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THE STAR OF BETHLEHEM

a.k.a. the Christmas star

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Sponsored link.


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Background:

Matthew 2:2 and 2:9 describes how the Magi (perhaps Zoroastrian astrologers) followed a star that they believed signaled the birth of the king of the Jews. In the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible, the passage is somewhat confusing at this point. It says that the astrologers saw the star in the east, and yet they traveled west to Jerusalem, while apparently following the star. This appears to be a mistranslation in the KJV of the Bible, that has been corrected in more modern translations.

This passage has triggered much speculation as to the exact nature of the object that they were following. If the "star" could be identified, then the time of Jesus' birth could be calculated by astronomical observations, perhaps giving an exact year, month and perhaps even day.

Among those who believe that the "star" is an astronomical object:

bulletSome believe that it was a super-nova (an exploding star). But the only super-novae recorded by ancient sources were at 134 BCE and 173 CE. 4
bulletOthers believe that it was a comet. There were comets recorded in 17, 5 & 4 BCE and 66 CE. However, a comet is not a likely candidate, because they were considered harbingers of doom by astrologers.
bulletStill others look for an unusual configuration of planets in the sky. There was a triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn during 7 BCE, when the two planets passed each other three times in Pisces - a constellation long associated with the Jewish people. But the passage in Matthew refers to a star, not an arrangement of planets.

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Problems with the "star" and an astronomical object:

No consensus has been reached as to the nature of the heavenly body that guided the Magi. It seems most unlikely that the "star" was a either a super-nova, comet or arrangement of planets. Matthew 2:9 describes how the star stopped over the place in Bethlehem where the child was. Since Bethlehem was a built-up area, the "star" could only have been a few hundred feet above ground level in order to pinpoint a specific building where Jesus was living. If it were a nova, comet or collection of planets, it would have been millions or tens of millions of miles away from earth. It would not have stopped over a building; it would have risen in the east and set in the west.

Residents of 1st century Palestine believed in a three-part universe: a flat earth, a rigid dome a few thousand feet above the earth, and heaven above the dome of the sky. Angels were believed to push the sun, moon, stars and planets across the underside of the sky. In such a universe, it would have been reasonable for them to assume that God hung out a star from heaven to indicate the location of Jesus' birth. But the universe is not really built like that. The sun and planets are tens or hundreds of millions of miles from earth; the stars are dozens of light-years and more away. (1 light-year is the distance that light, at 186,000 miles a second travels in one year.) Stars simply cannot pinpoint a place on earth.

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What the Bible says:

The Star of Bethlehem has fascinated Christians for 19 centuries. It is mentioned only once in the Christian Scriptures -- in the Gospel of Matthew

Matthew 2:1-11: "Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea 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... Then Herod...inquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem... When they had heard the king, they departed; 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. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother..." (KJV)

The original Greek word "aster" is translated as "star" in the Jerusalem, King James Version, Living, New English, New American, New American Standard, New International, New Revised Standard, Phillips, Revised Standard Bible, Rheims, and Today's English versions of the Bible. It is not an accurate translation; actually, "aster" can refer to any heavenly body: star, planet, comet, meteor, etc. 

The phrase "we have seen his star in the east" in the King James Version appears to be a mistranslation that has been replicated in almost all other versions. Today's English Version is somewhat more accurate; it translates the phrase as "we saw his star when it came up in the east." A better rendering would be "we have seen his star appear [briefly] in the first rays of dawn." 4

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Sponsored link:

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Christian tradition:

Many artists' paintings of the birth of Jesus show a comet above the manger and the three Magi (wise men). But this is not an accurate portrayal. According to Matthew 2:16, Herod allegedly ordered the extermination of all male children in Bethlehem and surrounding area who were under the age of 24 months. He is said to have based the age limit on the time when the magi first saw the star. This would imply that Jesus was about 1 year old when the Magi arrived. Although the shepherds, newborn Jesus, his parents, the manger scene, star and Magi are all lumped together in the typical nativity play, the events are described as occurring over about a one year period in the gospels. 

Herod ruled from about 40 BCE until his death in 4 or 5 BCE. Thus, if Matthew is accurate, Jesus' birth must have happened on or before that time. Other studies have shown that he was born in the fall, probably in September or October, some year between 4 and 7 BCE.

