What was the Star of Bethlehem? Recorded only in the Gospel of Matthew, this mysterious celestial object is said to have heralded the Nativity. For millennia stargazers have wondered what it may have been.

 

Image of mystery of xmas-star

The Mystery of the Christmas Star is our popular seasonal show (Image credit: Evans & Sutherland)

 

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea 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”. . . . 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.

Matthew 2: 1-2, 9-10

It is widely known that Jesus was born sometime between 4 and 8 BC, and certainly not in December.  Historical records show King Herod to have died early in 4 BC so Jesus must have been born before then. The Wise Men or Magi were almost certainly Zoroastrian astrologer priests from Babylon or Persia. As such they would have been skilled observers of the night sky with a lifetime of experience. Such men would have been familiar with virtually every celestial event visible to the unaided eye.

If the star observed by the Magi in the east really moved across the sky until it halted to hang over where the young child lay, we have moved beyond astronomy as no natural object or event could do this. Such a unique spectacle would have witnessed by many across the East, including Herod (who was unaware of its existence until the Magi told him) and would have been recorded in established history. Let assume that Matthew’s words do not wholly reflect history but the Magi’s journey was prompted by their sighting a real astronomical object. What could this phenomenon have been? Let us investigate some possibilities.

Meteor

A meteor is the spectacular demise of a tiny scrap of metal and stone slamming into our planet’s atmosphere at tens of kilometres per second. Kinetic energy is rapidly transformed into heat and light as the speck of interplanetary debris is vaporised perhaps a hundred kilometres above our heads. Occasionally, larger meteors fall appear as dramatic fireballs (or bolides). These can be very bright and can be colourful, blazing in startling golds or greens. Yet these are sudden and fleeting events, over in seconds, impossible to reconcile with the Biblical account. They would also been known to the Magi.

Comet

A comet is a small ice-rich body from the chilly darkness of the outer Solar System. Swinging sunwards along a slow orbit, the comet melts in the Sun’s unfamiliar heat. Escaping gas and dust can form great glowing tails stretching across the sky for weeks.  As early as the 2nd Century AD the church father Origen (c 184–c254) suggested that the star described in the gospel of Matthew was a comet.

Astronomy worldwide owes much to the astronomers of China. For millennia, Chinese imperial dynasties employed stargazers who accurately recorded what they saw in the night sky for the creation of horoscopes and calendars. We can still read these ancient records today, and they are invaluable and reliable resources for explorers of the skies of the past. According to these Chinese records, two comets appeared in the period when Jesus was born, one in 5 BC and a second in 4 BC. The comet of 5 BC was first observed in the constellation of Capricornus in March  or April, and was visible for 70 or more days. To the fastidious scholars it was a “sweeping star” or “broom star,” presumably had a pronounced tail.  The comet of 4 BC, was recorded in April 24 in the constellation of Aquila. It was described as a “po,” comet meaning “tailless”. Unfortunately to the Magi (and throughout the cultures of the Mediterranean and Near East), comets were universally seen as harbingers of disaster. It is hard verging on impossible to see how they would have interpreted a comet as a good omen.

 

Image of Giotto's Adoration_of_the_Magi

Giotto based his Star of Bethlehem on Halley’s Comet (Image credit: Adoration of the Magi by Giotto di Bondone (1267–1337))

 

Planet or Star

Bright planets such Jupiter and above all Venus be arresting sights in the evening or morning sky. Observers can tell they are something other stars and this can (and I write from experience) lead to thoughts of alien spaceships hovering in the night or the belief that this must be a contemporary return of the Star of Bethlehem. Ever that brightest of stars, Sirius can surprise some. I once had a long but pleasant telephone chat with a gentlemen who (from his description of where and when he was looking skywards) had been observing Sirius in the December sky. The caller was convinced that he was seeing the Star of Bethlehem, it was common knowledge in his area, he told me, that it appeared in the sky every forty years or so and that he had last seen it in his boyhood.

