The Unsolved Mystery of the Star of Bethlehem

The three Magi depicted in the Hortus Deliciarum by Herrad of Landsberg in 1185 AD. 

We’ll never know for sure what “star” the Magi saw when they set off from Babylon to Jerusalem seeking their newborn king, but that doesn’t stop us from wondering whether it might have had a natural cause. There are many possible explanations, a few of which we’ll explore here.

“For we have seen His star in the East (upon rising) and have come to worship him” reads the biblical account of the Three Wise Men. After meeting with King Herod, they rode south to Bethlehem:

“… and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.”

Precious little more was written about the star. If the Three Kings’ account had only mentioned a constellation or nearby star for reference, we could have narrowed down the possibilities. We do know the Magi’s general direction of travel and the accepted time frame of Christ’s birth between the years 7 and 2 B.C.

Bethlehem is 5.5 miles south of Jerusalem, where the Three Kings met with King Herod sometime around his death in 4 B.C.

We also know that whatever they saw moved from east to south. First visible in the east, the “star” next appeared over Bethlehem, located 5.5 miles (9 km) south of Jerusalem. As the Magi rode from Jerusalem they would have seen the apparition in the southern sky. Let’s now explore the possibilities:

* Meteors
I think we can rule out meteors or their brilliant cousins, fireballs, because they’re too brief a phenomenon, and the Kings saw the apparition on at least two occasions. Meteors also don’t “rise” but streak across the sky from any direction.

* Comets:

Woodcut showing destructive influence of a fourth century comet from Stanilaus Lubienietski’s Theatrum Cometicum (Amsterdam, 1668). Comets in the past were often described as “hanging” over a location much like the ”star” of Bethlehem, but were typically seen as augurs of doom.

Halley’s Comet would have been a bright naked eye sight in Gemini in the east before dawn in late August 12 B.C. and again in the northwestern evening sky in September. A tempting possibility but the time frame is wrong – too early for Christ’s birth.

But another comet recorded in the Book of Han was observed within the correct time frame by Chinese astronomers in 5 B.C.:

“Second year of the Chien-p’ing reign period, second month (5 B.C., March 9-April 6), a suibsing (tailed comet) appeared at Ch’ien-niu for over 70 days.”

The comet first appeared in the constellation Capricornus, which would have been visible in the eastern sky before dawn from the Middle East in early spring. Assuming it came into view just after perihelion (closest approach to the sun), it would have traveled to the west and into the southern sky roughly within the time frame required for the Wise Men to travel from the Babylon to Jerusalem and finally to Bethlehem.

Or the comet could have been seen in the east before perihelion and then crossed over into the west-southwestern evening sky as a brilliant post-perihelion sight. The Bible also mentions “shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night” at the time of the birth. This points to spring as being the likely season, the same as the comet’s period of visibility.

This almost sounds like an open and shut case except for a niggling detail. Comets were generally seen in ancient cultures as omens of doom and gloom, not bringers of good news like the birth of a new king. Comets scared people because they came out of nowhere and crossed the sky in unpredictable ways. To this day a bright comet’s appearance still stirs fears of impending catastrophe in some.

* Nova or supernova

A bright nova (temporary brightening of a white dwarf in a binary star system as it “feeds” on gas from its companion) or supernova would attract the attention of many. Most remain bright for weeks or months. Credit: creekandcave.com

Exploding stars are great candidates because they fit the description of a star, and in the case of a supernova, can appear as brilliant as Jupiter or Venus. That would certainly get the attention of the oriental astrologers, who kept a vigilant eye on the heavens waiting for the ancient prophecy of a “star” in Israel to be fulfilled.

Because of Earth’s revolution around the sun it’s even possible for a “new star” to appear first in one direction and then be visible a couple months later in another, especially if you factor in time of night. Unfortunately there are no records of novas or supernovas by the super-observant Chinese or anyone else occurring during the time frame.

