What was the Star of Bethlehem?
Here is the Youtube video recording of my talk.
Last December the world was treated to what many in the professional astronomy circle dubbed the Great Conjunction and nicknamed the Christmas Star of 2020. Jupiter and Saturn were going to appear close together in the sky after sunset. All the talk about the conjunction got me interested in researching the modern theories about what the candidates were for the star of Bethlehem. So, I began a year-long study of the star.
The quest to identify the star that led the Magi or Wise Men to Bethlehem goes back to the early centuries of the Christian Church. There were differences of opinion even back then between a natural and supernatural explanation for the star. The early church father, Origen, believed it might have been a comet. John Chrysostom in the fourth century believed it was a supernatural phenomenon.
At the dawn of the scientific discipline of astronomy, Christian astronomer Johanne Kepler observed a very bright new star on Oct. 17, 1604, in Prague. The supernova (now known as SN 1604) burned brightly through the night and the next morning and was visible for nearly a year. Kepler was convinced that the new star was the same as the one that the Three Kings followed on their way to Bethlehem.
So, you see, Christians have been trying to identify the star that led the Wise Men to Bethlehem for two millennia.
To understand the background of the star, you will need to read the verses in the Gospel of Matthew (chapter 2, verses 1 to 12) regarding the birth of Jesus Christ.
The Magi Visit the Messiah
2 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi[a] from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
6 “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’[b]”
7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
There’s not a lot of detail about the star and it is mentioned only four times in those twelve verses. We need to understand that what people called a ‘star’ in the ancient near east times could be any of several celestial objects including the five planets visible to the naked eye.
So, the key points of the star story are:
1. Only the Gospel of Matthew mentions the story of the Magi and the star.
2. The star is mentioned four times in verses 2, 7, 9, 10.
3. The Greek word ‘aster’ translated as ‘star’ can refer to any kind of heavenly body—a star, planet, asteroid, comet, meteor, or other celestial objects.
4. The wisemen arrived after Jesus was born. So, all those Christmas cards with the Magi and Shepherds at the stable are incorrect.
5. The Magi see the star the first time “at its rising” in the east. It does not state that the Magi said they were IN the east and saw the star in the west.
6. The star is important enough for the Magi to make a long, expensive journey westward on short notice (600 – 1200 miles).
7. The key timing is before the death of Herod the Great. This is because the death of Herod is used in contemporary scholarship and astronomy software to determine when to look for the star.
8. Herod and all of Jerusalem were greatly disturbed.
9. The birth of a new “king of the Jews” would upend Herod’s plans and strike fear in the Jewish leader and people.
10. Magi see the star a second time when they depart Jerusalem and head to Bethlehem (only about 6 miles south of Jerusalem).
11. The star appears to guide the Magi to Bethlehem, and it stops “over the place where the child was.”
12. The Magi were then warned in a dream not to report back to Herod.
WHO WERE THE MAGI?
Many sources online state that the Magi or Wise Men were priestly followers or Zoroaster. These Wise Men were professional astrologers whose job was to observe and chart the stars to make calendars useful for agriculture. Kind of like an ancient version of the Old Farmer’s Almanac. They also were concerned with the meaning that could be derived from the motion of the planets, comets, and the phases of the Moon.
WHAT ARE THE STAR CANDIDATES?
A wide variety of scholarship has been done regarding the star over the centuries. The scholarship ranges from a real ‘star’ to the story just being metaphorical language by Matthew to lend credibility with the Jewish people. It’s important to note that ‘star’ is any celestial object and that the five visible planets to the naked eye observation were considered “wandering” stars. A guest star is one that appears and lasts for a short period of time such as a supernova, nova, variable star, and sometimes a comet.
Table 1 lists the main star candidates. Those in blue can be considered guest stars. We can quickly eliminate a meteor and Moon-planet conjunctions. Meteors are short lived, lasting at most 10 seconds. So, they wouldn’t likely be recurring. And Moon-conjunctions are very common. The wise men would have been familiar with predicting a Moon-planet conjunction from the star tables they created.
