1Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, 2”Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.”
3When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 4Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet:
6‘AND YOU, BETHLEHEM, LAND OF JUDAH,
ARE BY NO MEANS LEAST AMONG THE LEADERS OF JUDAH;
FOR OUT OF YOU SHALL COME FORTH A RULER
WHO WILL SHEPHERD MY PEOPLE ISRAEL.’”
7Then Herod secretly called the magi and determined from them the exact time the star appeared. 8And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the Child; and when you have found Him, report to me, so that I too may come and worship Him.”
9After hearing the king, they went their way; and the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was. 10When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, the magi left for their own country by another way… 16Then when Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he became very enraged, and sent and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and all its vicinity, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the magi.
—Matthew 2:1–12, 16 NASB
A good number of books, videos and Internet articles have been published on the Star of Bethlehem. Some authors have apparently seen the story as profitable, vigorously marketing their materials and often using websites like infomercials to entice people to buy them. Others have websites where they provide their information free of charge, simply because they believe their view is correct.
Whatever the motives, in the end any suggestion is only as good as its starting assumptions. I am well aware that this caveat applies to the proposal I make in this article as well. I offer it for the reader’s consideration as an alternative to the better-known theories for three reasons:
1. It fits seamlessly together with an article I wrote in 2018, “Pinpointing the Date of Christ’s Birth”;
2. No one else whose work I’ve read has taken quite the same approach; and
3. I believe it has real value in providing a science-grounded explanation for the Star of Bethlehem that may be of value in defending the factuality of the Christmas story to a skeptic, because it does not require positing supernatural phenomena or extraordinary celestial events.
In order for any suggestion about the Star of Bethlehem to have objective validity, it must be firmly based upon the passage that is the essential foundation for every theory about it. That passage is Matthew 2:1–16, quoted above. Anything unsupported by that passage must be regarded as mere conjecture, such as the dubious tradition that there were only three Magi and that they were kings.
Our first step, therefore, is to extract from Matthew’s passage details which are either plainly stated, or are necessary for a plain statement to be true. They include the following:
- Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great.
- Those who met with Herod were called the Magi, who were “from the east.” Since Matthew was a Jew, we expect he is talking about a land east of Judea.
- The Magi met with Herod in Jerusalem, so their arrival was not in winter, when Herod would have been at his winter quarters at Jericho.
- The Magi sought an infant whom they described as “king” of the “Jews.” These specific terms require an explanation.
- Because the Magi were “from the east,” and the very next verse (Mt. 2:2) describes the star as being seen “in the east,” the immediate context indicates it is not the star’s position in the sky that is meant, but the geographic location from which it was observed: the Magi’s homeland.
- That the Magi intended to “worship” this infant king, not merely visit him, meant he had religious significance to them. This needs explaining.
- The spread to “all Jerusalem” of the news about the Magi’s search for an infant king, plus Herod’s separate meetings with the Jewish leaders and the Magi, indicate the Magi spent at least a full day in Jerusalem. It also implies they were part of a caravan, which by its size would have attracted attention.
- When the Magi left Jerusalem, it was promptly “after hearing the king.” He sent them out with the command, “Go and search… and report to me.” They thus left without further delay, so as to cover the six uphill miles to Bethlehem before evening—a trek of about 1 to 1-1/2 hours.
- That the star “went on before” them means it moved through the heavens that day to its ultimate position, but not necessarily that it was observable by the Magi while it moved. The text says the Magi “had seen” the star while back home in Persia, not that they saw it while en route to Bethlehem. We are not justified in supposing the Magi were actively following a star supernaturally visible during daylight hours.
- Since the star “went on before” them, we know it was a moving object. Therefore, when the text says the star “stood over” a particular house, we should understand it as describing a snapshot in time, not a supernaturally stationary object. The description only requires a combination of the star’s being rather low in the sky and its viewers looking in the right direction at the time it became visible.
