Star of Bethlehem

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The Star of Bethlehem is a star that revealed the birth of Jesus to the magi, or "wise men", and later led them to Bethlehem. According to the Gospel of Matthew, the magi were men "from the east" who were inspired by the appearance of the star to travel to Jerusalem.[1] There they met King Herod of Judea, and asked where the king of the Jews had been born. Herod then asked his advisers where a messiah could be born. They replied Bethlehem, a nearby village, and quoted a prophecy by Micah. While the magi were on their way to Bethlehem, the star appeared again. Following the star, which stopped above the place where Jesus was born, the magi found Jesus with his mother, paid him homage, worshipped him and gave gifts. They then returned to their "own country".[2]

The star was a miraculous sign to mark the birth of the Christ. It also fulfilled a prophecy, known as the Star Prophecy. In modern times, astronomers have proposed various explanations for the star. A nova, a planet, a comet, an occultation, and a conjunction (gathering of planets) have all been suggested. The story has also been interpreted as either an astrological event or as a historical fiction.[3]

The subject is a favorite at planetarium shows during the Christmas season,[4] although the biblical account suggests that the visit of the magi took place at least several months after Jesus was born.[5] The visit is celebrated on Epiphany (January 6).[6]

Biblical narrative

The Gospel of Matthew states that magi, or wise men, 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 saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.[7]

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.[8] He understood this phrase to refer to the messiah, a leader of the Jewish people whose coming was foretold in Old Testament prophecy. So he asked his advisors where the messiah would be born. These were men who had memorized much of Scripture, so they knew the answer.[9] They told Herod that the messiah would be born in Bethlehem, birthplace of King David, and quoted the prophet Micah.[10] The king passed this information along to the magi.[11]

Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.[12]

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.[13] In a dream, the magi were warned not to return to Jerusalem, so they "left for their own country by another road".[14] 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.[15] Joseph, warned in a dream, took his family to Egypt for their safety.[16] The Gospel links the escape to another verse: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”[17] The Old Testament version refers 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.[18] After Herod died, God called Joseph and his family back from Egypt,[19] and they settled in to Nazareth in Galilee.[20] This is said to be a fulfillment of the prophecy, "He will be called a Nazarene."

Interpretations and 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.[21] The Star of Bethlehem is traditionally linked to the Star Prophecy in the Book of Numbers:

I see him, but not now;

behold him, but not near:

a star shall come out of Jacob,

and a scepter shall rise out of Israel;

it shall crush the forehead of Moab

and break down all the sons of Sheth.[22]

Although the kingdom of Moab no longer exist in New Testament times, this verse was widely seen as a reference to the coming of a messiah.[23] It was, for example, cited by Josephus, who believed it referred to Emperor Vespasian.[24] 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.[25]

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".[26]

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.[27] Isaiah mentions gifts of gold and incense.[28] In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament used by Matthew, these gifts are given as gold and frankincense, similar to Matthew's "gold, frankincense, and myrrh."[29] Myrrh was used for embalming, so it has been interpreted as a symbol of mortality.[9]

The Septuagint uses the word "magi" to refer to an association of scholars in Babylon described in the Book of Daniel.[30] Daniel, who in the book is selected chief magus,[31] was considered "one of the greatest prophets" by the Jews, according to Josephus.[32]

While Origen argued for a naturalistic explanation, 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."[33]

Astronomical object

According to modern translations, the magi told Herod that they saw the star "when it rose,"[34] which suggests that they observed an astronomical object. The traditional translation of this phrase was "in the east,"[35] that is, when the magi were still resident in their eastern homelands. Modern translators consider this interpretation 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.[36]

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.[4] 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.[4] Modern calculations show that there was gap of nearly a degree between the planets, so these conjunctions were not visually impressive.[37] An ancient almanac has been found in Babylon which covers this period. It records the conjunctions, but it does not suggest they were of any special interest.[37][38]

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 a paper by Roger Sinnott.[39]

Other writers suggest that the star was a comet.[37] 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.[37][40] This object was observed for over seventy days with no movement recorded.[37] 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).[41]

Another Star of Bethlehem candidate is Uranus, which passed close to Saturn in 9 BC and Venus in 6 BC. This is unlikely because Uranus moves very slowly and is barely visible with the naked eye.[42]

Astrological event

The magi linked the appearance of a star to the birth of a "king of the Jews." In Hellenistic astrology, Jupiter was the king planet and Regulus (in the constellation Leo) was the king star. As they traveled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, the star "went before" the magi and then "stood over" the place where Jesus was. In astrological interpretations, these phrases are said to refer to retrograde motion and to stationing, i.e., Jupiter appeared to reverse course for a time, then stopped, and finally resumed its normal progression.[43]

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.[44] This event was quite close to the sun and would have been difficult to observe, even with a small telescope,[45] 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.[44][46] "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.[47]

Historical fiction

Some authors have argued that the Bethlehem nativity narratives were written simply to satisfy a desire to present the birth of Jesus as a fulfillment of Micah's prophecy, and without regard to the actual circumstances of his birth.[48] Matthew is the only one of the four gospels which mentions either the Star of Bethlehem or the magi. A passage in Mark, the oldest of the Gospels,[49] suggests that other residents of Nazareth were not aware that there was anything remarkable about the birth of Jesus.[50] A character in the Gospel of John states that Jesus is from Galilee, and not Bethlehem.[51] The Gospels often described Jesus as "of Nazareth,"[52] but never as "of Bethlehem."