By tradition:

bulletThere were three wise men.
bulletThey were kings.
bulletThey have been given the names of Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar.

There is no justification for any of this folklore.

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Three common interpretations of Matthew 2:

The precise meaning of many biblical passages depends upon the assumptions that the reader makes about the Bible itself. Matthew 2 is no exception. Verses 1 to 11 have been interpreted in three main ways. Each approach assumes a different intent by the author of the gospel:

bulletThe star existed because the Bible is inerrant: Conservative Christians generally believe in the inerrancy (freedom of error) of the entire Bible. They also interpret passages literally where possible. The author of the gospel is seen as accurately reporting a real astronomical event. The three Magi actually followed a real heavenly body that pinpointed the building in Bethlehem where Jesus was born. The author was inspired by God and thus could not have made a mistake when writing the gospel. Our only task is to find out what kind of heavenly body the star of Bethlehem was.
bulletThe star probably did not exist because the passage in Matthew is not intended to be interpreted literally: Midrash is a method of looking at the Bible from a totally different perspective. As eloquently explained by Bishop J.S. Spong: 1

"Midrash is the Jewish way of saying that everything to be venerated in the present must somehow be connected with a sacred moment in the past...It is the means whereby the experience of the present can be affirmed and asserted as true inside the symbols of yesterday."

It is not useful to ask the question whether the Christmas star actually existed. It almost certainly did not. A more meaningful question, phrased by Bishop Spong in connection with the four "parting of the water" stories in the Hebrew Scriptures is: 2

"What was the experience that led, or even compelled, the compilers of sacred tradition to include this...event inside the interpretive framework of their sacred past?"

The author of Matthew decided to include a fictional description of a nonexistent heavenly body. His intent was to tie Jesus' birth back to those of Abraham, Isaac, and Moses -- births that Jewish tradition says were also accompanied by heavenly phenomena.

The Christmas star never existed. The author's purpose in adding an imaginary star was to demonstrate that Jesus' birth and future life were truly remarkable. Since three major Jewish personalities in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) had stars announcing their birth, Jesus must have at least had an equivalent astronomical event when he was born.

bulletThe star did not exist because the whole birth story is a myth: There were dozens of well-established religions within the Roman Empire during the 1st century BCE, well before Jesus was born. Each of these faiths worshiped their own version of a godman. Although called by different names, such as Adonis, Aion, Antiochus, Asclepius, Attis, Bacchus, Dionysus, Osiris, Mithras, etc., their life stories were very similar. They were typically born about DEC-25 of a human virgin in a cave or cowshed. Their father was a god. Their birth was prophesized by a star in the heavens. Dozens of occurrences in Jesus' life, as described in the gospels, are identical or very similar to events in the legends of these godmen. Many magical and miraculous factors in Jesus' life were simply copied from pre-existing religions. The star of Bethlehem was one of these. The adoption of Pagan myths was necessary in order for Christianity to compete with other religions in the Empire. Otherwise, it would not have attracted many followers.

The author of the Book of Mark wrote the gospel circa 70 CE. His writing started with John's baptism of Jesus. He seems to have been unaware of any unusual occurrences associated with the birth of Jesus -- including a virgin birth or special star. Those theologians who are not conservative Christians have largely reached a consensus on the sequence in which the synoptic Gospels were written: Mark was first; Matthew was written circa 80 CE; it was largely based on the earlier gospel of Mark. It is apparent that Matthew copied much of Mark and simply tacked on a birth and genealogy story as a prefix to the gospel. He may have invented the story, using elements from surrounding religions. He may have incorporated stories of Jesus that were spread orally.

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Beliefs promoted by believers that the "star" was a heavenly body

As each Christmas approaches, the media present possible explanations for the star of Bethlehem. Authors of newspaper articles and producers of TV specials all seem to assume that the star was real. They rarely consider the possibility that the star was a symbol or a myth. 

Matthew 2, verses 2 and 9 describes how the Magi (perhaps Zoroastrian astrologers) followed a star that they believed signaled the birth of the king of the Jews.  If the "star" could be identified, then many people believe that the time of Jesus' birth could be calculated from astronomical observations. We might be able to compute an exact year, month and perhaps even day. 