It is extremely unlikely that the Magi could have seen such familiar objects as these to be prophetic events.

 

Image of_Sirius

Sirius blazing in the December sky startles many with its brightness (Image credit: NASA/ESA)

 

Planetary conjunction

As the planets dance around the Sun in their orbits, from time to time two or more planets will appear to approach each other, drawing closer over days before separating again.  These events are called planetary conjunctions, and are tricks of our earthbound perspective; the planets are still separated by millions of kilometres.

A popular explanation of the Star is that instead of being a single object it was actually a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn that occurred in 7 B.C. in the constellation of Pisces.  This speculation goes back at least as long ago as the 13th century, but it was Johannes Kepler who was the first to argue this in depth in a tract published in 1606. The conjunction of 7BC  was a rare “triple conjunction” when there were three separate close encounters of the two planets seen from Earth.  In astrology, the constellation of Pisces apparently symbolises Jewishness, so the theory goes the Magi would have seen this as revealing an event important to Jews.

However would appear unlike anything described in the Bible. Each of the three conjunctions lasted only a few days, yet the the Star guided the Magi through a journey of several weeks at the very least.

Note too, that a much closer, and hence more startling, conjunction of the same two planets occurred in 66 BC. Arthur C. Clarke suggested that this earlier meeting of the planets “should have brought a delegation of wise men to Bethlehem sixty years too soon!”

 

Image of Celestial_Conjunction_at_Paranal

Conjunctions are striking sights. In the night sky over ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) observatory in Chile, the Moon shines along with two bright companions: already aloft in the heavens and glowing in the centre of the image is Venus, Earth’s closest planetary neighbour, and, to its right, the giant, though more distant planet, Jupiter. (image credit: ESO/Y. Beletsky)

 

Nova

A nova is a titanic nuclear explosion occurring across the surface of a white dwarf. This happens if the white dwarf (the dead but still white hot core of a dead star) has a nearby companion star. The white dwarf can leech material, including hydrogen, like a vampire from its stellar partner. Eventually the hot and compressed hydrogen coating the surface of the white dwarf ignites in a runaway nuclear fusion reaction. The release of energy is staggering; the star system brightens ten thousandfold in mere hours.  Often the star system where the explosion occurs has been overlooked by astronomers, the sudden flare of light reveals its existence, as though a new star had leapt into being (hence the term ‘nova’, being ‘new’).

Astronomers discover about 10 novae every year in the Milky Way, but there are probably many more occurring. It is not impossible that the Star was a nova, but if so it would have blazed gloriously in the night skies across the Earth. Why was it not then recorded in the annals of ancient China? (Some astronomers, notably David Hughes, have suggested that the comet of 5BC in the Chinese archives was actually a nova rather than a comet, but this theory has not been widely accepted.)

Supernova

Not to be confused with a nova, a supernova is a still vaster nuclear explosion centred on a star which usually utterly destroys the star. Some are caused by the same process as leads to an “ordinary” nova- except the white dwarf is torn apart in the final paroxysm. Alternatively we may witnessing the suicide of two white dwarfs colliding and being annihilated in the process. Another known form of supernova occurs when an old and gigantic star reaches the end of its life. Its core will implode, followed almost instantly by a colossal nuclear explosion. For a few weeks the dying star will outshine all the other stars in the Galaxy combined! One of nature’s most spectacular events, supernovae are rare, occurring perhaps about once or twice a century in the Milky Way. No “naked eye” supernovae have been observed in our own galaxy since Kepler’s Supernova seen in 1604, although supernova SN 1987A in the Large Magellanic Cloud reached 3rd Magnitude despite its vast distance of 170 000 light years from us.

