BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

What Was the Star of Bethlehem?

How ancient astronomers observed the heavens

The Magi following the Star of Bethlehem, from a 13th-century stucco relief from the church of Santa Maria de Mosoll, Spain.

The Magi following the Star of Bethlehem, from a 13th-century stucco relief from the church of Santa Maria de Mosoll, Spain. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

For the past 2,000 years, people have wondered about the identity and nature of the Star of Bethlehem. And for hundreds of years, some of the world’s smartest people—including famed astronomer Johannes Kepler—have tried to use science to find the answer. Dozens, if not hundreds, of natural solutions have been put forward to account for the Nativity story in Matthew 2:1–12.a However, no matter which astronomical phenomenon is suggested, there is one massive problem: Nearly all modern science-based solutions ignore how ancient people thought about and examined the sky.

As scientific advancements have drastically changed what we know about the sky, they have also drastically altered how we think about it. There is no guarantee that a particular celestial event identified by a modern astronomer would be seen as auspicious by ancient people—much less as predicting a future king—no matter how interesting or remarkable we might find that event today. But, if modern astronomy cannot identify the Star of Bethlehem, can ancient astronomy?

Ancient cultures throughout the Near East and Mediterranean had thriving and complex astronomical systems through which they examined and interpreted the sky. Although today these systems would more aptly be termed astral divination, in antiquity the difference between astronomy and astrology was negligible. After all, this is the reason the Magi would travel “from the East” (Matthew 2:1) upon seeing a star (see Book Review: The Magi in History and Tradition). These “wise men” did not operate according to any sort of modern principles; rather, they would have interpreted the sky in culturally specific ways, reading the sky as we would read a weather forecast today.


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Although each system of ancient astronomy was unique, by the first century BCE many of them had come to prioritize highly regular and mathematically predictable events, such as lunar phases, eclipses, and the procession of the zodiac. Within Babylonian astronomy, already an ancient and revered system by the Roman period, nearly every repetitive event had its own significance, including every day, month, area of the sky, and celestial body. Yet these events were never taken on their own, and a wide range of factors could drastically impact their interpretation by astronomers—factors, such as weather patterns, that would have little or no bearing on the astronomy of today and are now irrecoverable in any case. An eclipse on a specific day, for example, may have indicated the death of a king, but the presence of clouds covering a particular side of the moon could have changed the king to which the signs referred, and thus whether it was a bad or good sign. More signs could then be layered on top of these, creating ever more complex results.

Babylonian zodiac from the second century BCE depicting the sign Leo.

Babylonian zodiac from the second century BCE depicting the sign Leo. Courtesy Staatliche Museen Zu Berlin, Vorderasiatisches Museum, Olaf M. Tessmer, CC BY-SA 4.0.

In antiquity, diagnostic manuals and charts existed for reading the heavens, such as the 70-tablet-long Babylonian text Enuma Anu Enlil, from which astronomers could base their interpretations. In practice, however, these interpretations were never as consistent and straightforward as one might expect. A similarly convoluted system existed in Roman astronomy. Ptolemy’s Apotelesmatika (second century CE), for example, listed seven separate regions that could be represented by an astronomical phenomenon in Aries: Britain, Gaul, Germany, Bastarnia, Syria, Idumea, and Judea. Yet many of these regions were not agreed upon by scholars of Ptolemy’s own age, which highlights the remarkably disparate range of possible interpretations.

Thus, we arrive at a twofold problem. First, ancient astronomers placed critical value on many astral phenomena that fall outside the purview of modern astronomy, including things as mundane as the weather. Second, interpretations of these events could vary greatly, even between individual astronomers who could choose which phenomena they focused on and which they did not.

Unfortunately, the Gospel of Matthew is of little help in pinning down what the Star of Bethlehem may have been. Despite the interpretive efforts of numerous scholars, Matthew’s description remains too vague, allowing for an incredible array of possible explanations before one even considers the many other phenomena that the ancients would have factored into their understanding of the sky.

