The Star of Bethlehem Story

The Search for the Star of Bethlehem

Dionysius, Zero, and the Millennium

By Christian Marinus Taisbak - FOCUS Aug/Sept 2000 Vol 20 No 6
Dionysius Exiguus (Little Dennis) and the B.C. - A.D. date division.

Slide Show

The Star of Bethlehem that appears in the book of Matthew has long been a puzzle. Several times scholars thought that they had solved it, but no solution was entirely satisfactory. The problem is simple - the story contains absolutely no description of the Star. There is no suggestion at all of its appearance.

Everything must be inferred from the story, and there are precious few details. The job is not easy.

Here are properties of the Star that can be obtained from the story.

  1. It appeared during the reign of Herod.
  2. Magi came to Jerusalem because they had seen it.
  3. Herod and his people had NOT seen it.
  4. The Magi had observed the Star "at its rising."
  5. The Magi were sent to Bethlehem because of an old prophecy.
  6. The Magi did not return to Jerusalem.

That's not a whole lot to go on. In any case, because it was described as a "star," those seeking answers have looked to the sky for them. There is an additional complication - in those times the word for "star" could mean any number of different signs.

So what are we looking for? Probably something in the sky, but NOT any of the fixed stars. These stars do not change from year to year and are seen every year in the same configurations; the people would be quite familiar with them. We are looking for something else.

The Problem of Dates

Biblical scholar Ernest L. Martin refers to the period from 6 BCE to 4 CE as "that dark decade." Good historical documentation from that period is extremely scarce and fragmentary. The problem of establishing dates in this period is daunting. There's just not much to work with.

It's not entirely hopeless. The Matthew story says the star appeared while Herod was king. Helpfully, the historian Flavius Josephus (a Romanized Jew) recorded that Herod died shortly after a lunar eclipse and shortly before the feast of Passover. These events are determined by the motion of the Moon, which is very well understood and allows calculation of such dates. There were two lunar eclipses which fit - one in March of 4 BCE and another in January of 1 BCE. The 4 BCE eclipse appears to be generally favored. This means that Herod died early in 4 BCE, but in any case not later than 1 BCE.

Note that the birth narrative in Luke is of no help with the Star, as that story does not mention the Star at all.

What Might Explain it?

The usual approach is to look at all possible astronomical phenomena and try to figure out if any of them might have been interpreted as the Star. The usual list follows.

  1. Bright meteor
  2. Comet
  3. Supernova
  4. Miracle
  5. Story (fiction)
  6. Something familiar in the sky

Analysis (Brief)

Only the Magi saw the Star, and therein lies a clue. This is good, because clues are scarce. Among other things, Magi studied astrology. The astrology of that time was a Hellenized (Greekified) form that was the origin of the horoscopes we see today. Magi watched the sky, looking for things from which to divine the future. Here you have people looking at the sky; they would notice anything interesting.

Meteor: Bright meteors can be crossed off the list rather quickly because of their very short duration. Even a really bright fireball last less than 10 seconds. That's not long enough to lead anyone anywhere.

Comet: It turns out that astrologers paid little attention to comets since they appear randomly and show no pattern. If comets were taken as omens, it was for evil.

Supernova: A bright supernova explosion ("new star") would have been bright enough for everyone to see it. Herod would not need to ask the Magi when it appeared.

Miracle: If the Star were a miracle, there is no use in looking for an astronomical explanation for the story.

Story: If the Star never existed and is a story told for theological reasons, then no astronomical explanation will ever work. But we aren't ready to write the Star off like that just yet.

Something familiar: How could something familiar sky be seen as the famous star? Recall properties 2 and 3 above. Herod and the people did not see the Star; they had to ask the Magi about it. Whatever it was, it was not obvious to the casual observer.

Bad Science

What was the Star? of Bethlehem, that is. Frederick A. (Rick) Larson, a lawyer from College Station, TX, was sponsored to speak at SMU by the Dallas Christian Leadership and SMU Office of the Chaplain on Thursday 10 April 2003. Professors Cotton and Scalise attended the presentation, which contained all the mistakes that a novice astronomer and historian would make. Larson was operating way outside his area of expertise. This is forgivable.

After the presentation, Professors Cotton and Scalise told him about The Star of Bethlehem : The Legacy of the Magi by Michael R. Molnar. But that was back in 2003. He's still giving the same flawed presentation. *NOW* he's a pseudoscientist.