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Is the biblical account of Magi observing a “star” in the east which reportedly prompted them to travel to Bethlehem to worship a newborn Jewish king (Jesus) 1) a man-made story, 2) a miraculous event that can only be accepted by faith or 3) an actual astronomical event that can be historically and/or scientifically investigated?

This article examines the explanatory power of the following astronomical candidates which Christian apologists have proffered as possible scientific explanations of the Christmas “star” (aster):

      • Jupiter (the “King Planet”), as part of a series of astronomical events occurring in 3 B.C. – 2 B.C. involving Regulus (the “King Star”), was the Christmas “star” (aster); 
      • Venus (the planet of love and beauty) in conjunction with Leo (the Royal Constellation) was the Christmas “star” (aster);
      • A 5 B.C. comet referenced in Chinese historical records was the Christmas “star” (aster);
      • A recurring nova was the Christmas star (aster);
      • An especially spectacular meteor (fireball) was the Christmas “star” (aster).

The article also provides links to summaries of the criticisms that have been waged against each of the above proposed astronomical candidates for the Christmas star as well as articles which examine the extent to which each of the candidates adequately explains (or fails to explain) the facts revealed about the “star” in Matthew 2.


 

THE CHRISTMAS “STAR” — Fact, Fiction or Miracle?

Introduction

The only historical account of the Christmas “star” is recorded in the Gospel of Matthew which was originally written in Greek.

Although the word “star” appears in all English translations of the Bible, the original Greek word “aster (αστηρ) has a much broader meaning than the English word “star”.  Indeed, the Greek word “aster” can “refer to any kind of heavenly body — a star, a planet, an asteroid, a comet, or a meteor.” [Hugh Ross, “The Christmas Star (12/02); see also, Barry Setterfield, The Christmas Star, DVD (2008), Joseph Henry Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 81 – 82  (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1977) and www.teknia.com/greek-dictionary/aster

Notably, the Greek term aster (or its root) can also be used figuratively as is the case in Jude 1:13, Revelation 1:16, 2:1, 3:1 and 22:16.

Given the broader definition of the Greek word “aster” (αστηρ) as compared to the English word “star” as well as the development of computer technology which has allowed astronomers to reconstruct what the heavens looked like around the time of Jesus’ birth, a handful of astronomical events have been proposed as candidates for the Christmas “star”.

Christians who believe the Christmas “star” (aster) was a purely miraculous event often object to astronomical explanations for the Christmas “star”.  In their view, such explanations disregard the miraculous nature of Christ’s birth.

Others maintain that if God chose an astronomical event to be a sign of the birth of his son (the savior of the world), it would still be miraculous because only an omnipotent and omniscient Creator like the Intelligent Designer described in the Bible (more>>) could have prearranged for the “star” (aster) to appear at the precise time in cosmic history when Jesus was born.  In their view, it is the exquisite timing of the Christmas “star” which makes the event so incredibly magnificent.

Article Index

Facts Revealed About the Christmas “Star” (Aster) in the Bible? (skip to)

Alternative Translations and Interpretations of the Original Greek Text of
Matthew 2 (skip to)

Seven Things Scholars Have Historically Considered in Evaluating the Legitimacy of Proposed Astronomical Candidates for the Christmas Star (skip to)

Summary Review of the Following Proposed Astronomical Candidates for the Christmas “Star” (Aster) (skip to)

Conclusion (skip to)
References
Image Credits

 

Facts Revealed About
the Christmas “Star” in the Bible

 

The only information recorded about the Christmas “star” is found in Matthew 2:1-16 (ASV):

1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star [“aster] in the east and have come to worship him.’ 3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ (Messiah) was to be born. 5 ‘In Bethlehem in Judea,’ they replied, ‘for this is what the prophet has written:

6 ‘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.’

7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star [aster] had appeared. 8 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.” 9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star [aster] they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped [histemi in Greek] over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 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. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, [the Magi] returned to their country by another route. 13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” 14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” 16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.“

In the above passage of Matthew 2, the Christmas “star” is referenced four times

      • No. 1: Matthew 2:2 (ASV): When the Magi arrived in Jerusalem, they asked Herod. “‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star [aster] in the east….‘”
      • No. 2:  Matthew 2:7 (ASV): Herod met with the Magi and asked them exactly when the “star” appeared.
      • No. 3:  Matthew 2:9-10 (ASV): When the Magi left Jerusalem for Bethlehem, “… the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped [histemi in Greek] over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.”%
      • No. 4:  Matthew 2:16 (ASV): When Herod realized the Magi had left to return to their homeland without telling him where the child was, “he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi” (presumably when the Magi told Herod the “star” appeared — see, Matthew 2:7).

Alternative Translations and Interpretations
of the Original Greek Text of Matthew 2

There are three unresolved issues regarding how the references to the Christmas star (aster) in Matthew 2 should be translated and/or understood:

Unresolved Issue No.1:  Do the references to the “star” (aster) in Matthew 2:1-2, 9 refer to a new star that the Magi saw rise for the first time in the east or to an already existing “star” that the Magi saw “at its rising”, “when it rose” or “rising in the east”?

