Hale-Bopp Comet (1997)
(by Philipp Salzgeber CC-BY-SA-2.0-AT more)

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Those who propose the 5 B.C. comet referenced in Chinese astronomical records is a legitimate candidate for the Christmas “star” (aster), point to the following:

  1. The comet would have been particularly significant to the Magi (astronomers from the east) because it was preceded by:  a)a triple conjunction of Saturn (aka the Defender of Israel) and Jupiter (the King Planet) and b) a massing of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn — all of which occurred in the Pisces Constellation historically associated with the nation of Israel;
  2. The Magi would have seen the 5 B.C. comet for the first time in the east (i.e., it was a new “star” – aster and the Magi would have seen the comet “rise in the east” (Matt. 2:2, 9);
  3. It remained visible for 70 days (long enough for the Magi to travel from the east (Babylon or Persia) to Bethlehem;
  4. It had a “broom tail” and such comets were historically described as standing over a city consistent with Matthew’s description that the Christmas “star” (aster) “stopped over” (NIV, NLT), “stood over”  (ASV, KJV) or “came to rest over” (ESV) “the place where the child was.”  (Matt. 2:9)

This article examines the extent to which the appearance of the 5 B.C. comet adequately explains, or fails to explain, the facts revealed about the “star” in the Bible.

The article also summarizes the criticisms that have been waged against the proposal as well as how proponents of the proposal respond to those criticisms. 

Article Index

Introduction here

Historical Development of the Comet Proposal here

How Well Does the 5 B.C. Comet Proposal Correspond with the 7 Things Scholars Have Historically Considered in Evaluating Candidates for the Christmas Star? here

Conclusion here
References
Image Credits

Introduction

Because comets are made up of frozen gasses, ice, rocky debris and dust, they are often referred to as “big dirty snowballs.” When a comet migrates closely enough to the sun, the sun’s heat vaporizes ice in the comet causing a tail to form.

Although numerous comets exist, comets bright enough to be seen from Earth are only visible to the naked eye about once every ten years. Large comets with spectacular tails are significantly more rare.

One of the most recent sitings of a large comet was the Hale-Bopp comet which was visible for well over a year (see photo above).  The Hale-Bopp Comet was last seen in 1997 and will not be seen again for another 2,500 years or so.

164 B.C. Babylonian Tablet Referencing Halley's Comet

164 B.C. BABYLONIAN TABLET
REFERENCING HALLEY’S COMET

Halley’s Comet is another large comet.  It is noted in historical records dating back to at least 240 B.C.  The clay tablet depicted on the left references a sighting of Halley’s Comet in 164 B.C.  It was last seen in 1986 and will reappear again in 2061.

The sighting of Halley’s comet closest to the time of Jesus’ birth was in 12 B.C.

The biblical account of the Christmas “star” is set forth in Matthew 2:1-11 (originally written in Greek). The Greek word used by Matthew which has been translated into English as “star” was “aster”  As many scholars point out, the Greek word “aster” is a much broader term than the English word “star” and can refer to any kind of heavenly body, including a comet. [See, Hugh Ross, “The Christmas Star”, www.reasons.org (updated 2010); 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]

Given the broader definition of the Greek word “aster(as compared to the English word “star” (more>>)) and because Matthew’s description of the Christmas “star” correlates well with certain characteristics commonly exhibited by comets, some scholars propose the Christmas “star” was a comet.

Halley's Comet (1986) (NASA)

HALLEY’S COMET (1986)
(NASA)

Historical Development of the Comet Proposal

As far back as ≈ 248 A.D., Origen of Alexandria (184 A.D. –  254 A.D.) suggested the “star” (aster) described in Matthew 2:1-11 may have been a comet:

“The star that was seen in the East we consider to be a new star … partaking of the nature of those celestial bodies which appear at times such as comets …If then at the commencement of new dynasties or on the occasion of other important events there arises a comet… why should it be a matter of wonder that at the birth of Him who was to introduce a new doctrine … a star should have arisen?” [Origen, Contra Celsus 1, 58-59, ≈ 248 A.D.]

