Nova M31 Explosion 2001
Odd Trondal (CC-BY-SA-3.0 more)
Novae are fairly uncommon events and a nova occurring around the time of Jesus’ birth would have most probably caught the attention of the Magi (pseudo scientists and astronomers from the area of Babylon or Persia).
Because recurring novae exhibit characteristics consistent with Matthew’s account of the Christmas “star”, some scholars offer a recurring nova as a candidate for the “star”. Specifically, an initial nova explosion caused the Christmas “star” to appear to Magi in the east (a sign to them that the Jewish king — the Messiah — prophesied in Daniel 9:25 had been born). By the time the Magi arrived in Jerusalem, the nova had dimmed to the point it was no longer visible to the Magi. However, when the Magi left Jerusalem for Bethlehem, the star exploded a second time and the Magi were overjoyed to see the same star they had seen in the east reappear (Matt. 2:1-2, 9).
This article examines the extent to which the occurrence of a recurring nova adequately explains, or fails to explain, the facts revealed about the Christmas “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.
A nova is a cataclysmic nuclear explosion of a white dwarf star causing the star to suddenly and dramatically increase in brightness — a nova explosion can increase the brightness of a star by one million times. Nevertheless, because stars are so far away from Earth, even the brightest novae are only about as bright as Polaris (the North Star), the brightest star observed from Earth. [See, Hugh Ross, “The Christmas Star” (updated 11/2010)]
This sudden and dramatic increase in brightness can cause a white dwarf star (not previously visible from Earth) to suddenly appear in the night sky. At the time of Jesus’ birth, this would have been considered a “new Star.”
After the nova explosion, the star begins to dim and eventually fades into the background of stars. [See, Ray Bohlin, “The Star of Bethlehem” (1999)] As noted by Christian astrophysicist, Hugh Ross, it can take months or even years for a nova to dim to the point that the star is once again invisible to earthbound observers. [See, Hugh Ross, “The Christmas Star”, (updated 11/2010)]
Although the great majority of novae only involve a single explosion, a small number of novae involve multiple explosions and are called recurring novae.
As discussed below, because recurring novae suddenly appear, disappear and reappear (consistent with at least one way Matthew’s account of the Christmas “star” — aster — has been interpreted from the original Greek), some scholars suggest the star may have been a recurring nova.
Hugh Ross and others who propose the Christmas star may have been a recurring nova point out that in addition to being pseudo scientists and astronomers of their day, the Magi referenced in Matthew 2 may have been part of the legacy of Jews transported to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar II ( king of Babylon from 605 B.C. – 562 B.C.) after he sieged Jerusalem. If so, the Magi may have been aware of Daniel’s prophecy concerning the coming of a Jewish king around the time of Jesus’ birth and may have been vigilantly watching the heavens for a sign the prophesied king had come. more >>
According to this proposal, the first nova explosion (which caused a new star to appear) was a sign to the Magi that the long-awaited promised king of Israel (prophesied in Daniel 9:25) had been born and prompted them to travel to Judea to pay homage to the baby king (Matt. 2:11).
Within two years of the initial nova explosion, the Magi arrived in Jerusalem and learned the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem(Micah 5:2). By that time, the nova had dimmed to the point it was no longer visible. [NOTE: Matthew 2:16 strongly implies the star(which signified Jesus’ birth) appeared to the Magi no more than two years before they arrived in Jerusalem which is why Herod gave the order for all male children 2 years old and younger be executed to eliminate the potential threat the baby king posed to his throne more>>.]
After the Magi left Jerusalem for Bethlehem looking for the new King (the messiah prophesied in Daniel 9:25), the star they had first seen in the east exploded a second time and reappeared causing them to be filled with joy (Matthew 2:1-2, 9-10).
How Well Does a Recurring Nova Correspond with the
Seven Things Scholars Have Historically Considered in Evaluating
Proposed Candidates for the Christmas “Star”?
