The Star of Bethlehem

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Excerpt Many possibilities have been suggested to explain the astronomical phenomena known as the "Star of Bethlehem" as recorded in Matthew 2:1-12 . Is there a scientific explanation for this "Star of Wonder" that remains true to the Scriptural account? Continue reading

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This article was first published in the Fall 2000 issue of Bible and Spade and republished with edits in the Fall 2007 issue of Bible and Spade.


Many possibilities have been suggested to explain the astronomical phenomena known as the "Star of Bethlehem" as recorded in Matthew 2:1-12 . Is there a scientific explanation for this "Star of Wonder" that remains true to the Scriptural account?

To answer this question, we must first establish, accurately, the year when Christ was born, which in turn, will allow us to reconstruct the skies at the time of the Savior’s birth. Our present calendar assumes that Jesus was born in the year AD 0, when, actually, the event occurred several years prior to that. In AD 533 the Roman Monk Dionysius Exiguus dated Christ’s birth based on the writings of Clement of Alexander. This date was based on the account of the reign of the Emperor Augustus, who, unbeknown to Dionysius, had actually established his reign several years earlier under the name, Octavius.

The Bible indicates that Jesus was born in the days of King Herod (Mt 2:1). Josephus, the Jewish historian writing in the first century AD, states that Herod died a few days after an eclipse of the moon. After a week of official grieving, the Passover was observed. The only lunar eclipse visible in Israel at that time period occurred on March 13, 4 BC.

Furthermore, documents found in Ankara, Turkey, record the occurrence of Roman tax collections. The only date that again fits this time period is 8 BC. Using 8 to 4 BC as our two limits for Christ’s birth, what did the night skies display that would announce the Savior’s birth?

Luke 2:8 states that the shepherds were "keeping watch over their flocks by night." Shepherds would only watch their flocks at night during the springtime when the lambs were being born. This again narrows the window for the time period for Christ’s birth.

The Greek word for star, aster, in ancient literature could refer to several astronomical events, such as a meteor, comet, planet or star. Do any of these fit into the time period?

A meteor, although spectacular, lasts only a few seconds due to the intense friction of the earth’s atmosphere. The Magi, who were well trained in astronomy, would have seen nothing unusual about a short-lived meteor.

A comet has often been suggested as a natural occurrence that would have alerted the wise men. Yet Halley’s Comet passed by in 11 BC, as well as other comet recordings in 44 BC, 17 BC and AD 66, all of which were outside the 8-4 BC time period. In addition, comets were viewed as omens of evil in ancient cultures.

Some have suggested that the Star of Bethlehem was a nova , meaning "new star." Although not really a new star, but the explosion of an existing unstable star, it can generate a tremendously bright light in the midnight skies. A supernova, much rarer and 10,000 times brighter than a nova, can produce 100 million times as much light as our own sun.

The only recorded supernova explosions close to this time period occurred in 134 BC and 176 BC, both dates obviously too far removed from Christ’s birth. Although, quite possibly, an unrecorded supernova did occur, any argument from silence is uncertain.

Probably the strongest argument for a scientific explanation to this "First Christmas" occurrence is an alignment of planets, called a conjunction. (The very word planet means "wanderer.") Johannes Kepler, the official astronomer in Prague, observed the alignment of Jupiter and Saturn on December 17, 1603. Kepler calculated the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn in order to determine past occurrences of planetary conjunctions. He discovered that in 7 BC there was a triple conjunction (three alignments in one year) in the constellation of Pisces, the Fish.

All of this would have had special significance to these educated Magi, who most likely came from the Babylonian area. Jupiter was attributed by many ancient nations to be the wandering star of royalty, while Saturn, also regarded as a wandering star, was considered the protector of Israel. In addition, the constellation of Pisces, the fish, was identified by the Hebrews as representing the nation of Israel. (Other ancient records also associate Leo with the Jewish people.) There was still a Jewish remnant in Babylon, left over from the Babylonian captivity more than 500 years prior to this, from whom the Magi could have learned these details. Most likely, the Magi were also aware of the prophecy found in Numbers 24:17 which states, "A star will come out of Jacob."

