What was the Star of Bethlehem?

December 21, 2009 — Leave a comment

Sigh. So it’s that time of time year – “what was the Star of Bethlehem?”. This is a question a lot of astronomers will be innocently asked by all sorts of people over the festive season. Best answer: “nothing, it doesn’t even make sense”. If you look in the gospel of Matthew, which is where the story of the Magi (or the wise men) comes from, you’ll see this text in the King James Bible:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”

Can you spot the peculiar error? The Magi came from the east, yet they saw the star in the east. Yes that’s right – either the text is confused or the Magi travelled all the way around the globe, the wrong way, until they reached Bethlehem some two oceans and many thousands of miles later.

In other versions of the Bible (why oh why does it even have versions?!) they don’t specify the star being in the east. They sometimes say it rose and then settled in the right location, over Bethlehem. I grant you, if you want to quibble about specifics in the Bible then there are much better places to start but come on, God! Sort it out! Matthew is the only gospel to mention the Magi – where Mark doesn’t mention the nativity at all.

So assuming that there even was one, what might the biblical ‘Star of Bethlehem’ actually have been?

Possible options include

  • novae and supernovae (stars being explosive somehow)
  • a planetary conjunction (bright alignments of planets from the perspective of the observer on Earth)
  • a comet.

No known supernovae match with the date (assuming it to have been between 10 B.C. to 10 A.D.). Planetary conjunctions pose a problem: namely there are lots of conjunctions between Jupiter, the Moon, various stars, other planets etc etc. Picking the one that would have meant that a king was being born is difficult. Halley’s Comet passed by in 12 B.C. but this is surely too early. Halley’s comet would also have moved over a fairly short period of time – which doesn’t match the notion of ‘following’ a star. Not without wandering in circles anyway.

The best bet for a Star of Bethlehem candidate is a “comet or nova” observed by both Chinese and Korean astronomers in 5/4 B.C. Either or both years is possible. This was an object that appeared in March and remained visible for some seventy days – without moving relative to the stars. This object would have made a nice conjunction with the Moon around that time, which might add significance to the mystical Magi.

However if I told you that some significant star was seen in 112 A.D. then I imagine you could find one to within a few years. Or for 560 B.C. or 1999 A.D. – the point is that there are lots of significant astronomical events all the time – that is one reason astronomy is such a popular hobby! Finding a match for a Christmas star is therefore quite likely if you make your criteria loose enough, i.e. it has to be bright, and can happened up to ten years either side of 0 A.D.

I’m afraid that the Star of Bethlehem is widely regarded as fiction. Like the visit of the Magi themselves, the Star of Bethlehem simply didn’t happen. It is also incredibly unlikely that much of the nativity happened, but there you go. Let’s also throw into the mix the fact that Christianity prohibits astrology. Astrology is seen as sorcery and being of the occult. Intertwining it with the birth of Jesus seems bizarre and slightly problematic for the Church.

In researching this blog post I found a nice website, with a related book, all about the Star of Bethlehem. If you’re interested in reading more I’d suggest taking a look. Other than that I’d say ‘stop worrying, and live you’re life’! Enjoy Christmas, be with the ones you love.

Today is the Winter Solstice, the Sun is at its lowest point in the sky and the night is as long as it gets in the year. The days get longer now, but Winter sets in for a while. It is time to get gorge yourselves and cuddle up with someone special to keep warm. That is the true origin of Christmas, and of myriad other winter festivals of light. So embrace it – eat drink and be merry – and may I wish you all a very merry Christmas and a happy new year!

[Star if Bethlehem image from Flickr user Ashish T]

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