THE STAR OF BETHLEHEM FASCINATES. For millennia,
believers, scoffers and the curious have wondered at the Biblical account of the Star.
The Bible recounts unusual, or even impossible astronomical events at Christ's birth. For
many doubters, the account of the Star is easily dismissed as myth. For many
believers, it's a mystery accepted on faith. But what happens if we combine
current historical scholarship, astronomical fact and an open mind? Judge
Scroll, or you can click a heading below to jump to a section:
Why are we hearing this
If the Star was a real historical event, why are we learning of the evidence
only now? Why isn't it common knowledge? A few
minutes considering these things will intensify your experience and
understanding of what you will learn on this site. We'll look at three of the most
important factors leading to modern rediscovery of the Star: Johannes
Kepler's discovery of how the solar system works, improvements in our
knowledge of first century history and the spread of computers.
Kepler's discovery. Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) was one of the
great mathematical minds of human history (1). As Arthur Koestler wrote
in The Sleepwalkers, "Kepler and Galileo were the two giants on whose
shoulders Newton stood." A German by birth, Kepler began his professional
career in Graz, Austria teaching mathematics. His views in the
Protestant/Catholic contest then raging got him banished from Graz after
only a few years, but this actually worked for his good.
The reason is that about the time of his ouster, the earnest,
middle-class, 28 year-old Kepler had attracted the attention of one Tycho
Brahe (1546-1601). Apart from their advanced math skills, the two men had
little in common. Brahe was a wealthy, eccentric, aristocratic, overbearing,
hard-partying Danish nobleman who served in Prague as Imperial
Mathematician. He was also the acknowledged "prince of astronomers" due to
the unprecedented accuracy of his vast collection of astronomical
observations. And he could be a wildman. When Brahe lost his nose in a
college-years duel, he did better than our modern fashion of piercing noses.
He had a complete replacement nose molded of gold with silver. This he wore the
rest of his life.
Brahe invited the expelled Kepler to Prague to collaborate in study of
the solar system, which at the time was still poorly understood. Many still
thought of planets as "wandering stars." Both men were brilliant and keen to
unravel the mystery of planetary motion, but their temperaments were so different
that they mixed about like cats and dogs. The professional relationship was
decorated with verbal warfare and walk outs. The personality conflict was
heightened by Brahe's intent to remain the top dog astronomerhe would
not allow Kepler full access to his library of observations. Instead, he
dribbled out the data to maintain personal control. But when Brahe died
suddenly of a urinary tract problem in 1601, Kepler found himself promoted to
his master's position. Kepler himself became Imperial Mathematician with
full access to Brahe's library. That changed everything.
Kepler set out to prove that the planets travel in perfect circular solar
orbits. This presented a kind of mathematical beauty which particularly
attracted him. But try as he might, he could not force the mathematics of
circular orbits to align with what he saw in the sky each night. And Brahe's
meticulous records proved inconsistent with the theory of circles. In an
inspirational flash, Kepler saw that the planets might travel in elliptical
orbits and finally found the perfect mathematical fit. In 1609, he published
the First and Second Laws of Planetary Motion and ten years later, the Third
Law (2). These are still used by astronomers, NASA, the European Space Agency
and everyone else studying the stars today. These laws do not change.
With his brand new mathematical tools, Kepler held keys to the heavens
and time. He could do things no astronomer had ever done. With enough pens,
ink and time he could calculate sky maps showing the exact positions of all
of the stars and planets in the night sky. Not just for that evening's
observations, but for any day in history, as viewed from any place on the
surface of the Earth. Being a religious man, Kepler soon set his
equations grinding on the mystery of the Star of Bethlehem. It's almost
tragic that he didn't find the phenomena discussed on this web site, because
he pushed very hard in his search for the Star and even published on the
topic (3). He would have been delighted to see what you will see. But Kepler was
working from a flawed understanding of first century history, and that threw
him off the track.
