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In Matthew 2:1-12, there are mentions of the Star of Bethlehem, specifically

Matthew 2:2

and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

Matthew 2:7

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared.

Also, is the subject of many Christmas carols, including We Three Kings of Orient Are.

My question is, is there evidence to suggest an astronomical origin of the Star of Bethlehem?

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The article A Further Examination of the Gospel in the Stars touches on this as a tangential to another issue. You might find it interesting reading. – Caleb Feb 14 '14 at 22:31
Well, I've always understood that it is not a star, because this does not have that behavior. But maybe I'm wrong. – Paul Vargas Feb 14 '14 at 22:41
@PaulVargas perhaps not wrong at all, what have you understood this phenomena as being? – user3376 Feb 14 '14 at 22:43
Worth grabbing this free ebook (requires a free registration) with two "chapters" on this question. Parpola and Allison both top scholars, albeit in different fields. My hunch is that you'd probably enjoy reading them. – Davïd Feb 14 '14 at 23:10
@Davïd-The free ebook is very interesting.Thanks. – Bagpipes Feb 15 '14 at 12:59
up vote 4 down vote accepted

I have been wanting to spend some proper time on this question but ... it's just too vast! Meanwhile, perhaps it's worth simply providing the set of resources I've gathered to supplement the other answers to OP's interest in scientific explanations for the "Star of Bethlehem". I'll group them into two categories, (1) those originating in "Biblical Studies"; and (2) those originating from the "Astronomy" (science) side.

(This is in addition to the things noted in the comments to OP's question, and the other answers already present.)

1. Biblical/Historical Studies resources

2. Astronomy Resources

  • Pride of place must go to the bibliography compiled by Ruth S. Freitag, The Star of Bethlehem: A List of References (Washington : Library of Congress, 1979) (note that full text options are available from that link), which "continues to be the starting point for those who are curious about the Star of Bethlehem’s existence" (according to Jennifer Harbster, "The Christmas Star" (LoC blog; December 21, 2011).

That is a bit dated now, so some newer material:

  • I. Bulmer-Thomas, "The Star of Bethlehem - A New Explanation - Stationary Point of a Planet", Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society, Vol. 33, NO.4 (Dec 1992): 363-374.
  • Anthony F. Aveni, "The Star of Bethlehem", Archaeology Vol. 51, No. 6 (November/December 1998), pp. 34-42 [puts into context of ancient astrology and scientific developments]
  • David H. Kelley, A.F. Aveni, Eugene F. Milone (eds), Exploring Ancient Skies: A Survey of Ancient and Cultural Astronomy (2nd edition; Springer, 2011) - chapter 15, "The Descent of the Gods and the Purposes of Ancient Astronomy" devotes section 15.2.2 (pp. 482-486, dense double columns; but = 15.3.1 in the online edition) to "The Star of Bethlehem", and list the main possibilities for the phenomenon behind the gospel of Matthew's star (p. 483):
  1. none—the narrative being a literary invention for the purpose of identifying the birth of a king with heavenly signs;
  2. a comet, which could be seen prior to and following perihelion passage;
  3. a variable star, most likely one or more novae or supernovae;
  4. a planetary conjunction—either a two- or three-planet conjunction;
  5. at least for one of the events, an exploding bolide; and, finally,
  6. a unique or rare event or combination of events, which believers could well call a miracle.

N.b. I know this isn't an "answer", but I hope it's still a worthwhile contribution. Perhaps it can get filled out in time to come.

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This is a very good answer! Particularly the list provided - much to think about, thank you for this. – user3376 Feb 22 '14 at 22:52
I've also heard of another theory: the planet Uranus. Since it's magnitude is about 5.3, it had been spotted in the past - even before 1781 when it was officially discovered - without being identified as a planet. This would explain that the Star was moving. – ypercubeᵀᴹ Jun 20 at 18:10

Short answer: none.

It was not a ordinary star. A ordinary star does not have the behavior that Matthew wrote. The star appeared for a time and then disappeared.

Matthew 2:2 (NASB)
"Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him."

If the star had not disappeared, why ask? They were then sent to Bethlehem. The star appeared again. It was in front of them. It stood over the place where the child was.

Matthew 2:9-10 (NASB)
After hearing the king, they went their way; and the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.

This star was not too high in the sky. It could to point out to the house where the child was.

It was something supernatural.

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There are other scientific explanations possible. – user3376 Feb 17 '14 at 20:24

In a way, yes. The star appears only in Matthew's Gospel, which is now widely considered to have been written in the 80s of the first century. Many scholars say that Matthew's nativity account is not historical. or example, Ian Wilson, in Jesus: The Evidence, page 48 says,

The hard reality is that neither the Matthew nor the Luke nativity stories offers sufficient historicity (and the story of the wise men and the star appears only in Matthew) for anyone to be confident that there was a star at all.

