In Christian tradition, the Star of Bethlehem, also called the Christmas Star, revealed the birth of Jesus to the magi, or “wise men”, and later led them to Bethlehem. The star appears in the nativity story of the Gospel of Matthew, where magi “from the east” are inspired by the star to travel to Jerusalem. There they meet King Herod of Judea, and ask where the king of the Jews had been born. Herod, following a verse from the Book of Micah interpreted as a prophecy, directs them to Bethlehem, a nearby village. The star leads them to Jesus’ house in Bethlehem, where they pay him obeisance, or respect, and give him gifts. The wise men where then given divine warning not to return to Herod so they return to their “own country” by a different route.
Many Christians see the star as a miraculous sign to mark the birth of the Christ (or messiah). Some theologians claimed that the star fulfilled a prophecy, known as the Star Prophecy. Astronomers have made several attempts to link the star to unusual astronomical events, such as a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn , a comet or a supernova.
Prominent scholars question the historical accuracy of the story and argue that the star was a pious fiction created by the author of the Gospel of Matthew.
The subject is a favorite at planetarium shows during the Christmas season, although the Biblical account suggests that the visit of the magi took place at least several months after Jesus was born. The visit is traditionally celebrated on Epiphany (January 6) in Western Christianity. The star often appears in representations of the manger scene found in Luke, although the star and the wise men do not appear in Luke’s nativity story.
Matthew’s narrative: The Gospel of Matthew states that Magi (usually translated as “wise men” but in this context probably meaning “astronomer” or “astrologer”) arrived at the court of Herod in Jerusalem and told the king of a star which signified the birth of the King of the Jews:
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East [or at its rising]and have come to worship Him. When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.
Herod was “troubled”, not because of the appearance of the star, but because the magi told him that a “king of the Jews” had been born, which he understood to refer to the Messiah, a leader of the Jewish people whose coming was believed to be foretold in scripture. So he asked his advisors where the Messiah would be born. They answered Bethlehem, birthplace of King David, and quoted the prophet Micah. The king passed this information along to the magi.
Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said: “Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also. When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy.”
Matthew’s account suggests that the magi knew from the star that the “king of the Jews” had already been born even before they arrived in Jerusalem. The magi presented Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. In a dream, the magi were warned not to return to Jerusalem, so they “left for their own country by another road”. When Herod realized that he had been tricked, he ordered the execution of all male children in Bethlehem age 2 and younger, based on the information the magi had given him concerning the time the star first appeared. Joseph, warned in a dream, took his family to Egypt for their safety. The Gospel links the escape to a verse from scripture, interpreted as a prophecy: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” This was a reference to the departure of the Hebrews from Egypt under Moses, so the quote suggests that Matthew saw the life of Jesus as recapitulating the story of the Jewish people, with Judea representing Egypt and Herod standing in for pharaoh. After Herod died, Joseph and his family returned from Egypt, and settled in Nazareth in Galilee. This is said to be a fulfillment of, “He will be called a Nazorean,” (NRSV) a prophecy of unknown origin.
Explanations – Fulfillment of prophecy: The ancients believed that astronomical phenomena were connected to terrestrial events. Miracles were routinely associated with the birth of important people, including the Hebrew patriarchs, as well as Greek and Roman heroes.
The Star of Bethlehem is traditionally linked to the Star Prophecy in the Book of Numbers:
I see Him, but not now; I behold Him, but not near; A Star shall come out of Jacob; A Scepter shall rise out of Israel, And batter the brow of Moab, And destroy all the sons of tumult.
Although evidently intended to refer to the immediate future, since the kingdom of Moab had long ceased to exist, by the time the Gospels were being written it had become widely seen as a reference to the coming of a Messiah. It was, for example, cited by Josephus, who believed it referred to Emperor Vespasian. Origen, one of the most influential early Christian theologians, connected this prophecy with the Star of Bethlehem:
If, then, at the commencement of new dynasties, or on the occasion of other important events, there arises a comet so called, or any similar celestial body, why should it be matter of wonder that at the birth of Him who was to introduce a new doctrine to the human race, and to make known His teaching not only to Jews, but also to Greeks, and to many of the barbarous nations besides, a star should have arisen? Now I would say, that with respect to comets there is no prophecy in circulation to the effect that such and such a comet was to arise in connection with a particular kingdom or a particular time; but with respect to the appearance of a star at the birth of Jesus there is a prophecy of Balaam recorded by Moses to this effect: “There shall arise a star out of Jacob, and a man shall rise up out of Israel.”
According to Origen, the magi may have decided to travel to Jerusalem when they “conjectured that the man whose appearance had been foretold along with that of the star, had actually come into the world”.
The magi are sometimes called “kings” because of the belief that they fulfill prophecies in Isaiah and Psalms concerning a journey to Jerusalem by gentile kings. Isaiah mentions gifts of gold and incense. In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament probably used by Matthew, these gifts are given as gold and frankincense, similar to Matthew’s “gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” The gift of myrrh symbolizes mortality, according to Origen.
While Origen argued for a naturalistic explanation, St. John Chrysostom viewed the star as purely miraculous: “How then, tell me, did the star point out a spot so confined, just the space of a manger and shed, unless it left that height and came down, and stood over the very head of the young child? And at this the evangelist was hinting when he said, “Lo, the star went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was.”
Astronomical object: According to modern translations, the magi told Herod that they saw the star “at its rising”, which suggests an astronomical event – heliacal rising. The traditional translation of this phrase was “in the East,” that is, when the magi were still resident in their eastern homelands. This interpretation is less likely because the Greek word for “east” used in this passage is singular, yet plural in those passages where it refers to the magi’s homelands.