- That the Magi “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” only after the star was seen over a Bethlehem house, not earlier in their travels, is best attributed to the fact that the star was not previously visible for natural reasons. The star also had distinctive characteristics that made it recognizable to the Magi as the same star they had seen the previous year in Persia.
Such are the basic facts and implications I see in carefully reading through the account. Now I will attempt to tie them in with my previous work, “Pinpointing the Date of Christ’s Birth.” In that article I focused on the birth date of Christ, so I did not deal with how the same star the Magi noticed in Persia might have later helped direct them to the Bethlehem home of Mary and Joseph the following year. The thoughts below address that issue.
Building a Theory of the Star of Bethlehem
“After” Jesus was Born
A preliminary observation is that Matthew carefully notes that the events he is about to relate took place “after” Jesus was born, not “when.” This indicates the passing of some time following His birth, which is related in Luke 2. There were shepherds in attendance at His birth but no Magi, and certainly no “kings of Orient” named Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. The Magi showed up later, after Mary and Joseph had relocated from Nazareth (Lk. 2:4) to Bethlehem.
“In the Days of Herod the King”
In keeping with my prior research documented in several articles of The Daniel 9:2-27 Project, I take it as a given that Jesus was born before Herod the Great’s death in the spring of 4 BC. (That year is further supported by a forthcoming journal article, “The Parthian War Paradigm and the Reign of Herod the Great,” which discusses corroborating evidence drawn from several hitherto neglected ancient historical sources.) According to the research of astronomer Michael R. Molnar that is detailed in my “Pinpointing” article, on March 20, 6 BC the Magi in Persia realized that Jupiter, the largest of the planets and regarded by the ancients as the “king” star, had entered the constellation of Aries. According to Molnar, the ancient astronomer/astrologer Claudius Ptolemy (c. 100–170 AD) reported in his compendium of astrological lore known as the Tetrabiblos (“Four Books”) that this constellation was understood by the ancients to represent the land of the Jews. After entering Aries, Jupiter—an evening star at the time—was occulted (hidden) by the Moon, emerging from behind the Moon after both had gone below the Persian horizon after sunset. This occulting phenomenon was understood by the Magi as indicating a royal birth, and was the impetus which sent them west the following year in search of the infant King of the Jews. The bulk of my article went on to document how multiple factors come together to corroborate that this was the date Christ was born. This provides the backdrop for us to understand the nature of the Star of Bethlehem. The Magi had previous experience with this star—actually a planet, but the ancients lumped them together—and would have remembered that it had been an evening star in the west when it first came to their attention.
The Time of the Magi’s Jerusalem Visit
Herod’s later query of the Magi as to when, exactly, they saw the star in Persia, must be understood in terms of his decision to kill all the babies of Bethlehem “from two years old and under” (Mt. 2:16). This probably means between the ages of 1 and 2. Thus, the Magi’s 6 BC sighting of the star in Persia can be placed at least a year before their journey west to Jerusalem, putting their Bethlehem visit in 5 BC.
One might wonder why the Magi would have waited a year before heading west to see the Child, but there is a reasonable explanation for the delay. As Molnar and other astronomers have pointed out, in Persia Jupiter would not have emerged from behind the New Moon on March 20th until after both it and the Moon had gone below the horizon (see HERE for the start of the occultation, while both were still above the horizon). Meanwhile, at Jerusalem further to the west, Jupiter would have emerged from behind the Moon while both were still above the horizon, but the lingering brightness of twilight would have made it very difficult to see Jupiter re-emerge a minute after sunset (see HERE). The Magi in Persia could have seen Jupiter as an evening star in the western sky in the days leading up to the occultation, but not necessarily on March 20th. They would thus have had to use astronomical calculations to appreciate the significance of how everything came together in the heavens on that particular day. Such a delayed realization helps provide an explanation for why they would not have immediately headed toward Judea to find the newborn baby.