Indeed, we cannot even be certain who the Magi were (see Book Review: The Magi in History and Tradition). While Matthew refers to them as magoi, a type of Zoroastrian priest from Persia, there is little evidence that such priests were common practitioners of astral divination. This word is used occasionally as a generic term for non-Greek scholars, including a group frequently called Chaldeans (Daniel 2:2), who were identified in Hellenistic times as practitioners of Babylonian astronomy. Yet even if we could connect the Magi to Babylonian astronomy with any confidence, the earlier twofold problem remains: ancient astronomers would have considered phenomena that we are unable to reconstruct in modern times; and even if we could, we would have no way of knowing exactly how the Magi themselves would have interpreted them.

While natural and scientific solutions have become increasingly popular, they fail to account for the insurmountable fact that in order to know what the Magi saw that night more than 2,000 years ago, we ourselves would need to be able to experience and know the world as they did. Perhaps those are things best left to the imagination rather than to modern science.


Nathan Steinmeyer is a Ph.D. candidate at Tel Aviv University where he specializes in the history and sociology of the Late Old Babylonian Period. His research interests also include the interconnection between the Hebrew Bible and its Near Eastern context. He is currently an assistant editor for Biblical Archaeology Review.


Footnotes

a. See Simo Parpola, “The Magi and the Star,” Bible Review, December 2001.


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

We Have Seen His Star in the East: What Was the Christmas Star?

Review: The Magi in History and Tradition

Nativity—A Tale of Two Stories


All-Access members, read more in the BAS Library:

What Was the Star that Guided the Magi?
The Magi and the Star
Not a BAS Library or All-Access Member yet? Join today.


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8 Responses

  1. John says:

    Wasn’t the ‘star’ actually an angel? It stood over the house where the Messiah was. A star that we see up in the sky at night could not stand over a house. Elsewhere in the Bible, angels are sometimes referred to as ‘stars.’ And of course, angels are ‘messengers.’ And the shepherds in the field saw an angel and he spoke to them about the birth of the Messiah. So, an angel led the wise men to the location of our savior.

  2. Dirk Byker says:

    If only people would read Matthew 2 ! What did the Magi say? We saw His star when it rose (anatole) (Mat 2:2) and “the star that they had seen when it rose went before them and came to rest (i.e. stopped, standstill) (Mat 2:9) almost two years later – according to the time that he (Herod) had ascertained from the wise men (Mat 2:16). The motion of a planet is clearly discernable. The “star” rose (heliacal rising, early morning before dawn). One thing planets do is to rise, a few months later stop (first station) then retrograde for several months, stop again (second station) and resume prograde motion until last visibility. For Jupiter (The king star) the heliacal rising on 28 Oct 1 AD and the first station on 3 Apr 3 AD are particularly significant in that they also coincided with feasts in Lev 23. This implies that any appearance that does not follow the sequence shown, is not valid. The three conjunctions of Jupiter-Saturn during 7 BC did not comply, and therefore the 4 BC myth is demolished!

  3. There is an old saying that ‘a thing that is true cannot be said often enough’. But lets try one more time. Through modern computer driven astronomy, we can absolutely know for certain what the Star of Bethlehem was, when it occurred and its relationship to the Magi.

    Once and for all, the Star was the conjoining of the planets Venus and Jupiter. This conjunction reached its zenith on June 17th 2B.C. This was the date Jesus was born and the day the shepherds visited Him. The Magi in Babylon saw this phenomenon occur in the sign of Leo the Lion with its paw on the head of Hydra the Serpent. They rightly concluded this was a heavenly sign from the God of Daniel their prophet that a King had been born due west in the land of Judah. King Nebuchazzer had appointed Daniel Chief of his Magi and Daniel had written his God given prophecies down for the Magi to refer to 550 years later. The Magi then conferred with others possibly in the lands of Persia and Afghanistan. In October, the Magi began their three month 900 mile journey around the Arabian desert to Judah. While Venus and Jupiter were no longer stacked together, Jupiter now went into three successive retrogrades. This is when a planet, known to the ancients as Wandering Stars, traveled in one direction then ‘stopped’ and move in the opposite direction. Jupiter retrograded October 28th of 2B.C. and a second time on November 30th. The Magi arrived at Herod’s palace in late December and enquired where the child could be found. Herod’s Chief Priest advisor told the Magi and Herod the prophecy of Micah that the Anointed One of God would be born in Bethlehem. The Magi then observed Jupiter retrograding one final time only to ‘stop’ directly over Jerusalem/ Bethlehem (Matthew 2:9). This occurred on December 25th, 2B.C. The Magi left Herod, traveled 4 miles south to Bethlehem and found Jesus with His family living in a ‘house’. Jesus was now a six month old baby (Matthew 2:11). This was then the ‘first’ celebration of the birth of Jesus, and we continue this tradition to this day.

