What Was the Star of Bethlehem?

The Visit of the Magi (from Matthew 2 (NASB)):

1 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, 2 “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet [Micah]:

6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
Are by no means least among the leaders of Judah;
For out of you shall come forth a Ruler
Who will shepherd My people Israel.’”

7 Then Herod secretly called the magi and determined from them the exact time the star appeared. [Literally, “the time of the appearing star.”] 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the Child; and when you have found Him, report to me, so that I too may come and worship Him.” 9 After hearing the king, they went their way; and the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, the magi left for their own country by another way.

TheStarofBethlehem_NovaOne of the most iconic images from the story of Jesus’ early years is that of the “Star of Bethlehem”. It is found in only one place — namely the section of Matthew 2 that describes the journey and visit of the magi (a caste of wise men specializing in astronomy, astrology, and natural science), as cited above. I have bolded the specific verses that mention the star. Of course, the word used in the Greek text is aster, which can mean just about any heavenly object: a star, planet, comet, galaxy, etc. So, what was this particular aster?

Many people over the years have written, sung, and speculated about this, and it’s a popular topic during the Christmas Season. Skeptics who give any credibility to the biblical account typically dismiss the star as a wholly natural event that coincidentally appeared about the time Jesus was born, and some superstitious astrologers decided it was a mystical sign. Christians, of course, accept the star as a divine miracle that God intended to catch the “wise men’s” attention and lead them on their journey. Some of them believe that anything less than a purely supernatural miracle would be a denigration of God’s power and majesty. I, for one, do not think the text requires the event to be wholly supernatural (e.g., God’s Shekinah glory shining down; an angel; some example of God overriding natural law) and have no problem acknowledging that God may have supernaturally orchestrated natural forces and/or events (e.g., certainly the timing; perhaps the location or luminosity) to meet his divine agenda. This would be an example of a “hypernatural” miracle.

There are some Christians who question the wisdom of even looking for (quasi-)scientific explanations for such an event. Just the other day, someone on Facebook expressed their dismay to me at the very idea, saying “silliness like this makes the world laugh and blaspheme the name of our Lord” and citing Romans 2:22. I understand their concern, and we want to be careful not to say or do foolish things that add to the ridicule we expect as followers of Christ and proclaimers of the Gospel. But, as I responded to this person, I see nothing wrong with examining both the natural and scriptural evidence and positing a hypothesis, as long as the data is handled carefully/responsibly and that any conclusions are held tentatively.

Others say things like “Why can’t people just take God at His Word? Who said we need any sort of ‘external evidence’ to validate the claims of Scripture?” This sort of fideist thinking is contrary to the teaching of the Bible, the examples of Christ and the disciples, and ignores the fact that many people have a psychological need (or, at least, desire) for plausible explanations before they can consider an intellectual acceptance of the reliability of the Bible.

Back to our question: What was the Star of Bethlehem?

As I said, the word translated “star” has a somewhat broad definition, so it lends itself to several possibilities. (The more “out there” speculations include anything from an angel to a UFO. But, imo, that’s really stretching it.) Most hypotheses, though, tend to lean toward one of these:

  • a conjunction of planets (two planets coming close together in the sky)
  • a conjunction of a planet with a bright star
  • an “occultation” in which the Moon passes in front of a planet
  • a comet
  • a supernova

I won’t go into any great detail, but I will mention a couple. One of the most popular of recent years was proposed by Rick Larson, an attorney and amateur Bible scholar, and chronicled in his documentary The Star of Bethlehem. Larson’s explanation actually relies heavily on the work of Dr. Ernest L. Martin, a meteorologist turned amateur Bible scholar and archaeologist, along with one other whom I will get to in a minute.

The Martin/Larson theory appears to be quite comprehensive in the breadth of data it uses. In addition to taking as many textual clues as possible about the “star” (and the Magi and King Herod) from the Matthew passage, and adding a bit of reasonable speculation, it also incorporates prophecy from Old and New Testaments. (Some may dispute the application of at least the reference to the Book of Revelation, maybe more.) These clues are used to help rule out some suggested celestial objects and narrow down the possibilities. It then uses research into the dates for the reign and death of Herod the Great to narrow down the possible year (and even month) for the appearance of the “star” and plugs that data into sophisticated (yet relatively inexpensive and commonly available) computer software. Programmed with Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion, this software calculates the positions of the stars in the night sky on any given date, thus helping to determine what heavenly events during that time may account for the sign of the “Star of Bethlehem”. For example, a nova meets some of the criteria, but none were recorded in any known ancient records for the period in question.