Uta Ranke-Heinemann says in Putting Away Childish Things, page 7 that the nativity accounts are, with respect to time, place, and circumstances, a collection of legends. We can therefore look for a more recent astronomical event than the time of King Herod, almost a hundred years earlier.

There was a star that appeared in the mid-60's and caused many prophecies all around the Roman Empire. When Josephus was captured by the Romans he told the Roman general, Vespasian, that this star meant that he would become emperor of Rome; when this prophecy later came true, Josephus was granted his freedom and allowed to use the surname Flavius. In Rome it was seen as foretelling the downfall of Emperor Nero. This star appeared during the First Roman-Jewish War, and proof of its existence and its effect on all who saw it is found in Josephus’ The Wars of The Jews, VI.6.3:

Thus there was a star resembling a sword, which stood over the city, and a comet, that continued a whole year … This light seemed to be a good sign to the unskilful, but was so interpreted by the sacred scribes as to portend those events that followed immediately upon it.

Among the Jews, this was a particularly powerful omen, as it was seen as representing an omen in Numbers 24:17-19. It has been suggested that the author of Matthew's Gospel was inspired by this recent and awe-inspiring astronomical event.

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Very interesting.Could you give a source for your study,regarding your second paragraph. – Bagpipes Feb 15 '14 at 12:09
This doesn't show its work in several assertions, which is a requirement on this site. Don't just tell us what you know, tell us how you know it. I've added a post notice for now, but keep in mind that unsourced material may be edited or removed. Also, ideally provide the page number or a link to sources so we can verify your claims. – Dan Feb 15 '14 at 16:25
I hope I have met the essential requirement that there was such a star, that it appeared at the appropriate time and that it caused such a sensation that the author of Matthew could have been inspired by it. Of course, this is unprovable, but was suggested as a possible origin for the story of the star of Bethlehem. – Dick Harfield Feb 17 '14 at 0:48
A good edit and a compelling thought – user3376 Feb 17 '14 at 0:50
I have added a further scholarly view that the star of Bethlehem should be viewed sceptically, and added page numbers to my references. – Dick Harfield Feb 17 '14 at 1:09

There are three plausible theories about the nature of the astronomical phenomenon that was interpreted by the Magi from the East (astronomers/astrologers from Babylon or Persia) as signalling that a King of the Jews of divine nature had been born.

Theory 1

Triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 7 BC (occurs every 800 years), in the constellation of Pisces. Proposed by Ferrari-D'Occhieppo (1989) 1 and Parpola (2001) 2. (Dates are from 2.)

1st conjunction - 27 May: rising "in the East", Jupiter first, Saturn soon after.

16 July: Jupiter reached its first stationary point.

2nd conjunction - 6 October: the two planets, 1º apart in longitude, emerged "in the East" at sunset, in opposition to the sun and shining at their brightest, with Jupiter appearing twice as bright as Sirius, the brightest star, and appearing directly above Saturn.

=> The Magi set out on their trip to Palestine (probably from Babylon).

7 November: Jupiter reached its second stationary point.

=> The Magi leave Jerusalem towards Bethlehem in the late afternoon of 7 November 7 BC. Ferrari-D'Occhieppo has a compelling description of how the Magi would have seen Jupiter and the zodiacal light in front of them "standing over" Bethlehem.

(Jesus' family flee to Egypt shortly afterwards and stay there till after Herod's death in late March / early April 4 BC, i.e. for 2.5 years.)

3rd conjunction - 1 December.

Possible objection to this theory: if the Magi told Herod in November that they had first seen the star (Jupiter) "at its rising" in May, a 1-year range would have provided more than ample margin for the age of children to be executed in the Bethlehem area. However, for someone that was willing to execute infants in the first place, doubling the age range from 1 to 2 years and the probable ensuing body count from 10 to 20 children may not have seemed a big deal.

Theory 2

Two occultations ("eclipses") of Jupiter by the Moon in 6 BC in the constellation of Aries (the sign of the Jews). Proposed by Molnar (1999)3.

1st occultation: 20 March. (It was preceded by a lunar occultation of Saturn on 19 March in the constellation of Pisces.4)

2nd occultation: 17 April, when Jupiter emerged "in the East" as a morning star in Aries, with the Sun also in Aries, so the Magi's star was the planet Jupiter in its “heliacal rising”, in the morning, in the East, a fairly precise distance ahead of the sun at dawn, in Aries. (It was preceded by a lunar occulation of Saturn on 16 April in the constellation of Pisces, well within 1º of the first point of Aries.4)

=> The Magi set out on their trip to Palestine (probably from Babylon).

