Star of Bethlehem

According to the Christian scriptures—specifically, the Gospel of St. Matthew—wise men from the east arrived in Jerusalem to worship the King of the Jews, declaring that they had seen his star in the east. As they journeyed southward to Bethlehem the star went before them until it stopped over the place where the child was. Ever since the third century, scholars have struggled to find a concrete explanation for what has become known as the Star of Bethlehem. Twentieth-century efforts are reflected in scores of books and literally hundreds of articles in academic journals.

Although translations differ, one reading of Matthew's account, assuming that it does indeed have its basis in observed fact, interprets "star in the east" as "star at its rising." We must then assume that the journey to

Bethlehem was made when the star was high in the sky ahead of the Magi, to the south. Clearly it could not have stopped dead in the sky, so "stopped over" is then taken to mean "set behind."

Several types of spectacular astronomical phenomena have been identified as leading candidates. The historical context, which fixes the date of Christ's birth to around 6 B.C.E., provides a strong constraint. On the assumption that the Star of Bethlehem was literally a star, but an unfamiliar one that suddenly appeared in the sky at the time, an obvious possibility is a nova or supernova. The latter is a dying star that gains hugely in brightness for a short period, typically just a few weeks. Some supernovae are even visible by day, so we would not be forced to speculate that the Magi traveled by night. Unfortunately, if a supernova had occurred at the time we would expect Chinese astronomers to have recorded a "guest star." They did not, unless one counts a "tailed object," more probably a comet, seen in the spring of 5 b.c.e. Another possibility is a conjunction (close coming together) of two planets, each themselves among the brightest objects in the sky. In the summer and autumn of 7 b.c.e., the planets Jupiter and Saturn passed each other three times. Nonetheless, eye-catching as this would have been, they would still have been seen as two "stars" and would only have led the way at night. Some have argued that it was the succession of several rather unusual astronomical phenomena that augured great events, but this stretches credulity even further.

A serious weakness in all of these arguments is that they fail to take account of the Magi's own worldview. The Magi were astrologers, probably from Persia. We know that astrological prognostications of the time derived from a complex set of interrelationships between the planets and the zodiacal constellations they appeared in. We also know that each constellation had terrestrial associations, and that Aries or Pisces was associated with Judaea. American astronomer Michael Molnar has recently argued from this standpoint that an occultation of the planet Jupiter by the moon (in other words, the moon passing directly in front of the planet) that occurred in the constellation of Aries in the spring of 6 B.C.E. was an astrological portent of enormous significance and pointed directly to the birth of a new king in Judaea. In Molnar's reading, Matthew's "rising in the east" refers to a planetary heliacal rising, and "stopping" to retrograde motion. Aspects of this interpretation continue to be strongly debated. Most controversially, the occultation in question would actually have been rendered invisible by the light of the sun. This would not have diminished its astrological significance, but the question remains of whether the astrologers of the time would have been able to calculate it.

Be this as it may, it seems obvious in retrospect that the solution to the Star of Bethlehem mystery lies not in events that would be considered con spicuous by modern astronomers but in events that would have stood out in terms of the horoscopes generated by the astrologers of the time.

See also:


Babylonian Astronomy and Astrology.

Superior Planets, Motions of.

References and further reading

Gingerich, Owen, ed. "Review Symposium: The Star of Bethlehem." Journal for the History of Astronomy 33 (2002), 386-394.

Kidger, Mark. The Star of Bethlehem: An Astronomer's View. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Molnar, Michael. The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1999.

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