Some scholars maintain the original Greek text of Matthew 2 indicates a new star (or at least a star that hadn’t previously been observed) was seen by the Magi in the east. [See, Colin Humphreys, “The Star of Bethlehem” (1995); Ray Bohlin, “The Star of Bethlehem” (1999)]

Others maintain the text should be translated: “We have seen his star at its rising” which does not require the star to have been a new star[See, Susan Carroll, “The Star of Bethlehem: An Astronomical and Historical Perspective” (1997)]

Still others translate the text as saying that the Magi saw the star “rising in the east”, which also does not require the star to have been a new star[See, Rick Larson, The Bethlehem Star (2007)]

Notably, those who favor translations which say that the Magi saw the star (aster) “when it rose” or the star was seen “at its rising” or “rising in the east” point out that observing astronomical objects “rise” in the east is a phenomena commonly observed by earthbound observers.  This is because of the direction of the earth’s rotation. Specifically, because the Earth rotates towards the west (counter-clockwise), when an earthbound observer looks north, planets, comets and all the stars (except those located at the poles) appear to rise in the east and proceed in a westerly direction across the night sky.

In the following YouTube animation by Ross Mitchell (more>>), Jupiter, Venus, Mars and Mercury are seen as small dots of light “rising in the east” over Sydney Harbour Bridge and proceeding in a westerly direction (right to left) at a rate 250 times faster than what actually occurred.

This same phenomena is what earthbound observers see the sun (which is a star) do on a daily basis — the sun is seen rising in the east and setting in the west.

With the above-offered interpretations in mind, any legitimate astronomical candidate for the Christmas “star” must either be a new star that the Magi saw rise for the first time in the east or an already existing “star” which the Magi saw “at its rising”, “when it rose” or “rising in the east”.

Unresolved Issue No. 2:  Does Matthew 2 say the “star” (aster) remained visible the entire time that the Magi travelled from the east to Jerusalem and then on to Bethlehem or does the account indicate the “star” appeared to the Magi in the east, then disappeared before reappearing a second time when the Magi left Jerusalem for Bethlehem?

As interpreted by some scholars, Matthew’s account of the Christmas “star” (Matt. 2:1-11) indicates the “star” appeared, disappeared and then reappeared. This is because Matthew 2:1-2 reports the Magi saw the “star” (aster) in the east, but then the “star” isn’t mentioned again until the Magi left Jerusalem for Bethlehem when the text states that the Magi were “overjoyed” when they saw the “star” (aster) ahead of them (Matt. 2:9-10).

Additionally, although many Christmas story reenactments portray the Magi following the “star” (aster) on a geographical route from their homeland in the east to Bethlehem, many scholars point out that the text does not demand such an interpretation. [See, Colin Humphreys, “The Star of Bethlehem” (1995)] The text only says that when the Magi left Jerusalem for Bethlehem, the “star” the Magi had seen in the east “went ahead” of them (Matt. 2:9). As argued by Christian astronomer and apologist, Hugh Ross, the text is not specific enough to distinguish between a “star” that guided the Magi along a specific geographic route and a “star” whose appearance was supernaturally timed to guide the Magi in some other way to the place where the child was in some other way. Because Matthew 2 does not say the first appearance of the “stargeographically guided the Magi to Jerusalem, Ross proposes it may be an indication that the “starnever guided the Magi in a geographical way

Unresolved Issue No. 3:  What does it mean that the “Star” (aster) “stopped over” (histemi in Greek) the place where the child was“?   [NOTE:  The NIV and NLT translate “histemi” as “stopped over”, the ASV and KJV translate it as “stood over” and the ESV says “came to rest over.”]

The literal Greek text of Matthew 2:9 reads as follows: 

“Behold the star, which they saw in the east, went before them until coming it stood (histemi) over where was the child.”

The Greek word “histemi means “to stand, to stand (firm), be present; to stop; (tr.) to make stand, place, put, establish.” [www.teknia.com/greek-dictionary/histemi]

There is disagreement over whether Matthew 2 says the “star” (aster) stopped over a specific location within the town of Bethlehem (e.g., the house where Jesus was) or whether Matthew was saying the “star” stopped over a more general location (e.g., the town of Bethlehem).

Since Bethlehem was a small town, those who propose the “star” “stopped over” a more general location contend that after arriving in Bethlehem, contend that the Magi wouldn’t have had too much trouble locating the particular house Jesus was living in.

In this regard it should be noted that according to Luke 2:8-18, after angels announced the birth of a savior (the promised Messiah) to shepherds tending flocks near Bethlehem, the shepherds hurried into the town of Bethlehem and found Mary with Joseph and the baby lying in the manger. Luke 2: 16-18 says that after seeing Jesus, the shepherds spread the word about what the angels had told them.

Consequently, when the Magi arrived in Bethlehem 1 – 2 years later looking for one “born king of the Jews” (Matt. 2:2), people living in Bethlehem would have known who the Magi were talking about and could have directed them to the house where Jesus was living at that time. (Matt. 2:9-11)

Seven Things Scholars Have Historically
Considered in Evaluating the Legitimacy of Proposed
Candidates for the Christmas “Star

Taking the above-referenced unresolved issues and proposed interpretations of Matthew 2 into account, scholars have historically considered seven (7) things in evaluating whether proposed candidates for the Christmas “star” adequately explain the facts disclosed about the “star” in Matthew 2:

