The Star of Bethlehem
Did Giotto get the birth of Christ right after all?
When people hear that I study ancient astronomy, a question I tend to get asked every so often is “What was the Star of Bethlehem?” There’s a few exciting explanations, so mine tends to disappoint. I’m pretty much of the same opinion as Martin when it comes to explaining Biblical miracles. There’s no independent evidence that many of these happened as described. There are however lots of strange events recorded in the ancient literature, and many honest misunderstandings. A lot of questioners assume the star must have existed, and therefore it’s simply a matter of explaining what it was. If this were a star of Apollo or Ueuecoyotl then fewer people would be convinced the star existed. Another problem is that just because you can spot a pattern it doesn’t mean it’s meaningful. I can see a duck-shaped cloud out of the window. I can’t believe it’s a divine sign that God is fed up of people eating turkey. Similarly, while there are a lot of astronomical events you could say were a star, they don’t really withstand much scrutiny. However, I am open to the idea that I need to change my mind, because I have read an explanation that might work.
The favoured explanations are really poor. Here’s what Matthew says in Chapter Two on the star:
- Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,
- Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.
- When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
- And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.
- And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet,
- And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.
- Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, inquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.
- And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.
- When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.
- When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.
- And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.
- And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.
- And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.
The word seems to be star. Which makes the explanation difficult.
A triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, created with Starry Night.
The current favourite is a triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 7 BC. A conjunction is occurs when two bodies are close to each other in the night sky. This would have been of immense astrological significance, and a comparatively rare event. However, planets would have been recognisably planets. A triple conjunction would be unusual, but the recent work on the Antikythera Mechanism shows these things could be calculated in advance. It’s therefore hard to describe it as miraculous.
Another possibility would be that it could literally be a new visible star. The obvious candidate would be a supernova, an imploding star which could be so bright that for a while might see it in the daytime and then it would fade from view. The problem with supernovae as explanations is that they leave visible traces. One such example is the supernova of 1054. The Chinese recorded it as being brighter than Venus and rivalling the Full Moon. Today of you look where the star was you can see the Crab Nebula, a cloud of expanding gas ejected by the force of the implosion. There are no known supernova remnants dating from the right period to suggest the Star of Bethlehem was one of these.
It could be a plain nova. This is a star that is ejecting gas from itself without immediately ripping itself to bits. They brighten, but not anywhere near as much. There is a possible nova recorded by the Chinese in 6BC, which is around the right timeframe, but it’s not recorded in the West. If they were following a star then there is a problem in that a nova is static against the celestial sphere. Whether or not you’d be happy with the Saviour of Mankind being heralded by an easily overlooked star is for you to decide. Herod didn’t notice it.
If you want a moving star then meteors would seem to be a good bet. Unfortunately the only thing that can be said in the favour is that they move – fast. So fast, you’ll tend to see a meteor as a line across the sky rather than a point, and they’re easiest to spot when during a shower, when a lot of them can be see in the course of an hour. This wouldn’t be a singular star and it wouldn’t hang around long enough to follow.
My position has been that you have to look at when and why Matthew was writing. He wasn’t writing an astronomical chronicle, he was writing about what he believed to be the Messiah. Matthew knew this man was the Messiah and therefore he must have fulfilled several prophecies. Only Matthew says Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and the method he uses to get Mary there is contrived. The star is thought by many to be a similar event, a later fiction used to prove the divinity of the baby. What might change my mind is reading Peter James’ and Nick Thorpe’s book Ancient Mysteries, which has a different take on Matthew.
They are of the opinion that Matthew’s gospel isn’t that great. In the case of the Star they accept that Matthew is reaching for prophecies to fulfil, but that the Star would actually be a rather poor choice if he had a free hand to make everything up. The prophecy Matthew uses was thought by many Jews to have already been fulfilled by David, and so why would Matthew want to recycle it? James and Thorpe argue that he wouldn’t unless he had to and there was a miraculous event that needed explaining. As I’ve shown above the current candidates aren’t that impressive, but there was something a bit earlier, Halley’s Comet. Halley’s Comet was around in 12 and 11 BC. It would have moved against the stars as it passed round the Sun. With its tail it could point. Could this be the star?
This is traditionally rejected because the date is too early for the birth of Jesus. The birth date is difficult to know. It cannot be later than 4BC if Jesus was alive at the time of Herod. But 11 BC?
James and Thorpe talk about a radical re-dating of the birth of Jesus by Nikos Kokkinos. Kokkinos notes that the Bible days that Jesus was “not yet fifty” when he was a rabbi, which is accurate but an odd choice of words because according to traditional chronology he would have not lived to be forty. So why choose fifty? Did he live longer than usually thought? If so how? The date of his death can be roughly given by examining phases of the Moon. The best candidates are the years AD 30 and AD 33. If Jesus was older than forty when he died he must have been born earlier, and 12 or 11 BC would fit this. I’m sceptical but not closed-minded about this. I imagine it’s controversial in Biblical scholarship and I assume they haven’t arrived at their conclusions by rough guesswork. But even if the re-dating doesn’t work, Halley’s Comet is still a plausible explanation if you consider when Matthew was writing.
The favoured date for writing the Gospel of Matthew is between AD 70 and AD 100. Halley’s Comet made another pass around the Sun in AD 66. As well as marking the death of nobles, they could also presage the arrival of new kings. Seeing the comet in the night sky, it’s possible Matthew felt there must have been a similar event at the birth of Jesus. The reason Giotto painted a comet in his Nativity fresco is that he too saw Halley's Comet in 1301. It was so impressive it had to go in the painting.
I realise this wouldn’t be a very satisfying explanation to a lot of Christians either. The problem is that if you put Christian belief under scientific scrutiny then you’re opening up Christianity to mockery. If the existence of a star proves Jesus’ divinity then logically wouldn’t errors in the Bible prove that it was wrong? But even if a star can be found that wouldn’t scientifically prove that Christianity was right. I recently read that the Two Towers of Tolkien have been found in Birmingham, but no-one would argue that that was proof of a dark and malignant force controlling the West Midlands (for that you have to visit Coventry). Similarly the Walther PPK doesn’t prove the existence of James Bond. Putting God in a test-tube is not going to comfortable for believers.
Regardless of whether the messenger existed or not, the message of Peace on Earth and Goodwill to All is a good one, so I wish you a Merry Christmas, Seasons Greetings, Happy Yuletide or a Jolly Mithrasmas.
If you're interested in reading more about the Star Mark Kidger may have a different view.
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