An Astronomer's Explanation For The Star Of Bethlehem
    By News Staff | December 25th 2008 12:00 AM | 27 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    According to the Bible, when Jesus was born three Magi saw a star in the East that 'signaled the birth of a new king'. But just what was it, from an astronomical point of view, that the Magi could actually have seen?

    Fred Grosse, a professor of physics and astronomy at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pa., says there are several popular theories that may answer this question.

    “Astronomical objects or events which would be of interest to serious stargazers of the time include comets and meteors, nova or supernova, and auroras,” Grosse says. But the favorite candidate hypothesis for the star of Bethlehem, he explains, is a planetary conjunction.

    Supernova, planetary conjunction or Venus?

    A conjunction happens when two celestial objects appear to pass very near to each other from our perspective on Earth. Often, these conjunctions look like one large object rather than separate ones.

    “In 6 BCE, Jupiter and Saturn passed each other three times, in May, September, and December – a triple conjunction,” Grosse says. Since the actual year of Jesus’ birth is tough to pin down, an event in 6 BCE remains a good candidate to explain what the Magi saw.

    "Because this conjunction only happens once every 140 years, it would have been a significant event to astrologers from Babylon.

    “A conjecture is that they saw the first passing from their homes, left for Jerusalem, and got there in time for the second or third passing to guide them to Bethlehem,” he says. “(Astronomer Johannes) Kepler knew of this conjunction, and since his time astronomers have connected the triple conjunction with the Star of Bethlehem.”

    Though this is the dominant explanation for the star in the east, it’s not the only one.

    “Nova and Supernova are new objects which appear in the sky and then dim to oblivion,” Grosse explains. And they can put on the kind of show that first century astrologers would have noticed.

    “A supernova in 1006, the brightest ever, was as bright as the sun," he says. "It was visible to the naked eye for more than two years.”

    According to Chinese records, there were supernova – or “guest stars” as the Chinese described them – that appeared in the sky right around the time when Jesus may have been born, in 4 and 5 BCE.

    But the fact that there’s a possible scientific explanation to what the Magi saw, doesn’t mean to Grosse that the event loses its transcendence.

    “The symbolism is apparent. A small clear light, on a cold dark night, in a sometimes cold and dark world, leads the wise to the message of Jesus. The message tells us to love each passenger who journeys with us on this small, fragile, planet Earth.”


    Well, the accuracy of this is already in question as the Bible cannot be quoted accurately. No one knows how many wise men came because the Bible isn't specific; yet, this starts with, "According to the Bible...."


    Try again. Try the fact that it was God almighty. Period.

    Are we trying too had to explain relatively standard sun god mythology?
    Gerhard Adam
    Idiots?  You see a discussion on what it was the Magi may have observed and the only thing you can focus on is how many of them there were?

    In your zeal I believe you've missed the point.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Winter solstice was celebrated by ancient cultures. With good reason I might add, living fairly close to the North pole as I am. We need this feast of light in the dark helping us to look at the bright side as the 'sun turns' and the days get longer again towards summer.

    I'm inclined to believe religious inventors and leaders understood the power of this important happening in peoples lives and decided to ' steal' it by simply saying that Jesus was born around winter solstice. It's was a brilliant strategy.

    As for the 'star' the Magi saw in the Bible story, that could have been any bright light  astronomers observed at the time Christianity was  developed. They simply used it as a part of  their strategy to take over the powerful existing winter solstice celebrations. It was not a coincidence, it was an instrumental choice by religious strategists.

    It is the Sun who creates life here on Earth (exposing some chemicals...) and people have appreciated the Sun for that reason since the beginning of time.

    I agree with Josh Witten above, that we might try too hard to understand something that is more or less  self evident...:-)
    Bente Lilja Bye is the author of Lilja - A bouquet of stories about the Earth
    I think some of it is just cultural curiosity.  Religious or not, the Bible is infused in all our lives (Europe and Americans) - everyone knows the stories but you really spend 2 minutes reading the actual passages in the Bible and everything else, literally hours and hours of story we all learned, is extrapolated from that.   So as people progress beyond the basics, it is natural to want to find an explanation for the big things, like  a Star.

    The Magi 'error' is an example of that and I had to pull out a Bible to look for myself because Three Wise Men is such a part of the cultural litany.  It's true, it never gives a number in Matthew but I always dismissed that in the past as me missing something (various things in the Bible are told in different ways in different parts, so I thought a number might be somewhere else - try keeping up with all those Mary's they talk about some time!) but it seems to be extrapolated because the Wise Men present 3 gifts.    So it made sense to have 3 gifts presented by 3 Kings, since they were important enough to have Herod meet them when they arrived.