The following explanations have been proposed:

bulletIt was a miracle: God placed some sort of fiery object in the sky a short distance above the manger where Jesus was born. Not having seen such an event in the past, the author of Matthew called it a star. This was a unique occurrence, a miracle which involved the suspension of gravity and other laws of nature. 

Others have suggested that the star of Bethlehem had miraculous powers and was visible only to the Magi; it would not have been visible to the public or included in any star charts. The "star" did have unusual properties according to Matthew. He seems to have implied that the Magi lost track of the star for a while before it reappeared over Bethlehem.
bulletIt was a nova or super-nova: Near the end of their life cycle, some stars explode "and increase in brightness a millionfold or more for a short period of time. In the case of particularly tremendous explosions ("supernovae") among stars reasonably close to ourselves, the result may be the sudden appearance of a star that will grow as bright as the planet Venus in a spot where previously no star bright enough to be seen by the naked eye had been visible." 3 These events happen at random times, averaging once every few hundred years. One source states that the only super-novae recorded by ancient sources were at 134 BCE and 173 CE. 4 Another claims that Chinese astronomers recorded a nova in 05-MAR/APR BCE. 7 A difficulty with the super-nova theory is that the "star" of Bethlehem is said to have guided the Magi to the house where Jesus lived. This would mean that the light would have had to be relatively stationary and only a few hundred feet above the earth -- in the manner of landing lights of a helicopter. A light that was 10 miles from earth could not identify a single building. A star which was uncounted trillions of miles away from earth could not hover over a single location. 
bulletIt was Halley's comet: This comet appears every 76 years and was visible for about 56 days from 12-AUG to 12-OCT BCE. Some sources state 10 or 11 BCE; they appear to be in error. But if this was the Bethlehem star, Jesus would have been 42 to 45 years of age when he was executed by the Roman army. Theologians generally agree he was in his early thirties during his ministry. Like all of the other natural explanations, a comet could not have identified a single building in Bethlehem.
bulletIt was some other comet: A comet appeared between 05-MAR-10 and 05-APR-27 BCE. It was visible for about 70 days. A second comet was recorded in 04-APR-24 BCE. A comet is not a likely candidate for the star of Bethlehem, because astrologers normally considered them harbingers of doom. In support of the comet theory is the implication in the Matthew text that the "star" disappeared for a while before reappearing over Bethlehem. Comets cannot be seen when they pass behind the sun.
bulletIt was the planet Jupiter: Michael Molnar, author of "The Star of Bethlehem: The legacy of the Magi," has analyzed the motions of the planet Jupiter, using ancient Greek astrological methods that were in use throughout the Roman Empire in the 1st century BCE. He concludes that Jupiter was the Christmas star. During the year 6 BCE, Jupiter underwent two occultations ("eclipses") of the moon. It also reversed its direction on AUG-23 and DEC-19. Molnar reports that "there is confirmation from a[n ancient] Roman astrologer that the conditions of April 17 BC were believed to herald the birth of a divine, immortal and omnipotent person born under the sign of the Jews, which we now know as Aries the Ram."  Further, on the APR-7 occultation, Jupiter emerged as a morning star - "in the east" as mentioned in Matthew 2. 5 One book reviewer at Amazon.com points out that the APR-17 occultation happened during daytime when Jupiter was very close to the sun and could not be seen. Also, with mathematical techniques available to the Magi, its position could not have been determined by calculation. So, the astrologers would have been unaware of the occultation.
bulletIt was Jupiter and Saturn: There was a triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn during 7 BCE, when the two planets appeared to come very close to each other on three nights: MAY-29, OCT-3, and DEC-4. This type of event only happens about once every 900 years. They did not actually approach each other; they were merely aligned so that they seemed to be on top of each other when viewed from Earth. This conjunction happened when the planets were in the constellation of Pisces - a collection of stars long associated with the Jewish people. Jupiter was called the "planet of kings." Saturn was called the "protector of the Jews." The OCT-3 conjunction happened on the Jewish Day of Atonement. Thus, the Magi might well have associated this most unusual astronomical event with the birth of a baby who would become king of the Jews - the Messiah. But the passage in Matthew refers to a single heavenly body, not a group of planets.
bulletIt was Mars, Jupiter and Saturn: During 06-FEB, Mars Jupiter and Saturn came within 8 degrees of each other and were seen together low in the western sky.
bulletIt was a series of amazing planetary conjunctions: During 3 & 2 BCE, there were a number of remarkable displays in the heavens:
bullet03-MAY-19: Saturn and Mercury were within 40' (arc minutes) of each other.
bullet03-JUN-12: Saturn and Venus were separated by only 7.2'
bullet03-AUG-12: Jupiter and Venus approached to within 4.2'
bullet03-SEP-14: Jupiter came to within 20' of the star Regulus, the "Royal Star."
bullet02-FEB-17: Jupiter once more moved close to Regulus -- within 51'.
bullet02-MAY-8: Jupiter made a third conjunction with Regulus, within 44'.
bullet02-JUN-17: Jupiter and Venus were within 6'' (arc seconds) of each other. They would have appeared as a single source of light - a most unusual event.
bullet02-AUG-17: Mercury, Venus, Mars, and Jupiter were close.