* Conjunctions of bright planets

The western sky at the end of evening twilight on Feb. 25, 6 B.C. would have displayed a striking gathering of the planets Jupiter, Mars and Saturn. All three were within 7 degrees of each other. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

Conjunctions occur when two or more bright celestial objects line up closely in the sky. A conjunction of two planets is not that unusual, but a gathering of three is and may have held great symbolic value in ancient times. One such triple conjunction involving Mars, Jupiter and Saturn took place in at dusk in the constellation Pisces on February 25, 6 B.C. Could this have inspired the Magi to begin their westward journey?

On Feb. 20, five days before the symmetrical gathering of planets , a very young evening crescent moon passed through the group. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

Five days earlier the three were nearly as close and joined by a young crescent moon, an even more auspicious sight.

Of course there are problems with this scenario. The planets appeared in the western sky and the arrangement and number of planets visible would have changed months later when the kings rode to Bethlehem.

An amazing three conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn from late May to early December 7 B.C. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

A recurring conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn played out between May and December in 7 B.C. when the two planets were separated by just one degree (two full moon diameters) on three occasions in the constellation Pisces. The first close pass took place in the eastern morning sky on May 29; the second on Sept. 30 (southern evening sky) and the final pairing on Dec. 5, also in the southern evening sky.

A bright planet duo over so many months rates as an eye-catcher and the directions fit the bill, but the Magi described the object as a brilliant star, not a pair of stars. Even though a degree is a relatively small distance, it would have been easy to see them as two separate objects.

Venus and Jupiter just 0.6 arc minute apart – merged into one – on June 17, 2 B.C. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

That brings us to the dual conjunctions of the two brightest planets of all – Jupiter and Venus – in the eastern sky at dawn from the Middle East on August 12, 3 B.C. and again 10 months later on Jun 17, 2 B.C. On both occasions astrologers would have watched the two planets come so close together they would have briefly merged into one before separating again.

OK, a keen eye might have separated the pair on August 12 when they were 2/5 of a moon diameter (12 arc minutes) apart, but they would have been far too tight on June 17 – just 0.6 arc minutes – for anything but a good pair of binoculars or telescope to split them.

During the first conjunction, the Magi would have seen this brilliant pairing in the eastern sky; on June 17 the following year, they lit up the western sky.

Despite appearing as a solitary brilliant “star”, this conjunction would not have been seen in the southern sky on a journey to Bethlehem but in the west, unless we interpret the direction implied in the Bible passage more broadly.

So what’s your pleasure? My best guesses for the Bethlehem Star are the Chinese comet of 4 B.C. or the pair of Jupiter-Venus conjunctions in 3 and 2 B.C. Or it could have been a succession of events – multiple conjunctions and a comet – that led the Magi to conclude that the prophecy of Christ’s birth would soon be fulfilled.

There’s another possibility – the supernatural. But that takes us outside the realm of science. Either way, the star remains a mystery, since we’ll never know for sure what caught the eye of the Three Wise Men as they scanned the heavens looking for signs of what would come.

For more on the topic, click HERE and HERE.

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About astrobob

My name is Bob King and I work at the Duluth News Tribune in Duluth, Minn. as a photographer and photo editor. I'm also an amateur astronomer and have been keen on the sky since age 11. My modest credentials include membership in the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) where I'm a regular contributor, International Meteorite Collectors Assn. and Arrowhead Astronomical Society. I also teach community education astronomy classes at our local planetarium.

30 thoughts on “The Unsolved Mystery of the Star of Bethlehem

  1. Fascinating thanks, however i am seriously wondering where Sirius would have been in relation to their travel and direction at these particular times.

    cheers

  2. Merry Christmas everybody. May each of you have the love and joy of this holiday season, in your minds as we appreciate the Lovejoy comet and all see see in the sky.

  3. Instead of searching for a scientific explanation for the Star that shone brightly over the birthplace of Jesus, I prefer to believe the creator of the universe can place a special star over a barn in Bethlehem if it is His desire to do so.

    • i would like to think it would be possible for Him to establish laws of science wherein something remarkable would happen in the sky at that time also. i tend to think in this way about a lot of the false dichotomies that some place between religion and science. for example, some people dispute evolution from a religious perspective, but if God wanted that to be the way humans came about, why not? it wouldn’t be too complex for him, after all!

