O star of wonder, star of night,
Star of royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light.
There is no brighter symbol of the Christmas Story than the Star of Bethlehem. For over two thousand years, believers, scoffers, and the curious have wondered at the Biblical account of the Star. The book of Matthew is the only one of the four gospels that describes the unusual astronomical events that surround the birth of Christ. Skeptics easily dismiss the account of the Star as a myth devised by the early church, but for many believers, it is a mystery accepted on faith. Many modern liberal theologians regard the reference to the Star in Matthew’s gospel as “midrash,” defined in this case as a story made up to satisfy an Old Testament prophecy. Can we really know, “What was the Star of Bethlehem?” and “Why does it matter?”
The majority of what people know about the Star and the Magi comes from popular traditions and Christmas carols, most of which are unsupported by the biblical text. People often envision the Star as if it were a helicopter searchlight or UFO, sweeping over the landscape, swooping down, and then hovering over the stable. But if so, even in a rural region like Bethlehem, wouldn’t there have been a bit more chatter about it, at least somewhere? And so the skeptic asks, why do we have no such records outside the Bible? But maybe what Matthew reports is still miraculous, but not quite so apparent.
An examination of the biblical account in Matthew 2:1-12 provides us the following list of ten qualities, which must be present before any natural celestial event could be considered the biblical Star of Bethlehem:
- The Star appears before the death of Herod (verse 1).
- To the Magi, the Star signified birth (verse 2).
- To the Magi, the Star signified kingship (verse 2).
- To the Magi, the Star had a connection with the Jewish nation (verse 2).
- The Star rose in the east, as other stars (verse 2).
- The Star appeared at a precise time (verse 7).
- Herod did not know when the Star appeared (verse 7).
- The Star endured over time (verse 9).
- The Star was ahead of the Magi as they went south from Jerusalem to Bethlehem (verse 9).
- The Star stopped over Bethlehem (verse 9).
Over the past two thousand years, nearly everything in the night sky has at one time or another been proposed as the Star, usually with near-complete disregard for the above biblical criteria. Considering these qualifications, we can disqualify most astronomical phenomena. If any of the ten biblical features in Matthew’s account are absent, the phenomenon we are examining may be interesting but is not likely the Star of Bethlehem.
Before we can begin our search in earnest, two additional questions must be answered. The first is “Who were the Magi?” The answer to this question will give us great insight into the Star’s identity. Second, to find the Star, we must also know the specific time to look.
Who Were the Magi? Who then were these Magi, and where did they originate? Magi was the name given to great, powerful men, priests and wise men among the Medes, Persians, Zoroastrians, and Babylonians. Dr. Craig Chester, Past President of the Monterey Institute for Research in Astronomy, gives the following description of the Magi:
Magi is the plural of Magus, the root of our word magic, and “court astrologers” is probably the best translation, although “wise men” is also a good term, descriptive of the esteem in which they were widely held. The group of Magi in question came “from the East.” They might have been Zoroastrians, Medes, Persians, Arabs, or even Jews. They probably served as court advisors, making forecasts and predictions for their royal patrons based on their study of the stars, about which they were quite knowledgeable. Magi often wandered from court to court, and it was not unusual for them to cover great distances to attend the birth or crowning of a king, paying their respects, and offering gifts. Therefore, it is not surprising that Matthew would mention them as validation of Jesus’ kingship or that Herod would regard their arrival as a grave matter.
The Magi were significant, influential people of their day. The mention of their visit to Jerusalem was Matthew’s way of securing the testimony of top scientific authorities to authenticate the royal birth of Jesus. Therefore, a visit by the Magi to pay homage to a newborn king would not have appeared unusual to the original readers of Matthew’s gospel, but it would not have gone unnoticed.
The Magi must have had an unmistakably clear astronomical/astrological message to urge them on such a long, dangerous journey. The Magi were neither astronomers nor astrologers in the modern sense. They brought together science, poetry, art, and religion to explain and to understand their universe. The Magi charted the stars, noting their movements, and made predictions based on what they saw, so in that sense, they were astronomers. Yet, they believed that the positions of stars and planets have special meaning and foretold significant future events and were to be seen in conjunction with existing prophecies, so they also acted as astrologers. In Matthew 2:2, the Magi asked Herod, “Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.” They saw something in the night sky that was so significant it convinced them to make the long and dangerous trip to Jerusalem to look for this new King.
How could seeing “signs in the sky” inform the Magi that a King of the Jews had been born? After the Babylonian exile (II Kings 24-25), many Jews continued to live in the Persian Empire. By the beginning of the first century, there were over three million Jews scattered throughout the Diaspora. Thus, the Hebrew religion would have long existed in the “east.” This might explain how the Magi had knowledge of the prophecy regarding the birth of the King of the Jews.
Another possibility may be found in the Old Testament story of Daniel and the Babylonian exile. We know from the Old Testament that King Nebuchadnezzar assigned the prophet, Daniel, to the high office of “chief of the magicians, enchanters, astrologers and diviners.” Perhaps this association of Daniel with the early Magi in Babylon helps explain why the Magi in question 600 years later expected a Jewish king to arrive in Judea near the end of the first century B.C. There is evidence that Daniel’s prophesy of the coming of a powerful Jewish King was well known in most of the ancient world in the first century. The Jewish historian Josephus wrote that in the “sacred writings that about that time one from their country should become governor of the habitable earth.” 