      • No. 1: Does the proposed candidate reasonably explain why Magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem looking for “one born king of the Jews” (see, Matt. 2:2)? (skip to>>)
      • No. 2:  Was the proposed candidate a new “star” (aster) the Magi would have seen rise for the first time in the east or was it a previously observed “star” (aster) that the Magi would have seen “as its rising”, “when it rose” or “rising in the east? [See, Unresolved Issue No. 1 above(skip to>>)
      • No. 3:  Did the proposed candidate appear at the right time — the time of Jesus’ birth (≈ 7 B.C. — 2 B.C.)?  (skip to>>)
      • No. 4:  Does the proposed candidate reasonably explain why Herod apparently had to learn from the Magi when the “star” (aster) appeared (Matt 2:7)?  (skip to>>)
      • No. 5:  Did the proposed candidate remain visible long enough to have been seen by the Magi in the East (Matt. 2:1-2) and still be seen (or, alternatively, seen again) when the Magi left Jerusalem for Bethlehem (Matt. 2:9-10)? [See, Unresolved Issue No.2 above(skip to>>)
      • No. 6:  Would the candidate have gone ahead of the Magi (or, at least appeared to the Magi to go ahead of them) on their journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem (Matt. 2:9)?  (skip to>>)
      • No. 7:  Does the proposed candidate account for Matthew’s statement that the “star” (aster) “stopped over”; or as alternatively translated, “stood over” or came to “rest over” the place where the child was” (either a very specific location in Bethlehem or a more general location, perhaps even the town of Bethlehem itself)? [See, Unresolved Issue No. 3 above(skip to>>)

Consideration No. 1:  Does the proposed astronomical candidate reasonably explain why Magi from the east (probably Babylon or Persia) arrived in Jerusalem looking for “one born king of the Jews” (see, Matt. 2:2)?

Many scholars suggest that the Magi (who are believed to have been from the area Babylon or Persia) were part of the legacy of Daniel and the other Jews who were transported from Jerusalem to Babylon in 605 B.C. (more>>)

If that is true, the Magi may have been aware of Daniel’s prophecy concerning the coming of a king of the Jews (the Anointed One, the Messiah) around the time of Jesus’ birth (Dan.9:25). They may also have been aware that Numbers 24:17-19 prophesied a “star” (a ruler) would come forth out of Jacob and a scepter would rise out of Israel. Consequently, the Magi (who were pseudo-scientists and astronomers more>>) may have been looking in the heavens for a “star” as a sign of the coming of a Jewish king from the nation of Israel.

Consideration No. 2:  Does the proposed astronomical candidate correspond with any of the alternative interpretations of Matthew 2:1-2, 9 regarding the Magi’s observation of the “star” (aster) in the east? ” [See, Unresolved Issue No. 1 above ]:

        • Was the candidate a new star the Magi saw rise for the first time in the east?; or,
        • Was the candidate seen by the Magi “at it’s rising” in the east or when it rose in the east; or,
        • Was the candidate seen by the Magi “rising in the east”?

Consideration No. 3:  Did the proposed astronomical candidate appear at the right time, i.e., the time of Jesus’ birth (≈ 7 B.C. to 2 B.C.)?

Obviously, only those astronomical objects or events which appeared around the time of Jesus’ birth can be considered as potential candidates for the Christmas “star.” However, because the date of Jesus’ birth was not recorded in the Bible or any other historical document, the exact date of Jesus’ birth is unknown.

Nevertheless, based on other facts referenced in Matthew 2 (that the Magi met with Herod after Jesus was born) and Luke 2 (that while Mary was pregnant with Jesus, she and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem for a Roman census/registration) it is possible to calculate a general timeframe for Jesus’ birth and, hence, the time when the “star” (aster) appeared:

Establishing the Date of Herod’s Death
Since the Magi met with Herod after Jesus was born, Jesus had to have been born before Herod died. Accordingly, the date of Herod’s death sets the latest possible date for Jesus’ birth. Although Herod’s date of death was not recorded, certain facts surrounding his death were recorded and those facts have been used to narrow the possible dates for Herod’s death to either 1 B.C. or 4 B.C.

Matthew also reported that after Herod met with the Magi to ask “exactly when the star [aster] appeared”, Herod ordered all the male children in the vicinity of Bethlehem who were two years old or younger be killed in accordance with what the Magi told him about when the star appeared (Matt. 2:7-8, 12, 16). Since Herod presumably gave the infanticidal order for the purpose of extinguishing the threat that he perceived to his throne by the birth of a Jewish king (Jesus), Herod must have had good reason for believing Jesus was no more than two years old at that time. It is possible that Jesus was much younger than two years of age and that Herod intentionally overcompensated the age covered by his execution order to insure the threat to his throne would be eliminated.

Assuming a 1 B.C. date for Herod’s death and going back 1 – 2 years to account for Herod’s infanticidal order means that Jesus could not have been born (and, therefore, the “star” could not have appeared to the Magi) later than 2 – 3 B.C.

Assuming a 4 B.C. date for Herod’s death and going back 1 – 2 years to account for Herod’s infanticidal order means that Jesus could not have been born (and, therefore, the “star” could not have appeared to the Magi) later than about 5 – 6 B.C.

Establishing the Date of the Census/Registration Referenced in Luke 2:2-7
Since St. Luke reported that Mary traveled to Bethlehem for a Roman registration (aka census or enrollment) when she was pregnant with Jesus and Jesus was born in Bethlehem at that time (Luke 2:2-7), establishing the date of that registration would further pinpoint the date of Jesus birth and, hence, the time the Christmas “star” (aster) appeared.

A Roman census was taken in 8 B.C. but that census appears to be too early to be the census referred to in Luke 2.