Church tradition says the star guided three kings from the east. The day of their visit is celebrated annually on January 6, the Feast of Epiphany, and the days between Christmas and Epiphany are called the twelve days of Christmas. Supposedly, the kings arrived on camels and their names were Caspar (king of Tyre who brought myrrh), Melchoir (king of Arabia who brought gold) and Balthazar (the black king of Ethiopia who brought frankincense). Their bones are said to be kept in a shrine on the high altar of the Cologne (Germany) Cathedral and their gifts are stored for safe-keeping at the Monastery of St. Paul on Mount Athos in Greece. Yet, the Bible does not call them kings, but wise men (magi); the Bible does not mention three men, just three gifts; and neither their names nor their camels are mentioned in the text (Matthew 2).

The first of the three approaches occurred on May 29th of 7 BC. To the Wisemen, this surely would have constituted strong motivation for them to take the four month journey of 900 mi to see the new king foretold by the event. It is here that the naturalistic explanation for the Star of Bethlehem runs into trouble:
First, this initial conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn would not be a perfect alignment, but separated by 1 degree, equivalent to the diameters of two full moons in the sky. This would certainly not be a single, bright guiding light.

Second, although triple conjunctions in one year are rare (the other two in 7 BC occurred September 27th and December 10th), a single conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, (occurring only once during the year) happens every 20 years. Certainly, this was not a unique, never to be repeated event to the Magi, who were accustomed to routinely monitoring the night sky.

Third, regardless of whether the event constituted a comet, a supernova or a conjunction, when the Magi left Jerusalem Matthew 2:9 states, "the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was." The distance from Jerusalem to Bethlehem is about 6 mi, in the direction of north to south. Yet all natural objects in the sky move from east to west due to the rotation of the earth. The scripture goes on to say that it (the star) led them to a specific house and "stopped." Again, no natural object in the sky follows these patterns.

Finally, why was this star visible only to the Magi? Certainly there were many other trained astronomers in that day, including those in Jerusalem. Yet Matthew 2:7 states that. "Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared." Obviously, Herod’s trained observers were unaware of it, so he sought the guidance of the Magi. The star of Bethlehem was not visible to everyone on earth.

Why do we find this so unusual? Was not the "light from heaven" that shone upon Paul in Acts 9:3 a temporary and supernatural occurrence? Was not the "pillar of fire by night" in Exodus 13:22 that guided the Israelites, a temporary and supernatural occurrence? The Bible calls this Divine guiding light the Shekinah Glory.

The Star of Bethlehem appears not to be able to be explained by science! Not if we are to hold true to the specific characteristics attributed to this star as defined in the Bible. God, in his providence, called forth the chosen Magi to worship the Savior through the supernatural guidance of the Star of Bethlehem. That first Christmas was one of many miraculous interventions, with by far the greatest of these, the birth of our Redeemer.

 

Recommended Resources for Further Study

     
NIV Archaeological
Study Bible
In Their Sandals
How His Followers Saw Jesus
 
Archaeology and the
New Testament


Bibliography


Custer, S.
1977    The Stars Speak: Astronomy and the Bible. Greenville SC: Bob Jones University Press.
DeYoung, D.B.
1989    Astronomy and the Bible: Questions and Answers. Grand Rapids MI: Baker Book House.
Faid, R.W.
1993    A Scientific Approach to Biblical Mysteries. New York: New Leaf Press.
Gitt, W.
1996    Stars and their Purpose­: Signposts in Space. Bielefeld, Germany: Eber Ulm.

  

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Comments Comment RSS

8/27/2008 2:44 PM #

Indeed very insightful compilation and does help one to get a balanced view on the subject. thanks.

Z Chacko - 8/27/2008 2:44:09 PM

12/26/2009 12:34 AM #

Subject : an alternative interpretation of the Star of Bethlehem


I would like to point out another theory about the star of Bethlehem.

