Christmas through the eyes of Astronomy: What was the Star of Bethlehem?

Star of Bethlehem

Star of wonder, star of night.

Star with royal beauty bright…

It’s been a wonderful month filled with singing Christmas carols, putting up Christmas decorations and baking festive treats, all of them featuring the most recognizable symbol of the December season: the Christmas Star. So we could not help wondering about the origin of the holiday’s popular symbol. What was the Christmas Star, or the Star of Bethlehem? Was it a real astronomical event? A miracle? An allegory used to underline the significance of the event to follow? WonderDome decided to investigate!
It turned out that for decades historians, astronomers and other scholars have been trying to find out what the Star of Bethlehem was. Unfortunately, with no conclusive result.

Astronomical explanation

From the astronomical point of view, a vast number of celestial events could have been interpreted as “the star” by the observers of the past. A nova or a supernova, a comet or a bolide (bright meteor), a variable star at pick of its luminosity, or even several planets seen close together could appear as a bright star in the sky. But did any of these “out of the ordinary” events happen back in 7-2 BC, around the time Christ was born? 

Luckily, this question is easier to answer. These days we can calculate what the sky looked like on any date in the past from any point on Earth. Also, the detailed records of the ancient astronomers tell us about novas, comets and other such phenomena that were observed by early stargazers. Therefore using the description of the Star from the Nativity story in the Gospel of Matthew, we can select those past celestial events that might have happened at the right time and check if they “fit the profile” of the Star. 

Well, at least that’s the idea. 

Search for the Star of Bethlehem in the sky

Whatever the Star was, it behaved so strangely, that no astronomical event seems to be able to explain it. For example, the Story tells us that

  • The Magi (the three kings) came from the West, because they saw the Star in the East. 
  • They arrived to Jerusalem, not Bethlehem, where king Herod’s royal astronomers were unaware of the Star. 
  • The Star kept moving ahead of the Magi as they traveled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, that is directly South.
  • The Star stopped above Bethlehem.  

Over the years many candidate “Stars” were considered. Johannes Kepler, the man who explained to us how the planets move on their orbits in the Solar System, was convinced that the Star was the Great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn (for more details see Kepler and the Star of Bethlehem). Other astronomers considered it to be the 12 BC return of the famous Haley Comet. Recurring nova DO Aquilae was also proposed to be the Star. Only it turned out that DO Aquilae was not a recurring nova. Nor it was bright enough to be seen from Earth with a naked eye. Let alone be “of royal beauty bright”! (for more details see THE STAR OF BETHLEHEM IS NOT THE NOVA DO AQUILAE (NOR ANY OTHER NOVA, SUPERNOVA, OR COMET).

So did some celestial phenomenon encouraged the Magi to make a trip to a place where Christ was born? Possibly, though unlikely.

Alternative explanation

Retired astrophysicist Michael Molnar came up with a different idea of what the Star of Bethlehem might have been. Molnar argues that Magi were not astronomers, but astrologers. Astrology might be (and should be!) frowned upon today. But it certainly played an important role in the daily lives of our predecessors. Therefore, it is pointless to look for the explanation of the Star of Bethlehem in transient celestial events. Instead, we shall seek the answers in the astrological “tools”, the horoscopes! Because “the star” tells us when, where and who is going to be born, it is nothing else but a birth chart, or natal horoscope, based on the hidden meanings attributed to the positions of the planets and the Moon.  Molnar goes even further and concludes that a birth horoscope for April 17, 6 BC points to Judea and has “regal” aspects.  

So, was the Star of Bethlehem an astronomical event? A birth horoscope? A miracle? We might never find out!


As always, feel free to send your questions to our star dome team. We would love to hear from you!