The Star of Bethlehem

What Is the "Christmas Star"?

December 22, 2020
Star of Bethlehem

Some things just don’t belong together, like the Three Stooges at an art opening. Yet this month, planetariums around the country try to blend religion and science by presenting their annual Star of Bethlehem show. And this year, it’s front-and-center thanks to the rare spectacular Great Conjunction, which many are calling a “Christmas Star.”

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 useful. 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 real shroud, but a hoax from the Middle Ages. Science to the rescue and case closed.

The Christmas Star is a different story when it’s presented by astronomers because it’s misleading. Every backyard astronomer knows that 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 kind of 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. 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.” Many religious scholars believe the bright star never really existed as a physical object. Rather, when the account was written fifty years after Christ’s death, the star was meant as an astrological omen.

After all, great kings were accompanied by auspicious astrological configurations; presumably Jesus should have one as well. 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 exactly 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 sort of star.

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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 happened to appear at the right place and then just happened to stop and hover over the manger—that’s already indistinguishable from a miracle. Why introduce a scientific “explanation” that has to unfold entirely outside the laws of science?

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Faith in the Miraculous

Again, I ask:  Why bother trying to 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.

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 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

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