Allowing for the unresolved issues which remain concerning how Matthew’s account 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 a recurring nova, the seven (7) considerations are as follows:
- Did a recurring nova appear at the time of Jesus’ birth? skip to
- Does the appearance of a recurring nova reasonably explain why Herod had to learn from the Magi when the “star” (aster) had appeared? (see, Matt. 2:7)? skip to
- Would a recurring nova have lasted 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
- Would a recurring nova go ahead of the Magi or, alternatively, appear to go ahead of the Magi on their journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem? (see, Matt. 2:9) skip to
- Would a recurring nova 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
As noted by Christian astronomer Hugh Ross (a proponent of the recurring nova candidate for the Christmas “star”), many scholars believe the Magi were Babylonian or Persian astronomers anticipating the coming of the Messiah (the Anointed One) whose coming was prophesied by Daniel the prophet (see, Dan. 9:25) after he was transported to Babylon following King Nebuchadnezzar’s siege of Jerusalem (more) [See, Hugh Ross, “The Christmas Star”, (updated 11/2010)]
It is further suggested that Magi from Babylon or Persia were interested in the coming of a Jewish king because they were part of the legacy of Jews who had been transported from Jerusalem to Babylon along with Daniel (more>>). [See, Hugh Ross, “The Christmas Star”, (updated 11/2010)]
If the Magi were anticipating the coming of the Messiah as prophesied by the prophet Daniel, the “new star” (nova) may have been the sign they were looking for that the prophesied king had been born sending them to Judea to pay homage to the new Jewish king. [See, Hugh Ross, “The Christmas Star”, (updated 11/2010)]
Although not asserted by Ross, it is also possible the nova may have appeared along with other celestial objects which the Magi associated with a king, the Jews, Israel and/or a birth:
Celestial Objects Associated with a King
Celestial Objects Associated with the Jews or Jewish Nation
- Pisces (associated with the nation of Israel).
- Leo Constellation (historically associated with the Tribe of Judah)
Criticism No. 1 — The suggestion that other celestial objects were seen along with a recurring nova is speculative: To date, no nova or recurring nova has been identified in ancient astronomical records as having occurred around the time of Jesus’ birth (see Consideration No. 3 below).
Since no specific nova has been identified, it can only be speculated that any supposed nova may also have been associated with other celestial objects which the Magi interpreted as a sign that a king of the Jews had been born.
Would the Magi have seen a recurring nova rise for the first time in the east; or, as alternatively interpreted, would the recurring nova have been 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) [See, Unresolved Issue No. 1]
The word “nova” comes from a Latin word that means “new.” From the perspective of an earthbound observer, a nova explosion causes a “new star” to appear in the heavens.
Moreover, due to Earth’s westward (or counterclockwise) rotation, the great majority of stars (including novae) appear to rise in the east and set in the west. Since the sun is a star, the sun is seen rising in the east and setting in the west. The only stars which do not appear to rise in the east are those located at Earth’s polar extremes (e.g., Polaris). Stars at the poles appear motionless to an earthbound observer.
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 the Sydney Harbour Bridge and proceeding in a westerly direction (right to left) at a rate 250 times faster than actually occurred in real time:
If the Christmas “star” (aster) was a recurring nova, the Magi wouldn’t have only seen the “new star” appear and rise for the first time in the east, they would have also likely seen the “new star” rise in the east.
Since the Christmas “star” (aster) is what sent the Magi to Jerusalem to worship a newborn Jewish king, only astronomical objects which appeared around the time of Jesus’ birth (≈ 7 B.C. – 2 B.C.) can be considered legitimate candidates for the Christmas “star.”
Unfortunately, unlike planets and comets which orbit the Sun in cyclical fashion, a recurring nova will eventually stop recurring and permanently disappear from view. Therefore, astronomers cannot use computer programs (like they can with planets and comets) to reconstruct past occurrences and positions of novae.