An additional complication that makes the super-nova, comet and planet conjunction unlikely is that the object would have risen in the east and set in the west every night. Thus, it could not have stood over a cowshed or cave in Bethlehem. Residents of 1st century Palestine believed in a three-part universe: a flat earth, a domed sky over the earth, and heaven above the dome of the sky where God lived. The Angels were believed to drag stars, planets, the sun and moon across the sky. In such a universe, the author of Matthew would have no problem with the idea that God hung a star from heaven to indicate the location of Jesus' birth. But the universe is not really built like that. The sun and planets are tens or hundreds of millions of miles from Earth; the stars are at least many light-years and more away. (1 light-year is the distance that light, at 186,000 miles a second travels in one year.) Stars simply cannot pinpoint a place on earth. 

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References:

  1. J.S. Spong, "Resurrection: Myth or Reality?", Harper Collins, San Francisco CA (1994), Page 8-9.
  2. Ibid., Page 11.
  3. Isaac Asimov, "Asimov's guide to the Bible: The Old and New Testaments," Wings Books, (1969) Page 791.
  4. Werner Keller, "The Bible as History," Morrow, (1981), Pages 325 to 333. Review/order the book
  5. M.R. Molnar, ""The Star of Bethlehem: The legacy of the Magi," Rutgers Univ. Press, (1999). Review/order the book. He has a webpage which discusses the book at: http://www.eclipse.net/~molnar/ 
  6. E.L. Martin, "The star that astonished the world," Associates for Scriptural Knowledge," Reported as out-of-print by Amazon.com
  7. Nick Strobel, "The star of Bethlehem: An astronomical perspective," at: http://www/bc/cc/ca/us/programs/sea/astronomy/history/ 

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Additional websites dealing with the star of Bethlehem:

bulletMarc Airhart, "The star of Bethlehem revisited," at: http://earthsky.worldofscience.com/Features/Articles/ 
bulletW.P. Bidelman, "The Bimillenary of Christ's birth: The astronomical evidence at: http://www.griffithobs.org/IPSBidelman.html 
bulletS.S. Carroll, "The star of Bethlehem: An astronomical and historical perspective," at: http://sciastro.net/portia/articles/thestar.htm
bulletK.W. Collins, "The star of Bethlehem," at: http://www.kencollins.com/Why-01.htm 
bulletBill Dietrich, "Star of wonder: Astronomical events that cold have shone down on Bethlehem," Seattle Times, 1996-DEC-24 at: http://seattletimes.com/extra/browse/html/
bulletH.M. Morris, "Star Witness," Institute for Creation Research, at: http://www.icr.org/pubs/imp/imp-150.htm 
bulletJ. Mosley, "Common errors in 'Star of Bethlehem' planetarium shows," at: http://sciastro.net/portia/articles/thestar.htm 
bullet"The star of Bethlehem: What was it?" Christian Information Ministries (CIM) at: http://www.fni.com/cim/briefings/star.txt 

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Copyright 1999, 2000 & 2002 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 1999-DEC-26
Latest update: 2002-AUG-4
Author: B.A. Robinson

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