Prof. Colin Humphrey's (Credit: Cambridge University)

PROF. COLIN HUMPHREY’S
(CREDIT: CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY)

In 1991, relying data gleaned from catalogues of ancient Chinese astronomical records, Colin Humphreys of Cambridge University published an article proposing the Christmas “star” (aster) was a comet. [See, Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society 32, pgs. 389 – 407 (1991)]  He also presented the proposal to the Cambridge Philosophical Society.

A 1995 version of Humphrey’s article entitled “The Star of Bethlehem” is available on the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) website here (last accessed 12/5/2014).

As presented in Humphreys’ article, Chinese astronomical records document the appearance of three (3) comets around the time of Jesus’ birth:

    1. 12 B.C.
      Halley’s Comet made an appearance on August 12, 12 B.C. and remained visible for 56 days. The sighting was recorded by Chinese astronomers in the Book of Han of the Han Dynasty: “Lately, reproaches in the form of solar eclipses and meteors have been in the sky….Now a bushy star has been seen in Tung-chin….”

      However, because the great majority of scholars maintain Jesus had to have been born between 7 B.C. and 2 B.C. (more>>), Humphreys concludes the 12 B.C. sighting of Halley’s comet is too early to have been the Christmas “star” (aster).
    2. 5 B.C.
      Historical records of the Chinese in 5 B.C. refer to the appearance of a “new star” in the Capricorn Constellation which was “sui-hsing” meaning a “broom star.”Because the “new” star” had a “broom tail”, most astronomers believe the sighting of that “new star” was, in fact, a sighting of a comet with a sweeping tail.
    3. 4 B.C.
      Chinese astronomical records also reference a sighting of a “new star” in 4 B.C. 

      However, other than being a “new star” with a tail (and, therefore, most likely a comet), little information is known about the comet. Therefore, Humphreys maintains there is no way to know if that comet exhibited characteristics consistent with the description of the Christmas “star” (aster) in Matthew 2.

      Additionally, because Humphreys believes there is strong evidence that Herod died in 4 B.C. such that Jesus would have been born in 5 B.C. – 6 B.C. (more>>), he eliminates the 4 B.C. comet from consideration.

[See, Colin Humphreys, “The Star of Bethlehem” (1995), asa.org (accessed 9/16/11)]

Based on the above, Colin Humphreys proposes the 5 B.C. comet referenced in ancient astronomical records is a credible candidate for the Christmas “star”.

How Well Does the 5 B.C. Comet Proposal
Correspond with the 7 Things Scholars Have Historically
Considered in  Evaluating Candidates for the Christmas “Star”?

Allowing for the unresolved issues which remain concerning how Matthew’s description of the “star” is to be interpreted from the original Greek text (more>>), scholars have historically considered seven (7) things in evaluating the legitimacy of astronomical candidates for the Christmas “star” (aster) (more>>).

As applied to the 5 B.C. comet, those seven (7) considerations are as follows:

  1. Does the appearance of the 5 B.C. coma reasonably explain why Magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem looking for “one born king of the Jews” (Matt. 2:1-2)? skip to
  2. Was the 5 B.C. comet either a new “star” (aster) the Magi saw for the first time rise in the east; or, as alternatively interpreted, was the comet seen by the Magi “when it rose” or “at it’s rising” in the east or was it seen rising in the east? (see, Matt. 2:1-2, 9)? skip to
  3. Did the 5 B.C. comet appear at the time of Jesus’ birth? skip to
  4. Does the appearance of the 5 B.C. comet reasonably explain why Herod had to learn from the Magi when the “star” (aster) had appeared? (see, Matt. 2:7)? skip to
  5. Did the appearance of the 5 B.C. comet last long enough to have been seen by the Magi in the east (Matt. 2:2) and still seen (or, alternatively, seen again) when the Magi left Jerusalem for Bethlehem? (see, Matt 2:9-10)? skip to
  6. Did the 5 B.C. comet go ahead of the Magi or, alternatively, did it appear to go ahead of the Magi on their journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem? (see, Matt. 2:9) skip to
  7. Could the 5 B.C. comet have been seen by the Magi “stopped over” (NIV, NLT), standing over (ASV, KJV) or resting over (ESV) “the place where the child was”? (see, Matt. 2:9) skip to