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).[53] 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.[54] 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,[41] 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.

Determining the year Jesus was born

Whether a particular event is plausible as an explanation of the Star of Bethlehem partly depends on which year is accepted as the year Jesus was born. Both Matthew and Luke wrote that Jesus was born when Herod was king.[55] According to Josephus, Herod died after a lunar eclipse.[56] This is usually identified as the eclipse of March 13, 4 BC.[57] Matthew's account implies that Jesus was born sometime between the first appearance of the Star of Bethlehem and when the magi arrived in Herod's court. As Herod ordered the execution of boys age two years of age and younger, the star must have made its first appearance within the previous two years. Based on these verses, modern scholars usually date the birth of Jesus as 6–4 BC.[58]

Luke writes that Jesus was born during a census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.[59] But Quirinius did not become governor until AD 6, nine years after Herod died. Some writers have suggested that the census Luke referred to could have been another event, such as a mass oath to Augustus that took place in 3 BC,[4][60] or to an earlier, unrecorded census.[61] Luke wrote that Jesus was "about thirty"[62] when he began his ministry in AD 29.[63] Following these passages, early Christian writers gave the year of Christ's birth as either 3 BC or 2 BC.[64]


  1. Matthew 2:1–2
  2. Matthew 2:11–12
  3. Paul L. Maier, "Herod and the Infants of Bethlehem", in Chronos, Kairos, Christos II, Mercer University Press (1998), 171
    Geza Vermes, The Nativity: History and Legend, London, Penguin, 2006, p. 22; E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus, 1993, p.85
    Aaron Michael Adair, "Science, Scholarship and Bethlehem's Starry Night", Sky and Telescope, Dec. 2007, pp. 26-29 (reviewing astronomical theories).
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 John, Mosley. Common Errors in 'Star of Bethlehem' Planetarium Shows. Retrieved on 2008-06-05.
  5. Matthew 2:11. When the magi arrive, Jesus is a "child" (paidon) in a house, no longer an infant (brephos) in a manger, as when the shepherds arrive in Luke. (Patterson, Dorothy Kelly, Women's Evangelical Commentary: New Testament, p. 20) As he is with his mother, the forty day confinement period prescribed by Jewish law has already passed.
  6. Ratti, John. First Sunday after the Epiphany. Retrieved on 2008-06-05.
  7. Matthew 2:1–4.
  8. Thomas G. Long, Matthew (Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), page 18.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Ross, Allan, "The Visit Of The Wise Men (Matthew 2:1-12)", NET Bible.
  10. Matthew 2:5–6. Matthew's version of the prophecy is a conflation of Micah 5:2 and 2 Samuel 5:2.
  11. Matthew 2:8.
  12. Matthew 2:7–10.
  13. Matthew 2:11
  14. Matthew 2:12.
  15. Matthew 2:16 This is presented as a fulfillment of Jeremiah 31:15 and echoes the killing of firstborn by pharaoh in Exodus 11:1-12:36.
  16. Matthew 2:13-14
  17. Matthew 2:15 The OT version is at Hosea 11:1.
  18. "An Exodus motif prevails in the entire chapter." ( Kennedy, Joel. Recapitulation of Israel. Retrieved on 2009-07-04. ) The story of the Jewish people began with God showing Abraham the stars in the sky.(Genesis 15:5)
  19. Matthew 2:10-21
  20. Matthew 2:23
  21. Vermes, Geza (December 2006). The First Christmas. 56. pp. 23–29. Retrieved 2009-07-04. 
  22. Numbers 24:17
  23. Freed, Edwin D. (2001). The Stories of Jesus' Birth: A Critical Introduction. Continuum International. 
  24. Josephus, Flavius. The Wars of the Jews. Retrieved on 2008-06-07.  Translated by: William Whiston.
    Lendering, Jona. Messianic claimants. Retrieved on 2008-06-05. 
  25. Adamantius, Origen. Contra Celsum. Retrieved on 2008-06-05., Book I, Chapter LIX.
  26. Adamantius, Origen. Contra Celsum.. Book I, Chapter LX.
  27. France, R.T., The Gospel according to Matthew: an introduction and commentary, p. 84. See Isaiah 60:1–7 and Psalms 72:10.
  28. Isaiah 60:6
  29. Isaiah 60:6 (Septuagint)
  30. White, William, (1903) Notes and Queries, Volume 107, p. 346. "Magi" appears in the singular form, μάγους, in Daniel 1:20 and Daniel 2:2.
  31. Daniel 5:11
  32. Josephus, Flavius. Antiquities of the Jews. Translated by: William Whiston. Book 10, chapter 11, paragraph 7.
    For Daniel's messianic prophecy, see Daniel 9:24–27
  33. Schaff, Philip (1886). St. Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew. New York: Christian Literature Publishing Co.. Retrieved on 2009-07-04. 