    Anyone can purchase or download for free an astronomy app, program it to look up into the sky from the vantage point of Bethlehem on June 17th and then December 25th and clearly and scientifically see these two astronomical events taking place. In the Book of Genesis, God said that He would use the stars to “mark the seasons and for signs”.

    I can only surmise that people continue to write about how the Star is unknowable and the Magi did not visit Jesus because keeping these events mysterious draws readers. Sorry to be the one to apparently scientifically solve a mystery that never was. However, the real mind blowing fact is that God created the Big Bang, and 13.8 billion years later these astrological events happened exactly at their appointed times. Remarkable!

  4. Sir. When I see the acronym BCE employed, my antennae always go up. Typically, it signals to me, a usage by one who does not recognize our Western dating system as having been obviously chained to the birth/life of Christ. Typically that would indicate a non-believer although sometimes it is used by nominal Christians who think it appropriate for vague “scientific” reasons.
    After this use of BCE, your article seemed to confirm my observation by the means of a great mass of learning coming to no conclusion. It reminds me of Festus’ statement in Acts 26:24.
    Anyway, perhaps you would consider Shekinah Glory. It is seen often in the Bible and is a visible manifestation of God. I believe God works through “normal physical manifestations” as well as “miracles”. The God who created the Universe and all that is in it is surely capable of performing miracles or “attesting signs and wonders” whenever He wants. I think that is what He employed to herald the appearance of The Messiah and that is The Star of Bethlehem.
    Merry Christmas!

    1. Dale Ferguson says:

      Most commentators, trying to identify the Star of Bethlehem, fail to read Matthew 2:7 where it says King Herod “called the wise men and inquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.” If it was a celestial event, Herod’s astrologers would already have known when it appeared. The wise men’s arrival would give it a purpose, causing the agitation described in Matthew 2, verse 3. Mr. FitzGerald’s idea makes sense.

    2. Romeo Bejo says:

      What did Jesus mean when he said in Rev. 22:16 “I am…the bright and morning star.”?

      What is the Morning Star?
      Morning star, most commonly used as a name for the planet Venus when it appears in the east before sunrise.

      Which planet is the month of May?
      Venus is maximum brightness at the beginning of the month (of May) and becomes visible before sunset about 45 degrees high.

      So this explains the star is Venus and Jesus was born on the month of May.

      Mary was a member of the Jewish sect Essenes, as well as Joseph. When Joseph died, “Jesus’ brother James the Just appears to have been the leader of the Jerusalem Essenes.”
      So the magi (3 wise men) were also members of the Essenes summoned during the time of Jesus’s birth which is customary during that time to foretell the fate or destiny of the child.
      If one is not a well-to-do family, they can have at least one wise man. But since Jesus family is a well-to-do one, they have three who came from Egypt.

      “The Essenes were, allegedly, the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls and were settled by the Dead Sea. An ancient source locates their sister sect, The ‘Therapeutae’, as being by the shores of Lake Mareotis in Egypt. No scholar has previously sought to locate where exactly on Lake Mareotis they were settled.”

      See that Jesus also had a knowledge in the sky as stated in Matthew 6:1-3:

      “The Pharisees also with the Sadducees came, and tempting desired him that he would shew them a sign from heaven. He answered and said unto them, When it is evening, ye say, It will be fair weather: for the sky is red. And in the morning, It will be foul weather to day: for the sky is red and lowring. O ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times?”