So the first piece of the Star puzzle is that, thanks to Kepler, we now
have the ability to locate celestial objects with great precision at any
point in history and from any viewing point. For example, we can calculate
what the sky looked like over Jerusalem 2000 years ago. But that
raises the question of dates. For what years should we be scanning
Dating Christ's birth. The great majority of ancient
chronographers held that Christ was born in 3 or 2 BC (4), and none held that Jesus
was born before 4 BC. The ancients were correct, as we shall see, but by
Kepler's day that earlier and better understanding had been laid aside.
Kepler and his contemporaries concluded (as have many present day historians (5))
that Christ was born before 4 BC. The reasons for that
misunderstanding are complex and fascinating, but a major factor was their
interpretation of the writings of the ancient Jewish historian, Flavius
Josephus (37 AD-95 AD) (6).
Josephus' life was a wild ride worth a little detour here. (Don't worry,
we're getting where we're going). Josephus was born just a few years after
Christ's execution. A member of the Jewish Pharisee sect, he rose to
political prominence in Judea by the time he was in his late twenties. In 66
AD the Romans, who occupied Judea at that time, were thrown into a war
rage by what they saw as growing Jewish arrogance and treachery. Josephus
martialed Jewish forces to defend against an enemy that soon grew to the
proportions of a tidal wave. Roman troops, horses and siege engines poured
into the region in simply overwhelming numbers.
Resistance proved futile. Josephus and a fighting unit of 40 men were
cornered by Roman forces and retreated to a cave where they made a suicide
pact to avoid capture (7).
38 men died in that cave,
but Josephus and one other had second thoughts and were taken prisoners.
That's a twist, but here's a tighter one: Josephus wound up winning the
favor of Vespasian (9 AD-79 AD), who was then commander of the Roman expedition in
Judea. He was drafted into the Roman war effort against his own Jewish
people, and ultimately served as the interpreter for Vespasian's son, Titus
(39 AD-81 AD). Titus had orders to besiege Jerusalem and destroy the Jewish
temple. This he did in 70 AD, in apparent fulfillment of a 500 year-old
vision recorded by the Jewish prophet Daniel (8).
After the war, Josephus could not remain in Judea. He would have been
assassinated on sight. So he was taken to live in Rome. There, his
attentions appear to have turned to regaining the acceptance of his Jewish
countrymen. Perhaps to achieve this reinstatement, he wrote extensive
histories of the Jewish people and ancient times. These histories offer
important clues in the search for the Star. In one of his works,
Antiquities, Josephus mentions Jesus, John the Baptist and other New
Testament characters, including the murderous King Herod of the Gospel of
Matthew, Chapter 2.
The Bible recounts that Herod learned of the Messiah's birth from
astronomers who had seen the Star of Bethlehem. He tried to kill the child, so, obviously, the Bible records that Herod was alive at Jesus'
birth. Remember that this mattered to Kepler, because historians of his time apparently
inferred from Josephus' history that Herod died in 4 BC (9). Necessarily,
Kepler assumed Christ was born before that date, perhaps 5 BC or earlier.
So, those are the years for which he scanned the skies for the Star. Even
with the power of his newly discovered laws of planetary motion, he didn't
find the phenomena we will examine here. He searched the skies of the wrong
But modern scholarship has deepened our understanding of Josephus'
manuscripts. A recent study was made of the earliest manuscripts of
Josephus' writings held by the British Library in London, and the American Library of Congress. It revealed a surprise that allows us to target our
mathematical telescopes better than could Kepler (10). It turns out that a copying error was a primary cause of the confusion about the date of Herod's death. A printer typesetting the manuscript of Josephus' Antiquities messed up in the year
1544. Every single Josephus manuscript in these libraries dating from before 1544 supports
the inference that Herod passed in 1 BC. Strong recent scholarship confirms that date (11). Knowing this, and since
Herod died shortly after Christ's birth, our investigation turns to the
skies of 3 and 2 BC.
So, we have the second factor allowing us to "find" the Star today. We
newly know for which years we should examine the skies.