Some scholars propose the census (registration or enrollment) referenced in Luke 2:2-7 was a registration or enrollment relating to Caesar Augustus accepting the title Pater Patriae (“father of the country”) in 2 B.C..  According to Roman historical records, the Roman government voted to give Caesar Augustus the title of “Father of My Country” (Pater Patriae), but Caesar refused to accept the title without the approval of all the people. A Paphlagonia inscription found in Asia Minor states that an oath of allegiance to Caesar Augustus was taken from all the people in the Roman empire in 3 B.C. [See, Lewis and Reinhold, Roman Civilization, Source Book II, pp.34‑35].  This inscription corresponds with the recorded declaration of Caesar Augustus in which he stated: “While I was administering my 13thconsulship the Senate and the Equestrian Order and the entire Roman people gave me the title ‘Father of My Country’. [See, Barry Setterfield, The Christmas Star, DVD (2009)] Caesar Augustus accepted the title of “Pater Patriae” on February 5, 2 B.C. which was not only the silver jubilee of his rule of the Roman empire but the 750th anniversary of the founding of Rome.

If Augustus accepted the title on February 5, 2 B.C., a registration/enrollment relating to oaths of allegiance to Augustus from all the people in the Roman Empire would have most likely been completed in 3 B.C. [Frederick Baltz, The Census and the Star, DVD (2008); Barry Setterfield, The Christmas Star, DVD (2009)].  Consequently, if the registration/enrollment referenced in Luke 2:1-6 refers to the registration/enrollment taken in relation to an oath of allegiance given to Caesar Augustus for him to accept the title of Pater Patriae, Jesus would have been born in about 3 B.C. [See, Barry Setterfield, The Christmas Star, DVD (2009)]

Based on the above and allowing a reasonable time cushion, most scholars limit the possible timeframe of Jesus’ birth to 7 B.C. at the earliest and 2 B.C. at the latest.  Therefore, to be considered a legitimate candidate for the Christmas “star” (aster), the proposed candidate must have been observed during that general time parameter.  Any candidate that does not fit within that general time parameter can be effectively ruled out.

Earliest
Date
7 B.C. 6 B.C. 5 B.C. 4 B.C. 3 B.C. 2 B.C. Latest
Date

Consideration No. 4:  Does the proposed candidate reasonably explain why Herod apparently had to learn from the Magi when the “star” (aster) appeared (Matt 2:7)?  Why didn’t Herod already know when the “star” appeared?

Matthew 2:7 reports that Herod secretly summoned the Magi to ask them “exactly when the “star” (aster) appeared” (Matt. 2:7).

Hence, another consideration is whether the proposed candidate reasonably explains why Herod had to meet with the Magi to determine “when exactly it appeared.”  Put another way, any legitimate candidate for the Christmas “star” must reasonably explain why Herod was not already aware of the “star”; or, at least why Herod may not have been aware of the exact time the “star” appeared and/or how long it had appeared?

Consideration No. 5:  Did the proposed candidate remain visible long enough to have been seen by the Magi in the East (Matt. 2:1-2) and still be seen (or, alternatively, seen again) when the Magi left Jerusalem for Bethlehem (Matt. 2:9-10)?
[See Unresolved Issue No.2 above] [NOTE: These two events may have occurred up to 2 years apart.]

Scholars typically rely on three passages in Matthew 2 to make the case that the “star” had to have lasted an extended period of time:

        • Matthew 2:1-2 says the Magi saw the “star” (aster) in the east;
        • Matthew 2:9-10 says the star was seen when the Magi left Jerusalem for Bethlehem; and
        • According to Matthew 2:7, 16, Herod asked the Magi “exactly when the star appeared” and in accordance with what Herod learned from the Magi, he ordered all the male children in and around Bethlehem who were 2 years old or younger be killed.

With these verses in mind and considering the unresolved issue of whether the “star” remained continuously visible or whether it appeared to the Magi in the east, then disappeared for a period of time before reappearing as the Magi left Jerusalem for Bethlehem [see Unresolved Issue No. 2 above], any legitimate candidate for the Christmas “star” must account for the following:

        • The candidate must account for the length of time it would have taken the Magi to see the “star” in the east, travel from the east (probably Babylon or Persia more>>) to Jerusalem, meet with Herod in Jerusalem and then see the “star” as they left Jerusalem for Bethlehem (a distance of about 6 miles or 9.6 km) until it “stopped over” the place where the child was.
          [blank]
        • The candidate must reasonably account for Herod’s order that all the male children two years old or younger be executed “in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.”
          [blank]
          NOTE: Even though Herod’s order strongly implies he believed Jesus was two years old or younger at that time, given Herod’s well-documented paranoia regarding perceived threats to his throne (which even resulted in the execution of his own son) more>>, Herod may have included a generous time cushion in the age range of male children he ordered executed to ensure his throne was protected. Nevertheless, because the text says Herod ordered the massacre “in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi“, whatever the “star” was, it had to have appeared (or appeared, disappeared and reappeared) over an ex[tended length of time and potentially up to two years.

Those who propose the “star” (aster) appeared in the east, then disappeared, then reappeared after the Magi left Jerusalem for Bethlehem suggest this scenario best explains Matthew’s statement that the Magi were “overjoyed” when they saw the “star” as they headed toward Bethlehem (Matt. 2:9-10).

Those who propose the “star” (aster) remained visible the entire the Magi travelled from the east to Bethlehem take the position that upon leaving Jerusalem for Bethlehem, the Magi would have been overjoyed to see the same “star” they had been observing over a period of months (and possibly up to two years).

Consideration No. 6:  Would the candidate have gone ahead of the Magi (or at least appeared to the Magi to go ahead of them) on their journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem (Matt. 2:9)?

Matthew 2:9 states the “star” went ahead of the Magi as they travelled south from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.