    Why would anyone point it out?   In America we have some religions that are more 'Bible based' than church based.   So a translation of the book has more weight than what a church teaches.  To us, we would consider that some things may have gotten lost (Aramaic written in Greek translated to Latin and then to English might have some clerical issues) but they will use the Magi as a way to poke at other churches for teaching incorrectly.   Obviously that can go both ways - given debates over languages Mary Magdalene can be a substantially different figure than she is portrayed commonly.   I just generally wonder why any Christian group would spend time discrediting any other Christian group rather than going out into the world and showing people who would like to kill them just for being Christian that we can all get along.
    WOW! You just ignored what was said to hold to your ideology. Anazing.

    He said it was suggested by Kepler who lived much later that the establishment of December 25 as Jesus birth.

    So basically u are saying that christianity stole the whole winter celebration idea from other cultures, and then paired it with a bright light in the sky? Judging by this statement, u are saying that the Bible is completely false and the whole purpose of Christianity is not that Jesus came to save the hopeless world, but to make their religion the most popular?

    Gerhard Adam
    Well, if you're skeptical, check out the ancient celebrations of Mithras. 
    Mundus vult decipi
    There's a couple of issues with this article if you are one to see importance in details. The first was pointed out regarding the "3" wise men. As was pointed out, the Bible doesn't say how many there were. The second issue is that the triple conjunction that is spoken of took place in 7 B.C., not 6 B.C.

    As for the allegation that the star story is just part of Christians trying to take over the winter solstice celebrations, that doesn't work with historical chronology. While there is truth to the idea that Christianity began celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25th to replace the pagan winter solstice celebrations, that didn't take place until about 300 years or so after Jesus. The books of Matthew and Luke in the Bible, which is where we get the story of the birth of Jesus, are believed to have been written before 70 A.D.

    Regarding the idea that English translations of the Bible may have lost something from going from Aramaic to Greek to Latin to English is false. The New Testament was written in Greek. Greek was the prominent language. It is expected that many Jews spoke Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic. The English versions are not translated from the Latin translations but are translated from the most ancient Greek copies that are available.

    The literal nature of the Bible is not the point of the article.   We don't read ancient Greek, nor do you, and belief without any proof that two books were written before 70AD but skepticism that an astronomy event took place in 6 BC rather than 7 so therefore the article is invalid seems a little ironic.
    The timing of the writing of Matthew and Luke are still hotly debated.  The most widely accepted theory is that both Matthew and Luke (the synoptic gospels) were based on Mark and a second, lost source (Q).  The consensus is that Mark was written after 70AD (destruction of the Second Temple) with the synoptic gospels coming after, but no later than 110AD.  Mark does not contain a birth story.

    My comment about "sun god mythology" was directed not at the dating of Christmas itself, but at the general motifs applied to Jesus' story, including the Star.  A passing glance at Middle Eastern mythology will turn up many virgin births (e.g., Zoroaster) and many "death and resurrection" stories (e.g., Osiris). 

    Is it really important whether there was a Star of Bethlehem (or Nazareth or wherever Jesus' family fled in Egypt to escape Herod) or was a literary addition by a follower trying to show that his prophet was up there with the big boys?  Doesn't Jesus deserve to be evaluated on the strength of his message?
    Becky Jungbauer
    Is it really important whether there was a Star of Bethlehem (or Nazareth or wherever Jesus' family fled in Egypt to escape Herod) or was a literary addition by a follower trying to show that his prophet was up there with the big boys?  Doesn't Jesus deserve to be evaluated on the strength of his message?
    Thank you! Considering the Bible is a collection of unverified stories written down sometimes decades after the fact, passed down by oral tradition (read: not verbatim as digital recorders hadn't been invented yet), the canon agreed upon by a group of humans (read: fallible and inherently subjective), why do people get so upset about specific words - especially considering all of the translations the stories have undergone? Those are the same people that refuse to let other cars merge on the freeway and are rude to servers at restaurants after attending a church service. The stories and the messages are lovely and suggest we should be good to each other. Just because they aren't eyewitness accounts doesn't make them any less important.

