The ‘Splainer: Is the star of Bethlehem for real?

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A Palestinian municipality worker places a star on top of a tree before the annual lighting ceremony of a Christmas tree at Manger Square in the West Bank town of Bethlehem on December 15, 2010. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Ammar Awad 
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-STAR-SPLAINER, originally transmitted on Dec. 21, 2015.

A Palestinian municipality worker places a star on top of a tree before the annual lighting ceremony of a Christmas tree at Manger Square in the West Bank town of Bethlehem on December 15, 2010. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Ammar Awad *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-STAR-SPLAINER, originally transmitted on Dec. 21, 2015.

The ‘Splainer (as in, “You’ve got some ‘splaining to do”) is an occasional feature in which RNS gives you everything you need to know about current events to help you hold your own at a cocktail party.

(RNS) The famous “star of wonder, star of night,” the focus of more than one Christmas song, hangs over every creche and sits atop most Christmas trees.  What was the astronomical event we now call the star of Bethlehem that guided the wise men, or Magi, to Jesus in the manger? Was it “a star dancing in the night,” or was it something more dramatic, like a supernova or even a UFO? There is science behind the manger story. Let us ‘Splain …

Q: What is the star of Bethlehem?

A: The star of Bethlehem is the name given to an event in the night sky that the Gospel of Matthew says heralded the birth of Jesus. Three wise men — or Magi, or kings — went to King Herod 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.”RNS-SPLAINER-LOGObthumb

After the kings went on their way, “the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was,” according to Matthew.

So we have a moving star in the east big enough to notice above others with the naked eye.

Q: So it was probably a comet, right? They are big and bright and they move across the sky.

A: It could have been a comet. Comets have been known since ancient times. They can be seen with the naked eye, move and have tails — a train of cosmic dust that burns off as they approach the sun. Perhaps the tail of the comet pointed the wise men to the manger.


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But as David Hughes, a British astronomer who wrote about the star of Bethlehem in 1976, told the BBC: “The snag is that they’re not that rare. They were also commonly associated with the ‘four Ds’ — doom, death, disease and disaster. So if it did contain a message, it would have been a bad omen.”

Q: I saw “Star Wars.” Could it have been an exploding Death Star?

Video courtesy of Csaba Krivács via YouTube

A: No. Not everything this December is about “Star Wars.” However, astronomers have investigated the star of Bethlehem as the birth of a star — a nova — that shines very bright and then fades over a few months. Same problem as a comet — not that rare. How about, they asked, a supernova — an explosion so big it outlines an entire galaxy?

Just one problem, says Brother Guy Consolmagno, a Vatican astronomer and co-author of the book “Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? And Other Questions from the Astronomers’ In-Box at the Vatican Observatory.”

“There are no independent reports of a supernova around the time Jesus was born,” Consolmagno writes. “And there are no unaccounted-for supernova remains from two thousand years ago. So it seems to me that astronomy can pretty much rule out the idea that the Star of Bethlehem was a supernova.”

Q: That leaves a UFO or a planet. Both of those move. Could the star of Bethlehem have been a UFO or a planet?

A: If you are a fan of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” then you know Jesus — in the form of his stand-in, Brian — had experience with UFOs.

Video courtesy of Cody Greene via YouTube

Let’s assume the Pythons were just joking. That leaves planets. But a single planet would not have caused ancient astrologers to notice something out of the ordinary. John Mosley, an astronomer at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, has explored the possibility that the star of Bethlehem was actually a “planetary conjunction” — an alignment of one or more planets with the sun and the Earth. He notes there was a series of rare planetary conjunctions in the years 3 and 2 B.C. At that time, Venus and Jupiter were close to each other and appeared in the constellation Leo — which the Jews often associated with their destiny.


READ: ‘Star Wars’: The return of the transcendent (COMMENTARY)


As if that weren’t enough, Jupiter, he says, passed in front of the star Regulus — which means “king” — three times. “The whole sequence of events could have been enough for at least three astrologers to go to Jerusalem and ask Herod, ‘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.’”

(Kimberly Winston is a national correspondent for Religion News Service)

  • An NPR caller said that “The Star” was sent up by Satan to reveal where Jesus was to Herod. New one on me.

  • John McGrath

    Why is it called the Star of Bethleheme? It led the Magi to Jerusalem.

  • Garson Abuita

    In Matthew’s narrative, the Star leads the Magi to Bethlehem after Herod makes some inquiries. The whole point of Bethlehem being said to be Jesus’s birthplace is to identify him with the promised Messiah from the line of David. So it makes sense that the Star got called that. In any event, Bethlehem is only about 10 miles from the Old City of Jerusalem. In any other place it would be a suburb.

  • Jim

    If the magi came from nearby eastern kingdoms, they would have come from Mesopotamia (Iraq), Syria and Persia (Iran).If the magi saw a star in the eastern part of the sky and followed it, they never would have arrived in Bethlehem. They would have headed east and away from Bethlehem, because Syria is northeast of Bethlehem and Mesopotamia and Persia are east of Bethlehem. Later in the night, the star would be in the south, and they would be headed toward the Arabian Peninsula. Only after midnight when the star was descending in the west would they have been heading in the right direction. When the star rose in the east the following night, they would have been traveling east again. And so on. It requires only a look at a map to tell us this. Matthew either made up this story or, more likely, was relating popular folklore intended to show that Jesus was the messiah forecast by Mica and others. In Homer’s Iliad, written 800 years earlier, Aeneas also follows a star to get to Carthage.