Consideration No. 1

Does the appearance of the 5 B.C. comet reasonably explain why Magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem looking for “one born king of the Jews” (Matt. 2:2)? (more>>)

Many scholars believe the Magi were pseudo scientists (astronomers) from Babylon or Persia who may have been part of the legacy of Jews who were deported to Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar II (more>>).  If so, the Magi may have been aware of Daniel’s prophecy concerning the coming of a king of the Jews (see, Dan. 9:25); consequently, they may have been looking for a sign of the coming of a Jewish king around the time of Jesus’ birth.

Moreover, because Numbers 24:17-19 prophesied a “star” (a ruler) would come forth out of Jacob and a scepter would rise out of Israel, the Magi may have been looking to the heavens for a star as a sign of the coming of the Jewish king.

Specifically with respect to the 5 B.C. comet, its appearance over a 70 day period with a sweeping tail would have certainly been unusual enough to have drawn the attention of the Magi, especially if they were looking for a sign of the coming of a Jewish king around that time.

Colin Humphreys further suggests the Magi may have considered the 5 B.C. comet particularly significant in combination with other recent astronomical events occurring in the Pisces Constellation which Humphreys contends was strongly associated with the nation of Israel:

Humphreys proposes the Magi may have interpreted these astronomical events as a sign of the coming of the Jewish Messiahprophesied in Daniel 9:25.  In his view, the appearance of the 5 B.C. comet was the final sign that inspired the Magi to travel to Jerusalem asking Herod: “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.” (Matt. 2:2).

Criticism No. 1 — In Ancient Times, a Comet Was Considered a Sign of Impending Disaster, Not a Sign of the Birth of a King
Some scholars have criticized the comet proposal for the Christmas “star” (aster) on the grounds that at the time of Jesus’ birth, people in Persia and the Roman Empire believed comets were signs of impending disaster.  ****, not something to be celebrated like the birth of a king. [See, Susan Carroll, The Star of Bethlehem: An Astronomical and Historical Perspective (1997); see, Frederick Baltz, “The Census and the Star” (2008)] Since comets were considered signs of impending calamity, it seems unlikely the Magi would have interpreted the appearance of a comet as a sign of the birth of a Jewish King. [See, Susan Carroll, The Star of Bethlehem: An Astronomical and Historical Perspective (1997)]

Response No. 1 — At Least Some Historians Around the Time of Christ Documented that Comets were Associated with Great Kings and Good News: Colin Humphreys agrees that “for much of history and in many countries comets were associated with death and disaster”; however, around “the time of Christ comets were associated with the birth of great kingsand with good news.” [See, Colin Humphreys, “The Star of Bethlehem” (1995), asa3.org]. Consider the following examples:

      • In Contra Celsum 1, 59, Origen (184 A.D. –  254 A.D.) referred to a book entitled Treatise on Comets (c 50 A.D.) by Chaeremon the Stoic in which Chaeremon listed occasions that comets appeared when “good was to happen.”
      • In the second century A.D., Justinus (a Roman historian) quoted from writings in which the greatness of a king was predicted because comets were seen for 70 days the year the king was born and a comet was seen the year the king’s reign began. [See, Justinus, Pompei Trogi Hist. Phil. Epit. XXXVII, ii, 1-3]
      • In 44 B.C. a comet appeared for 7 days during the Olympics. According to Suetonius (a Roman historian), as the Olympic celebrations commenced, “a comet shone for seven successive days … and was believed to be the soul of [Julius] Caesar”. As noted in the writings of Pliny the Elder, Encyclopedia 2.93-94, because the “people believed the comet signified that the spirit of Caesar had been received among the immortal gods” an emblem of the comet was added to the bust of Caesar that was consecrated in the Forum.   Caesar Augustus (63 B.C. – 14 A.D.) also dedicated a temple that was built on the site of Julius Caesar’s cremation to the 44 B.C. comet — the temple was called the Temple of the Comet.  Additionally, In commemoration of the 44 B.C. comet, Roman coinage from about 44 B.C. until 19 B.C. depicted a comet on one side and Caesar on the other side.  Indeed, in 19 B.C., Caesar Augustus’ heir, Octavian (who changed his name to Augustus Caesar), had a coin struck with his likeness on one side and the 44 B.C. comet on the other.