Matthew’s narrative would suggest that the Magi observed an ordinary star that had unusual significance, which they interpreted as the sign of the birth of a Jewish king. The Magi were so impressed that they made their long, arduous journey to Jerusalem with costly gifts to present to the new King. After hearing their account, King Herod and all Jerusalem were equally persuaded that this “Star” was significant.
When Was Jesus Born? To identify the Star of Bethlehem, we must know when to look. Which brings us to our second question, “When was Jesus Born?” Dionysius Exiguus, the 6th-century Roman monk who devised the Gregorian calendar, which we use today, assumed that Jesus was born on the 25th of December, 1 A.D. Most early Christian sources place the birth of Jesus after Passover in 4 B.C., with most of them putting it in sometime in the late 3rd or early 2nd century B.C.
Most current theologians and biblical historians place the birth of Jesus before the spring of 4 B.C. They have insisted on this early date because of a reference in Josephus that King Herod died not long after an eclipse of the Moon and before Passover. This eclipse has become a crucial chronological benchmark in reckoning the year of Herod’s death and has led to a much earlier date for Jesus’ birth. The following quote from Carson and Moo’s An Introduction to the New Testament is typical of current scholarship on the subject:
According to Josephus, an eclipse of the Moon occurred shortly before Herod’s death. It is the only eclipse ever mentioned by Josephus and occurred on March 12/13, 4 B.C. After his death, there was a celebration of the Passover, the first day of which would have occurred on April 11, 4 B.C. Hence, his death occurred somewhere between March 12th and April 11th…Therefore, for these reasons, Christ could not have been born later than March/April 4 B.C.
Carson and Moo list Harold W. Hoehner’s Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ as the reference for their statement above. Hoehner gives Emil Schürer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus as the source of his statements regarding the date for the birth of Jesus. In fact, Emil Schurer’s critical work Geschichte des judischen Volkes im Zeitalter Jesu Christi written in 1874, is the source of most 20th/21st century scholars for dating the information presented in Josephus regarding the date of the eclipse and therefore the date of Herod’s death being no later than 4B.C. and subsequently the birth of Christ in 7/6 B.C.
Surprisingly, so many evangelical scholars adhere to Schürer’s early estimate of Jesus’ birth as fact when it brings into question the historicity of the Biblical account of the Nativity. Luke’s version of the census that brings Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem and his statement of Jesus’ age at the onset of his ministry both suffer from an earlier date of Jesus’ birth.
Despite this widely held opinion that Herod died in 4 B.C., this was neither the consensus before Schürer nor has it gone entirely unchallenged in the last half-century. Numerous historical problems with the 4 B.C. date for Herod’s death have gone unnoticed by all but a few of today’s evangelical scholars.
Based on Josephus’s account, Schürer’s choice to place Herod’s death in 4 B.C. is questionable. According to Josephus, on the night of a lunar eclipse, Herod executed two rabbis accused of inciting rebellion against the Roman Empire. This execution begins a chain of events recorded by Josephus that had to occur after the eclipse and before the following Passover. It appears impossible (or extremely unlikely) that they all occurred in only 30 days, as required by Schürer’s 4 B.C. scenario. It has plausibly been suggested that these events would require a minimum of fifty-four days between the eclipse and Passover, even if everything were accomplished as quickly as possible.
If Schürer’s date for the eclipse is wrong, are there other dates that could more appropriately fit the evidence? Two other eclipses have been suggested, both of which seem to be more reasonable than the one indicated by Schürer. Ernest Martin, in his book, The Star that Astonished the World offers a total eclipse that occurred on January 10, 1 B.C.and was visible in Palestine. It takes place twelve and a half weeks before Passover allowing all the events related by Josephus to comfortably fit into the ninety-two days between the eclipse and the following Passover. Martin also points out that it would have been unlikely that Herod would have had the rabbis executed on March 13, 4 B.C. because it falls on the second day of Purim. Even though Herod was angry about the act of the two rabbis, he certainly would not have been so politically insensitive as to have two famous leaders executed during the celebration of an important Jewish holiday. Astronomer Dr. John Pratt suggests yet another eclipse on December 29, 1 B.C., which also would have been widely seen in Palestine and occurred over three months before Passover.
As we have seen, the consensus about the death of Herod built around Schürer’s interpretation of Josephus is fraught with difficulties. It fails to fit any of the verifiable chronological data external to Josephus. Based on the available historical information, a much stronger case can be made for either 1 B.C. date. This suggests that the early church fathers’ date of Christ’s birth in late 3rd or early 2nd B.C. is more credible.
This earlier date also solves several problems of the historicity of the Biblical account of the Nativity. The problem of the census in Luke Chapter 2 is resolved with the later date of Jesus’ birth. The year 2 B.C. marked the 25th anniversary of Caesar Augustus’s rule and the 750th anniversary of the founding of Rome. “Historically, there is evidence that a registration was conducted throughout the Roman Empire and its subject states in 3 B.C.” If we conclude that Herod did die in 1 B.C., we can now add the years 3 B.C. and 2 B.C. to our search for the Star of Bethlehem.