The conclusion of the theory is that the “star” was in fact the conjunction of two planets with a star. In September of 3 BC, magi studying Jupiter (aka the “King Planet”) would have noticed it moving very close in the night sky to the star Regulus. “Regulus” comes from the Latin for “little king”. Its Babylonian name (“Sharu”) and Roman name (“Rex”) also mean “king”. This sign of “kingship” would have been interesting but not hugely portentous on its own. As is normal, every night Jupiter would appear further east in the field of stars. In 3/2 BC, after completing its conjunction, Jupiter began a retrograde motion, i.e., an optical effect caused by the Earth in its orbit swinging past Jupiter. This apparent reversing course and moving backward across the sky led to a second conjunction with Regulus. But, wait! It did it again, leading to a third conjunction! This sort of thing is extremely rare and would have been very significant to the magi, especially if they were aware of Jewish scripture and keeping an eye out for possible divine signs.

The Star of Bethlehem DVDApproximately 9 months after the initial conjunction, following the “coronation of Regulus”, Jupiter then proceeded to have a conjunction with Venus (aka the “Mother Planet”). Larson explains,

“This conjunction was so close and so bright that it is today displayed in hundreds of planetaria around the world by scientists who may know nothing of Messiah…. The planets could not be distinguished with the naked eye. If our magus had had a telescope, he could have seen that the planets sat one atop the other, like a figure eight.”

The magi would likely have been floored by the implications of this sign in the heavens, and, with their knowledge of history, scripture, and astronomy, it is no wonder that they mounted an expedition to Jerusalem. However, it is also little wonder that Herod was not aware of what was going on, until they (presumably) explained it to him. When the Magi left Herod’s court in Jerusalem, traveling southward to Bethlehem, Matthew says that the “star” remained ahead of them. According to Larson, “Sure enough, in December of 2 BC if the Magi looked south in the wee hours, there hung the Planet of Kings over the city of Messiah’s birth.” Furthermore, the bit about the “star” stopping/standing “over the place where the Child was” can be explained by the retrograde motion. (Note: This “stopping” is, of course, in context of continual observation of a period of days/weeks/months.)

“On December 25 of 2 BC as it entered retrograde, Jupiter reached full stop in its travel through the fixed stars. Magi viewing from Jerusalem would have seen it stopped in the sky above the little town of Bethlehem.”

There are a few more details, of course, but that’s it in a nutshell. (And a bigger nutshell than I had planned.) One big problem with this theory, though, is that it requires Herod the Great to have been alive in 2 BC, whereas the consensus among scholars for several decades has been to place Herod the Great’s death in 4 BC. To support his claims, Larson points to a 2009 paper in Novum Testamentum by Andrew Steinmann. Steinmann presents a reconstruction of Herod’s reign (as did Martin years earlier), dating it from late 39 BC to early 1 BC, and argues that this reconstruction accounts for all of the evidence better than the current consensus does. It is also supported by Jack Finegan in the 1998 revised edition of his well-regarded Handbook of Biblical Chronology.

I would like to point out a couple potential problems I see with the final conclusion to the theory. For one, the date of December 25 is very much in dispute as the actual date of Jesus’ birth. I think there might have been an Early Church Father or two who accepted the date. (St. John Chrysostom tried to unite the Antiochean church by declaring Dec. 25th as official.) But, mostly it is acknowledged as merely a traditional date adopted by the Church to compete with Winter Solstice celebrations. (See my earlier posts on “Is December 25th Pagan?”) On the contrary, I think arguments for it being in the Spring, or possibly Fall, are more compelling. (Of course, they could be wrong, if Larson is right.)

The second issue I see is the assumption that the Magi visited newborn Jesus at the manger. There are viable scenarios for this to be possible, of course. But, other theories by conservative scholars — and I tend to favor these — argue that textual clues indicate Jesus was probably a toddler by the time they arrived. Where? It might have been Bethlehem (though the family probably would not still have been stuck using the manger), but it might very well have been Nazareth, where Joseph would have returned with his family after the census and subsequent ritual cleansings & sacrifices. (Of course, we know they then escaped to Egypt for awhile to avoid Herod’s murderous decree.)

Dr. Hugh Ross and Dr. Jeff Zweerink, two astronomers/astrophysicists from Reasons to Believe (RTB) for whom I have great respect, bring up the above problem with dating Herod the Great and Martin/Steinmann/Larson’s dependence on a proposed “printing or copying error” around AD 1544 being responsible for the 4 BC date, which was then “propagated widely”. While commending Larson’s thoroughness and inclusion of a Gospel presentation at the end of the video, Ross & Zweerink also point out a few other problems they see with his theory:

“2. Many of the “astronomical evidences” Larson presents suffer from one of two problems. Some have little relevance to historical events described in Scripture. Other evidences rely on theologically questionable interpretations of Scripture. At times, Larson’s arguments resemble astrology or the gospel-in-the-stars idea.

3. Larson’s video leaves the impression that his model is the only explanation for the Christmas star (mainly because of information regarding the celestial gospel). Such a position doesn’t accord with the diversity of scholarship among Christians. While this video provides one possible explanation for the astronomical events surrounding Jesus’ birth, viewers should respond with caution.”