Therefore, any proposed candidate for the Christmas “star” must have been capable of going ahead of the Magi (or appear to the Magi as going ahead of them) on their journey south from Jerusalem to Bethlehem (a distance of about 6 miles or 9.6 km).

Consideration No. 7:  Does the proposed candidate account for Matthew’s statement that the “star” (aster) “stopped over” (or alternatively translated, “stood over” or came to “rest over”) the place where the child was” (either a very specific location in Bethlehem or a more general location, perhaps even the town of Bethlehem itself)? [See, Unresolved Issue No. 3 above]

Matthew 2:9 says the “star” (aster) “stopped over” (NIV, NLT); or, alternatively, “stood over” (ASV, KJV), or came to “rest over” (ESV) “the place where the child was.”

Accordingly, proponents of any potential candidate for the Christmas “star” must adequately explain how the candidate would have “stopped over”, “stood over” or come to “rest over” “the place where the child was”, whether that place was a specific location in Bethlehem (e.g., the house Jesus was in) or a more general location (e.g., the town of Bethlehem). See, Unresolved Issue No. 3 above.

Summary Review of Three of the Proposed
Astronomical Candidates for the Christmas Star

Historical writings indicated that Magi from the east were educated quasi-scientists who were well-trained in astronomy (more>>).  This is one of the reasons many Christian theologians and scientists have searched historical and scientific records looking for an actual astronomical candidate for the Christmas “star”.

Historically, such investigations were limited to astronomical objects referenced in the available historical records of the Chinese, Indians, Egyptians and Greeks.

More recently, computer programs applying the laws of physics and the laws of planetary motion have been used to reconstruct the past positions of a number of astronomical objects appearing in the heavens around the time of Jesus’ birth (≈7 B.C. to 2 B.C. above>>)

Based on available historical astronomical records as well as computer reconstructions of the heavens from the time period between 7 B.C. and 2 B.C., a handful of astronomical objects have been proposed as potential astronomical candidates for the Christmas “star” (aster) described in Matthew 2:1-11.  Those candidates include the following:

Astronomical Candidate No. 1

Jupiter (as Part of a Series of Astronomical Events
Occurring in 3 B.C. – 2 B.C.) was the  Christmas “Star” (Aster)

Conjunction of Venus, Jupiter and the Moon in 2009 ($$ ESO)

CONJUNCTION OF VENUS, JUPITER AND THE MOON IN 2009

(Image Credit: ESO)/Y. Beletsky more)

From 3 B.C to 2 B.C. a series of astronomical events occurred involving the planet Jupiter which were so significant that Roman historians believed the events signified the heavens applaud of Caesar Augustus. [See, Barry Setterfield, The Christmas Star, DVD (2008)]  Those events included the following:

      • On 8/13/3 B.C. Jupiter (the King Planet) and Venus (the planet of love and beauty) rose before dawn and were seen so closely together that they appeared to be touching;
      • Between 9/13/3 B.C. and 5/8/2 B.C., Jupiter (the King Planet) conjoined with Regulus (the King Star) on three separate occasions (a triple conjunction); 
      • On 6/17/2 B.C. Venus (the brightest planet and the planet of love and beauty) and Jupiter (the biggest planet and the King Planet) moved so closely together that, to the naked eye, they appeared to be a single object and, together, would have produced the brightest “star” anyone alive had ever seen. [Many believe this signified the birth of a king to the Magi];
      • On August 27, 2 B.C., there was a close grouping of Jupiter, Venus, Mercury and Mars before Jupiter (the King Planet) began traveling west toward Judea;
      • Due to optical effects of retrograde motion, Jupiter (the King Planet) would have appeared “stopped” in the southern skies above Bethlehem for six (6) days in December of 2 B.C. and would have been in full retrograde on December 25th 2 B.C.

Rick Larson and Barry Setterfield are modern-day proponents of the Jupiter proposal for the Christmas “star” (aster).

As presented by Larson, beginning in September of 3 B.C. (the time of the Jewish New Year) Jupiter (the King Planet) and Regulus (the King Star) conjoined three times in Leo (the Royal Constellation and a symbol of the tribe of Judah). At the same time, Virgo (the Virgin) rose clothed in the sun (I.e., the sun was passing through Virgo) with a new crescent moon at her feet which Larson contends denotes the conception of the Messiah. Nine months later on June 17, 2 B.C. (the term of a woman’s pregnancy), the largest planet (Jupiter, the King Planet) conjoined with the brightest planet (Venus, the planet of love and beauty) to produce the brightest ball of heavenly light anyone had ever seen. From the point of view of the Magi in the east, after joining up with Venus, Mercury and Mars on August 27, 2 B.C., Jupiter headed west toward Judea.

In Larson’s view, these events sent Magi from the east to Jerusalem looking for a newborn Jewish king. When the Magi arrived in Jerusalem, they learned Micah the prophet had prophesied that a Jewish king would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2).

On December 25, 2 B.C. at about 7:00 in the morning, the Magi left Jerusalem to make the 5-6 mile trip to south to Bethlehem and when they looked up, they saw Jupiter ahead of them “stopped” in retrograde motion over the town of Bethlehem.

