The Star of Bethlehem, or Christmas Star, appears only in the nativity story of the Gospel of Matthew where “wise men from the East” (Magi) are inspired by the star to travel to Jerusalem.
There, they met King Herod of Judea, and asked him,
“Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We have come to pay homage to the newborn king of the Jews.”
Herod calls his scribes and priests who quote to him that a verse from the Book of Micah interpreted as a prophecy, states that the Jewish Messiah would be born in Bethlehem to the south of Jerusalem. Secretly intending to find and kill the Messiah in order to preserve his own kingship, Herod invites the wise men to return to him on their way home.
The star leads them to Jesus’ home in the town, where they worship him and give him gifts. The wise men are then given a divine warning not to return to Herod, so they return home by a different route.
Many Christians believe the star was a miraculous sign. Some theologians claimed that the star fulfilled a prophecy, known as the Star Prophecy.
Astronomers have made several attempts to link the star to unusual celestial events, such as a conjunction of Jupiter and Venus, a comet, or a supernova.
Some modern scholars do not consider the story to be describing a historical event but a pious fiction created by the author of the Gospel of Matthew.
The subject is a favorite at the planetarium shows during the Christmas season. However, most ancient sources and Church tradition generally indicate that the wise men visited Bethlehem sometime after Jesus’ birth. The visit is traditionally celebrated on Epiphany (January 6) in Western Christianity.
Matthew’s account describes Jesus with a broader Greek word paidion, which can mean either “infant” or “child”, rather than the more specific word for the infant (brephos), possibly implying that some time has passed since the birth.
However, the word (paidion) is also used in Luke’s Gospel specifically concerning Jesus’ birth and his presentation at the temple.
Many scholars who see the gospel nativity stories as later apologetic accounts created to establish the messianic status of Jesus regard the Star of Bethlehem as pious fiction.
Aspects of Matthew’s account which have raised questions of the historical event include: Matthew is the only one of the four gospels which mentions either the Star of Bethlehem or the Magi. Scholars suggest that Jesus was born in Nazareth and that the Bethlehem nativity narratives reflect a desire by the Gospel writers to present his birth as the fulfillment of prophecy.
The Matthew account conflicts with that given in the Gospel of Luke, in which the family of Jesus already live in Nazareth, travel to Bethlehem for the census and return home almost immediately.
Matthew’s description of the miracles and portents attending the birth of Jesus can be compared to stories concerning the birth of Augustus (63 BC). Linking a birth to the first appearance of a star was consistent with a popular belief that each person’s life was linked to a particular star.
Magi and astronomical events were linked in the public mind by the visit to Rome of a delegation of magi at the time of a spectacular appearance of Halley’s Comet in AD 66, about the time the Gospel of Matthew was being composed.
This delegation was led by King Tiridates of Armenia, who came seeking confirmation of his title from Emperor Nero. Ancient historian Dio Cassius wrote that:
“The King did not return by the route he had followed incoming”.
Fulfillment of prophecy
The ancients believed that astronomical phenomena were connected to terrestrial events. Miracles were routinely associated with the birth of important people, including the Hebrew patriarchs, as well as Greek and Roman heroes.
The Star of Bethlehem is traditionally linked to the Star Prophecy in the Book of Numbers:
I see him, but not now;
I behold him, but not near;
A Star shall come out of Jacob;
A Scepter shall rise out of Israel,
And batter the brow of Moab,
And destroy all the sons of tumult.
Although possibly intended to refer to a time that was long past, since the kingdom of Moab had long ceased to exist by the time the Gospels were being written, this passage had become widely seen as a reference to the coming of a Messiah.
It was, for example, cited by Josephus, who believed it referred to Emperor Vespasian. Origen, one of the most influential early Christian theologians, connected this prophecy with the Star of Bethlehem:
If, then, at the commencement of new dynasties, or on the occasion of other important events, there arises a comet so-called, or any similar celestial body, why should it be matter of wonder that at the birth of Him who was to introduce a new doctrine to the human race, and to make known His teaching not only to Jews, but also to Greeks, and to many of the barbarous nations besides, a star should have arisen? Now I would say, that with respect to comets there is no prophecy in circulation to the effect that such and such a comet was to arise in connection with a particular kingdom or a particular time; but with respect to the appearance of a star at the birth of Jesus there is a prophecy of Balaam recorded by Moses to this effect: There shall arise a star out of Jacob, and a man shall rise up out of Israel.
Origen suggested that the Magi may have decided to travel to Jerusalem when they “conjectured that the man whose appearance had been foretold along with that of the star, had actually come into the world“.
The Magi are sometimes called “kings” because of the belief that they fulfill prophecies in Isaiah and Psalms concerning a journey to Jerusalem by gentile kings. Isaiah mentions gifts of gold and incense.
In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament probably used by Matthew, these gifts are given as gold and frankincense, similar to Matthew’s “gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” The gift of myrrh symbolizes mortality, according to Origen.
Although magi are usually translated as “wise men,” in this context it probably means “astronomer” or “astrologer“.
The involvement of astrologers in the story of the birth of Jesus was problematic for the early Church because they condemned astrology as demonic; a widely cited explanation was that of Tertullian, who suggested that astrology was allowed ‘only until the time of the Gospel’.