In 1614, German astronomer Johannes Kepler determined that a series of three conjunctions of the planets Jupiter and Saturn occurred in the year 7 BC. Although conjunctions were important in astrology, Kepler was not thinking in astrological terms. He argued (incorrectly) that a planetary conjunction could create a nova, which he linked to the Star of Bethlehem. Modern calculations show that there was a gap of nearly a degree between the planets, so these conjunctions were not visually impressive. An ancient almanac has been found in Babylon which covers the events of this period, but does not indicate that the conjunctions were of any special interest. Dr. Karlis Kaufmanis argued that this was an astronomical event where Jupiter and Saturn were in a triple conjunction in the constellation Pisces.
Other writers suggest that the star was a comet. Halley’s Comet was visible in 12 BC and another object, possibly a comet or nova, was seen by Chinese and Korean stargazers in about 5 BC. This object was observed for over seventy days with no movement recorded. Ancient writers described comets as “hanging over” specific cities, just as the Star of Bethlehem was said to have “stood over” the “place” where Jesus was (the town of Bethlehem). However, this is generally thought unlikely as in ancient times comets were generally seen as bad omens.
Another Star of Bethlehem candidate is Uranus, which passed close to Saturn in 9 BC and Venus in 6 BC. Some consider this to be an unlikely explanation, because Uranus moves very slowly and is barely visible with the naked eye.
However, others think these factors actually favor Uranus as a possible explanation. Its faint magnitude and relatively slow motion across the sky suggest that it could have been noticed only by people who were intimately familiar with the heavens, such as the magi. If they did indeed spot Uranus, they likely would have considered it to be a new “wandering star“, the discovery of which would have been an unprecedented event. But because Uranus is actually a planet, it can appear to “stop” at a certain point in the sky, as it transitions between periods of retrograde motion.
A recent hypothesis is that the star of Bethlehem was a supernova or hypernova occurring in the nearby Andromeda Galaxy. Although supernovae have been detected in Andromeda, it is extremely difficult to detect a supernova remnant in another galaxy, let alone obtain an accurate date of when it occurred.
Astrological event: Although magi (Greek μάγοι) is usually translated as “wise men,” in this context it probably means “astronomer” or “astrologer”. The involvement of astrologers in the story of the birth of Jesus was problematic for the early Church, because they condemned astrology as demonic; a widely cited explanation was that of Tertullian, who suggested that astrology was allowed ‘only until the time of the Gospel’.
In 3–2 BC, there was a series of seven conjunctions, including three between Jupiter and Regulus and a strikingly close conjunction between Jupiter and Venus near Regulus on June 17, 2 BC. “The fusion of two planets would have been a rare and awe-inspiring event”, according to Roger Sinnott. This event however occurred after the generally accepted date of 4 BC for the death of Herod. Since the conjunction would have been seen in the west at sunset it could not have led the magi south from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. It also does not fit with an event seen at rising that might have started them on the journey.
Astronomer Michael Molnar has proposed a link between a double occultation of Jupiter by the moon in 6 BC in Aries and the Star of Bethlehem, particularly the second occultation on April 17. This event was quite close to the sun and would have been difficult to observe, even with a small telescope, which had not yet been invented.
Occultations of planets by the moon are quite common, but Firmicus Maternus, an astrologer to Roman Emperor Constantine, wrote that an occultation of Jupiter in Aries was a sign of the birth of a divine king. “When the royal star of Zeus, the planet Jupiter, was in the east this was the most powerful time to confer kingships. Furthermore, the Sun was in Aries where it is exalted. And the Moon was in very close conjunction with Jupiter in Aries”, Molnar wrote.
Pious fiction: Many scholars, seeing the Gospel Nativity stories as later apologetic accounts created to establish the Messianic status of Jesus, regard the Star of Bethlehem as a pious fiction; there are several aspects of Matthew’s account which give reason to doubt that an actual historical event is being portrayed. Why would a star be needed to guide the Magi from Jerusalem, 10 kilometers down a road, to Bethlehem? Matt 2:9, Matthew is the only one of the four gospels which mentions either the Star of Bethlehem or the magi. The author of the Gospel of Mark, considered by modern text scholars to be the oldest of the Gospels, does not appear to be aware of the Bethlehem nativity story. A character in the Gospel of John states that Jesus is from Galilee, and not Bethlehem. The Gospels often described Jesus as “of Nazareth,” but never as “of Bethlehem”. Some scholars suggest that Jesus was born in Nazareth and that the Bethlehem nativity narratives reflect a desire by the Gospel writers to present his birth as the fulfillment of prophecy.
Matthew’s description of the miracles and portents attending the birth of Jesus can be compared to stories concerning the birth of Augustus (63 BC). Linking a birth to the first appearance of a star was consistent with a popular belief that each person’s life was linked to a particular star. Magi and astronomical events were linked in the public mind by the visit to Rome of a delegation of magi at the time of a spectacular appearance of Halley’s Comet in AD 66, about the time the Gospel of Matthew was being composed. This delegation was led by King Tiridates of Armenia, who came seeking confirmation of his title from Emperor Nero. Ancient historian Dio Cassius wrote that, “The King did not return by the route he had followed in coming,” a line echoed in Matthew’s account.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Star of Bethlehem is not interpreted as an astronomical event, but rather as a supernatural occurrence, whereby an angel was sent by God to lead the Magi to the Christ Child.
Orthodox Newsletter of St Theodore, Lanham
By His Eminence Metropolitan PANTELEIMON of Antinoes
Star of Bethlehem