A “nearby” supernova would be a stunning sight in the sky. At its peak,  Kepler’s Supernova was brighter at its peak than any other planet or star in the night sky and was visible in the blue of the daytime sky for over three weeks. Yet there is no evidence for such a supernova. Apart from the continuing silence from the Chinese annals there are no known supernova remnants from two thousand years ago,

As you can, the identity of the Christmas Star is still mysterious. No phenomenon known to astronomy truly seems to match it. I am sure stargazers will continue to debate this enigma as long as Christmas is celebrated.

(Article by Colin Johnston, Science Education Director)


23 Comments

Suzanne Mendez · August 2, 2016 at 13:46

Recommend YouTube – Astronomer Gil Broussard Interview Planet 7X and other Gil Broussard uploads.

Whilst I am totally uneducated in astronomy, I find him plausible and quite convincing of Bible references to cosmic events. He places dates against events, stating planetary and other space events that appear to have been recorded in the Bible.

Excellent

    admin · August 2, 2016 at 16:26

    Dear Suzanne, thank you for you comments. Unfortunately Mr Broussard is not an astronomer and in fact promotes nonsense, for example he predicted

    Earth’s looming next near miss encounter with Planet-7X has a high probability to occur sometime in the year 2013 through the end of 2016…with special biblical emphasis on march 25/26, 2016.

    Obviously this did not happen, suggesting his expertise does not lie in astronomy.

Murrell Selden · November 10, 2015 at 14:50

The Bible notes at Genesis 1:14 that the sun, moon, and stars are for signs and times. The Bethlehem Star is the most important marking of an event in history.
I have long done chronology studies and believe the Bethlehem Star not only was a conjunction of Venus and Jupiter (in both 3 B.C. (first seen by Magi) and 2 B.C. (8 days after the birth of Jesus on Sivan 6 (ancient Hebrew calendar). Moreover, it marks the Ten Commandments given in 1510 B.C. The birth of Moses in 1550 B.C. on Adar 15 (8 days after birth Adar 7, as Talmud confirms. Also, many other events. See my website.

Fred · June 9, 2015 at 21:50

Actually, several supernovae have been observed since Keplers time. One occurred in 1987 and is known to astronomers as supernova 1987A and at the time was visible to the naked eye.

    admin · June 10, 2015 at 07:27

    Dear Fred, thank you for pointing this out, I’ll amend the article to reflect this.

Ubiracir B Miranda · August 17, 2014 at 12:39

Jacuecanga, Angra dos Reis (RJ) Brasil, Friday 15, August 2014.

Postmortem Message of Mother Teresa of Calcuta and Princess Diana Spencer will announce the reappearing and approaching of the Bethlehem Star from the first week of next September on, being seen shinning Westward of wherever one can be, priory to its parking somewhere in the quadrant of our Universe.

The Global revelation of the following postmortem message of Mother Teresa of Calcuta and Princess Diana Spencer aims to announce the reappearing of a new and glittering Star of light within the quadrant of our Universe from the first week of September on when goes 17 years since the day both passed away.

A Star whose glittering shall be witnessed by the World whole even by naked eyes westward of wherever one can be, and whose purpose will be to invite whole the terrestrial Nations to join together about the need of to put in action the Ancestral Plan of Peace, Salvation and Planetary Libertation “Map of the Star,” long ago posted by Saint John’s on his parables by request of the real Jesus Christ.

So therefore, this Plan was posted by Saint John through parables nearly 2000 thousand years ago, so that in these days of today, when humanity spares of the most sophisticated and new flanged communication’s technologies, this plan can be revealed to the knowledge of the World at large seeking to announce and signalize the return or reappearing of the Bethlehem Star that will be seen waltzing along majestically throughout the Universe, until to park somewhere, probably at East of the Sun and West of the Moon.

Otherwise, I would like to lay stress that this plan was Christianized by myself as the “Map of the Stars”, and the fact that this plan searches the reaching of the real, unrestricted and Cosmic peace all over the Earth, not just for a restrict area of our Planet, is what differs it of the “Map of the Road” some years ago shown by the former President of the State George W Bush and whose purpose was to reach the peace only in the Mideast.