    3. James Hamrick says:

      Too often God is simply left out of the reasoning, not only concerning the star of Bethlehem but other questions as well. Those who want to make the star to be some natural event as a conjoining of planets and/or stars are ridiculous. The moon is far nearer but cannot be said to point out any particular point on earth as the star of Bethlehem did in pointing out a particular house.

      An angel? Shekinah Glory? A distinct manifestation of the Father? Whatever the “star” was it has never been repeated.

  5. Clifford Reams says:

    Actually modern science HAS discovered how the Star came about just as the Bible reported.
    In the documentary “The Star of Bethlehem”. Shows how it happened through a study of the planets and stars location At that time.

Write a Reply or Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


8 Responses

  1. John says:

    Wasn’t the ‘star’ actually an angel? It stood over the house where the Messiah was. A star that we see up in the sky at night could not stand over a house. Elsewhere in the Bible, angels are sometimes referred to as ‘stars.’ And of course, angels are ‘messengers.’ And the shepherds in the field saw an angel and he spoke to them about the birth of the Messiah. So, an angel led the wise men to the location of our savior.

  2. Dirk Byker says:

    If only people would read Matthew 2 ! What did the Magi say? We saw His star when it rose (anatole) (Mat 2:2) and “the star that they had seen when it rose went before them and came to rest (i.e. stopped, standstill) (Mat 2:9) almost two years later – according to the time that he (Herod) had ascertained from the wise men (Mat 2:16). The motion of a planet is clearly discernable. The “star” rose (heliacal rising, early morning before dawn). One thing planets do is to rise, a few months later stop (first station) then retrograde for several months, stop again (second station) and resume prograde motion until last visibility. For Jupiter (The king star) the heliacal rising on 28 Oct 1 AD and the first station on 3 Apr 3 AD are particularly significant in that they also coincided with feasts in Lev 23. This implies that any appearance that does not follow the sequence shown, is not valid. The three conjunctions of Jupiter-Saturn during 7 BC did not comply, and therefore the 4 BC myth is demolished!

  3. There is an old saying that ‘a thing that is true cannot be said often enough’. But lets try one more time. Through modern computer driven astronomy, we can absolutely know for certain what the Star of Bethlehem was, when it occurred and its relationship to the Magi.

    Once and for all, the Star was the conjoining of the planets Venus and Jupiter. This conjunction reached its zenith on June 17th 2B.C. This was the date Jesus was born and the day the shepherds visited Him. The Magi in Babylon saw this phenomenon occur in the sign of Leo the Lion with its paw on the head of Hydra the Serpent. They rightly concluded this was a heavenly sign from the God of Daniel their prophet that a King had been born due west in the land of Judah. King Nebuchazzer had appointed Daniel Chief of his Magi and Daniel had written his God given prophecies down for the Magi to refer to 550 years later. The Magi then conferred with others possibly in the lands of Persia and Afghanistan. In October, the Magi began their three month 900 mile journey around the Arabian desert to Judah. While Venus and Jupiter were no longer stacked together, Jupiter now went into three successive retrogrades. This is when a planet, known to the ancients as Wandering Stars, traveled in one direction then ‘stopped’ and move in the opposite direction. Jupiter retrograded October 28th of 2B.C. and a second time on November 30th. The Magi arrived at Herod’s palace in late December and enquired where the child could be found. Herod’s Chief Priest advisor told the Magi and Herod the prophecy of Micah that the Anointed One of God would be born in Bethlehem. The Magi then observed Jupiter retrograding one final time only to ‘stop’ directly over Jerusalem/ Bethlehem (Matthew 2:9). This occurred on December 25th, 2B.C. The Magi left Herod, traveled 4 miles south to Bethlehem and found Jesus with His family living in a ‘house’. Jesus was now a six month old baby (Matthew 2:11). This was then the ‘first’ celebration of the birth of Jesus, and we continue this tradition to this day.

