The Star of Bethlehem

Was the Star of Bethlehem a Real Celestial Body?

January 29, 2019
Star of Bethlehem

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Was the Star of Bethlehem a real celestial body or a miraculous vision? Astronomer Bob Berman discusses the prevailing theories and adds his own thoughts into the mix.

Star of Wonder?

Each holiday season, planetariums present their “Star of Wonder” show, which offers astronomical explanations for one of the most famous stars of all—the Star of Bethlehem, or Christmas Star. This is the star that the wise men from the East followed to Jerusalem in the nativity story of the Gospel of Matthew.

The shows typically suggest that the Christmas Star was either a comet, a conjunction of bright planets, or maybe even 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.

So, what was the star of Bethlehem?

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In this 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.

What Was the Star of Bethlehem?

Whether planet, star, or supernova, everything arcs rightward during the night. The Magi would have traveled in a giant semicircle if they had 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.

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The only celestial objects that don’t move much are located in the north—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.

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.

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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 of this discussion is to point out that when people suggest some natural phenomenon—such as a comet that 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.

Faith in the Miraculous

Why offer a scientific explanation that has to unfold outside the laws of science?  

And religion is similarly mistreated because the whole search for the real Christmas Star 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. And as far as the planetarium programs go … They have become a holiday tradition of their own, so we might as well just sit back and enjoy!

What do you think the Star of Bethlehem was? Let us know in the comments!

Learn More

Find out the facts behind other Christmas traditions.

About This Blog

Welcome to “This Week’s Amazing Sky,” the Almanac’s hub for everything stargazing and astronomy. 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, he covers everything under the Sun (and Moon)! Bob, the world’s mostly widely read astronomer, also has a new weekly podcast, Astounding Universe