    People should just play rugby or hockey and worship the awesomeness that they encompass.
    Becky, just saw that you beat me to the punch with the "Golden Rule" thing a the bottom of the comments.  It is good to see that the practitioners of inherently violent sports also love their fellow humans and puppies.
    The stories and the messages are lovely and suggest we should be good to each other
    Well, not all of them are that way, but it is likely that most of the original ones were.  The difficulty is deciding between the "added-on" and the real message.  I personally prefer Thomas Jefferson's version.
    Becky Jungbauer
    I should have clarified - the original messages, as you note, are what I was referring to when I said they were lovely. How can you argue with 'be good to yourself and your neighbor'? (Unless your neighbor is Hank. Then you have to be extra great to your neighbor.) And I also like Jefferson's version - strips away a lot of the politics and other crap layered on throughout the centuries.

    Ever tried playing rugby or hockey with lovable puppies? Doesn't work so well. Especially on ice. (My yellow lab finally gave up and plopped in the snowbank - she was tired of skidding into the boards at the local outdoor rink.)
    My dogs are excellent rugby players.  The bigger one is a great flanker.  Vicious in rucks.  Honestly, he responds to the command to "ruck."  The other is a wing.  A bit scared of everything, but chases a kicked ball with gusto.
    It has been shown from recent Biblical research that Jesus Christ (whose actual name in Aramaic is Yeshua) was born in the Jewish Holy Month of Tishrei (September to October), with the highest probability being the Feast of Tabernacles).

    1. That neither of us reads ancient Greek is irrelevant. You were the one that alleged that some things may have been lost in Bible translation. It was not I, so for you to point out that the literal nature of the Bible is not the point of the article is what is ironic.

    2. I didn't say the article is invalid. In fact, I liked the article. I just pointed out a couple of items that were not accurate.

    Gerhard Adam

    Considering the quibbling going on about the Bible not mentioning the number three for the magi, it seems that a much larger point is being missed.  From Matthew;

    "<!--StartFragment --> When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. "

    It's largely immaterial whether there were 3 or 100 magi, since we know that a star cannot "lead" anyone, and it certainly can't pinpoint any place on earth.  So while it might be interesting to draw a comparison with some natural event and the biblical account, the reality is that no such event could have occurred from an astronomical perspective as it is described.

    Mundus vult decipi
    Yes, it is true that a star cannot lead anyone but there are other details that the article did not mention about the conjunction.
    1. A conjunction of these particular planets represented the birth of a new king to ancient astrologers.
    2. The conjunction took place in the constellation Pisces, which represented Israel to the ancient astrologers.
    3. Israel was conquered by the Babylonians hundreds of years before this conjunction. Many of the Jews were exiled to Babylon and many remained after they were freed. Magi from the east, possibly from Persia could have been exposed to the prophetic beliefs of the Jews.

    The 3 items above could be what led them Jerusalem when they saw the conjunction. When they got to Jerusalem the Bible says they were directed to Bethlehem.

    Scholars believe that the magi showed up anywhere between 2 weeks and 2 years after the birth of Jesus. Since we can't be more specific than that any explanation of the star over the the house is pure speculation but there are plausible scenarios. One is that in early 6 B.C. there was a near conjunction of Jupiter, Saturn and Mars. With these 3 lined up vertically it could have appeared to an astrologer to be pointing to a specific spot.

    Just as a curiosity, why is this considered valid 
    Scholars believe that the magi showed up anywhere between 2 weeks and 2 years after the birth of Jesus.
    drawing, as it is, from inference (they went to a house, not a manger) but 'three Magi', also inferred, is not?
    I think the information that is provided give more reason for the 2 weeks to 2 years than the 3 magi.

    The 2 weeks is primarily based on the "house" reference(which I actually think is a weak argument) but the 2 years is based on the text that says that based on the dates he received from the Magi, Herod sought to kill all males in Bethlehem 2 years and younger.

    If you want to say there were 3 magi then say there were. It doesn't matter. I think the article would be more accurate if it didn't mention a number since the number is not mentioned in the text.

    Although I enjoy debating the textual accuracy and historocity of the Bible I really didn't intend for my posts to lead in this direction. I was trying to keep it to the astronomy/astrology of the article.

    Becky Jungbauer
    Who cares how many magi may or may not have traveled to Bethlehem? The most important point of the story is that they were likely men, because what woman would bring gold, frankincense and myrrh to celebrate a birth (Mt 2:11)? How about some Pampers and formula? Or a tall frosty mug of beer to celebrate nine months of alcohol abstinence for poor Mary?

