Did The Star Of Bethlehem Really Exist?
At the end of what has been a very difficult year, we may have something to look forward to tonight!
This evening – The 21 December 2020 – Planets Jupiter and Saturn come together in a ‘Great Conjunction’ that astronomers are implying could have been the bright star guiding The Three Magi (Kings) and King Herod to Bethlehem. The two planets will appear as one, causing a tremendous light to be shone as if they were just one planet being viewed from Earth.
The Star Of Bethlehem:
We’ve all heard the Christmas story, but surprisingly there is only 1 single account of this star, written in the Book of Matthew. The exert of Matthew’s story is told below, as written in The Bible – Matthew 2:1-12:
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.’
When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. ‘In Bethlehem in Judea,’ they replied, ‘for this is what the prophet has written: “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.'” Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, ‘Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.’
After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.
On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
So what was the Star?
The wise men or Magi came from an area which is now in either Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia or the Yemen (then known as Persia, Arabia and Sheba). They’re often called the ‘Three Kings’, but the Bible doesn’t say how many there were, or that they were even kings! They became three because of the gifts they brought with them.
They were indeed ‘wise men’. The Magi were ‘Magupati’, a title given to priests in a sect of the ancient Persian religions such as Zoroastrianism. Today we’d called them astrologers. Back then astronomy and astrology were part of the same overall studies (and ‘science’) and went hand in hand with each other. The magi would have followed the patterns of the stars religiously. They would have also probably been very rich and held in high esteem in their own society and by people who weren’t from their country or religion.
They had seen an unusual new star in the sky, and knew that it told of the birth of a special King in Israel. But what did they see? The Bible says they ‘saw it in the east’ and then when they were in Jerusalem that it ‘went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was’.
A very accurate translation of ‘saw it in the east’ is ‘in the first light of dawn’, so not just in the East, but early in the morning. And when the Magi were in Jerusalem it would have been in the south, over Bethlehem.
We also know that it must have been a sign for something very new and unusual; that it signified (in their astrology) there was a new King in Israel and that it was worth traveling to find him! It would have also had to happen over a period of time, from when the Magi were in Persia to when they’ve traveled to Israel and met with King Herod. It also had to happen before King Herod died! Most people think Herod died in 4 BCE/BC.
So knowing the astrology and signs that the Magi understood, people have tried to find this magnificent star.
Evidence for the Star of Bethlehem
For centuries, astronomers have looked to the historical record in search of evidence for what could explain this Star of Bethlehem. Scholars have been discussing potential causes since at least the 13th century. Perhaps it was a supernova, a comet, a solar flare or an alignment of planets. Or, alternatively, maybe it never happened at all. The truth is, science will likely never know the truth.
But let’s entertain the idea that it was a real celestial event. What are some science-backed explanations that could explain the Star of Bethlehem?
Well, the story is relatively vague, but it does give us some clues.
A Metor: a chunk of space rock that brightly burns up in Earth’s atmosphere — which would’ve appeared and faded in an instant. However, this is highly unlikely as there’s no way three wise men could have tracked a meteor for weeks.
A Supernova: the explosive death of a star, which drastically increases its brightness for days, weeks or months — could explain the Star of Bethlehem. Supernovae, or “guest stars” have been consistently witnessed and recorded going back thousands of years. So if one had happened, other cultures likely would have taken note.
And even if it somehow escaped the written historical record, astronomers have observed remnants of many other ancient supernovae. And by estimating their peak brightness, researchers have even tied some remnants to events seen on Earth in the past. Yet telescopes haven’t found any evidence for a supernova remnant that sync up with the timing of the Star of Bethlehem. In fact, the only supernova that was visible from Earth around the time of Christ’s birth actually happened in the year 185 A.D. and was recorded by Chinese astronomers.
A Christmas Comet: In the past, some interested astronomers have also suggested the Star of Bethlehem was a comet passing near Earth. These icy bodies from the distant solar system often shine quite brightly when they venture into the inner solar system and are heated by the Sun. They’re also known for sometimes visibly lingering in the sky for weeks or months at a time. And like supernovae, we also have historical records from other cultures regarding comets.
Sure enough, in the year 5 B.C., Chinese astronomers noted the appearance of a “Broom Star” that many researchers have interpreted as a comet. Like supernovae, Chinese scholars noted many historic comets, and even recorded a number of times that meteor impacts killed people.
Ancient Great Conjunction: What about a mash-up of planets like the upcoming Great Conjunction of 2020? Could that explain the Star of Bethlehem?
When you rewind the motion of the planets — something that’s easy to do with observing software these days — you can see that several interesting conjunctions played out in the years around the life of Jesus. (A planetary conjunction happens when two planets make a close approach to each other in Earth’s night sky. The two objects aren’t actually near each other, though, they just look that way from our vantage point.)
In the year 7 B.C., Jupiter and Saturn had three conjunctions in the same constellation, Pisces. Because the planets move in their orbits at different speeds, and are located at different distances, sometimes they appear to pass one another in the night sky. They can also appear to hold still or move backward in the sky, which astronomers call retrograde motion. This trick is like passing a slower car on the highway. As you get close to the other vehicle, it seems to hold still beside you. Then, as you pull away, it drops backward. The same thing happens as Earth zips around the Sun much faster than the outer planets.
However, Jupiter is closer to the Sun than Saturn, so it also appears to move faster in our night sky.
So, if Jupiter and Saturn had three close conjunctions in a relatively brief period of time, it’s easy to imagine that ancient astronomers — really, astrologers — would have taken note. And they also likely would have ascribed some meaning to the event.
These same astrologers wouldn’t have had to wait long for an even more striking planetary encounter. Four years later, in the summer of 3 B.C., Jupiter and Venus met in an event that would have looked much like the upcoming “Christmas Star,” also referred to as the Great Conjunction of December 2020.
A Myth or Legend: Since then, many enthusiastic astronomers — and eager amateurs — have also pointed to other celestial positions playing out around the same time as further evidence that ancient astrologers would’ve found meaning in these events. Bright stars and planets were moving through important constellations. Still others have suggested that the Star of Bethlehem might not have been one celestial event at all. Instead, taken together, the combined effect of years of these astronomical events may have led the Magi to see signs a new king had been born.
But could any of these things have really caused the Star of Bethlehem?
The truth is, none of these events match up perfectly with the description of how things played out in the Book of Matthew. The context is also off. Ancient people knew their planets well, so it would be weird to call a conjunction of multiple planets a “star.”
Furthermore, it’s hard to imagine how Herod could be surprised by three wise men telling him about a new star; he surely would’ve seen any such bright or obvious object himself. According to the Bible, astrology is also heretical, which makes the idea of reading into the meaning of the stars a bit suspect in the first place.
In the end, we’ll likely never know what really inspired the biblical story of the Star of Bethlehem. Fortunately for us, we’ll get a chance to see our own “Christmas Star” of sorts on December 21. Then we can all decide for ourselves what it means to us. And, heresy aside, we all hope it brings good tidings for peace, joy, and love. Lord knows we need them right now!