The Star of Bethlehem

Jul 20, 2017
Star of Bethlehem


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What is the Star of Bethlehem, and what is its significance?

Every holiday season, planetariums present their “Star of Wonder” show, which offers astronomical explanations for the most famous star of all—the Star of Bethlehem.

The show suggests that the star was either a comet, a conjunction of bright planets, or maybe a supernova.

Or perhaps it was Jupiter alone in the constellation Aries, according to a newer thesis that got New York Times headlines a few years ago.

What the public doesn’t know, is that none of these could be correct. Every backyard stargazer knows you can’t get anywhere by following something in the sky.

In the below painting, Adoration of the Magi, the Star of Bethlehem is shown as a comet. The painter, Giotto di Bondon, saw Halley’s Comet in 1301. Find out more about comets.


Where Is the Star of Bethlehem?

Whether planet, star, or supernova, everything arcs rightward during the night. The Magi would travel in a giant semicircle if they followed any kind of celestial object. What’s more, no astronomical body can come to a screeching halt and hover over Bethlehem or anywhere else.


Only things in the north don’t move much—like Polaris, the North Star, which appears glued in place. But that eliminates planets, which are never in the north. Plus, the Magi weren’t going north to get to Bethlehem, but southwest. Find out more about stars and their locations.

Bottom line? None of the planetarium explanations can possibly be valid—and planetarium directors know this very well.

Many scholars believe that when the account was first written a century after Christ’s death, the star was intended to be an ASTROLOGICAL omen. By this reasoning, it was never an actual  object in the real sky. This idea is supported by the fact that the Star appears in Matthew, but not at all in Luke.


In any case, astrology (which appears in the earliest of almanacs) eventually fell into total disfavor—first with the church and later with science—making this explanation popular with neither. And planetariums are reluctant to get into this because astrology is the last thing they want to discuss.

Now, hold off on any angry letters. The whole point is that when planetariums suggest some natural phenomenon such as a comet just happened to appear at the right place and then just happened to stop and hover over the manger—well, that itself would be indistinguishable from a miracle. Why offer a scientific explanation that has to unfold outside the laws of science?

And religion is similarly mistreated because the whole thing suggests that faith in the miraculous is unnecessary, because there’s some kind of rational science explanation for the Star. In short, neither science nor religion are well served.

No matter. Those planetarium programs will continue. They’ve been around for three quarters of a century, and are enjoyed by the public. They’ve become a holiday tradition of their own.

Find out the facts behind other Christmas traditions.

What do you think about the Star of Bethlehem? Let us know below!

About This Blog

Welcome to “This Week’s Amazing Sky,” the Almanac’s blog on stargazing and astronomy. Wondering which bright objects you’re seeing in the night sky? Want to learn about a breathtaking sight coming up? Bob Berman, longtime and famous astronomer for The Old Farmer’s Almanac, will help bring alive the wonders of our universe. From the beautiful stars and planets to magical auroras and eclipses, we’ll cover everything under the Sun (and Moon)!

Reader Comments

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Star of Bethelem and Planetariums.

As a planetarium director for more than four decades, I have never seen a planetarium show that tries to convince the audience that the star was a comet, meteor, planetary conjunction or anything else like that. Planetarium programs show the audience what astronomical "possibilities" might have been viewed at that time. However all of those shows say that these are just "possibilities" and not the actual things that the wise men saw. Your article indicates that planetarium people have been knowingly "lied" to audiences for years, and with all of the misinformation in YOUR article, it is you who are misleading the public.

Read it again

This piece was written with the collaboration of planetarium directors at two major cities. Every word is accurate. I don’t even understand your complaint, that “the planetarium shows present “possibilities” and not the actual things the the Wise men saw.” What does that even mean? My article states that none of these possibilities are valid explanations for the Star reported in Matthew, and we explain why this is so.

  At the end, I defend both science and religion. And indeed, a different version of this appeared in a national magazine (Discover), was read by nearly a million people, and won applause from astronomers and clergy alike. I proudly stand by every word. 

    What planetarium do you direct? Please let us know.  Finally, you quoted me as using the word “lied.” You made that up. If our topic is accuracy, perhaps you can start with that.

Not entirely accurate

All of the planetarium shows I've seen go through "possible astronomical explanation" (like comets and nova) as a means of educating the audience about how these various objects behave in the sky. They all conclude that the "Christmas Star" was not a comet or nova. Most then go through a thorough explanation of how a planet, or conjuction of planets CAN be seen in different areas of the sky over a period of weeks or months. So your dismissal of an astronomical event, and more distressingly the assertion all planetarium directors are knowingly lying to audiences, is quite disappointing. Please feel free to have your own opinion on what you think happened or didn't happen, but also know that there are factual errors in the argument laid out in this blog.

There are no factual errors

There are no factual errors here. None. And if you show this to your planetarium director, he will almost surely agree with this article. Your argument that  “a planet, or conjuction of planets CAN be seen in different areas of the sky over a period of weeks or months”, far from offering evidence contradicting this article, instead perfectly proves its point. None of those can come to a screeching halt and hover over Bethlehem. None of those can “lead.” All planetarium directors know this. So they use this popular annual program to teach audiences about various celestial objects. Unfortunately, the erroneous take-away is often that the “Star” and its appearance in Matthew could be naturally explained by a planet, a comet, or a conjunction. In reality, no – that Bible account cannot be explained by anything that uses correct science. If the star existed, it was “miracle” meant to guide the Magi to their destiny.



Star of Bethlehem

I think the reason that the star is mentioned in Matthew and not in Luke is because the wisemen/magi did not arrive at the stable, only the shepherds did. In Matthew it says they arrived at the house where they found Mary and the child at her knee, which means Jesus was old enough to be a toddler.

Interesting post. One can

Interesting post. One can have faith in God as well as science. At least I do. Now, is God the ultimate scientist or is this phenomenon outside the realm of science?

the better question

I still love the mystery of the star and I can believe in both science and religion. We are still searching for answers and that is a great place to be too.

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