CONTEMPORARY SCHOLARSHIP ON THE STAR
Here are three of the contemporary star explanations that I studied over the course of the past year that I will discuss each in this article. I also read several other books and spent hundreds of additional hours perusing websites related to the star.
- 1. Rick Larson – The Star of Bethlehem Movie, 2007
- 2. Colin Nicholl – Book, The Great Christ Comet, 2015
- 3. Dr. Hugh Ross– Reasons to Believe Commentaries from 2002 to 2021.
SPOILER ALERT: Details about the conclusion of what the ‘star’ is for these three sources will be revealed in the discussion below!
The Star of Bethlehem, (bethlehemstar.com). The 2007 DVD by lawyer Rick Larson is the most popular of the narratives for Christians. Larson used astronomy software in the early 2000’s to go back in time and look at the night sky over Babylon and Jerusalem. Larson finds that the wandering king star, Jupiter, does a “starry dance” with the fixed king star, Regulus in Leo, starting in September 3 BC. He believes that Jupiter was the star the Magi saw and followed. He finds that there was a triple-conjunction of the two kingly stars between September 3 BC and May 2 BC. Larson claims this was the “royal crowning” of the new King of the Jews. He posits that the first conjunction in September 3 BC was the conception of Jesus. So, he wonders what the stars look like 9 months later in June 2 BC. And lo, he finds that Jupiter has an extremely close conjunction with the queen star, Venus, at sunset on June 17, 2 BC. Larson believes that this was the day Jesus was born.
The wise men see this sign and make plans to travel from Babylon to Jerusalem. They arrive in Jerusalem in early December 2 BC and enquire at King Herod’s palace about where the newborn king was staying because they wanted to worship him. Herod and all of Jerusalem were disturbed by this news. Eventually the Wise Men are told that the Jewish scriptures stated the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. Larson believes that the Wise Men departed Jerusalem for Bethlehem and followed the star, Jupiter, on December 25, 2 BC. The star stopped over the house the infant Jesus was staying at. This was the first Christmas!
The Great Christ Comet, Revealing the True Star of Bethlehem, 2015 book by former University of Cambridge theologian Colin Nicholl. There’s a saying that you can’t judge a book by its cover. In this case you can because the title and cover art reveal the contents of this book. Nicholl believes the star was an extraordinary comet. Nicholl spent several years studying astronomy and colluding with astronomers from several observatories and universities to better understand the star candidates. The book is well researched and footnoted. It contains a detailed astronomical discussion of each of the star candidates and reasons why Nicholl rejects each one. Chapter 5 provides a solid scientific explanation of the physics of comets. Nicholl’s wife, Sirscha, provided excellent comet movement graphics.
Nicholl believes the star was a narrowly inclined, retrograde, long-period comet that appeared in 6-5 BC. Nicholl makes this bold statement about the comet: “The Christ Comet has all the marks of a truly great comet. Indeed, its greatness supersede those of any other comet in history. It is quite simply the greatest of the great historical comets.” (Ch. 11, p. 277).
He dates of the birth of Jesus to October 20, 6 BC and the visit of the Magi a few weeks later at the end of November 6 BC.
Reason to Believe Commentaries, 2002 to 2021 (https://reasons.org/),by Christian astrophysicist Dr. Hugh Ross, founder of the RTB faith and science ministry. Dr. Ross states that he made his first study of the Matthew star back when he was in high school when he was director of observations for the Vancouver chapter of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. He gave a lecture on the star of Bethlehem in which he argued that the star was a recurring nova. He holds the same belief over fifty years later. The science of recurrent novae has progressed during that time to reinforce his assertion. Fifty years ago, the shortest recurrent nova period was about ten years. Recently, astronomers have observed some with a period of two months!