An astronomical Perspective Using the Biblical criteria listed earlier, we are now ready to look for something in the “normal” night sky of the ancient Middle East between 7B.C. and 1B.C. Something which amazed the Magi but also went undetected by most observers. By using the ten qualifications taken from our text in Matthew, we are in a position to disqualify most astronomical phenomena as being the Star of Bethlehem.
Could the Star of Bethlehem have been a meteor or shooting star? A meteor is a small fragment of material or even cosmic dust which burns up upon entering the Earth’s atmosphere at tremendous speed, glowing brightly as it falls. While a “shooting star” can be viewed from Earth and could be a dramatic means of announcing an important event, it would fail most of the nine tests.
Could the Star of Bethlehem have been a comet? A comet is a small body in the solar system composed of rock, dust, and ice that orbits the Sun over several years. Early Christian scholar, Origen of Alexandria, suggested a comet, for comets appear sporadically, move, and can even seem to point down to the Earth. Although comets rise in the east and endure over time, there are problems with a comet being the star. First, comets were regarded as heralding important events but usually seen as omens of doom and destruction and would not be associated with the birth of a king. Second, Chinese astronomers’ records through this period do not show any spectacular celestial object that would be a comet. Finally, comets are usually obvious even to the casual observer. Anyone could and would have seen a comet. Herod would not have needed to ask the Magi when such a thing appeared. The Star was very likely not a comet.
Could the Star of Bethlehem have been a nova? A nova is an exploding star and can be spectacular. A nova appears suddenly at a point in time, endures over time, and rises in the east, as do other stars. Like a comet, a nova would have been obvious and seen by everyone. Once again, the Chinese kept excellent records during this period, and no novas were reported. If the Star was an actual astronomical event, it was very likely not a nova.
If the Star was not one of the spectacular astronomical events we have examined, what is left? Could the Star of Bethlehem have been a conjunction of planets? A conjunction is a close and apparent approach between two celestial objects and has long been considered a possibility.
Adding 3/ 2 B.C. to our search, we find an impressive series of planetary motions and conjunctions fraught with various astrological meanings such as the world had never seen before or since involving all the visible planets: Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. This period saw a series of close conjunctions involving Jupiter, the planet that represented kingship, coronations, and the birth of kings. In Hebrew, Jupiter was known as Sedeq or “Righteousness,” a term also used for the Messiah. The astrological significance of these impressive conjunctions would not have gone unnoticed by the Magi. This was one of the most remarkable periods in terms of celestial events in the last 3000 years.
The planet Jupiter appears to be a strong candidate for the Star of Bethlehem and a component of the event that triggered the visit of the Magi meeting the first nine of our biblical criteria. But how can we explain the final appearance of the Star and the fact that if stopped over Bethlehem?
If (Jupiter) would have been in the southern sky, though fairly high above the horizon. Could the Star have stopped over Bethlehem? The answer is yes. The word “stop” was used for what we now call a planet’s “stationary point.” A planet moves typically eastward through the stars from night to night and month to month, but regularly exhibits a “retrograde loop.” After it passes the opposite point in the sky from the Sun, it appears to slow, come to a full stop, and move backward (westward) through the sky for some weeks. Again, it slows, stops, and resumes its eastward course. It seems plausible that the Magi were “overjoyed” at again seeing before them, as they traveled southward, “his star,” Jupiter, which at its stationary point was standing still over Bethlehem. We do know for certain that Jupiter performed a retrograde loop in 2 B.C. and that it was stationary on December 25 during Hanukkah, the season for giving presents.
In the second chapter of Matthew, we read about how the Magi were guided by the Star to Palestine to worship and give gifts to the one they believed to be the King of the Jews. While the Star of Bethlehem could have been a supernatural event, how much more incredible is it to believe God used the planet Jupiter during eighteen months in the 3rd and 2ndcentury B.C. to reveal the birth of his son. What the Magi witnessed over many months was the fulfillment of God’s purpose through the tremendous celestial dance of stars and planets, set in motion by His hand at the beginning of time to announce the birth of the one who would make all things new. It may have been the planet Jupiter that led the Magi to Bethlehem, but it was God’s Word that revealed to them the meaning of the signs they saw in the heavens. Without it, they would never be able to understand what they saw in the night sky over 2000 years ago. Wise men still use it today to guide them in their journey.
“Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.”
 R. E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, (New York City: Chapman, 1977), 36-37.
Spiros Zodhiates, The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament. electronic ed. (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 2000, c1992, c1993) G3097.
 Craig Chester, “The Star of Bethlehem,” Imprimis, December 1996 Volume 25, Number 12.
 Craig Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1997), 55.
 The Holy Bible: New International Version. electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996, c1984), Da 5:11.
Symposium on Exegetical Theology, Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Indiana, January 2006).
 John Pratt, “Yet Another Eclipse for Herod,” Planetarian, Vol. 19, No. 4, Dec. 1990, pp. 8-14.