Consequently, scientists are dependent on ancient astronomical records to attempt to identify prior novae occurrences and no references to nova occurring around the time of Jesus’ birth have been identified. [See, Hugh Ross, “The Christmas Star”, (updated 11/2010)]
Criticism No. 1 — Since No Specific Nova Has Been Identified, the Nova Proposal is Speculative: Although “new stars” are referenced in Chinese astronomical records as occurring in 5 B.C. and 4 B.C., closer examination indicates they were most likely comets rather than novae:
- The 5 B.C. “new star” only remained visible for 70 days, which isn’t long enough to have been a nova [See, Raymond Bohlin, “The Star of Bethlehem” (1999)]. Additionally, because the “new star” was “sui-hsing” (meaning a “broom star”), astronomers have generally concluded the “new star” was most likely a comet with a sweeping tail. Indeed, Colin Humphreys of Cambridge makes the case that the 5 B.C. comet was the Christmas “star” (more>>). [See, Colin Humphreys, “The Star of Bethlehem”, www.asa.org 1995)]
- The 4 B.C. “new star” is also described as having a tail and, hence, was most likely a comet. Additionally, other than being a “new star” with a tail, nothing is known about the 4 B.C. “new star” so there is no way to know if the “star” exhibited characteristics consistent with the description of the Christmas “star” (aster) in Matthew 2. [See, Colin Humphreys, “The Star of Bethlehem”, www.asa.org (1995)]
Response No. 1 — Unlike others living at the time, the Magi make have noticed the star because they were looking for a sign of the coming of the Jewish king prophesied by Daniel: As acknowledged by Christian astronomer Hugh Ross, if the Christmas “star” was a recurring nova, the only evidence of the star is the account in Matthew 2:1-11. However, if the Magi were aware of the prophet Daniel’s prophecy concerning the timing of the promised Messiah (Dan. 9:25 more), unlike others living at the time, they may have been keeping a very watchful eye on the heavens looking for a sign of his coming. [See, Hugh Ross, “The Christmas Star”, (updated 12/2010)]
If the Christmas “star” was a recurring nova, it was “just dramatic enough to catch the attention of the watchful Magi, but too subtle to warrant the notice of other astronomers and astrologers of that time.” [Hugh Ross, “Astronomy Sheds New Light on the Christmas Star” (2014)] See further discussion under Consideration No. 4 below.
Because stars (other than the sun) are so far away from the earth, even the very brightest novae only appear to be about as bright as Polaris (the North Star) to the naked eye. [See, Hugh Ross, “The Christmas Star”, (updated 11/2010)] Therefore, Herod wouldn’t have necessarily been aware of the occurrence of a recurring nova; or, if he was, if he may not have been aware of when it first appeared.
Further, even if Herod had become aware of the nova at some point before it dimmed, he may not have been aware that the “new star” (perhaps along with other observed astronomical objects or events) was a sign that a Jewish king had been born (see, Consideration No. 1 above) Accordingly, prior to the Magi’s arrival, Herod may not have had reason to investigate when the starhad first appeared.
As argued by Rick Larson (a proponent of the Jupiter Proposal for the Christmas “star” — aster in Greek — more), it was only when the Magi explained that the “star” was a sign of a birth of a Jewish king that Herod became troubled and wanted to know when the “star” (aster) had appeared (Matt. 2:7). Presumably, by that time, Herod (a paranoid man with a murderous history more) was already making plans to eliminate the threat he perceived to his throne. [See, Rick Larson, The Bethlehem Star (2007)]
Would a recurring nova have lasted 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)? ) (more>>) [See, Unresolved Issue No. 2]
As explained by Christian astrophysicist, Hugh Ross, the initial explosion of a recurring nova could have come to the attention of the Magi in the east (probably Babylon or Persia more>>) (Matt. 2:1-2).
After the initial explosion, the nova may have dimmed to the point it was no longer visible to earthbound observers. Then, after the Magi arrived in Jerusalem and were leaving for Bethlehem, the recurring nova exploded a second time resulting in a “second appearance” of the star (Matt. 2:9-10). This would explain why Matthew reported the Magi were “overjoyed” when they left Jerusalem for Bethlehem — they saw a second appearance of the same “star” (aster) they had seen in the east. (Matt. 2:9). [See, Hugh Ross, “The Christmas Star”, (updated 12/2010)]
Criticism No. 1 — Explosions of recurring novae occur too far apart to have been the Christmas star: Before the Magi left Jerusalem for Bethlehem, Herod met with them secretly and asked them when the star had appeared (Matt. 1-3, 7). Then Herod sent the Magi to Bethlehem with instructions for them to report where he too could find the child under the guise that he also wanted to worship the baby Jewish king (Matt. 2:8).
