The Mysterious Star of Bethlehem

From Matthew 2:1-2 – “behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem” … “for we have seen His star in the east”.

The story starts with a mystery. Wise men from the East see a star in the East, heralding the promised birth of a new Jewish King, and head toward it. But in which direction? If they are in the east and see a star in the east, they should go eastward. By all accounts they traveled west to follow the star. Matthew’s Gospel does not explain so a later interpretation concludes they were simply saying they saw the star while they were in the east.

After months of travel the wise men stop in Jerusalem, possibly because it’s a likely spot for a King to be born. Possibly due to respect for King Herod. Possibly hoping to get directions. King Herod’s priests and scribes directed them to Bethlehem, about 5 miles to the south. The wise men then again saw the star rising and coming to rest above Bethlehem, where they finally met Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.

Admittedly I have yada-yada’d a lot of detail out of the story. Just trying to establish a sense that the star seen by wise men from the east is mysterious. Part of the mystery involves establishing an accurate date for Jesus’s birth. At best, most authorities use a range of years between 7 and 4 BCE, partly based on the accepted knowledge that King Herod died sometime in 4 BCE.

Can the star of Bethlehem be explained by natural phenomena? Well, many have attempted to associate a known celestial event with it. Let’s check the possibilities.

  • A nova or supernova: Records from Far-East astronomers in 4 BCE reported a bright “new star” in the constellation Aquila. While novae and supernovae can last months it would have been positioned directly over Bethlehem, but also over Babylon too, not in the west.
  • A comet: A comet in Capricorn was reported by Chinese astronomers in 5 BCE. It would have been due South of Jerusalem with its tail pointing up. However, the comet would also have been in the south-southwest as seen from Babylon, 900 miles east of Bethlehem.
  • Planetary conjunction: Especially a triple conjunction, where the planets line up and appear like one “star”, three times over a relatively short period of time. A triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn occurred around 7 BCE in Pisces. Conjunctions only last for a few days at a time before separating so the challenge is linking them with the wise men’s several month journey.

Does it make sense trying to associate the supernatural aspects of Jesus’s birth with natural phenomena? Or is it better to accept that miracles occurred, and the wise men were following a sign placed just for them to see?

What’s in the Sky?

Christmas Eve: About 30 minutes after sunset; southwest; a beautiful conjunction of a very young crescent Moon, Venus, and Mercury floats just above the horizon. Use binoculars for the best view.