    And yes, while contemporary scholars believe the canonical gospel was written in Greek, that doesn't mean (a) it really was, and (b) earlier drafts or related documents compiled into the eventual gospel weren't written in Aramaic. Depends on if you're in the Greek or Aramaic primacy camp. But again - does it really matter? Shouldn't people focus on the golden rule instead of quibbling over semantics?
    Hear, hear. I'm with B on the golden rule! :-)
    Bente Lilja Bye is the author of Lilja - A bouquet of stories about the Earth
    The Star of Bethlehem could well be a Hypervelocity Star (see Warren Brown Harvard cfa.). The origin of Hypervelocity Stars (at least 13 and counting) is hypothisised as a Sagittarius A* slingshot. ...? The Centre for Solar Studies (London) has suggested to Harvard cfa that they search backgroung starfield scintillations, caused by for Hypervelocity Black Holes . Question; Where would these originate.
    Jetting and Angular Momentum are the Universal Prime Movers.
    When three Black Holes collide in triple triangular configuration (pawnbroker sign) they form an


    This is the event horizon of a BLACK TORUS Jetting commences instantly as event horizons internally negate each other.
    Why. It has Zero Angular Momentum and Jets 5000 light years long. (ie. its core does not spin)
    If M87 possessed angular momentum, it would be a SPIRAL GALAXY.
    Kevin Wilson
    Centre for Solar Studies .London

    This thread is interesting as it, not surprsingly, demonstrates how science can have impact upon a religious claim. Any religion that claims an unusual "star" was seen, and we have a rough idea when, then astronomy can step in and offer evidence that may support or hinder such a claim. The Christmas Star story is not all that vulnerable since it doesn't give adequate detail for us to know what type of celestial object they may have seen. Had they said the star was in the constellation of Judea, or that it was Jupiter, etc., then we could apply our scientific knowledge. However, it doesn't, but we can at least speculate based on our objective knowledge.

    The tripple conjunction is certainly interesting and it was in 7BC. [The 6BC date is a reporting error. Here is the astronomers story showing his 7 BC claim...
    ) I am not aware that Pisces is a direct and known reference to Israel or Judea, not that I know much of ancient astrology.

    There were some interesting thngs in 6BC, too.
    6 BC:
    Jan. 1: Jupiter & Saturn close in Pisces
    Jan. 23: Saturn equidistant between Jupiter and Moon in Pisces (pointing to Aries?)
    Feb. 20: Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and new Moon all within about 3 deg. radius
    In Pisces at 7pm on western horizon
    Mar. 4: Jupiter and Mars conjunction at sunset
    Horizontal alignment with Saturn directly below
    Mar. 19: Lunar occulation of Saturn (not visible, too close to Sun and below horizon)
    Apr. 16: Lunar occulation of Saturn, 12:50 pm in Pisces. (not visible, daytime)
    Apr. 17: Lunar occulation of Jupiter, about 12:45 pm (not visible, daytime)
    Apr. 18: Annular Solar eclipse (not visible from Middle East)
    Apr. 24: Saturn and Venus only 42 arcmin separation in Pisces
    Seen only briefly around 4:30 am on horizon (4 deg alt.)
    May 8: Conjunction of Jupiter and Venus (34 arcmin in Aries).
    Visible only on horizon from 4 to 5:30 am
    May 13: Lunar occulation of Saturn in Pisces (not visible from Middle East)
    11 pm but 46 deg below horizon. Venus and Jupiter reasonably close by.
    May 15: Lunar conjunction of Jupiter in Aries (< 6 arcminutes)
    Visible about one and one-half hours before conjunction.
    Venus-Jupiter-Moon-Saturn aligned (Aries region)
    May 16: Venus and very thin crescent Moon proximity (3 deg) in Taurus
    Seen only briefly about 4:30 am
    Jul. 2: Venus & Mars conjunction at dusk
    Jul. 10: Mercury & Venus conjunction at dusk (Mars nearby)
    Jul. 22: Saturn begins retrograde between Cetus and Aries
    Aug. 22: Jupiter begins retrograde back toward Aries
    Sep. 2: Mars visible within 50 arcminutes of Regulus at 4:30am in Leo
    Sep 14: Lunar occulation of Venus (far below horizon, not visible)
    Nov. 7: Mars about 2 deg. from Moon when it rises in East (2 am in Virgo

    It is interesting how Venus conjuncts with both Saturn and Jupiter, then both of these do a retrograde in or near Aries (the ram) up until December.

    It does make some sense to assume the "star" seen was something that was in a constellation assigned to Judea simply because these three-gift bearing wise men traveled to Jerusalem and asked for directions. [Did women help write the New Testament, or what? *wink* Is that why they are refered to as wise in lieu of magi?]

