It’s a seasonal staple of carols, Christmas cards and nativity plays but what was the Star of Bethlehem? Astronomical fact or pious fiction, theological symbolism or astrological sign, or simply an inexplicable supernatural event?
The truth is of course that nobody knows for sure, but there are some more and less convincing theories.
Only Matthew’s gospel mentions the star and the Magi or wise men, in the following passage:
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east [or at its rising] and have come to worship him.”… Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared… After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east [or at its rising] went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.
(Matthew chapter 2, verses 1-2, 7, 9-10, New International Version)
From this we gather that the star first appeared or rose at a particular time, that it apparently moved (‘went ahead of them’) and stopped, and that to the Magi at least it signified the birth of a ‘king of the Jews’.
Astronomically, it’s been suggested that the star may have been a nova or supernova explosion; a comet; a triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn; a close grouping of the three planets Jupiter, Saturn and Mars; a stationary point of Jupiter; or a variable star (one whose brightness changes over time).
Chinese records mention a possible nova or comet in 5BC – an unusually bright star which appeared in the eastern sky for 70 days, and which may have been a nova outburst from the variable star DO Aquilae. This occurred at about the same time as a triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation of Pisces. The rare combination of these two events may well have been seen by the Magi as a religious sign.
It’s likely that the Magi studied astrology, so the star’s astrological aspects are probably at least as important as its astronomical explanation. Rutgers astronomer Michael Molnar has suggested that a double
occultation of Jupiter by the Moon in Aries in 6BC could have astrologically
signified the birth of a divine ‘king of the Jews’.
Others of couse think that the writer of Matthew’s gospel simply invented the star, perhaps to fulfil the Old Testament prophecy that ‘A star will come out of Jacob; a sceptre will rise out of Israel’ (Numbers chapter 24, verse 17). More likely is that Matthew’s star is simply an example of ‘Midrash’ – an established Judaic tradition of theological writing in which non-factual elements can be used to bring out the religious meaning of the factual account. So whether or not there actually was a star is less important than the spiritual message Matthew is trying to convey.
We can’t know for sure whether, what or when the star was. But perhaps the answer is not either/or out of the alternative strands of explanation – astronomical, astrological, theological, supernatural – but both/and. It’s plausible that the Star of Bethlehem was a genuine astronomical event – perhaps a nova associated with a variable star – that had astrological significance to the Magi and theological significance to Matthew.
Whatever the truth is, we wish you a very happy Christmas!