Most plausible theory one defends (conjunctions between stars and planets), has two drawbacks
- conjunctions were known in the past and it was perfectly clear that a conjunction was a temporary superposition of a fixed star and a moving star (the way they called planets). If it was really a conjunction, there should have been a clear hint of this in the Bible. And there is not.
- putting Greek or Latin names on stars and planets does not make any sense at all if you consider the historical context : The Magi came from the East and probably from what is today’s Iran or Iraq.

I would thus suggest a complete other interpretation and suggest this star to be associated with Spica and this for various reasons :

- Spica should move thru the zodiacal equator about 2 BC. Its movement was already known to the Greek for centuries and in 130 BC, Hipparcos made an estimate about this movement : He put it as more than 1° over a century. The actual value is 1° in 71 years. This means that the position of Spica changes every year for about only 1 minute (about 1% of the moon diameter) which is perfectly observable for a well trained astronomer/ astrologer, especially if they can directly refer to fixed objects on the horizon. Also, this meant that it should rise at the very eastern point of the sky the night of the spring equinox. This event only occurs once every 25900 years and is thus infinitely much rarer than a conjunction.
- the fact that Spica should slip thru the zodiacal equator was for this reason an event which was observed in the Greek and Near-Orient world but not in other cultures. In Other cultures this event was "seen" but not observed for they were missing the necessary scientific frame which makes just the difference between "observe" and "seen".
- And only for the Hebrews or cultures strongly in contact with them (e.g. a strong Jewish Diaspora was already steadily set up in Babylon since the 6th century), this star was directly related to Jerusalem for  Spica is called in Arabic Al-Zimach, or in Hebrew, Tsemech. This word means "the branch", i.e. in the biblical context where this word has been used only four times, the branch from which shall sprout the Machiah.

This interpretation explains perfectly well why :
- there has been spoken of only ONE star,
- which rose in the East
- and which induced them to go WEST straight to Jerusalem,
- why the Magi could only come from the Middle-East and
- why the star has not been observed in other cultures.

Yours  sincerely,
willibrord oomen
oomenwong@free.fr

wpj oomen - 12/26/2009 12:34:11 AM

5/24/2011 5:17 PM #

Yes, this is quiet interesting, but what alot of people are wondering is, why is there a brown dwarf star coming towards the earth? Is that the star that killed the dinosaurs?Or a pattern of doom? What I want to know is, how did a comet cause the exstinction of dinosaurs and how are humans still of existence..If there was a huge comet, wouldn't it have killed all things?Is that the comet that's going to kill humans?

Interested - 5/24/2011 5:17:16 PM

7/2/2013 9:22 PM #

I have spent some time on finding out if Spica was the Bethlehem star. Of course, whatever the conclusion it remains just a theory and there is always some difference between theory and truth.

I based myself upon the ancient Zoroastrian tradition of which remnants survive in Iran. Needless to say that a country like Iran will not really defend Christian or Zoroastrian viewpoints.  This makes that what still exists outside of the islamic point of view is just even more interesting.

First of all, Zoroastrianism says the Magi came from Zabol near the Afghan border. It is interesting to know that fairly close to Zabol, there existed some kind of observatory which was used to determine experimentally the Zoroastrian New Year (spring equinox).

I think I found its exact location and by modeling the sky as seen from this point (including refraction which depends of altitude, pressure and temperature) and taking into account the landscape, it turns out that Spica rose in the very exact eastern point.

One should point out that measuring (i.e. getting a numeric value) is not exactly the same as comparing two positions. Measurements in these days were imprecise (precision about 0.75°) ; comparing positions is very much easier. E.g  the Giza pyramids are aligned North-South within an angle less than 0.05° (or 1/10th of the sun diameter). By using a 30 yard long base with just two mark stones at each end (which is an easy trick for observing near horizon events), the error margin may be reduced even ten times more.

Also, it seems  the Catholic considered Spica for about 1500 years long to have been this Bethlehem star.

For these and other reasons I think it is plausible to consider Spica as the Bethlehem star.

Regards for all, wpjo

wpjo - 7/2/2013 9:22:36 PM

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