Dr. Ross believes the recurrent nova would best fit the behavior of the star in Matthew 2: it appeared in the east just before sunrise, it wasn’t spectacular because Herod and the shepherds weren’t aware of it, and it reappeared when the Wise Men were on their short 6-mile journey from Jerusalem south to Bethlehem.
Psalm 19 Astronomy Opinion, by Ed LaBelle (psalm19astronomy.org). This is my opinion only and is not supported by any scientific evidence. The perspective that I am about to state was reached at slowly over the past year of study.
Many of you are familiar with Ockham’s Razor which to paraphrase states, “All things being equal, the best explanation of any phenomenon is the one that makes the fewest assumptions.” Larson makes several assumptions about the star such as it (Jupiter) led the Magi from the East to Jerusalem and stopped over the home in Bethlehem where the child Jesus was staying. Nicholl in the Great Christ Comet assumes that the greatest of all comets ever was the star but there is no historical record or legends regarding such an amazing comet. And RTB’s Dr. Ross goes out of his way to make very few assumptions.
So, the Psalm 19 Astronomy position is this: God’s fingerprints are everywhere surrounding the birth of Jesus! I believe in miracles, and I personally believe the greatest of God’s miracles was His creation of our amazing universe. There are eight miracles mentioned in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke surrounding the birth of Jesus. They are:
1. The angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah to tell him that he and his elderly wife, Elizabeth, were going to have a baby (Luke 1:5-25).
2. The Annunciation and Immaculate Conception: the angel Gabriel appears this time to Mary, who was a virgin, and tells her that she will conceive a baby boy (Luke 1:28-35).
3. An Angel appears to Joseph in a dream telling Joseph not to divorce Mary due to her being pregnant (Matthew 1:20-21).
4. An Angel and the Heavenly Hosts appear to Shepherds tending their flock to announce that a Savior has been born to them in Bethlehem (Luke 2:9-12).
5. Simeon at the Temple consecration of Jesus where the Holy Spirit revealed to him that the baby Jesus was the Messiah (Luke 2:25-28).
6. The prophet Anna at the Temple who gave thanks to God and “spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2: 36-38).
7. The Magi were warned in a dream not to report back to Herod, so they went to their country by a different route (Matthew 2:11-12).
8. And lastly, Joseph is ordered in a second dream to take Jesus and Mary and immediately escape to Egypt. This was because Herod was going to murder the firstborn boys under 2 years old in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:11-12).
So, after pondering these eight divine interventions, the thought occurred to me, “If God’s fingerprints are everywhere surrounding the birth of Jesus, then why wouldn’t God’s fingerprints be on the star signaling the birth of His son Jesus?”
The behavior of the star stopping that is mentioned in Matthew 2:9 is what has confounded the experts over the centuries. The star appears to stop over the house where the toddler Jesus was staying in Bethlehem. How can a “star” stop over one house? In my opinion, this star-stopping behavior eliminates all the other candidates except divine intervention. It eliminates Rick Larson’s wandering star Jupiter and Colin Nichol’s great comet. And it eliminates Dr. Ross’s recurring nova. A recurring nova would never stop because it will keep moving fifteen degrees every hour through the night sky along with all the other stars.
I believe the star was a miraculous celestial event initiated by God and directed specifically at the Magi because no one else saw it – Herod didn’t see it and neither did the shepherds. God was using the Magi to tell the world that He, God, was going to bring salvation to all peoples and nations through the birth of His son, Jesus Christ. The clincher for me was the miraculous star reappeared as the Magi were headed on the 6-mile trip to Bethlehem and the ‘star’ stopped over the house in Bethlehem where Jesus was staying.
My final thoughts are this: the star is one of those wonderful Biblical mysteries! We will never know with certainty what the star is until we get to Heaven and ask Jesus himself.
Ed LaBelle is a retired process engineer who spent 32 years in the semiconductor industry. He has a BS Degree in Electrical Engineering from Texas A&M University. He started the Psalm 19 Astronomy sidewalk ministry in 2016. Ed is an officer and volunteer with the Austin Chapter of Reason to Believe.