        Coin of Augustus Caesar (c 19 B.C.) (***)

        COIN OF AUGUSTUS CAESAR (C 19 B.C.)

        (CLASSICAL NUMISMATIC GROUP, INC. WWW.ENGCOINS.COM

        [See,Sarah K. Yeomans, Biblical Archaeology Review, “Classical Corner: A Comet Gives Birth to an Empire”, September/October 2017]

Based on the above examples, those who propose the Christmas “star” (aster) could have been a comet maintain that around 4 B.C. – 1 B.C. when the Magi would have observed the “star”, they could very well have interpreted the siting of a comet as a sign of the birth of a king [See, Colin Humphreys, “The Star of Bethlehem” (1995), asa3.org].  This would especially be true if, based on Old Testament prophecies, the Magi were looking to heavens for a “star” (Numbers 24:17-19) as a sign of the coming of a Jewish king around the time of Jesus’ birth (Dan. 9:25).

Consideration No. 2

Was the 5 B.C. comet either a new “star” (aster) the Magi saw rise for the first time in the east; or, as alternatively interpreted, was the cometseen by the Magi “when it rose” or “at it’s rising” in the east or was it seen rising in the east? (see, Matt. 2:1-2, 9)? [See, Unresolved Issue No. 1]

Many scholars maintain the original Greek text of Matthew 2 indicates the Magi saw a new star or at least a star that hadn’t previously been observed. [See, Colin Humphreys, “The Star of Bethlehem” (1995), asa3.org; Ray Bohlin, “The Star of Bethlehem” (1999)]

With respect to the 5 B.C. comet, the Magi may have considered a comet seen for the first time a “new star”.  Indeed, ancient Chinese astronomical records describe the 5 B.C. comet as a “new star” which was “sui-hsing” meaning a “broom star” (a star with a sweeping tail).

Alternatively, because of Earth’s westerly rotation, comets as well as planets and stars (except those located over the earth’s poles) appear to rise in the east. [See, Rick Larson, “The Bethlehem Star” DVD (2009)]  Accordingly, the Magi could have seen the 5 B.C. comet “rise in the east.”

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.  Likewise, comets are similarly observed rising in the east.

In similar fashion, earthbound observers see the sun (which is a star) do the same thing on a daily basis — the sun is seen rising in the east and setting in the west.

Specifically, with respect to the 5 B.C. comet documented in Chinese astronomical records, Colin Humphreys states the comet would have appeared to the Magi to rise 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, at its rising. [See, Colin Humphreys, “The Star of Bethlehem” (1995) asa3.org]

Consideration No. 3

Did the 5 B.C. comet appear around the time of Jesus’ birth (≈ 7 B.C. — 2 B.C.)?

Since the Christmas “star” (aster) is what led the Magi to Jerusalem to worship the newborn Jewish king, only those astronomical objects which appeared around the time of Jesus’ birth can be legitimate candidates for the Christmas “star.”

The sighting of the 5 B.C. comet documented in Chinese astronomical records fits well within the general timeframe established by scholars for Jesus’ birth between 7 B.C and 2 B.C. [See, Colin Humphreys, “The Star of Bethlehem” (1995) asa.org]   (more>>)

Consideration No. 4

Does the appearance of the 5 B.C. comet reasonably explain why Herod apparently had to find out from the Magi when the “star” (aster) appeared (Matt 2:7)? (more>>)

It seems likely that Herod, or at least members of his court, would have been aware of the appearance of a comet, especially a rather spectacular cometlike the 5 B.C. comet which lasted 70 days and had a “sweeping tail”. However, if the “star” (aster) was a comet, it seems Herod wasn’t aware of when it appeared because Matthew 2:7 says Herod secretly met with the Magi to ask them when the star had appeared. [See, Rick Larson, The Bethlehem Star (2007)]

