What was the star of Bethlehem?
It’s a fascinating question, and people have widely divergent opinions about it.
Skeptics argue that there was no star at all, while believers have offered a profusion of candidates.
Where does the truth lie?
The journey of the magi
The term magi originally referred to a class of Persian priests, but by the first century it had come to refer to various practitioners of astrology and other means of foretelling the future.
The star of Bethlehem is mentioned only in Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew tells us that his magi came from a country to the east of Judaea, but he doesn’t indicate which one.
One might be skeptical of his account and ask whether magi would really have undertaken an international journey to greet a royal figure, like the newborn king of the Jews, but the historical record shows that such journeys took place.
In A.D. 66, a magus named Tiridates, also the Roman client king of Armenia, undertook a nine-month journey with several other magi to pay homage to Nero in Rome.
Multiple sources, including Pliny the Elder (Natural History 30:6), Cassius Dio (Roman History 63), and Suetonius (Lives of the Caesars, “Nero” 13) mention this visit. Pliny the Elder records that the journey was especially difficult because Tiridates and his fellow magi refused to travel by sea, in keeping with the requirements of their magic arts.
A journey from an eastern homeland to another eastern district, like Judaea, would have been much easier than going to Rome, and it is not at all implausible that a group of magi would make the trip to congratulate King Herod the Great on what they perceived to be the birth of a new royal prince.
The movement of the star
The main reason that some are skeptical of the star of Bethlehem is the way they perceive it to have moved in the sky.
The magi are widely depicted as following the star, which leads them first to Jerusalem (westward from their homeland) and then to Bethlehem (southward from Jerusalem). At the end of their journey, the star comes to a stop over the house where Jesus is.
“No star moves like that,” skeptics point out, “so this shows us that the whole thing is a theological embellishment of the Jesus story—something that Matthew or one of his sources made up.”
“On the contrary,” some believers reply. “It merely shows that the star was a supernatural phenomenon. It’s true that no natural star moves like that, but God could have created a miraculous light in the sky that did.”
Believers who say this are certainly correct. God could have done that. However, a careful reading of Matthew does not support the idea that the star moved in any unusual way.
Not following the star
Matthew never says that the magi were following the star. In fact, he makes it clear that they were not following the star.
If they had been, they would have gone straight to Bethlehem, and they didn’t.
What the star told them was that a child had been born who would become a Jewish king. They naturally assumed the child was born into the current ruling family—the Herodian dynasty—and so they went to the palace of Herod the Great in Jerusalem.
Herod was paranoid by this point in his reign, and he was alarmed to hear of the birth of a potential royal usurper. Knowing that the birth of a non-Herodian Jewish king would play into the Messianic expectations of his people, he consulted with experts to learn where the Messiah was expected to be born and was told Bethlehem.
It was thus the testimony of the experts—not the star—that caused the magi to set out for Bethlehem.
By a providential coincidence, they then saw the star in the sky, but they weren’t expecting to see it in front of them. That’s why Matthew says “they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.”
No unusual motion
The impression that the magi were being led by the star and that it moved in an unusual way is created in part by the way many translations render Matthew 2:9. The RSV:CE, for example, says that the star “went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was.”
“Went before them” is a pretty good translation. The Greek verb, proagō, means “precede” (among other things). What the magi were experiencing was the flip side of the well-known phenomenon where the moon seems to follow you. Astronomical objects are so far away that they seem to keep the same relative place behind, beside, or before you as you travel.
Bethlehem is around five miles south of Jerusalem, so as they made the short, nighttime trip, the star remained in front of them in the southern half of the sky.
More problematic is the translation “till it came to rest over the place where the child was.” The Greek verb histēmi can simply mean “stand,” and the phrase need mean no more than that, when the magi approached “the place where the child was” (Bethlehem? the house?), the star was above it in the sky from their perspective.
The key text used to support the idea that the star moved in an unusual way thus requires nothing of the sort.
And so there is no reason, based on the biblical text, why the star could not have been a normal stellar phenomenon (albeit one occurring by divine providence).
What might the star have been?
