This article was first published in the Fall 2000 issue of Bible and Spade and republished with edits in the Fall 2007 issue of Bible and Spade.
Many possibilities have been suggested to explain the astronomical phenomena known as the "Star of Bethlehem" as recorded in Matthew 2:1-12 . Is there a scientific explanation for this "Star of Wonder" that remains true to the Scriptural account?
To answer this question, we must first establish, accurately, the year when Christ was born, which in turn, will allow us to reconstruct the skies at the time of the Savior's birth. Our present calendar assumes that Jesus was born in the year AD 0, when, actually, the event occurred several years prior to that. In AD 533 the Roman Monk Dionysius Exiguus dated Christ's birth based on the writings of Clement of Alexander. This date was based on the account of the reign of the Emperor Augustus, who, unbeknown to Dionysius, had actually established his reign several years earlier under the name, Octavius.
The Bible indicates that Jesus was born in the days of King Herod (Mt 2:1). Josephus, the Jewish historian writing in the first century AD, states that Herod died a few days after an eclipse of the moon. After a week of official grieving, the Passover was observed. The only lunar eclipse visible in Israel at that time period occurred on March 13, 4 BC.
Furthermore, documents found in Ankara, Turkey, record the occurrence of Roman tax collections. The only date that again fits this time period is 8 BC. Using 8 to 4 BC as our two limits for Christ's birth, what did the night skies display that would announce the Savior's birth?
Luke 2:8 states that the shepherds were "keeping watch over their flocks by night." Shepherds would only watch their flocks at night during the springtime when the lambs were being born. This again narrows the window for the time period for Christ's birth.
The Greek word for star, aster, in ancient literature could refer to several astronomical events, such as a meteor, comet, planet or star. Do any of these fit into the time period?
A meteor, although spectacular, lasts only a few seconds due to the intense friction of the earth's atmosphere. The Magi, who were well trained in astronomy, would have seen nothing unusual about a short-lived meteor.
A comet has often been suggested as a natural occurrence that would have alerted the wise men. Yet Halley's Comet passed by in 11 BC, as well as other comet recordings in 44 BC, 17 BC and AD 66, all of which were outside the 8-4 BC time period. In addition, comets were viewed as omens of evil in ancient cultures.
Some have suggested that the Star of Bethlehem was a nova , meaning "new star." Although not really a new star, but the explosion of an existing unstable star, it can generate a tremendously bright light in the midnight skies. A supernova, much rarer and 10,000 times brighter than a nova, can produce 100 million times as much light as our own sun.
The only recorded supernova explosions close to this time period occurred in 134 BC and 176 BC, both dates obviously too far removed from Christ's birth. Although, quite possibly, an unrecorded supernova did occur, any argument from silence is uncertain.
Probably the strongest argument for a scientific explanation to this "First Christmas" occurrence is an alignment of planets, called a conjunction. (The very word planet means "wanderer.") Johannes Kepler, the official astronomer in Prague, observed the alignment of Jupiter and Saturn on December 17, 1603. Kepler calculated the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn in order to determine past occurrences of planetary conjunctions. He discovered that in 7 BC there was a triple conjunction (three alignments in one year) in the constellation of Pisces, the Fish.
All of this would have had special significance to these educated Magi, who most likely came from the Babylonian area. Jupiter was attributed by many ancient nations to be the wandering star of royalty, while Saturn, also regarded as a wandering star, was considered the protector of Israel. In addition, the constellation of Pisces, the fish, was identified by the Hebrews as representing the nation of Israel. (Other ancient records also associate Leo with the Jewish people.) There was still a Jewish remnant in Babylon, left over from the Babylonian captivity more than 500 years prior to this, from whom the Magi could have learned these details. Most likely, the Magi were also aware of the prophecy found in Numbers 24:17 which states, "A star will come out of Jacob."
Church tradition says the star guided three kings from the east. The day of their visit is celebrated annually on January 6, the Feast of Epiphany, and the days between Christmas and Epiphany are called the twelve days of Christmas. Supposedly, the kings arrived on camels and their names were Caspar (king of Tyre who brought myrrh), Melchoir (king of Arabia who brought gold) and Balthazar (the black king of Ethiopia who brought frankincense). Their bones are said to be kept in a shrine on the high altar of the Cologne (Germany) Cathedral and their gifts are stored for safe-keeping at the Monastery of St. Paul on Mount Athos in Greece. Yet, the Bible does not call them kings, but wise men (magi); the Bible does not mention three men, just three gifts; and neither their names nor their camels are mentioned in the text (Matthew 2).
The first of the three approaches occurred on May 29th of 7 BC. To the Wisemen, this surely would have constituted strong motivation for them to take the four month journey of 900 mi to see the new king foretold by the event. It is here that the naturalistic explanation for the Star of Bethlehem runs into trouble:
First, this initial conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn would not be a perfect alignment, but separated by 1 degree, equivalent to the diameters of two full moons in the sky. This would certainly not be a single, bright guiding light.
Second, although triple conjunctions in one year are rare (the other two in 7 BC occurred September 27th and December 10th), a single conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, (occurring only once during the year) happens every 20 years. Certainly, this was not a unique, never to be repeated event to the Magi, who were accustomed to routinely monitoring the night sky.
Third, regardless of whether the event constituted a comet, a supernova or a conjunction, when the Magi left Jerusalem Matthew 2:9 states, "the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was." The distance from Jerusalem to Bethlehem is about 6 mi, in the direction of north to south. Yet all natural objects in the sky move from east to west due to the rotation of the earth. The scripture goes on to say that it (the star) led them to a specific house and "stopped." Again, no natural object in the sky follows these patterns.
Finally, why was this star visible only to the Magi? Certainly there were many other trained astronomers in that day, including those in Jerusalem. Yet Matthew 2:7 states that. "Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared." Obviously, Herod's trained observers were unaware of it, so he sought the guidance of the Magi. The star of Bethlehem was not visible to everyone on earth.
Why do we find this so unusual? Was not the "light from heaven" that shone upon Paul in Acts 9:3 a temporary and supernatural occurrence? Was not the "pillar of fire by night" in Exodus 13:22 that guided the Israelites, a temporary and supernatural occurrence? The Bible calls this Divine guiding light the Shekinah Glory.
The Star of Bethlehem appears not to be able to be explained by science! Not if we are to hold true to the specific characteristics attributed to this star as defined in the Bible. God, in his providence, called forth the chosen Magi to worship the Savior through the supernatural guidance of the Star of Bethlehem. That first Christmas was one of many miraculous interventions, with by far the greatest of these, the birth of our Redeemer.