As presented by Colin Humphreys, the 5 B.C. comet may not have been the only sign in the heavens that sent the Magi to Jerusalem.  Rather, Humphreys proposes the comet was the final sign that convinced the Magi a Jewish king had been born  in Judea (Matt. 2:1-2). The 5 B.C. cometwas preceded by a triple conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in 7 B.C. and a massing of Mars, Saturn and Jupiter planets in 6 B.C., all of which occurred in the Pisces Constellation (associated with the nation of Israel)

Additionally, although Herod would have certainly been aware of the 5 B.C. comet, the comet may not have seemed overly significant to him until the Magi arrived and explained that the comet signified the coming of a Jewish king.  Only after Herod perceived a threat to his throne by a newborn Jewish king did he meet secretly with the magi to determine the exact time the “star” had appeared.  it was only after the Magi explained the 7 B.C. to 5 B.C.astronomical timeline to Herod and failed to report back the whereabouts of the baby king as instructed that Herod ordered all the male children born in and around Bethlehem the prior two years (7 B.C. – 5 B.C.) be killed, in accordance with what he had learned from the Magi (Matt. 2:16).

Because Herod was a paranoid and murderous ruler who executed his own sons when he perceived them to be a threat to his throne, it makes sense that he would have done whatever he deemed necessary to protect his throne, including issuing an infanticidal order to eliminate the newborn Jewish king (more>>) [See, Colin Humphreys, ‘The Star of Bethlehem” (1995) asa3.org]

Consideration No. 5

Did the 5 B.C. comet last long enough to have been seen in the east (Matt. 2:2) and still seen (or, alternatively, seen again) when the Magi left Jerusalem for Bethlehem (Matt. 2:9-10)? (more>>) [See, Unresolved Issue No. 2]

As maintained by Colin Humphreys, the 5 B.C. comet with a sweeping tail (which was observed over a 70 day period) was visible long enough for the Magi to make the approximate 6 week journey from the east (probably Babylon or Persia (more>>)) to Jerusalem and still see the star after they left Jerusalem for Bethlehem.

Moreover, in Humphrey’s view it wasn’t just the 5 B.C. comet that sent the Magi on their long trek to Jerusalem, it was the totality of unusual astronomical events occurring from 7 B.C. to 5 B.C. (a two year period) that the Magi found so significant.  The totality of those events included: 1) the triple conjunction of Saturn (the Defender of Israel) and Jupiter (the King Planet in 7 B.C. in Pisces (strongly associated with the nation of Israel) and 2) the massing Mercury, Jupiter and Mars in 6 B.C., also in Pisces. [See, Colin Humphreys, ‘The Star of Bethlehem” (1995) asa3.org]

The references to the “star” (aster) in Matthew 2:2 and Matthew 2:9-10 would also be explained if the comet was first seen by the Magi in the east, then disappeared at some point only to reappear when the Magi left Jerusalem for Bethlehem.

Appearing, disappearing and reappearing is a characteristic of some comets. A comet can be seen once as it moves toward its perihelion (i.e., the point in its orbit that is closest to the sun), then it can disappear behind the glare of the sun and reappear as the comet’s orbit takes it away from the sun. [See, Ray Bohlin, “The Star of Bethlehem” (1999); Colin Humphreys, “The Star of Bethlehem” (1995) asa3.org]

Rudimentary Diagram of the orbit of a Comet

RUDIMENTARY ANIMATION OF THE ORBIT OF A COMET

However, as contended by Colin Humphreys (who believes the Christmas “star” (aster) was visible the entire time the Magi traveled to Bethlehem), astronomers of the day (who did not understand orbital patterns of comets) would have likely regarded such appearances as two separate “stars” (aster).

[Colin Humphreys, “The Star of Bethlehem” (1995) asa3.org]

Criticism No. 1 — Comets Orbit the Sun Cyclically and a Comet Appearing in 5 B.C. Should Have Reappeared by Now: Comets appear in cyclical periods, e.g., Halley’s Comet reappears every 75 to 76 with a predictable periodicity. If the 5 B.C. “new star” with a sweeping tail (i.e, “sui-hsing” (“broom star”) was a comet, it most likely would have reappeared during the last 2,000 years and astronomers would have been able to extrapolate the timing of its appearance back to 5 B.C.  No such comet has reappeared.