That the Magi found Herod at his regular palace in Jerusalem, not his winter quarters at Jericho, indicates they arrived after winter had ended. A winter trip was unlikely, since it was the rainy season in Israel with the likelihood of temperatures below freezing at night, especially in the Judean highlands. They would probably have timed their trip to arrive in Judea not before early spring, when the roads would have been drier and the temperatures more pleasant than during the dry heat of summer. A fall trip would also have the drawback that they would have potentially had to make their return to Persia during the rainy winter season. This could also have factored into their initial delay in traveling to Jerusalem.
In summary, we should look for the Magi to have entered Jerusalem somewhat over a year after they had first seen the star back in Persia, probably in the spring of 5 BC, to do homage to the infant King of the Jews.
Magi “from the East”
To understand certain elements of Matthew’s story, we must also appreciate who the Magi were. By common consensus they are to be identified with the Zoroastrians of ancient Persia, a monotheistic sect with close ties to the Persian monarchy. They were “from the east,” which in the context of our passage refers to a land due east of Jerusalem. This matches up with ancient Persia. The Achaemenid Empire centered on Persia—which also incorporated Babylon under its umbrella, where Darius the Mede was placed in charge (Dan. 5:31, 9:1)—was organized by Cyrus the Great, under whom Daniel served toward the end of his long life. (Darius the Mede was known to the Greeks as Cyaxares II, and had been king of the Medes prior to ceding that position to his nephew Cyrus; see the e-book Darius the Mede: A Reappraisal by Dr. Steven Anderson.) We may therefore expect that the Magi would have been familiar with Daniel’s prophecies, and their perspectives on Jewish affairs would have been influenced by them.
A Babe to “Worship”
This background explains why they would have used the otherwise inexplicable word “worship” to describe the purpose of their journey. They did not just come to pay an official state visit, but to do obeisance to One whom they knew, from Daniel’s writings, had claims to deity. Foreigners do not “worship” ordinary royal princelings, and after all, there is no indication that they gave to King Herod anything other than the normal deference ordinarily extended to a political leader. Since “worship” is a word full of overt religious connotations, we must place its significance in the sphere of religion. Logically we must seek the answer in the Magi’s familiarity with Jewish prophecy by the influence of Daniel when he was on the royal courts of Darius and Cyrus.
Seeking a “King” of the “Jews”
The Magi’s specific search for a “king” of the “Jews” is inseparable from the significance they attached to the star they saw “in the east.” Whatever was the nature of that star, there was something about it that prompted them to make these two very specific inferences. I have not been able to find any explanations as to why a comet, supernova, or fixed star in the constellations would have had these meanings attributed to it. The only candidates appear to be one of the planets, whose varied motions around the Sun resulted in various interactions with other celestial bodies, which were interpreted by the ancients as having various meanings. This agrees with Molnar’s analysis that it was Jupiter and its position in the heavens at a specific point in time that gave it the significance applied to it by the Magi.
A Star “in the East”
The expression “from the east” (Greek anatolē, Strong’s G395) was introduced to us in Matthew 2:1 as the place where the Magi lived. Therefore, the context indicates that when the expression “in the east” is used in 2:2 and 2:9 (again anatolē), it probably does not refer to the location of the star in the sky, but to the homeland of the Magi where they first saw it.
Against the “in the east” translation—followed by the KJV, NKJV, NASB and HCSB, among others—is the fact that in 2:2 and 2:9, anatolē is preceded by the article (“the”). This has prompted some translators to render the phrase “when it rose” (NIV, ESV), “at its rising” (CSB), or “as it rose” (NLT). Because these clash with both the context set by 2:1 and Matthew's use of anatolē elsewhere (8:11 and 24:27), where it refers to “east” as a direction, I see the article as signifying the Magi's way of referring to their homeland, not as a simple compass direction that does not require the article.