Regarding to the message itself, I would say that it’s as simple as Mother Teresa and Diana were when living on Earth, a message in verses on which they explain away how was the journey of their souls among the Stars bound to eternity, they state to know about the sorrow and sadness their death spread all over Earth, and shows the way to be followed by all of us to reach the everlasting life in eternity.

So however, I am unveiling this message through the CNN too, expecting that this good news can echo all over the Earth before the begin of September and would like to take up this chance to dedicate it specially to people from Albania, India, Brazil, England and USA as a way to thank CNN for each opportunities to me granted to post my subjects on the iReport across these new era on which freedom of speech has being a strong link for the improving and riping of the Democracy around the globe.

Here is the Postmortem Message:

-So far those years we lived on Earth, We used to watch over people in need.
Since we left Earth we are living together as sisters in the other side of life,
Expecting the World at large continues to grow our seeds.

-We know that our death caused so much sorrow, spread commotion all over our Motherlands.

We saw and felt the World brotherly in teardrops, sharing that pain with Albania, India and England.

-But, it was just the way on which a light and short- living sleeping feeling lead our souls far and far beyond the Milk way,

Always lit up by the shinning of the Stars, and blown by the storms of prayers.
However, later already in the other side of life as sisters we woke up, because those who practice goods deeds never passes away.

Therefore, if you fear the death and would like to reach the everlasting life, it’s never late to practice fraternity.

Just turn your fortunes into deed of charity, and be a new Star of Light to glitter in Eternity”.

By: Mother Teresa of Calcuta and Princess Diana Spencer.

Straight from eternity.

    admin · August 18, 2014 at 10:33

    I hope you won’t be too disappointed when this does not happen.

Patti Peoples · February 17, 2013 at 20:16

Dear Colin,
I just finished reading the six theories for what the Star of Bethlehem could have been. Something I saw, a picture of the occurrence with the “flyby” prompted me to seek out what the modern theories are today. I was very impressed and appreciative. Your descriptions are understandable to a “layman” such as I, and It made all of the difference in the world, to my understanding of something I am just getting into. I have been some what put off, because the lingo is so difficult and for one who has a weak math history, plus, @ 61 yrs. old, what I did know from school, I’ve forgotten, but you’ve made it easy to bring some things back to the forefront.

I hope to be back to study some more, very soon. I hope that you can show this to colleagues and that it will be a congratulations to you all for the work that you do.
Thank you.
Sincerely,
Patricia A. Peoples

john charles webb jr · February 18, 2012 at 04:21

an additional theory regarding The Star of Bethlehem…

http://www.templeofsolomon.org/pageone.htg/pageone.htm

astroarchaeology.

Tom · January 5, 2012 at 23:45

2 or 3; they were local

akice lane · December 26, 2011 at 23:00

how many miles between when the shepherds left in haste to follow the star until they found Baby Jesus.

    PAMELA · December 20, 2017 at 13:34

    According to Biblical records, the shepherds did not “follow the star”–they were directed to a manger in Bethlehem by an angel. They were in the fields “nearby”–1-2 miles, perhaps, but not far. The “magi” would have been “in the East”–presumably Parthia (the inheritors of the Persian Empire, unconquered by Rome)–at the time they sighted whatever astronomical event prompted their journey (I like the 2 comet theory myself, since it was unusual, heraldic, and fits the disappearance/reappearance of the star as described in the Bible narrative). The magi would have been accompanied by quite a caravan (enough to disturb “all Jerusalem” according to Matthew) and would have traveled roughly 1000 miles.

      admin · December 21, 2017 at 14:08

      Thank you for your comment. In terms of the comet theory, while it is a good theory, comets were actually viewed as bad omens, harbingers of doom. As stated in the article, it would be hard to see why they would suddenly change their minds and see a comet as something positive.

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