    From there the "star" guides them to a specific house. No astronomical object can do this, thus we appear to have a religious (subjective) claim that our science can not credit or discredit. It makes sense to me that a divine light might be appropriate to guide these few special guests to an extremely special place.

    It is also interesting to consider the similarities between the story of the Nativity and that of Zoroaster. The inclusion of "wise men from the East" that give honor to the newborn Jesus would read to a 1st century Jewish audience as proof that Jesus was a 'better' messiah than Zoroaster.

    The mindset of the original audience of the gospels was that of an occupied people. Rome had rolled in and taken over, so 1st century Palestinians would feel an especially strong connection to the stories of when the Isrealites were under the thumb of the Babylonians and the Persians. The '3 Wise Men' would, to them, represent the whole of the cultures that had taken the Isrealites into captivity.

    Whether it was an actual occurrance or a literary creation is a matter of personal faith. Either way, it was an important inclusion.

    Resume: An interpretation of the Star of Bethlehem based upon cultural facts and historical observations and which eludes all contradictions why the three Magi went West saw a star indicating East while going West and why this star has only been observed in the Middle-East.

    Matthew 2:2 writes that they ''saw His star rising in the East".

    By reconstructing the sky about the year zero, one should remark that in 2 BC Spica is about going through the Zodiac equator and that at the spring-equinox this star rises exactly in the East. This is most remarkable for two reasons. On the one hand, Spica passes the equator only twice every 25900 years and on the other, while doing so, Spica points exactly East the night of the spring equinox.

    This event matches perfectly the most recent historical views Jesus should have been born at 2 or 1 BC [] and NOTt, as widely presumed since the 19th century, between 7 and 5 BC.

    The very difference between the astronomers/ astrologers of Greece c.q. the Middle-East and others, was that the first understood the sky to be dynamic. The very fact that the direction of the North pole is not fixed, which has to do directly with the precession of the earth, was already realised by the Greek since the 4th century BC. Or stated otherwise : in this part of the world one considered implicitly that the star coordinates were shifting with time. Or stated more explicitly, one expected Spica, one of the three brightest stars next to the Zodiac equator, to move and to be positioned sooner or later exactly on it.

    Hipparcus (in his writing "Περὶ τὴς μεταπτώσεως τῶν τροπικῶν καὶ ἐαρινῶν ἰσημερίων", []), about 130 BC, is the first who described this feature quantitatively even if the effects of the precession were observed already centuries before. Remarkable is the very fact he took Spica as an example and that he estimated the translation for this star to be over 1 degree per century (real value 1° per 72 year).

    Most probably, the three Magi from the East were acquainted with this theory and they observed Spica or at least, the were awaiting for the very day it should slip through the equator and rise exactly in the very East in the night of the spring equinox. And this 'observing' of 'awaiting' has been rendered in the simple words of Matthew as 'saw'. I would like to insist that the Chinese and other cultures 'saw' this event as well, but since they didn't realise what they saw, their 'saw' was just limited to that point and never reached the level of 'observe' as did the three Magi. This explains why this star has been 'seen' (in the wordage of St Mathew) only in the Middle-East and nowhere else.

    The third and for the Gospel of Matthew most relevant fact is that the name of Spica in Arabic is 'Al-Zimach' and in Hebrew 'Tsemech' . In English translation this means "the branch" and within the biblical context which uses this word only four times, the "branch which issues the Machiah".

    Based upon these data and combining them with the most remarkable series of conjunctions between 7 and 2 BC who took place in the constellation Leo, it is very probable indeed that the three Magi from the East were attending the very moment that Al-Zimach (Spica) should rise exactly in the East while slipping through the equinox. It is also most probably they constructed some link between the foregoing conjunctions and Al-Zimach. And thus, according these presumptions, they interpreted most literally the label on Al-Zimach ('Al-Zimach' = 'Tsemech' = "[the] branch [if David/ Yahweh from which sprouts the Machiah]") and thus, they followed the direction indicated by this label and they went West to Jerusalem for there, and nowhere else, was the house or the Temple of Yahweh.

    According this interpretation they went West even if they saw the star rising in the East.

    Other explanations have been given as well. E.g., the star of Bethlehem has been identified as being Halley's comet, the star Regulus, a supernova which should have been observed only in the East and even UFO's. It should be clear that all of the explanations should be confronted with the text as given by Matthew and the historical and cultural context of the time and that eventual contradictions should have to be explained.

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