Dr. Ross has made the point, “This stellar event is recorded nowhere else in ancient literature, so it must have been just dramatic enough to catch the attention of the watchful Magi, but too subtle to warrant the notice of other astronomers and astrologers of that time.” But, in his opinion, the two conjunctions in 3 BC and 2 BC — ten months apart — “would have made an indelible impression on the shepherds as well as on King Herod and the Jewish religious leaders. Further, they would have been observed as two objects, rather than one aster, and as two events, rather than as one and the same aster indicated by the text.” He and Zweerink also mention that Larson uses “redshift” incorrectly at one point. In addition, they say that Larson inexplicably leaves out reference to Daniel 9, but I found a page on his website that discusses it. So, either it is left out of the video for some reason, or he added the web page after Ross & Zweerink’s review was written, or they somehow missed the page/reference. (Or, maybe there is a particular verse that Larson left out but the RTB guys think is relevant.)

Recurrent nova w/ accretion diskNot only do Ross and Zweerink explain why other explanations don’t work, they have their own theory about the “Star of Bethlehem” that I find quite intriguing.

“The nova (plural, novae) is a stellar explosion that produces a sudden increase in brightness followed by a gradual dimming (within a few months or years). This type of event lacks the brightness of a supernova and yet would be clearly noticeable to a careful observer…. Nova events are sufficiently uncommon to catch the attention of observers as alert and well trained as the magi must have been. However, nearly all novae that occurred during the Roman Empire era were sufficiently unspectacular as to escape the attention of casual observers….

Most novae experience a single explosion, but a rare few undergo multiple explosions separated by months or years. [These are called recurring/recurrent novae.] This repeat occurrence would seem to fit the Matthew 2 indication that the star appeared, disappeared, and then reappeared. According to Herod’s murderous decree, the time separation between the first and second appearance of the star would have been somewhere between 15 and 30 months. Unlike other suggestions for the identity of the Christmas star, a recurring nova would appear and then reappear in exactly the same location on the celestial sphere.”

Dr. Ross has held onto this pet theory as a possible explanation for many decades. Just one problem, though….

“All the recurring novae that astronomers had observed did not recur until more than 10 years later and most did not recur for a century! Nevertheless, as an astronomer, I believed it sufficiently possible for a nova to recur in less than two years and stuck to this explanation, although I also suggested that cataclysmic variable stars [might work] as an alternate hypothesis.”

Until this year (2014)…

Astronomers observed nova M31N 2008-12a recurring within a period of only one year. Following this discovery, a team of four astronomers demonstrated that a certain kind of white dwarf star could exhibit recurring nova eruptions with a period as short as two months…. Though rare in our Milky Way Galaxy, such high-mass, high-accreting white dwarfs are expected to exist in numbers sufficient enough to lend more than adequate credence to the account of the star of Bethlehem.”

Nevertheless, Dr. Ross cautions:

“[The very limited biblical] data indicates the need for caution in offering explanations and interpretations. A recurring nova provides at least one plausible astronomical option. Eastern scholars familiar with Daniel’s teaching and submitted to Daniel’s God seem to fit the profile of the magi.

What strikes me as the most important point of the story is its illustration of the hope the magi placed in the promised Messiah. When I consider the magnitude of their commitment of time, energy, and treasure to seeking him out in order to bow before him, I pray that my response and yours will match theirs.”

In the end, I’m not totally convinced of any explanations, though I’d probably place these two at the top of my list. The Martin/Larson theory has a lot going for it, certainly. But, the RTB fellows have valid reservations and present a compelling hypothesis of their own. As with other biblical signs & wonders (and other unusual but non-biblical events), it’s fascinating to gather the relevant data from multiple disciplines and try to come up with a feasible explanation. But, we don’t need to know ALL the details of EXACTLY how God accomplished it to realize that it was an extremely rare event that occurred at just the right time to herald the arrival of the Word Incarnate.

The Christ-Child grew into the God-Man, lived a morally perfect life, went about His Heavenly Father’s business — teaching, preaching, and healing — until He was betrayed, executed horribly and unjustly by the authorities, and raised Himself from the dead three days later, providing the only opportunity for spiritually fallen Men to be reconciled back to their Creator. And the world has never been the same since! The “star of Bethlehem” may not have been required for the outworking of the rest of the Plan, but it demonstrated God’s power and sovereign control by its presence and by its (possible) fulfillment of OT prophecy (Num. 24:17). What more do we need?

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.”  — Luke 2:14 (NASB)

Have a Blessed Christmas!

* Major thanks to Drs. Ross and Zweerink at RTB (reasons.org) and a hat-tip to Dr. Roger Highfield for additional info in his book The Physics of Christmas.

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