In Larson’s video presentation entitled the Bethlehem Star, he systematically explains why he believes the Jupiter proposal uniquely meets all of the criteria set forth in Matthew 2 for the Christmas “star.” [See, Rick Larson, The Bethlehem Star, DVD (2007) @ www.bethlehemstar.net]

Although Barry Setterfield concludes Jesus was born at a different time of year in 2 B.C. than Larson does, his view is very similar to that of Larson (more>>)[See, Barry Setterfield, The Christmas Star, DVD (2008)]

Links to Further Studies
For further consideration of the Jupiter proposal for the Christmas star see the article entitled, “Was Jupiter (as Part of a Series of Extraordinary Astronomical Events Occurring in 3 B.C. – 2 B.C.) the Christmas Starhere>>

The article provides the following:

        • A complete list of the extraordinary astronomical events that occurred from 3 B.C. to 2 B.C.  skip to>>
        • Complete discussions of how the astronomical events occurring from 3 B.C. to 2 B.C. would have likely been interpreted by Magi from the east  skip to>>
        • Detailed discussions of how well the proposal matches up with the seven things scholars have historically considered in evaluating the legitimacy of proposed astronomical candidates for the Christmas “star” (asterskip to>>
        • Detailed discussions of the criticisms that have been waged against the Jupiter proposal and how proponents of the proposal respond to those criticisms  skip to>>

Astronomical Candidate No. 2

A 5 B.C. Comet Referenced in Chinese Historical
Astronomical Records was the Christmas “Star” (Aster)

Comet McNaught

COMET MCNAUGHT  (BY “SOERFM” CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Comets are made up of frozen gasses, ice, rocky debris and dust. When comets migrate close enough to the sun, the sun’s heat vaporizes the ice causing the comet to form a tail. In fact, the English word “comet” comes from a Greek term meaning “long-haired star” because the tail of a comet resembles long, streaming hair. The Chinese referred to such comets as “broom stars”.

Many Christian scholars propose the Christmas “star” may have been a comet.  If the “star” was a comet, the most likely comet known to date is a 5 B.C. comet referenced in the historical astronomical records of the Chinese. The 5 B.C. comet was visible for 70 days and was said to be “sui-hsing” meaning a “broom star”, i.e., a comet with a tail (see photo above). [See, Colin Humphreys, “The Star of Bethlehem” (1995)]

Colin Humphreys, a proponent of the comet proposal for the Christmas “star” (aster) suggests the 5 B.C. comet may have been the last sign in a series of other astronomical signs beginning in 7 B.C. that inspired the Magi to make the long journey to Judea to pay homage to a newborn Jewish King. [See, Colin Humphreys, “The Star of Bethlehem” (1995)] The unusual astronomical events in 7 B.C. — 6 B.C. which occurred in the Pisces Constellation (associated with the nation of Israel) included the following:

In sum, after seeing the triple conjunction of Saturn (aka “Defender of Israel”) and Jupiter (the “King Planet”) in 7 B.C. followed by the massing of Mars, Jupiter (the King Planet) and Saturn (defender of Israel), all in the Pisces Constellation which was associated with the nation of Israel, the Magi then observed the appearance of the extraordinary 5 B.C. comet.  Due to the direction of the earth’s rotation (counterclockwise), the comet would have appeared to the Magi as rising in the east in the morning sky consistent with Matthew’s account that the Magi first saw the “star” (aster) “in the east” or, as alternatively translated, “rising in the east” (Matt. 2:1-2).

After seeing the 5 B.C. comet rise in the east, the Magi would have seen the comet move at a rate of 1 to 2 degrees per day (30 degrees per month) so that by the time the Magi made their 6 week journey to Jerusalem, the comet (which remained visible for 70 days) would have moved about 90 degrees from the east to the south. After meeting with Herod in Jerusalem and learning that Micah 5:2 prophesied the coming Jewish king was to be born in Bethlehem, the Magi left Jerusalem and saw the comet ahead of them in the south towards Bethlehem. “Hence it appeared that the comet went ahead of the Magi on this last lap of their journey.” [Colin Humphreys, “The Star of Bethlehem” (1995)]

Some scholars suggest the comet may have been seen by the Magi in the east but by the time they arrived in Jerusalem, the comet’s orbit may have taken it behind the sun only to reappear from behind the sun when the Magi left Jerusalem for Bethlehem (see video illustration here>>).

Finally, as the Magi travelled south to Bethlehem, they looked up and saw the comet in front of them with a near vertical tail and the head of the comet appearing to “stand over” Bethlehem” similar to the 2013 McNaught Comet photographed over Australia (see photograph above) [See, Colin Humphreys, “The Star of Bethlehem” (1995)]

As noted by Humphreys, historians broadly contemporary with Matthew used the same or similar terms (i.e., “stood over” and “hung over”) to describe the position of comets in relation to cities and towns.  For example, Josephus reported “a star, resembling a sword, stood over the city Jerusalem” in 66 A.D. [See, Colin Humphreys, “The Star of Bethlehem” (1995)] referring to Josephus, Jewish War 6, 5, 3 289]

Links to Further Studies
For further consideration of the proposal that the 5 B.C. comet noted in Chinese historical astronomical records was the Christmas Star, go here>>.

The article includes the following:

        • A complete discussion of the details of the proposal
        • Detailed discussions of how well the proposal matches up with the seven things scholars have historically considered in evaluating the legitimacy of proposed candidates for the  Christmas “star” (aster)
        • Detailed discussions of the criticisms that have been waged against the proposal and how proponents of the proposal respond to those criticisms

Astronomical Candidate No. 3: 

A Recurring Nova was the  Christmas “Star” (Aster)

Nova Explosion with Subsequent Dimming

NOVA EXPLOSION (LEFT) AND SUBSEQUENT DIMMING (RIGHT)

Because Matthew’s description of the Christmas “star” correlates well with certain characteristics exhibited by recurring novae, some Christian scholars (including astrophysicist Hugh Ross) propose the Christmas “star” may have been a recurring nova. [See, Hugh Ross, “The Christmas Star”, www.reasons.org (updated 11/2010)]

A nova is a cataclysmic nuclear explosion of a star which results in the star displaying a sudden increase in brightness.  As a consequence, a star which was not previously visible to the naked eye can become suddenly visible to earthbound observers. However, once the star dims from the initial explosion, it can once again become invisible to the naked eye.