  34. Matthew 2:2
  35. Matthew 2:2
  36. Nolland, John, (2005) The Gospel of Matthew: a commentary on the Greek text, p. 109.
  37. 37.0 37.1 37.2 37.3 37.4 Mark, Kidger. Chinese and Babylonian Observations. Retrieved on 2008-06-05.
  38. For the contrary view, i.e. that the almanac does show the conjunction was considered significant, see Ashgrove. Triple Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. Retrieved on 2008-06-05.
  39. Sinnott, Roger, "Thoughts on the Star of Bethlehem", Sky and Telescope, December 1968, pp. 384–386.
  40. Colin Humphreys, 'The Star of Bethlehem', in Science and Christian Belief 5 (1995), 83-101.
  41. 41.0 41.1 Jenkins, R.M.. "The Star of Bethlehem and the Comet of AD 66", Journal of the British Astronomy Association, June 2004, pp. 336–43. Retrieved on 2009-07-04. 
  42. Kidger, Mark (2005). Astronomical Enigmas: Life on Mars, the Star of Bethlehem, and Other Milky Way Mysteries. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 60. 
  43. Molnar, Michael R.. Revealing the Star of Bethlehem. Retrieved on 2009-07-04. 
  44. 44.0 44.1 Molnar, Michael R. (1999). The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi. Rutgers University Press. ISBN 0-8135-2701-5. 
  45. Kidger, Mark (December 5, 2001). The Star of Bethlehem. Retrieved on 2007-07-04. 
  46. Stenger, Richard (December 27, 2001). Was Christmas star a double eclipse of Jupiter?. Retrieved on 2009-07-04. 
  47. This set of planetary conditions reoccurs every sixty years.
  48. Nikkos Kokkinos, "The Relative Chronology of the Nativity in Tertullian", in Ray Summers, Jerry Vardaman and others, eds., Chronos, Kairos, Christos II, Mercer University Press (1998), page 125–6.
    Funk, Robert W. and the Jesus Seminar, The Acts of Jesus: The Search for the Authentic Deeds of Jesus, HarperSanFrancisco, 1999, ISBN 0-06-062979-7. pp. 499, 521, 533.
    Paul L. Maier, "Herod and the Infants of Bethlehem", in Chronos, Kairos, Christos II, Mercer University Press (1998), 171.
    For Micah's prophecy, see Micah 5:2.
  49. Witherington, Ben (2001). The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Eerdmans. 
    France, R. T. (2002). The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text. Eerdmans. 
    Head, Peter M. (1997). Christology and the Synoptic Problem: An Argument for Markan priority. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press. ISBN 0-521-58488-4. Retrieved on 2009-07-04.  For a case against Markan priority, see (2002) One Gospel From Two: Mark's Use of Matthew and Luke. Trinity Press International. ISBN 1-56338-352-7. Retrieved on 2009-07-04. 
    The traditional view, presented by Augustine and others, was that Matthew was written first and that Mark was redacted from Matthew. (Perkins, Pheme, (2007) Introduction to the synoptic gospels, p. 55)
  50. Mark 6:1–4
  51. “Is the Christ to come from Galilee? Has not the Scripture said that the Christ comes from the offspring of David, and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David was?” (John 7:41–42). A birth in Nazareth may have been a stumblingblock for some potential believers. See John 1:46 and John 7:52.
  52. In Greek, Nazarēnos (Nazarene) or Nazōraios (Nazorean).
  53. The god Apollo was said to have conceived with Augustus' mother and there was a "public portent" indicating that a king of Rome would soon be born. ( Suetonius, C. Tranquillus,. "94.", The Divine Augustus. ).
  54. Nolland, p. 110.
    Pliny the Elder, Natural History, II vi 28.
  55. Matthew 2:1
    Luke 2:2
  56. Josephus, Antiquities XVII:7:4.
  57. Timothy David Barnes, “The Date of Herod’s Death,” Journal of Theological Studies ns 19 (1968), 204–19
    P. M. Bernegger, “Affirmation of Herod’s Death in 4 B.C.,” Journal of Theological Studies ns 34 (1983), 526–31.
  58. "Jesus Christ." Encyclopædia Britannica. Chicago, 2010.
  59. Luke 2:2.
  60. Martin, Ernest L., The Star that Astonished the World, Chapter 5, 2nd Edition (1996)
  61. Ronald Syme, The Augustan Aristocracy, (Oxford University Press, 1989) pp. 340–341.
  62. Luke 3:23.
  63. Luke 3:23. Luke's "fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar" corresponds to August/September AD 28 to August/September AD 29.
  64. (1998) Birth of Christ Recalculated. Maranatha Church, Inc. Retrieved on 2009-07-04. 
    Footnote 4, Bethlehem Star.
    Tertullian, "An Answer to the Jews" "Let us see, moreover, how in the forty-first year of the empire of Augustus, when he has been reigning for xx and viii years after the death of Cleopatra, the Christ is born."

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