Computers. One more factor accounts for your hearing about the
Star now instead of long ago: computers. When Kepler calculated a sky map,
it was laborious. Plenty of pens and ink. And when the calculations were
complete, he had a picture of the sky at a single moment of time. If he had
selected the wrong day to search for the Star, he might find nothing. More
pens and ink. But Kepler's Laws of Planetary Motion are playthings for a
computer. The equations are solved almost instantaneously by modern
astronomy software available to anyone for about $50 (12).
With software which incorporates Kepler's equations, we can create a
computer model of the universe. In minutes we can produce thousands of the
sky maps which were a great labor before computers. We can animate the
universe in real time at any speed we choose, make months pass in moments or
wind back the clock. We can view the sky precisely as it moved over
Jerusalem 2000 years ago.
And when we look up, examining the correct years, we find
The Stars and the
Even if you are not of a traditional Christian or Jewish faith, you might
feel a bit uneasy searching for signs in the stars. Many people have
concluded that there isn't anything to astrologyor if there is something
to it, it's a "something" they want no part of. So, are we doing astrology
A reasonable question with a short answer. No. That's not what we're
here. Astrology holds that stars exert forces on men. Astrology is a:
"...form of divination based on the theory that the movement
of the celestial
bodiesthe stars, the planets, the sun and the mooninfluence
and determine the course of events." (13)
By contrast, the Bible refers to the celestial objects as carrying
signs from the Almighty. But it prohibits worship of what we see
above or even holding such things in too high regard. For example, we read
in the Book of Job, Chapter 31:
26 if I have regarded the sun in its radiance or the moon
moving in splendour, 27 so that my heart was secretly enticed and my hand
offered them a kiss of homage, 28 then these also would be sins to be
judged, for I would have been unfaithful to God on high.
The Old Testament even decrees the death penalty for star worship (14).
Still, the Bible does make a surprising number of references to
signs in the heavens. Both Old and New Testaments assume that what
happens up there matters. If we are interested in following the counsel of
the Bible, we must hold a distinction in mind. Astrology assumes that stars
are causes of earthly events. The Bible assumes that they can be
messages about earthly events. It may be useful to think of this as a thermometer
distinction. A thermometer can tell you if it's hot or cold, but it can't make
you hot or cold. There is a big difference between a sign and an active
agent. This is the difference between "astrology" and what the Bible holds forth.
Scholars believe that the Book of Job is the oldest Biblical text,
likely originating before the time of Abraham and the founding of the Jewish
nation. It's interesting, then, to find that this oldest book speaks of the
stars and the constellations with respect. It states that God set them in place.
And it references the same constellations we know today.
Even considering ancient literature other than the Bible, it appears that
the configurations of the constellations and what they represent may be older than the
oldest surviving texts of any language (15).
In the Book of Job, Chapter 9, Job credits God with creation of
the stars and constellations:
9 He is the Maker of the Bear [Ursa Major] and Orion, the
Pleiades and the constellations of the south.
And in Job Chapter 38, God makes much the same point. He, not man,
is sovereign over the creation, particularly the constellations:
31 "Can you bind the beautiful Pleiades? Can you loose the
cords of Orion? 32 Can you bring forth the constellations in their
Many other Biblical writers in many other passages state that God
arranged the stars. For example, says the Book of Isaiah in Chapter
26 Lift your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all
these? He who brings out the starry host one by one, and calls them each by
name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is
Several striking passages on this issue were written by David, son of
Jesse. David is a towering Biblical figure. A fierce warrior, a revered king
who was himself deeply reverent. Highly intelligent and wonderfully poetic,
he wrote much of the Book of Psalms and some of the most beautiful
passages of scripture. Among these is Psalm 19, where David extols God's
handiwork in the stars. But he doesn't only extol, he tells us that the
stars bear a message. Watch his choice of verbs [emphasis added]:
1 ...The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies
proclaim the work of his hands. 2 Day after day they pour forth
speech; night after night they display knowledge. 3 There is no
speech or language where their voice is not heard. 4 Their voice goes
out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the
David chose verb after verb which says that the stars communicate.