Although most novae only involve a single explosion, a small number of novae involve multiple explosions which can be separated by months or even years. These types of novae are called “recurring novae” and, as explained by Christian astrophysicist, Hugh Ross, it can take months, and sometimes years, for a nova to dim to the point that it is no longer visible to an earthbound observer. [See, Hugh Ross, “The Christmas Star”, www.reasons.org (updated 11/2010)]

If the Christmas “star” was a recurring nova, the initial explosion may have been seen by the Magi in their homeland (probably Babylon or Persia more>>). Consistent with Matthew 2:2, because of Earth’s westward rotation, a nova (which is a star) would have appeared to rise in the east. [See, Hugh Ross, “The Christmas Star”, (updated 12/02) (www.reasons.org)]

As proffered by scholars who have proposed other astronomical candidates for the Christmas “star”, the Magi may have interpreted the astronomical candidate (in this case, a nova) as signifying the birth of a Jewish king (Matt. 2:2) if the candidate was observed in relation to other celestial objects and events associated with:

        • a king (e.g., Jupiter (the King Planet), Regulus (the King Star) or the Leo constellation (the Royal Constellation),
        • the Jews or the Jewish nation (e.g., the Leo Constellation historically associated with the Tribe of Judah or Pisces associated with the nation of Israel) and
        • a birth.

Many biblical scholars contend the Magi were part of the legacy of Jews (including Daniel) who were transported from Jerusalem to Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar II in 605 B.C. (more>>)  If the Magi were aware of Daniel’s prophecy concerning the timing of a coming Jewish Messiah (Daniel 9:25), the Magi may have been looking for a sign in the heavens of a coming of a Jewish king around the time of Jesus’ birth.  The Magi may have interpreted the appearance of the nova in conjunction with other occurring astronomical events as a sign that a Jewish king had been born causing them to travel west to Jerusalem to pay homage to the newborn king.

By the time the Magi arrived in Jerusalem, the nova may have dimmed to the point of becoming invisible to the Magi.  However, after learning from Herod’s chief priests and teachers of the law that it was prophesied the Messiah was to be born in the City of Bethlehem (Matt. 2:4-6), the Magi left Jerusalem to travel south to the City of Bethlehem.  As the Magi left for Bethlehem, the nova could have exploded a second time once again becoming visible to the Magi which would explain why the Magi were “overjoyed” when they saw the star again after leaving Jerusalem for Bethlehem. Moreover, if a recurring nova appeared in the southern horizon as the Magi left Jerusalem heading south for Bethlehem, the “star” would have appeared ahead of the Magi as they made their journey to Bethlehem.

Links to Further Studies
For further consideration of the proposal that a recurring nova was the Christmas “star” (aster), go here.

The article includes all of the following:

        • A complete discussion of the details of the proposal
        • Detailed discussions of how well the proposal matches up with the seven things scholars have historically considered in evaluating the legitimacy of proposed candidates for the  Christmas “star” (aster)
        • Detailed discussions of the criticisms that have been waged against the proposal and how proponents of the proposal respond to those criticisms

Astronomical Candidate No. 4

The Christmas “Star” (Aster) was an Especially Spectacular Meteor (Fireball)


File:Взрыв метеорита над Челябинском 15 02 2013 avi-iCawTYPtehk.ogv

Image link
Video of the  Chelyabinsk Meteor in Russia (2013)
by Aleksandr Ivanov (CC-BY-SA-3.0 more)

Because Matthew’s description of the Christmas “star” correlates with certain characteristics exhibited by a meteor, some have proposed the Christmas “star” may have been an especially spectacular meteor (aka a super bolide or fireball).

Some meteoroids that enter Earth’s atmosphere light up very brilliantly due to the effects of friction, pressure and chemical reactions that occur with the gases in Earth’s atmosphere.

As proffered by scholars who have proposed other astronomical candidates for the Christmas “star”, the Magi may have interpreted the astronomical candidate (in this case, an especially spectacular meteor) as signifying the birth of a Jewish king (Matt. 2:2) if the candidate was observed in relation to other celestial objects and events associated with:

        • a king (e.g., Jupiter (the King Planet), Regulus (the King Star) or the Leo constellation (the Royal Constellation),
        • the Jews or the Jewish nation (e.g., the Leo Constellation historically associated with the Tribe of Judah or Pisces associated with the nation of Israel) and
        • a birth.

Many biblical scholars contend the Magi were part of the legacy of Jews (including Daniel) who were transported from Jerusalem to Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar II in 605 B.C. (more>>) If the Magi were aware of Daniel’s prophecy concerning the timing of a coming Jewish Messiah (Daniel 9:25), they may have been looking for a sign in the heavens of a coming of a Jewish king around the time of Jesus’ birth. If an especially spectacular meteor appeared in the heavens at that time, the Magi may have interpreted its appearance in conjunction with other occurring astronomical events as a sign that a Jewish king had been born in Judea.