Response No. 1 — Some Comets Have Very Long Orbital Periodicities which Far Exceed 2,000 Years: Some comets have extremely long periodicities. For example, based on observations made of the Catalina Comet (C/1999 F1), astronomers have calculated it it will only be seen by earthbound observers every 6 million years. The Hale-Bopp comet which was visible from May 1996 to December, 1997 will not return for over 2,500 years.

Likewise, if the Christmas “star” (aster) was a comet with a long periodicity, it would not have made another appearance close enough to Earth to be detected by earthbound observers.

Response No. 2 — Some Comets Appear Only Once; Others Appear More than Once but Eventually Leave the Solar System Never to be Seen Again: There are at least three reasons why a comet appearing in 5 B.C. may not ever be seen from Earth again:  1)  Some comets are not gravitationally bound to the Sun and, consequently, they leave the solar system never to be seen again;  2)  Comets lose ice (and the material embedded in the ice) each time they migrate close enough to the sun for the sun’s heat to vaporize the ice.  Over time, the comet will eventually become extinct and  3)  Sometimes the orbit of a comet will put it on a collision course with another object in space (e.g., planets, moons, etc.) resulting in the total demise of the comet.

Consideration No. 6

Did the 5 B.C. comet go ahead of the Magi or, alternatively, did it appear to go ahead of the Magi on their journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem? (see, Matt. 2:9)? more>>

Due to the rotation of the earth, some celestial objects (including comets) appear to “move” across the sky in relation to the relatively fixed background of stars.

Some comets move rapidly across the sky, others move at a rate of about 1 to 2 degrees per day. [See, Colin Humphreys, “The Star of Bethlehem” (1995) asa3.org]

Degrees Angle Protractor

DEGREES ANGLE PROTRACTOR

As explained by Colin Humphreys, after the Magi saw the 5 B.C. comet rise in east and left their homeland (most likely Babylon or Persia more >>) for Jerusalem, they may have seen the comet move at a rate of 1 to 2 degrees per day which calculates out to about 30 degrees per month. [Colin Humphreys, “The Star of Bethlehem” (1995) asa3.org]

If so, by the time the Magi made their journey to Jerusalem, the comet would have moved about 90 degrees from the east to the south. After learning Micah the prophet had prophesied the Messiah (the Anointed One) would be born in Bethlehem, the Magi left Jerusalem for Bethlehem and would have been able to see the 5 B.C. comet ahead of them in the south toward 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) asa3.org]

Alternatively, the comet’s orbit may have caused it to disappear behind the sun, then reappear in the southern skies when the Magi left Jerusalem to head south to Bethlehem.

Consideration No. 7

Would the 5 B.C. comet have been seen “stopped over” (NIV, NLT), standing over (ASV, KJV) or resting over (ESV) “the Place Where the Child Was” (Matt. 2:9) (more>>)? [See Unresolved Issue No. 3]

Colin Humphreys notes that historians broadly contemporary with Matthew used the same terms or similar terms (e.g., “stood over” and “hung over”) to describe the position of comets in relation to cities and towns.

Comet McNaught (*** )

COMET MCNAUGHT IN 2013 (BY “SOERFM” CC-BY-SA-3.0)

 

Cassius Dio described the appearance of Halley’s comet in 12 B.C. as follows:

“the star called comet stood for several days over the city [Rome] and was finally dissolved in flashes resembling torches” (emphasis added). [See, Cassius Dio, Roman History 54, 29].

Similarly, Josephus wrote: “a star, resembling a sword, stood over the city Jerusalem.” [See, Jewish War 6, 5, 3]  Humphreys believes Josephus was probably describing a 64 A.D. comet referenced by Tacitus in Annals, 15,47.

Likewise, Ammianus Marcellinus referenced a 390 A.D. comet which he described as follows: “a sign appeared in the sky hanging like a column and blazing for 30 days.”

As explained by Humphreys, around the time of Jesus’ birth comets were thought to be located in the atmosphere below the sun, moon and stars and were probably the only astronomical objects considered close enough to earth to “stand over” a particular city for part of a night.