An intriguing passage. But isn't it just poetry? Isn't David just speaking
with a poet's elegant symbolism?
The apostle Paul didn't think so.
In The Book of Romans, Chapter 10, Paul is addressing the
question: had the Jews of Christ's day heard that Messiah had come? He
answers the question by saying that of course they had heard. He then
quotes David to make his point!
17 Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and
the message is heard through the word of Christ. 18 But I ask: Did they [the
Jews] not hear? Of course they did: "Their voice has gone out into all the
earth, their words to the ends of the world."
Note the structure of Paul's argument. Paul is taking the position that
something has happened in the stars which indicated to the Jews of his time
that the Messiah had come. As we shall see, the apostle Peter elsewhere
forcefully makes the same argument. Of course, this argument has exactly
no force unless something had happened in the stars. The fact that
both men employed this line of reasoning shows they are making the same
assumption. They assumed that their listeners were aware of celestial
phenomena associated with Christ. It's our quest to determine what those
For those who revere the Bible, we've probably seen enough to set us at
ease about looking for meaning in the stars. We're not doing something that
the Bible condemns. Just the opposite. But there is one more authority who
can put the most devout Christian at ease about looking up after dark. Jesus
himself. In the Book of Luke, Chapter 21, Jesus tells us:
25 "There will be signs in the sun, moon and
So, it is Biblically legitimate to look for signs in the stars, but
always remembering the thermometer distinction. The Book of
Deuteronomy warns at Chapter 4:
19 ...when you look up to the sky and see the sun, the moon
and the stars--all the heavenly array--do not be enticed into bowing down to
them and worshipping things the LORD your God has apportioned to all the
nations under heaven.
At numerous times in Biblical history, the Jewish nation ignored this
warning. Rather than looking to the stars for signs, they slipped over the
forbidden line into assuming the stars influenced human affairs. They began
to worship created things instead of the Creator. In the Second Book of
Kings, Chapter 23, we find King Josiah leading a revival of spirituality
among the Jews and a return to worship of God alone. One of the things
Josiah had to do was clear out astrological objects which had been brought
in to the very temple itself:
4 [Josiah] ordered Hilkiah the high priest, the priests next
in rank and the doorkeepers to remove from the temple of the LORD all the
articles made for...all the starry hosts. He burned them outside
The bottom line on the Bible and the stars: we may look to the stars for
signs from God, but we are not to revere the stars themselves.
The Nine Points of Christ's
We're now ready to examine the qualifications for the Star. Working from the
Biblical account in Matthew, unpacking it verse by verse, we can
compile a list of nine qualities which must be present before any celestial
phenomena could be considered to be the Biblical Star of Bethlehem. If any
qualification is missing, then we will assume we haven't found our Star. All
of the following verses come from the Gospel of Matthew Chapter
1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the
time of King Herod,
To begin, we see again how important the date of Herod's death is to the
investigation. If Herod died in 4 BC, then Christ had to be born before
that year. But if Herod died in 1 BC, as the best evidence indicates, then
we should look at the years 2 and 3 BC.
1 (cont'd) Magi from the east came to
Who are these magi? The word, 'magi,' which is sometimes translated 'wise
men,' is the root from which we get our word 'magic.' This doesn't make them
all magicians, in the present sense of the word. Some of them were learned
men in general, who studied the physical world and were knowledgeable about
many things, including the stars. Magi were often court astronomers who were
consulted by the rulers of the day for guidance in affairs of state. This
was also true in much earlier times. For example, during the Babylonian
captivity of the Jews, some 500 years earlier, King Nebuchadnezar kept a
stable of court magi. Nebuchadnezer made the Jewish prophet Daniel Chief
Magus of his court when Daniel was able to interpret a dream the other magi
could not (16).