In response, Herod issued an order that all the male children two years old and under living in the vicinity of Bethlehem be executed and the massacre that followed is commonly referred to as the “Massacre of the Innocents more>>). Herod’s infanticidal order of babies two years old and under was given in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. (Matt. 2:16). This strongly implies that whatever the Magi told Herod about the star before they left for Bethlehem, at least Herod believed the Jewish king was no more than two years old at the time he gave the infanticidal order.
Since the Christmas “star” was a sign of Jesus’ birth and the Magi’s two sighting of the star preceded Herod’s infanticidal order of babies two years old and younger, If these two sightings were a recurring nova, the time between the explosions had to be a matter of months or maybe a year plus, but certainly not more than two years.
However, observations of recurring nova show recurrences of novae do not recur for a period of 10 to 100 years which is far too long to explain the two year period referenced in Matthew 2:1-16.
Response — More Recent Findings Demonstrate Recurring Novae Can Recur Within 2 Months to 1 Year: In 2008, astronomers discovered a recurring nova (M31N 2008-12a) in the Andromeda Galaxy which recurs within a period of one year. Since the discovery of M21N 2008-12a, scientists have demonstrated “a certain kind of white dwarf star could exhibit recurring nova eruptions with a period as short as two months.” Though these types of white dwarfs are rare in the Milky WayGalaxy, they “are expected to exist in numbers sufficient enough to lend more than adequate credence to the account of the star of Bethlehem.” [Hugh Ross, “Astronomy Sheds New Light on the Christmas Star” (2014)]
Would a Recurring Nova Have Gone Ahead of the Magi, or, Appeared to the Magi to Go Ahead of Them on Their Journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem (Matt. 2:9)?
If the second appearance of the recurring nova occurred in the southern horizon as the Magi left Jerusalem and headed south toward Bethlehem, the recurring star may have appeared to the Magi to have gone “ahead of” them on their way to Bethlehem.
Criticism No. 1 — Novae Don’t Move Across the Sky: Matthew 2 says the “star” went ahead of the Magi as they traveled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem (Matt. 2:9) which is an indication the “star” (aster) was moving. Although (due to Earth’s rotation) novae do appear to rise in the east as Earth turns in a westerly direction, novae do not move against the background of the stars like planets do because novae are stars. [See, Barry Setterfield, The Christmas Star, DVD (2008) and Raymond Bohlin, “The Star of Bethlehem”, Probe Ministries (1999)]
Response No. 1: The Text Doesn’t Explicitly Say the “Star” (Aster) Moved Across the Sky: Matthew 2:9 doesn’t say the “star” moved; it only says the “star” (aster) went ahead of the Magi as they travelled to Bethlehem. This may have been the case if, when the Magi left Jerusalem for Bethlehem, they observed same nova they had seen previously reappear ahead of them as they travelled south from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.
The recurring nova may have been clearly visible as the Magi made their way from Jerusalem to Bethlehem and then dimmed when the Magi neared the house Jesus was in. [See, Hugh Ross, “The Christmas Star”, (updated 12/02)]
As emphasized by Hugh Ross, the proposition that the Christmas “star” (aster) was a recurring nova is only a suggested possibility. [See, Hugh Ross, “The Christmas Star”, (updated 11/2010)] Other proposed candidates for the Christmas “star” (aster) include:
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, including Hugh Ross, 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 16, 2014 / Last Updated: December 16, 2014
Slideshow Photo: A touched up photo of a nova explosion occurring in 2001 in M-31. The image was downloaded from www.wikimedia.org which states the author (“Odd Trondal”) licensed the image under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
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.