrology and Cosmology in the World's Religions by Nicholas Campion

Just about every major religion uses some form of astrology, discussing the sun, moon, stars, and planets in their explanations of humans and their significance on earth. Astrology and Cosmology in the World's Religions presents an overview of astrologies of the world's religions. Each religion is addressed as a separate chapter outlining how various people engage with the divine, manage the future, and attempt to understand events on Earth by observing celestial bodies. 

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What Was the Star of Bethlehem?