There were magi of various schools, and some were more respected than
others. We know something of a particularly prestigious school of magi from
the writings of Philo. Philo was a Jewish philosopher and contemporary of
Jesus who lived in the large Jewish community of Alexandria, Egypt. Philo
wrote in praise of an Eastern school of magi and their great learning and
understanding of the natural world (17). This school may have
descended from the Babylonian magi of Daniel's day. Matthew does report that
the Wise Men were from the East, and Babylon is east of Judea. It was at one
time part of the Persian Empire, which ties in with Philo. So it is possible
the Wise Men were of this prestigious Eastern school. This would account for
Herod giving them an audience, and for his strong reaction to the news they
2 and asked, "Where is the one who has been born king of the
The Magis' question gives us three points for our list of qualifications
for the Star. Whatever happened in the sky indicated 1) birth, 2) kingship
and 3) Jews. It also gives us a clue about the Magi. They were interested in
2 (cont'd) We saw his star in the east and have come to
When the wise men said "we saw his star in the east," they didn't mean
"we saw his star while we were in the East." The Greek text here says the
Star was "en anatole," meaning they saw his star rising in the east. That's
what all but polar stars do, because of the rotation of the Earth. Stars
rise in the east, but not all celestial objects do that. So, that's another
qualification for the Star: 4) it must rise in the east like most other
The motive of the Magi in coming to Jerusalem tells us a great deal more
about them. They wanted to worship a Jewish king. It can't be proven from
the text, but it is quite possible that some of the Magi were of Jewish
descent, perhaps a Jewish remnant from Daniel's day. This would help explain
why a Jewish philosopher, Philo, would admire them, why they were watching
the sky for things Jewish, why they wanted to worship a Jewish king, and why
they were taken so seriously by Herod and Jewish chief priests. If they were
not Jews, then they must have been most impressive magi indeed, as Jews of
the time were deeply disdainful of pagans and their beliefs (18).
3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all
Jerusalem with him.
You must know more to understand just how very troubled Herod and
Jerusalem became at the Magis' news. Historians tell us that respect for the
stars and guidance derived from them was at a peak (19). Both ancient historians
and the Bible make it clear that the Jews of this period expected a new Jewish
ruler to arise, based upon Jewish prophecy (20). And it was accepted that
the stars could announce such an arrival.
For example, about 60 years earlier, in 63 BC, magi made a presentation
to the Roman Senate. They described celestial portents indicating that a new
ruler had been born. Evidently regretting that news, the Senate responded by
ordering the death of baby boys in the candidate age range (21). Sound familiar? It turns out
that when Herod ordered the slaughter of children in Bethlehem he may have been
following a sort of Roman precedent. That precedent may be one reason Jerusalem was
troubled at the news the Wise Men brought. Perhaps they realized the Romans
might shed blood in response.
4 When he had called together all the people's chief priests
and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. 5
"In Bethlehem in Judea," they replied, "for this is what the prophet has
written: 6 "'But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least
among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the
shepherd of my people Israel.'"
Herod took the Magis' message as factual, and consulted the Jewish
experts about the location of the birth. The fateful verse in the Book of
Micah which is quoted to Herod by the Jewish experts soon resulted in
the death of many little boys in Bethlehem.
7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from
them the exact time the star had appeared.
Another qualification for the Star: 5) It appeared at an exact time. And
yet another qualification: 6) Herod didn't know when it appeared. He had to
8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and make a careful
search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too
may go and worship him." 9 After they had heard the king, they went on their
way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it
stopped over the place where the child was.
And now we have the last three qualifications for the Star: 7) it endured
over a considerable period of time. The Magi saw it, perhaps from Babylon,
traveled to Judea and saw it still. 8) It went ahead of them as they
traveled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. You might not realize that this
doesn't mean the Star was needed to guide the travelers to Bethlehem.
Bethlehem was (and is) just five miles south of Jerusalem on the main road.
They couldn't miss it. No, the Star appears ahead of them as they trek south
not so much as a guide as a further confirmation of the signs they had seen.