Nevertheless, some translations prefer the alternative, apparently due to both the article and because modern astronomers see the phrase as referring to what is technically known as a “heliacal rising” of a star or planet before dawn—basically, as a morning star. This troubles me, for it smacks of inappropriately reading modern science into a descriptive historical text. But even if, for argument's sake, the phrase is translated “when it rose” or similar, this is not incompatible with the case developed below. It would simply mean that the Magi did visually observe the star in Persia after its path in the heavens took it around to the other side of the Sun, where it could have been seen in the predawn eastern sky. It would only have been after they did calculations that they would have realized the occultation of Jupiter by the Moon in Aries had taken place earlier, on March 20, 6 BC.
There is also the consideration that the star “went on before them.” If it was a planet, the Earth's rotation requires that it tracked across the heavens with a normal east-to-west path. The only way the Magi could have seen the same star later over a Bethlehem house, if they traveled there in the daytime, would have been in the west. It stretches credulity to imagine the Magi left Herod after midnight, journeyed in the dark of night on an unfamiliar route, and arrived at Bethlehem in the pre-dawn darkness to see the star rise in the eastern sky.
Meetings and a Secret Plan
The spread to “all Jerusalem” of the news about the Magi’s search, plus Herod’s separate meetings with the Jewish leaders and the Magi, indicates they spent at least a full day in Jerusalem before leaving for Bethlehem. If they stayed one or two days in Jerusalem, the walls and buildings of the city would probably have blocked the view of the star if it was low in the sky near the horizon, so it is unlikely they would have had the chance to identify it until near dusk the day they left for Bethlehem. If the chief priests and scribes consulted with Herod around mid-morning the day after the Magi’s caravan got to town, and Herod had his secret consultation with the Magi in the early afternoon of the same day, they could have departed in mid-afternoon for the approximately six-mile trek to Bethlehem. This would have taken roughly 1 to 1-1/2 hours at a leisurely pace to get there by evening.
The Star “Went On Before Them”
That the star “went on before” the Magi need not require us to conclude they were actively tracking it. All we must do is understand that the star was following its normal course in the heavens, invisible to all observers until the skies began to darken as dusk approached. We may expect that the star was not visible to them until after they entered Bethlehem.
It “Stood Over” a House
There is no indication in the passage that the Magi saw the star until they spotted it over a house in Bethlehem. They saw nothing to get excited about during their time at Jerusalem, nor while the star “went on before them” on the final leg of their journey. But when they saw it at last, shining in the dusk over the roof of a house, they recognized it as the same star that had gotten their special attention the previous year in Persia. This means it had some distinctive characteristics which allowed that identification, despite the fact that they were on the road and it was quite unlikely they had brought along all of their astronomical paraphernalia. Those characteristics would have included the star’s direction, its relationship to other known celestial objects, and its magnitude. A possibility immediately comes to mind that meets these criteria: it was Jupiter as an evening star, just as in Persia the previous year.
The Magi “Rejoiced Exceedingly”
That the star “stood over” a house also means it must have been rather low in the sky when it was first noticed, eliciting the abrupt rejoicing of the Magi. That they only now “rejoiced exceedingly” cannot have been due to the house itself, but to their sudden recognition of the star. At some point as they were walking along, likely on the west side of town, they suddenly became aware of the evening star “winking on” out of the diminishing light of dusk, and reacted with abrupt joy: “Hey, look! It’s that star we saw last year back in Persia!”
That the star was connected with a specific house would thus have been a function of the time of day and the direction they were looking in, not of extraordinary behavior by the star itself. “Stood over” certainly need not imply that the Lord’s Shekinah glory settled upon the roof, but only that, at the snapshot in time Matthew is describing, it was just above a particular home when it was recognized as the same significant star the Magi had observed the previous year in Persia. We can deduce that a similar time of day and direction would have contributed to their flash of recognition. These factors point to the Star of Bethlehem as being Jupiter functioning as an evening star, and not noticed until it was low in the sky near sunset and emerged from the deepening dusk over a housetop as they faced west. The miracle was in the timing of the evening star’s appearance relative to that house, rather than in the nature of the star.