After arriving in Jerusalem and learning it had been prophesied the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (Matt. 2:4-6), the Magi left Jerusalem to travel south to Bethlehem. As the Magi left for Bethlehem, a second similarly spectacular meteor appeared which the Magi joyfully believed was a reappearance of the same “star” (aster) they had first seen in the east.  Moreover, if the second spectacular meteor appeared in the southern horizon as the Magi left Jerusalem heading south for Bethlehem, the “star” would have appeared ahead of the Magi as they made their journey to Bethlehem.

Links to Further Studies
For further consideration of the proposal that an especially spectacular meteor was the Christmas “star” (aster), go here.

Conclusion

As set forth above, Christian apologists and scientists have offered a handful of astronomical candidates for the Christmas “star” (aster) which have characteristics consistent with many (if not all) of the facts recorded in Matthew’s account of the Christmas star (aster).

Consequently, Christian apologists steadfastly maintain it is unfair for skeptics to insist the biblical account of the Christmas “star” be written off as made-up myth.

Nevertheless, many Christian scholars caution against forming unwavering opinions about the precise nature of the “star” (aster) for the following reasons:

        1. Matthew 2 contains only a limited amount of information about the “star(see above >>);
        2. Areas of disagreement persist regarding how certain Greek terms and phrases used by Matthew in the original Greek text are correctly interpreted and understood (see above >>);
        3. The precise date of Jesus’ birth and, hence, the date the “star” appeared, remains uncertain (see above >>);
        4. Many biblical scholars maintain the Christmas “star” was a supernatural one time event which cannot be scientifically reconstructed or investigated.

Even though Christians may disagree over the precise nature of the “star”, all Christians can agree that the most significant thing about Christmas isn’t the “star”, but that God sent his son into the world to provide a way for men’s sin to be forgiven so they could live in relationship with a holy, just and loving God throughout eternity:

John 1:1-4,10-14 (NLT)
“1 In the beginning the Word already existed. The Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He existed in the beginning with God. 3 God created everything through him, and nothing was created except through him. 4 The Word gave life to everything that was created, and his life brought light to everyone….10 He came into the very world he created, but the world didn’t recognize him. 11 He came to his own people, and even they rejected him. 12 But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God. 13 They are reborn —not with a physical birth resulting from human passion or plan, but a birth that comes from God.14 So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son.”

The announcement of the good news of Jesus’ birth was recorded in Luke 2:8-14:

“And an angel of the Lord appeared to [shepherds near Bethlehem], and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear.  And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.  And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.’  And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”



© 2012 by Andrina G. Hanson
Last Updated: December 3, 2018


QUICK LINKS TO SOURCES REFERENCED OR RELIED ON IN THIS ARTICLE

Raymond G. Bohlin, Ph.D., “The Star of Bethlehem”, Probe Ministries (1999) (last accessed 11/4/2014 at probe.org)

Susan Carroll, “The Star of Bethlehem: An Astronomical and Historical Perspective” (1997) (last accessed 11/4/2014 at http://www.tccsa.tc/articles/star_susan_carroll.pdf

Colin Humphreys, “The Star of Bethlehem”, Science and Christian Belief , Vol. 5, (October 1995): 83-101 (last accessed 11/4/2014 at http://www.asa3.org/ASA/topics/Astronomy-Cosmology/S&CB%2010-93Humphreys.html)

Hugh Ross, “The Christmas Star” (updated 12/02) (www.reasons.org, last accessed 11/4/2014).

Barry Setterfield, “The Christmas Star” (2008) available at www.setterfield.org

IMAGE CREDITS & LICENSING

Slideshow: Cropped photograph of interstellar space toward the Taurus constellation taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, Hubble, R. Sahai JPL.

Video of Rising Planets: This video was created by Ross Mitchell and downloaded from YouTube which stated the video was licensed under the ***. The author describes the video as follows: “An animation at 250x natural time of the four bright planets (Jupiter, Venus, Mars and Mercury) all rising in the eastern sky on 15th May 2011. A title slide identifies the planets, made with Stellarium and Photoshop CS2. Photo sequence taken every 20 second with an interval timer from Blues Point, just west of Sydney Harbour Bridge (you can see the north pylon). All processing under Ubuntu Linux”

Venus, Jupiter, Moon Conjunction: This photograph, taken by ESO / Y. Beletsky (http://www.eso.org/public/images/yb_vlt_moon_cnn_cc/) shows the December 3, 2009 conjunction of Venus, Jupiter and Moon over ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) observatory at Paranal in Chile. The Moon is the highest object in the sky, Venus is the object shown to the left and Jupiter is the object to the right. The reddish glow on the horizon is the Milky Way. The image was downloaded from www.wikimedia.org which states the image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported (CC-BY-SA-3.0) license.

Comet McNaught: This photo of Comet McNaught (C/2006) was taken on July 30, 2013 by “Soerfm” and downloaded from www.wikimedia.org which states the image was licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license (CC-BY-SA-3.0). The McNaught Comet was discovered on August 7, 2006 by British-Australian astronomer Robert H. McNaught.

Nova Explosion and Dimming: This image was downloaded from www.wikimedia.rog which states the image was placed in the public domain by the author.

Video of the Chelyabinsk Meteor This video by Aleksandr Ivanov was taken on February 15, 2013 in the city of Kamensk-Uralsky in Russia. The Chelyabinsk meteoroid entered Earth’s atmosphere at a speed of about 40,000 – 42,000 mph (60,000- 69,000 km/hr.) and quickly developed into superbolide meteor brighter than the sun.  The video  was downloaded from www.wikimedia.org which states the video is licensed under the  Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

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