If the text of Matthew doesn’t provide a basis for saying the star moved in an unusual way, that points us toward natural phenomena that God may have used to mark the birth of his Son.
Over the centuries, a wide variety of candidates have been proposed for what the star may have been. They include:
1) A meteor—or rather, a pair of meteors: one that the magi saw in their homeland and another they saw on their journey to Bethlehem.
2) A nova or supernova—one of the stars that suddenly brightens or even appears for the first time in the sky.
3) A comet—one of the many small, icy bodies that periodically swoop into the inner solar system. As they do so, heat from the sun can cause them to form long, glowing tails before they swoop back out.
4) A conjunction—an alignment between two or more celestial bodies (e.g., two planets or a planet and a star).
Not all of these proposals are equal. For example, the idea that the star was a pair of meteors is fatally flawed for two reasons.
First, people in the ancient world saw meteors all the time, and they didn’t think of them as all the same object. If the magi saw a meteor in their homeland, they would have had no reason to think they were seeing the same meteor on their way to Bethlehem.
Second, meteors only last for a few seconds at most. They zip across the sky in a moment and then are gone. This does not fit the way Matthew describes the star remaining in the sky during the magi’s journey to Bethlehem.
The idea the star was a pair of meteors thus can be ruled out, but the other three options are more plausible.
A nova or supernova?
It is possible that the star could have been a nova or supernova.
The difficulty that advocates of this view need to overcome is showing why the brightening or appearance of a star would have been interpreted as signaling the birth of a Jewish king.
In some parts of the world, novas were thought significant, but we’d need to show that eastern magi found them so, and this is not easy to do. While Chinese astronomers paid attention to novas, we don’t have evidence that people in the part of the world where Jesus lived did.
Unless there was an established tradition linking the appearance of novas to the births of kings, the magi wouldn’t have had a reason to set out on their journey, but we don’t have records showing the existence of such a tradition (see Michael Molnar, The Star of Bethlehem, chapter 2.)
Today we don’t think of a comet as a star, but the ancients did. The ancient Greeks referred to a comet, because of its tail, as an astēr komētēs or “long-haired star,” which is where the word comet came from. Comets were viewed as omens of important events, and so it has periodically been proposed that the star of Bethlehem was a comet.
We even have one instance in the ancient world when a comet was interpreted in connection with the birth of a king. According to the Roman historian Justin, the birth of King Mithridates VI of Pontus in 134 B.C. was accompanied by a comet (Historiae Philippicae 37:2).
This shows that comets could be interpreted that way, but that doesn’t mean they were likely to be. In fact, comets were overwhelmingly regarded as bad omens.
That may be the case with Mithridates, who was an enemy of Rome and who had significant success in battle against Roman generals. From the perspective of Justin and his countrymen, the comet that appeared when Mithridates was born may have represented a threat to Roman interests.
This also seems to be the only case on record of a comet being linked to a birth. Normally comets were interpreted as signals of defeat in war or of the deaths of kings.
The magi could have interpreted a comet as heralding the death of King Herod, but that’s not what was on their mind when they arrived. They thought the star indicated a birth, not a death.
Also, any newborn prince wouldn’t have been able to take the throne for many years, so they didn’t interpret the star as signaling an immediate transition from one ruler to another.
You might think that a conjunction would not be a good candidate for the star of Bethlehem.
One reason is that they involve planets. Today we don’t think of planets as stars, but—once again—the ancients did.
Many stars—which we refer to as “fixed stars”—do not seem to change their position relative to each other. The stars we see in the constellations are like this. For example, as the earth rotates, it causes the stars of the Big Dipper to appear to move in unison with each other. The Big Dipper as a whole moves, with its individual stars keeping the same “fixed” positions relative to each other.
Planets don’t do that. As they move in their orbits, they change position with respect to the background, fixed stars, and so they seem to wander across the sky. Thus they were called “wandering stars” (Greek, asteres planētai), which is where the word planet came from.
It is thus possible one of the planets might have come into alignment with something else in the sky that could have been interpreted as signaling the birth of a Jewish king. If so, then the planet in question would be the “wandering star” that the magi saw.