  • ben in oakland

    Of course that makes perfect sense, but therefore, it can’t possibly be true.

    But the text says, “For we have seen HIS star in the east.” This is clearly an astrological reference, not an astronomical or cartological reference. When one considers that they were magi, or magicians, it makes even more sense.

  • Jeff

    A flaw in this commentary is that it talks about “Three” wise men….. But the Gospel of Matthew doesn’t state the number of wise men – it could have been 3, or 10, or 20…. Just because three gifts were given (gold, frankincense, & myrrh), doesn’t mean there were only three wise men (they, however many they were, could have simply presented the three things from their “treasures” that had the most value). The idea that there were only three, with names like Melchior, Caspar, & Balthazar, was a later tradition that was invented by the church

  • CM Roberts

    The “astrologers from eastern parts,” hence from the neighborhood of Babylon, whose visit to King Herod after the birth of Jesus resulted in the slaughter of all the male infants in Bethlehem, were obviously not servants or worshipers of the true God. (Mt 2:1-18) As to the “star” seen by them, many suggestions have been given as to its having been a comet, a meteor, a supernova, or, more popularly, a conjunction of planets. None of such bodies could logically have ‘come to a stop above where the young child was,’ thereby identifying the one house in the village of Bethlehem where the child was found. It is also notable that only these pagan astrologers “saw” the star. Their condemned practice of astrology and the adverse results of their visit, placing in danger the life of the future Messiah, certainly allow for, and even make advisable, the consideration of their having been directed by an adversary to God’s purposes, SATAN, who “keeps transforming himself into an angel of light.”

  • P Edward Murray

    The Star of Bethlehem
    Quote from the book “The Star of Bethlehem” by Astronomer David Hughes, Copyright 1979 by David Hughes. Pocket Books, a Simon & Schuster division of Gulf & Western Corp, NY, NY.
    The vision of St. Maria de Algreda, Abbes of the order of St Francis in Spain:

    “At that time the angel who was sent to them [the Magi] from the stable at Bethlehem created in [or “out of “] the air, by the power of God, a star of peculiar splendor, not so great however as those of the firmament, for this star was fixed, not in the sky, but in the lower air, in order to guide the Kings to the stable at Bethlehem. This star was of great splendor, different from that of the Sun and stars.
    With its charming light it illuminated the night like a torch. When they started off from their homes, they all saw the star, although they started from different places. For it was so elevated and such a distance that all three could see it. After they had left their homes they soon met together…

  • This effort to come up with an explanation for “the star of Bethlehem” is predicated on the idea that the celestial object described in Matthew actually was in the sky for a time and behaved exactly as the evangelist stated. There’s just this one teeny little problem with this assumption:

    We have no idea if it’s even true!

    No such historical event, around the same time, is described anywhere else. What is described does not correspond to any known kind of celestial object (stars, comets, etc. aren’t prone to move around as people move then stop above spots on the earth).

    On the other hand, it’s easily possible the evangelist manufactured it as a plot device for his story. The star’s unprecedented behavior would be a spectacular “sign” of Jesus’ divinity.

    Until we have reason to believe the story actually happened, explanations are a fool’s errand, a kind of putting the cart before the horse.

  • Neon Genesis

    The main problem with this argument is that it’s assuming the story of Jesus’ miraculous birth is historical fact and trying to come to reconcile a fantastical myth with modern scientific worldviews. I’m not a Christ Myth theorist and I believe in a historical Jesus but there’s little evidence for any of the fantastical story of Jesus’ birth and the contradictions between the narratives makes it even more suspect. It’s also not entirely clear the gospel writers were intending these stories to be taken as historical fact as opposed to symbolic Jewish midrash.

  • Fran

    CM,

    That is so correct! God would have nothing to do with directing the astrologers through a star to Jesus, since King Herod would use information concerning his location for his death! It should also be noted that it was only the shepherds who visited Jesus in the manger (Luke 2:7-20), bearing him no gifts. The astrologers, number unknown, visited Jesus when he was a “young child” in a home at a later time, according to the account in Matthew. They bore him gifts because they believed him to be the future king of the Jews.

  • I am amazed at how many people miss the point of the “star” that God displayed on this occasion. The point is, it was a miracle. Yes, God does those from time to time. Why take a miracle and try to explain it through the natural world? Why do that? That demonstrates a lack of faith, and that is not what God is seeking from us. It is a beautiful part of the Gospel story, and His people glorify Him for it. The Father sent His Son from heaven to this earth to atone for our sins so that we might have everlasting life. Praise God. Blessed be His Name. Receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. Turn away from sin, and know His power and peace in your life. God Bless

  • “The point is, it was a miracle.”

    No.

    #1: Miracles don’t happen.
    #2: If you heard about a miracle happening, refer to #1.
    #3: If you experience a miracle only through hearing about it in a book, refer to #2
    #4: If you personally experience a miracle but nobody else saw it refer to #1
    #5: If you are convinced you saw a miracle even with other witnesses assume you are all mistaken until further evidence confirms it. Because #1.

    If God only operates through miracles he necessarily cannot exist. Because #1.