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 when it rose and have come to worship him.”
These lines from the Gospel according to Matthew in the New Testament of the Bible tell of a story familiar to anyone who grew up in a Christian country. The three kings who brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the birth of Jesus followed a star which guided them to Bethlehem.
There is much in the Gospels which is now known to be fact. Putting aside the religious aspects, archaeologists and researchers know for instance of King Herod the Great who ruled Judea during that time, through corroborating documentation and records of his reign.
Other aspects of the story of Jesus, such as his miracles, resurrection and ascension to heaven, are wholly lacking in corroborating evidence and must be taken on faith. And some aspects, one of which is the star, fall somewhere in between.
Is there evidence of a star in the sky around that time?
A Bright Light in the Sky
Stellar phenomena in the night sky have long been seen as portentous. The Norman invasion of England in 1066 AD followed a flaming star in the sky, most likely a comet, which is depicted in the Bayeaux Tapestry which records the events of the invasion and the Battle of Hastings.
Records of supernovae appear in ancient Egyptian and Chinese texts, and are depicted in Aztec, Maya and Inca records as well. Civilizations throughout history have looked to the night sky to guide them.
But what of the Star of Bethlehem? There are several candidates which could account for what the Magi claimed to have seen.
Halley’s Comet, with its eccentric orbit through the solar system, is visible in the night sky every 75 years and was last seen in 1986. Its regularity allows researchers to track its appearances through history, and it would have been visible between 11 and 12 BC, very close to the birth of Jesus.
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And there are certainly other bright lights in the sky which could account for the story. The first confirmed supernovae observation in history occurred in 185 AD by Chinese astronomers who detailed their findings in the ancient Book of Later Han.
The “guest star” as they termed it remained in the sky for eight months before fading, a new and bright light which puzzled the observers. Could the star of Bethlehem be another supernova, similarly baffling to Middle East observers?
This doesn’t seem likely however. There are no other records of a supernova during that time, and it would have been expected that its observations would have been noted by other cultures looking to the sky. Furthermore, our modern understanding of the night sky has yet to reveal the dust cloud from a supernova which would have happened at the right time.
If the Star of Bethlehem was a supernova, it was one that left no trace for today’s telescopes to find.
Other comets pass through the solar system irregularly, and the ancients had no way of predicting their appearance. These can appear for very brief periods and, as with Halley’s Comet, have a clear direction of travel. Could this be what the Magi saw?
The final real candidate among astronomical events would be a “Great Conjunction” of planets. For example, Jupiter and Saturn appeared to come together on December 21, 2020, appearing as one bright “star” in the sky for a brief moment.
This would seem the least likely explanation. For one, the planets would be clearly visible as they came together and later separated, something which is not hinted at in the records. However, there is some evidence that such a conjunction happened at around the right time.
Jupiter and Saturn conjoined in 7 BC, for a brief moment appearing as a single “star” in the sky. Even more brightly, Jupiter and Venus conjoined in 3 BC, lighting up the dawn as a single point of light.
Jupiter and Venus are the two brightest objects in the sky after the Sun and the Moon. Coming together like this, especially at dawn where the rising sun would have obscured all the night stars, the two planets would have appeared as a single bright light alone in the sky, where none was before.
Was it a Bright Star at All?
This would seem to offer a straightforward explanation, but there are problems with the conjunction theory. The idea itself is also not new, having been debated for hundreds of years by Christian astronomers.
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For one, there is evidence that the ancients followed the movement of planets in the night sky. The Egyptians used the rising of Venus as an astronomical marker to correct their calendar, hundreds and thousands of years before the birth of Jesus.
The Magi would have been unlikely to refer to the conjunction of two planets as a “star” when they were well aware of what they were looking at. It would be like a modern observer looking at the Mon and referring to it as a planet.
Secondly Jupiter and Saturn, and later Jupiter and Venus, did not appear for a single moment as is implied in the Bible. Planetary conjunctions are relatively gradual events and the two planets would dance around each other for months. This does not sound like the description of the Star of Bethlehem at all.
What we have therefore are several celestial phenomena which are promising candidates for what is described in the Bible, but no way of distinguishing between them and finding a preferred explanation. But there is one other concept which should also be considered, and that requires the text in the Bible to be revisited.
The Magi told Herod that they “saw his star when it rose”. This does not require that the star be new, or particularly bright, or unexpected, but rather just that they were using the night sky as a calendar to know when to travel to Bethlehem.
It is entirely feasible that the “Magi”, or “astrologers”, were using the night sky to time their journey. For example, Jupiter was in the constellation of Aries on 17 April in the year 6 BC. Jupiter, associated with royalty, and Aries, the lamb.
Of course, this creates another problem entirely. If the Magi were simply interpreting the night sky from an astrological standpoint, then who told them that Jesus, who would grow up to become all that he did, would be born at that exact point.
Coincidence? No more than a sudden comet, planetary alignment, or supernova would have been.
Top Image: Is there an explanation for what the Magi saw in the night sky? Source: Alswart / Adobe Stock.
By Bipin Dimri
All About Space, 2020. What was the Star of Bethlehem. Available at: https://www.livescience.com/star-of-bethlehem.html
Betz, E, 2020. The Star of Bethlehem: Can science explain what it really was? Available at: https://astronomy.com/news/2020/12/the-star-of-bethlehem-can-science-explain-what-it-really-was