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!