In 1614, German astronomer Johannes Kepler determined that a series of three conjunctions of the planets Jupiter and Saturn occurred in the year 7 BC.
He argued (incorrectly) that planetary conjunction could create a nova, which he linked to the Star of Bethlehem. Modern calculations show that there was a gap of nearly a degree (approximately twice a diameter of the moon) between the planets, so these conjunctions were not visually impressive.
An ancient almanac has been found in Babylon which covers the events of this period but does not indicate that the conjunctions were of any special interest.
In the 20th century, Prof. Karlis Kaufmanis, an astronomer, argued that this was an astronomical event where Jupiter and Saturn were in a triple conjunction in the constellation Pisces. Archaeologist and Assyriologist Simo Parpola has also suggested this explanation.
In 3–2 BC, there was a series of seven conjunctions, including three between Jupiter and Regulus and strikingly close conjunction between Jupiter and Venus near Regulus on June 17, 2 BC. “The fusion of two planets would have been a rare and awe-inspiring event“, according to Roger Sinnott.
Another Venus–Jupiter conjunction occurred earlier in August, 3 BC. These events, however, occurred after the generally accepted date of 4 BC for the death of Herod. Since the conjunction would have been seen in the west at sunset it could not have led the magi south from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.
Other writers suggest that the star was a comet. Halley’s Comet was visible in 12 BC and another object, possibly a comet or nova, was seen by Chinese and Korean stargazers in about 5 BC.
This object was observed for over seventy days, possibly with no movement recorded. Ancient writers described comets as “hanging over” specific cities, just as the Star of Bethlehem was said to have “stood over” the “place” where Jesus was (the town of Bethlehem).
However, this is generally thought unlikely as in ancient times comets were generally seen as bad omens. The comet explanation has been recently promoted by Colin Nicholl. His theory involves a hypothetical comet that could have appeared in 6 BC.
A recent (2005) hypothesis advanced by Frank Tipler is that the star of Bethlehem was a supernova or hypernova occurring in the nearby Andromeda Galaxy.
Although it is difficult to detect a supernova remnant in another galaxy or obtain an accurate date of when it occurred, supernova remnants have been detected in Andromeda.
The Christmas Star As A Supernova In Aquila
Another theory is the more likely supernova of February 23 4 BC, which is now known as PSR 1913+16 or the Hulse-Taylor Pulsar.
It is said to have appeared in the constellation of Aquila, near the intersection of the winter color and the equator of date. The nova was recorded in China, Korea, and Palestine.
The Magi told Herod that they saw the star “in the East,” or according to some translations, “at its rising“, which may imply the routine appearance of a constellation or an asterism.
One theory interprets the phrase in Matthew 2:2, “in the east,” as an astrological term concerning a “heliacal rising.” This translation was proposed by Edersheim and Heinrich Voigt, among others.
The view was rejected by the philologist Franz Boll (1867–1924). Two modern translators of ancient astrological texts insist that the text does not use the technical terms for either a heliacal or an acronycal rising of a star. However, one concedes that Matthew may have used layman’s terms for a rising.
Relating the star historically to Jesus’ birth
If the story of the Star of Bethlehem described an actual event, it might identify the year Jesus was born. The Gospel of Matthew describes the birth of Jesus as taking place when Herod was king.
According to Josephus, Herod died after a lunar eclipse and before a Passover Feast. The eclipse is usually identified as the eclipse of March 13, 4 BC.
Other scholars suggested dates in 5 BC because it allows seven months for the events Josephus documented between the lunar eclipse and the Passover rather than the 29 days allowed by a lunar eclipse in 4 BC. Others suggest it was an eclipse in 1 BC.
The narrative implies that Jesus was born sometime between the first appearance of the star and the appearance of the Magi at Herod’s court. That the king is said to have ordered the execution of boys two years of age and younger implies that the Star of Bethlehem appeared within the preceding two years. Some scholars date the birth of Jesus as 6–4 BC, while others suggest Jesus’ birth was in 3/2 BC.
The Gospel of Luke says the census from Caesar Augustus took place when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Tipler suggests this took place in AD 6, nine years after the death of Herod, and that the family of Jesus left Bethlehem shortly after the birth.
Some scholars explain the apparent disparity as an error on the part of the author of the Gospel of Luke, concluding that he was more concerned with creating a symbolic narrative than a historical account, and was either unaware of, or indifferent to, the chronological difficulty.
However, there is some debate among Bible translators about the correct reading of Luke 2:2. Instead of translating the registration as taking place “when” Quirinius was governor of Syria, some versions translate it as “before” or use “before” as an alternative, which Harold Hoehner, F.F. Bruce, Ben Witherington, and others have suggested maybe the correct translation.
While not in agreement, Emil Schürer also acknowledged that such a translation can be justified grammatically. According to Josephus, the tax census conducted by the Roman senator Quirinius particularly irritated the Jews and was one of the causes of the Zealot movement of armed resistance to Rome.
From this perspective, Luke may have been trying to differentiate the census at the time of Jesus’ birth from the tax census mentioned in Acts 5:37 that took place under Quirinius at a later time. One ancient writer identified the census at Jesus’ birth, not with taxes, but with a universal pledge of allegiance to the emperor.