Searching for the Star of Bethlehem

Nativity Of Jesus - Scene With The Holy Family With Comet At Sunrise. Christmas star of the Nativity of Bethlehem, Nativity of Jesus Christ. Background of the beautiful dark blue starry sky and bright star. Christmas Star.
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Romolo Tavani/ Shutterstock

What Was the "Christmas Star"? When Can You See It?

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Was the Star of Bethlehem a real astronomical object? Many religious scholars believe the bright star never existed as a physical object. Instead, when the account was written fifty years after Christ’s death, the star was meant as an astrological omen. 

I take both religion and science seriously. In and of itself, the mixing of science and religion is shaky, but it can be helpful in specific cases; science should be present whenever it can be helpful. When the Shroud of Turin controversy raged, the use of Carbon-14 dating provided an unambiguous answer: The cloth that once supposedly covered the just-crucified body of Jesus proved to be less than a thousand years old. It wasn’t the genuine shroud but a hoax from the Middle Ages. 

The Christmas Star is a different story. It’s not meant to be proven through science.  You don’t need some scientific explanation for the Star. You have faith, or you don’t. 

So, when astronomers have their Star of Bethlehem science show at the planetarium, it really doesn’t serve science or faith. Every backyard astronomer knows you can’t get anywhere by following something in the sky. Earth’s rotation quickly makes the contents of the heavens change position. Whether planet or supernova, everything rises in the east, arcs rightward during the night, and sets in the west. You’d go in a giant semicircle if you followed any celestial object. Plus, no astronomical body can come to a screeching halt over Bethlehem or anywhere else.

The only place where objects don’t move is in the middle of the northern sky, where Polaris hangs motionless (learn how to use Polaris to navigate!). But that eliminates planets, which are never in the north, and besides, the Magi weren’t going north to get to Bethlehem, but southwest. 

the Adoration of the Magi painting
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?

So, what was this Star that, according to Matthew, “Went before them, and stood above where the Christ child lay.” Most religious leaders believe the bright star never existed as a physical object. Instead, when the account was written fifty years after Christ’s death, the star was meant as an omen or sign.

After all, great kings were accompanied by auspicious astrological configurations; presumably, Jesus should also have one. At that time, the sign of Aries was linked with Judea, and Jupiter was its ruling planet; the merging of those two, as occurred in the year 6 BC when some (but not most) scholars tag the Birth, would have been precisely the kind of prophetic omen that should accompany the coming of a Savior. A further case against its existence is simply that Luke, generally regarded as the most historically accurate of the gospels, never mentions there being any star.

three wise men on camels using the star of bethlehem to navigate

In any case, astrology eventually fell into total disfavor with both the church and, later, with science, so that explanation is popular with neither. Another problem with bringing up astrology is that it suggests that astrologers were correct in foreseeing the Birth. Such tacit support for pseudoscience is the last thing educators want to impart, nor does it win approving nods from religious leaders.

On the other hand, sticking with strictly astronomical explanations (a comet, a conjunction, a supernova, etc.) is so scientifically wrong that many planetariums are uncomfortable with it. But it’s been running more or less continuously since the 1930s when it was first introduced. The public keeps coming, and, as one director explained to me, “We’re just giving them what they want.”

A Miracle Is Outside Laws of Science

All this has nothing to do with religious faith. If you believe the Magi were led by an actual star, fine: Why not a star only the Wise Men could see? 

After all, suggesting that some natural celestial object, such as a comet, just appeared at the right place and then just happened to stop and hover over the manger is already indistinguishable from a miracle. Why introduce a scientific “explanation” that has to unfold entirely outside the laws of science?


Faith in the Miraculous

Again, I ask: Why bother offering a scientific “explanation” that has to unfold outside the laws of science?  

Religion is similarly mistreated because the search for the real Christmas Star suggests that faith in the miraculous is unnecessary because there’s some rational scientific explanation for the Star. In short, neither science nor religion is well served.

The silver lining in this yearly December exercise is a marvelous confirmation of why science and religion make strange bedfellows. Their marriage always produces odd offspring, and in this case, it’s twins: a planetarium show with fictitious astronomy plus the implication that faith in the miraculous is superfluous because there’s a logical explanation for everything.

No matter. And as far as the planetarium programs go… They have become a holiday tradition, so we might as well sit back and enjoy!

Learn More

Find out the facts behind other Christmas traditions.

About The Author

Bob Berman

Bob Berman, astronomer editor for The Old Farmer’s Almanac, covers everything under the Sun (and Moon)! Bob is the world’s most widely read astronomer and has written ten popular books. Read More from Bob Berman

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