  4. I’ve been visiting your blog since I found your site looking for info on Comet ISON. This article was too good to let pass without comment. I found it fascinating!

    Thank you!

  5. Hello Bob,
    I have been reading your site and enjoying every article. Good job. This article’s topic is right up my alley. Please read this press release-article for more insights into this mystery. All of these ancient texts were originally and purposely symbolic and the topic of stars is a vital component of the symbology used by those alluded to in the New Testament and Dead Sea Scrolls.

    http://exposing-religious-deception.blogspot.com/2011/12/piercing-star-of-bethlehem-mystery.html

    Peace and Wisdom….

    • Hi Joe,
      Thanks for your comment. There is a fatal flaw in his argument about Jupiter stopping (in its retrograde motion loop) over Bethlehem. While it’s true any outer planet stops for a short while in one spot in a constellation around the time of opposition, the daily rotation of the Earth always carries the planets from east to west across the sky no matter whether they’ve stopped or are moving normally. Earth’s’ rotation has the “upper hand” as it were. It’s not possible for Jupiter to stop anywhere in the sky because of this. Also, the Magi and other astrologers at the time would have been very familiar with Jupiter’s as well as Mars’ and Saturn’s retrograde motion, which happen in precise cycles time and time again. There’s another problem too. The Bible mentions shepherds tending their flocks around the same time as the “star” appeared. They would not be doing this in December.

      • Yes I think that is true that the Magi would have been familiar with the motion of Jupiter retrograde motion. That also would meant they possibly knew something was special about that star already. But there are still other compelling events he shows in this video by using scripture from the Bible and Starry Night software. The fact is that Jupiter circle Regulus three time in September 3BC, than 9 month later in June 2BC the conjunction with Venus, and than started its retrograde motion on Dec 25, 2BC. There are also thing like the location of the sun and moon in certain constellations around the same time that are fascinating. The star would have first be notice in Sept 3 BC not December. He also come up with the date of Jesus crucifixion and show the sky on that day which is even more inspiring.I used Starry Night to check these events out and I too had goose bumps. I guess we will never really know but this is good enough for me.

        • Joe,
          If it works for you, go with it. For what it’s worth, Jupiter passing back and forth by Regulus is not an exceptional event. It’s done it many times in the past and will again in 2025. I wasn’t willing to commit over an hour to the video which is why I missed some parts. However, if he said that Jupiter “circled” Regulus that is incorrect. Planets can pass closely back and forth by stars but don’t circle them.

  6. He uses the word crowned instead of circled, in that it passes very close three times. Not a special event alone I agree but coincidence with other event around it in the sky is a bit more significant. If you have time you should sit down and watch the whole video you would understand what I mean. I do like to thank you for replying and I really enjoy the discussion.

    • Thanks Joe. It really is open to so many interpretations. It’s fun to consider what it might have been, but I doubt any particular view will ever be proven. There’s simply too little evidence to go on, and it’s too easy to string numbers, coincidences, earlier biblical passages, etc. to create additional alternatives. If I have time I will try to watch the video, but his misinterpretation of Jupiter’s stationary point as the planet “stopping” over Bethlehem taints much of the rest of his argument at least for me.

  7. check the starts at zenith on 9th december 1988 on the longitude of the country named “Bahrain” the area is manama which is the capital of the country

    so manama- bahrain

    local timing of the country between 10:30-12:30

    bahrains timing is +3gmt ..

  8. True that Bob, I like all these discussion and possiblities, if you ever do watch the video see the ending about the Lunar Eclipse that supposely happen on April 3, 33AD when Jesus was crucified and tell me what you think.

  9. So I hope that the lesson from this will not be that there is some sort of scientific basis to astrology since it has managed to successfully predict the birth of Jesus!

  10. Thanks for a great site for backyard observers! I am a retired OTR driver in NW Alabama, and enjoy observing with my 60mm refractors and 4 and 5in. reflectors.Be well, and keep up the good work. Jimmy.

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