Checking the Theory
The foregoing observations indicate that the Star of Bethlehem is to be identified with Jupiter, the “king” star, serving as the principle evening star that day, low in the western sky of Bethlehem. For this theory to be valid, it must be demonstrated that Jupiter was, in fact, prominently visible near the western horizon at Bethlehem sometime over a year after it had come to the attention of the Magi in Persia. Jupiter is not always visible in the western sky; the progression of its orbit takes it around to the other side of the Sun, where it becomes a bright morning star and, with the passing of time, gradually moves higher in the heavens. Eventually it crosses from the east side of the vault of heaven to the west, and as it moves lower in the western sky takes the character of an evening star once again.
To check whether Jupiter was an evening star at Bethlehem at least a year after March 20, 6 BC, I used the program Stellarium. I set its location at Bethlehem, and then let it run through the weeks from March 20, 5 BC to find out where Jupiter was. I discovered that during the first few weeks of April, 5 BC, Jupiter was present in the west, where it gradually declined from a high position in the sky to approach the horizon and later pass below it. I created an animation to show how, if the Magi were facing west at the proper time when the evening star first became visible at twilight, all of the requirements of Matthew 2 could be met. I chose the date April 13, 5 BC, and observed what happened in the west between 6:00 and 7:30 PM. Here is the resulting animation:
The planet Jupiter on this date was not visible after sunset until it had declined to approximately 10° above the horizon, at which time its path took it just above the house I added to the animation. For comparison, on March 20, 5 BC Jupiter would have first become apparent in the west at about 30° above the horizon at 6:20 PM, while on April 1 it was about 20° above the horizon at 6:30 PM. So there exists a range of spring dates in which Jupiter might have served as an evening star that the Magi recognized in the western sky at Bethlehem. On about May 6, Jupiter passed around to the other side of the Sun, thereby ruling it out as a valid evening star for the rest of that year. So the window for the Magi to have seen it in the west in 5 BC was relatively narrow. A 4 BC sighting was out of the question, for Herod was in the throes of his final illness at Jericho the next time Jupiter could be seen in the west again.
The star seen by the Magi in Persia was identified, based on the research of the astronomer Molnar, as the planet Jupiter seen in the west in March of 6 BC. That a planet, known to the ancients as a star, could have such significance would be consistent with God’s declaration in Genesis 1:14, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night, and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years.” We do not excuse the role astrology may have played in formulating their interpretations, but it is at least conceivable that God set up the constellations with an advance awareness that the time would come when human beings would attribute certain meanings to the motions of the planets against their backdrop.
There is no need to propose extraordinary celestial events to explain the Star of Bethlehem. A comet won’t work, because it could not have been seen in the same general location one to two years apart; comets have highly elliptical orbits that send them back out of our region of space after a relatively brief viewing period. A supernova would not work either, because it would be part of the relatively fixed celestial background of the constellations and could not have gone before the Magi, nor taken on the significance they ascribed to it as signifying a “king” of the “Jews.”
As far as I can tell, the only workable solution for the identity of the Star of Bethlehem is the planet Jupiter functioning as an evening star in both Persia and Bethlehem in two consecutive years. After departing Jerusalem, the Magi would have initially used the directions they’d have been given by Herod to get to Bethlehem, not following a visible star. Since they had to ask where the King of the Jews would be born, it is apparent they did not have any extraordinary celestial phenomenon to guide their journey. If they left Herod in the afternoon, it would not have been until the brightness of daytime began dimming that the first stars would have become visible. I suggest that it was late afternoon when they got in sight of Bethlehem, and as the sun continued its decline in the west and they entered the town, the evening star “winked on” above one particular house. The Magi, suddenly recognizing it, “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.” Associating its sudden appearance with that house, they entered in… and thus became a fixture of Christmas celebrations ever since.
Stellarium [computer software], v 0.18.2 (2018). Downloaded from https://github.com/Stellarium/stellarium/releases?page=2. Updated version at https://stellarium.org.