In August Jupiter became stationary and then "went before" (retrograde motion) until it became stationary again ("stood over") on 19 December, back into the sign of Aries.

=> The Magi leave Jerusalem towards Bethlehem in the late afternoon of 19 December 6 BC.

(Jesus' family flee to Egypt shortly afterwards and stay there till after Herod's death in late March / early April 4 BC, i.e. for 1.5 years.)

Possible objection to this theory: if the Magi told Herod in December that they had seen the star (Jupiter) "at its rising" in April, a 1-year range would have provided more than ample margin for the age of children to be executed in the Bethlehem area. However, for someone that was willing to execute infants in the first place, doubling the age range from 1 to 2 years and the probable ensuing body count from 10 to 20 children may not have seemed a big deal.

Theory 3

Combines theory 1 + theory 2.

The Magi took notice of both the events in 7 BC described by theory 1 and those in 6 BC described by theory 2, travelling to Palestine and then to Bethlehem in 6 BC as described in theory 2.

Humphreys (1995) 5 proposes a slightly different version of this theory: the triple conjunction of 7 BC in the constellation of Pisces (plus a subsequent joining by Mars so that in February 6 BC the three planets, still in Pisces, were separated by only about eight degrees) alerted the Magi, and the comet that, as recorded by Chinese sources, was observed for over 70 days since March 5 BC, and that would have been first seen by the Magi rising in the East in the morning sky, prompted the Magi to set out to Palestine in March 5 BC.

In this theory the Magi would have told Herod in December 6 BC (or in April/May 5 BC in the Humphreys 1995 version) that they had first seen the star (Jupiter) "at its rising" in the first conjunction of May 7 BC, and the 2-year range for the age of infants to be killed in the Bethlehem area would have been a direct consequence of that information.

1 Ferrari-D'Occhieppo, Konradin (1989). "The Star of the Magi and Babylonian Astronomy" in "Chronos, kairos, Christos: Nativity and chronological studies presented to Jack Finegan" edited by Jerry Vardaman and Edwin M. Yamauchi

2 Parpola, Simo (2001). "The Magi and the Star. Babylonian Astronomy Dates Jesus' Birth". Bible Review, December 2001, p. 16-23, and p. 52-54. Online as chapter 2 (pp. 13(20) - 24(31)) of the e-book "The First Christmas. The Story of Jesus' Birth in History and Tradition"

3 Molnar, Michael R. (1999). "The star of Bethlehem: the legacy of the Magi" Michael R. Molnar site:

4 M.M. Dworetsky and S.J. Fossey (1997). "Lunar Occultations of Jupiter and Saturn, and the Star of Bethlehem" Originally published in The Observatory, Vol. 118, No. 1142, pp. 22-24, 1998 February. Points out that both lunar occultations of Jupiter were preceded by lunar occultations of Saturn in the constellation of Pisces one day before.

5 Humphreys, Colin J. (1995). "The Star of Bethlehem". Science and Christian Belief , Vol 5, (October 1995): 83-101.

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While the best way to describe the phenomenon that lead the Magi (Wise Men) to the place where the Christ Child was is to refer to it as a star, I doubt that it was a literal star that was seen.

Matthew 2:7: Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.

First only the Magi saw the star if it were a literal star it would have been seen by many others and they too would have followed this star. Herod and those in his court did not see the star so he inquired of the Magi what time the star appeared.

Matthew 2:9 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.

The star appears to have a mind of its own; it reappears and once again leads the Magi when they left Herod’s palace and continued their journey in search of the Child (It was obviously not visible while the Magi spoke the Herod or he would have seen it and not inquired concerning it). But the most amazing trait of this star is that it stood over where the young child was. No star has ever behaved in this manner.

So if it was not a literal star what was it?

Genesis 1:1-4 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.

In the creation story we learn that light appeared on the first day of creation but this was not the sun (A star) since the sun was not created until day four of creation.

Genesis 1:14-15 And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years: And let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth: and it was so.

The light that appeared on day one of creation was that Glory of the Almighty God. This is the same light that will illuminate the New Jerusalem at the end when God sets up His eternal kingdom.

Revelation 21:23 And the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof.

So the star that led the Magi was the same that illuminated the earth on day one of creation and the same that will illuminate the city that shall descend from heaven like a bride adorned for her husband. The star that led the wise men was the Glory of God.

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There are other possible scientific reasons for this phenomena – user3376 Feb 17 '14 at 0:48
This is true but my answer is not void of Biblical reference in support of my claim – Will Sivart Feb 17 '14 at 1:03

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