    Anyone can purchase or download for free an astronomy app, program it to look up into the sky from the vantage point of Bethlehem on June 17th and then December 25th and clearly and scientifically see these two astronomical events taking place. In the Book of Genesis, God said that He would use the stars to “mark the seasons and for signs”.

    I can only surmise that people continue to write about how the Star is unknowable and the Magi did not visit Jesus because keeping these events mysterious draws readers. Sorry to be the one to apparently scientifically solve a mystery that never was. However, the real mind blowing fact is that God created the Big Bang, and 13.8 billion years later these astrological events happened exactly at their appointed times. Remarkable!

  4. Sir. When I see the acronym BCE employed, my antennae always go up. Typically, it signals to me, a usage by one who does not recognize our Western dating system as having been obviously chained to the birth/life of Christ. Typically that would indicate a non-believer although sometimes it is used by nominal Christians who think it appropriate for vague “scientific” reasons.
    After this use of BCE, your article seemed to confirm my observation by the means of a great mass of learning coming to no conclusion. It reminds me of Festus’ statement in Acts 26:24.
    Anyway, perhaps you would consider Shekinah Glory. It is seen often in the Bible and is a visible manifestation of God. I believe God works through “normal physical manifestations” as well as “miracles”. The God who created the Universe and all that is in it is surely capable of performing miracles or “attesting signs and wonders” whenever He wants. I think that is what He employed to herald the appearance of The Messiah and that is The Star of Bethlehem.
    Merry Christmas!

    1. Dale Ferguson says:

      Most commentators, trying to identify the Star of Bethlehem, fail to read Matthew 2:7 where it says King Herod “called the wise men and inquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.” If it was a celestial event, Herod’s astrologers would already have known when it appeared. The wise men’s arrival would give it a purpose, causing the agitation described in Matthew 2, verse 3. Mr. FitzGerald’s idea makes sense.

    2. Romeo Bejo says:

      What did Jesus mean when he said in Rev. 22:16 “I am…the bright and morning star.”?

      What is the Morning Star?
      Morning star, most commonly used as a name for the planet Venus when it appears in the east before sunrise.

      Which planet is the month of May?
      Venus is maximum brightness at the beginning of the month (of May) and becomes visible before sunset about 45 degrees high.

      So this explains the star is Venus and Jesus was born on the month of May.

      Mary was a member of the Jewish sect Essenes, as well as Joseph. When Joseph died, “Jesus’ brother James the Just appears to have been the leader of the Jerusalem Essenes.”
      So the magi (3 wise men) were also members of the Essenes summoned during the time of Jesus’s birth which is customary during that time to foretell the fate or destiny of the child.
      If one is not a well-to-do family, they can have at least one wise man. But since Jesus family is a well-to-do one, they have three who came from Egypt.

      “The Essenes were, allegedly, the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls and were settled by the Dead Sea. An ancient source locates their sister sect, The ‘Therapeutae’, as being by the shores of Lake Mareotis in Egypt. No scholar has previously sought to locate where exactly on Lake Mareotis they were settled.”

      See that Jesus also had a knowledge in the sky as stated in Matthew 6:1-3:

      “The Pharisees also with the Sadducees came, and tempting desired him that he would shew them a sign from heaven. He answered and said unto them, When it is evening, ye say, It will be fair weather: for the sky is red. And in the morning, It will be foul weather to day: for the sky is red and lowring. O ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times?”

    3. James Hamrick says:

      Too often God is simply left out of the reasoning, not only concerning the star of Bethlehem but other questions as well. Those who want to make the star to be some natural event as a conjoining of planets and/or stars are ridiculous. The moon is far nearer but cannot be said to point out any particular point on earth as the star of Bethlehem did in pointing out a particular house.

      An angel? Shekinah Glory? A distinct manifestation of the Father? Whatever the “star” was it has never been repeated.

  5. Clifford Reams says:

    Actually modern science HAS discovered how the Star came about just as the Bible reported.
    In the documentary “The Star of Bethlehem”. Shows how it happened through a study of the planets and stars location At that time.

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