Lastly, 9) the Star stopped! Can a star do that? Yes, it can, as we shall
What was the
We now know much about the Star.
- It signified birth.
- It signified kingship.
- It had a connection with the Jewish nation.
- It rose in the east, like other stars.
- It appeared at a precise time.
- Herod didn't know when it appeared.
- It endured over time.
- It was ahead of the Magi as they went south from Jerusalem to
- It stopped over Bethlehem.
Knowing these qualifications, we are in a position to disqualify
most astronomical phenomena as being the Star. Remember that if any of the
nine Biblical features of the Star is absent, then the phenomenon we are
examining may be interesting, but isn't likely the Biblical Star (22).
A meteor? A meteor is a small fragment of material or even
celestial dust which enters Earth's atmosphere at great speed glowing
brightly as its outer layers vaporize. While often a physically small thing,
a "shooting star" can be beautiful viewed from Earth and could be a dramatic
means of making an announcement in the heavens. But such a sign would fail
most of the nine tests. Most obvious is the fact that shooting stars don't
rise in the east like other stars, they do "shoot" across the sky. Because
they display suddenly, only once and for mere moments as they burn up in the
Earth's atmosphere, it is not obvious how the Magi could form associations
with kingship, birth, the Jews, the Messiah's birthplace and all. And meteors
don't endure long enough to satisfy the Biblical criteria. The Star was very
likely not a meteor.
Perhaps a comet? A comet is an object which has a very large orbit
about the Sun, an orbit of many years duration. You may be familiar with
Halley's Comet. Halley's, like many comets, is a block of ice, in Halley's
case a few miles across. It orbits the Sun in a 75.5 year circuit, and like
all comets, it is easily tracked using Kepler's equations. Comets do rise in
the east and endure over time. But there are several problems with the comet
The first problem is sociological. At this time in history (and all the
way into the middle ages), comets were regarded as omens of doom and
destruction, the very opposite of good tidings. This was in part because of
comet behavior. They were perceived in ancient times to break into the sky
ignoring the highly ordered and repetitive clockwork movement of the
heavens. The Almighty could have chosen to use an ominous sign for the birth
of Christ. Presumably, He can do whatever He likes. But if the purpose of
the Star was to communicate something joyful to man, a comet seems an
A bigger problem is that there do not appear to have been any comets in 3
or 2 BC. Several civilizations maintained records of such phenomena,
notably the Chinese. These records have been preserved to the present day,
and no comets are recorded for these years.
Finally, comets are obvious things. Anyone could and would have seen a
comet. Herod would not have needed to ask the Magi when such a thing
appeared. The Biblical Star was very likely not a comet.
What about a nova? A nova is an exploding star. A nova appears
suddenly at a point in time, endures over time, rises in the east like other
stars and can be spectacular. However, none appears in the ancient records
for this time period.
And like comets, a nova is an obvious thing. Many of us have been to
locations, such as high mountains or the desert, far from modern artificial
light (which astronomers call "light pollution"). We marvel at how clearly
the heavens can be seen under such conditions. Unless weather interfered,
Jerusalem was like that every night, and common people were far more
familiar than are we with the appearance of the night sky. If a nova
suddenly appeared, almost everyone would know about it. Herod would not have
had to ask the Magi when it appeared. If the Star was a real astronomical
event, it was very likely not a nova.
What's left? If the Star wasn't one of the spectacular
astronomical objects we've examined, what's left? Biblical qualification
6that Herod had to ask when the Star appeared is a powerful clue.
Anyone can glance up and see planets and stars. That is the nature of things
in the sky. But, apparently, one could look up at the Star without realizing
it. Herod didn't know of it. It took magi to explain it. But once the Star
was pointed out, all Jerusalem went abuzz, and Herod jumped into murderous
action. A reasonable hypothesis is that the Star must have been something
in the normal night sky which was striking when explained.
Did anything interesting happen in the ordinary night skies over the
Middle East in 3 or 2 BC?
Next...The Starry Dance