Humphreys further notes that the “upward tail of the comet would appear to point the head of the comet towards the city.” [See, e.g., the 2013 photograph of Comet McNaught above.]

Accordingly, Humphreys suggests Matthew’s description of a star “standing over” the place where Jesus was born meant “that when the Magi left Herod and headed towards Bethlehem …, they looked up and saw the comet in front of them, with a near vertical tail, the head of the comet appearing to “stand over” Bethlehem.” [Colin Humphreys, “The Star of Bethlehem” (1995) asa3.org]

Conclusion

As set forth in this article, Professor Colin Humphreys of Cambridge University maintains the 5 B.C. comet is a legitimate candidate for the Christmas “star” (aster) because the appearance of the 5 B.C. comet  adequately explains many (if not all) of the facts recorded about the “star” in Matt. 2:1-11.

Other proposed astronomical candidates for the Christmas “star” (aster) include:

  • Jupiter (as part of a series of extraordinary astronomical events occurring in 3 B.C. – 2 B.C). (here>>)
  • A recurring nova (here>>)
  • An especially spectacular meteor (here>>)

However, because Matthew 2 contains only a limited amount of information about the “star” and because there are areas of disagreement about how certain Greek terms used in the original text should be interpreted (more>>), many scholars caution against forming steadfast opinions about the precise nature of the “star” (aster).

Nonetheless, because legitimate astronomical explanations have been offered which are consistent with the facts recorded about the “star” (aster) in Matthew 2:1-11, Christian apologists maintain it is unfair for skeptics to insist the biblical account of the Christmas “star” be written off as a made-up fiction.

© 2014 by Andrina G. Hanson

Published: December 5, 2014 / Last Updated: December 10, 2014

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QUICK LINKS TO SOURCES REFERENCED OR RELIED ON IN THIS ARTICLE

Colin Humphreys, “The Star of Bethlehem” (1995), (www.asa3.org, accessed 9/16/11)

Rick Larson, The Star of Bethlehem, DVD (2006)

Paul Maier, The First Christmas: The True and Unfamiliar Story (Kregel Publications, 2001)

John Mosley, The Christmas Star, (Griffith Observatory, January 1988)

Hugh Ross, “The Christmas Star”, revised article (11/2010) (available at www.reasons.org)

Barry Setterfield, The Christmas Star, DVD, (Freedom Films, 2008)

IMAGE CREDITS & LICENSING

Slideshow Photo: This photo of the Hale-Bopp Comet was taken by Philipp Salzgeber as it flew over the skies of Pazin in Istria, Croatia on was named picture of the day on Wikimedia Commons for May 27, 2008. The image was downloaded from www.wikimedia.org which states the image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Austria CC-BY-SA-2.0-AT.

Babylonian Tablet: This photo was taken by Gavin Collins at the British Museum on February 27, 2010. The image was downloaded from www.wikimedia.org which states the author placed the image in the public domain. The clay tablet, recorded in Cuneiform, references an appearance of Halley’s Comet in 164 B.C. from September 22nd -28th.

Halley’s Comet 1986: This image was downloaded from www.wikimedia.org (Halley’s Comet”) which states the image is in the public domain because it was produced by NASA and NASA’s copyright policy states “NASA material is not protected by copyright unless noted“.

Prof. Colin Humphreys:  This image was downloaded from Cambridge University’s website.

Coin of Augustus Caesar (c 19 B.C.):  This image, provided by Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. (www.engcoins.com) was downloaded from www.wikimedia.org which states the image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license (CC-BY-SA-3.0).

Degree Angle Protractor: This image provided by was produced by Scientif38 and downloaded from www.wikimedia.org which states the author placed the image into the Public Domain for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law. Degree angle protractors are used to measure angles in degrees (°).

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.

Orbit of a Comet: This animation was authored by “Anarchemitis” at the Wikipedia project who released the image into the public domain to be used for any purpose. This rudimentary animation of the orbit of a comet illustrates how a comet can “disappear” behind the sun from the view point of an earthbound observer and then reappear as the comet orbits back out from behind the sun.

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