The Star of Bethlehem is one of the best-known and most widely-revered elements of the Christmas story.
However, it is controversial in terms of whether the bright light that, according to the Bible and the Christmas story, guided the three Wise Men to the manger where Jesus was born was real.
And if it was natural, what was it?
Many believers seek to prove that it was a natural phenomenon, while others argue that whether it literally happened is less important than its catechistic value.
From the development of astronomy during the Middle Ages, there have been numerous theories advanced.
Accounts of this special star, however, begin with the Bible and other ancient texts.
Biblical and other Classical References
The “Star in the East,” also known as the Christmas Star, is mentioned in twelve places in the Bible, including, according to Christian beliefs, in some places in the Old Testament.
The most widely associated Old Testament reference to the Star of Bethlehem is in Psalm 29: “The Heavens declare the Glory of God, the sky proclaims God’s handiwork.”
This passage is used to promote the idea that God was using the star as a sign to signal his coming presence on Earth in human form.
Another reference derived from the Old Testament is found in the prophecy of Balaam, who gave blessings of Israel in place of the curses he was ordered to give.
In this story, Balaam declared: “a star will come forth from Jacob, a scepter will arise from Israel.”
Another Old Testament allusion may be found in the book of Job, one that furthermore supports the belief that the star was actually an angel.
This passage reads: “as the morning stars sang together and the angels shouted for joy.” Also, Psalm 147says: “He counts all the stars and calls them all by name.”
The more direct Biblical references to the Star of Bethlehem, however, occur in the New Testament, mainly in the Gospel of Matthew.
In Matthew, the story begins with the sighting of the star by the Three Wise Men, also known as the Three Kings, or the Magi.
In it, the Three Wise Men went to Jerusalem to ask “Where is the child who has been born the King of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage.”
Then when King Herod of Judea heard the news, he was scared, believing that this new king would usurp him.
So, seeking to find and kill the new king, Herod asked the Wise Men to go search for the child and “bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
In this account, the Wise Men continued on their journey, and “there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising until it stopped over the place where the child was.”
But probably the most famous reference to an unusual celestial light identified it as an angel, is found in the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke, which reads:
“There were shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them.”
The shepherds were described as a “sore afraid,” and the angel then told them: “Fear Not. For I bring you tidings of great joy,” which was the birth. “in the city of David… a savior.”
Interestingly, in this Gospel, those who responded to the heavenly sign to seek out the newborn Jesus were not kings or wise men, but simple shepherds.
Other Historical Sources
The idea of a heavenly sign or symbol announcing the birth of a great leader or savior is not unique to Christianity.
If anything, it reflects widespread ancient beliefs, especially among Greeks and Romans, that unusual sights or occurrences in the sky served as signs and portents, for ill as well as good.
There is a very similar legend about an unusual astronomic event associated with the birth of Augustus.
Even in Jewish folklore, there is a story of a king who was threatened enough by the birth of a possible rival to follow a star sign to the birthplace to find and kill him.
This story can be found in the Sephardic Jewish cancione (song). “Cuando El Rey Nimrod.”
In it, the ancient Babylonian King Nimrod, observed a bright light in the sky, over the Jewish quarter that signaled the birth of father Abraham!
But what may be unique to the Christian gospel is the plot of King Herod trying to trick the Wise Men into helping him find the new king.
Instead, the Wise Men deceive King Herod, and Jesus, Mary, and Joseph escape to Egypt.
Historical and Calendar Related Problems with the Star of Bethlehem
Regardless of the origin of the story, the Star of Bethlehem is a beloved part of Christmas iconography.
The popular image features three men bearing gifts, sometimes riding camels, and always following a uniquely bright star.
But when the Star of Bethlehem is removed from theology and legend, in an attempt to seek scientific and/or historical proof, there are numerous problems.
None have ever been addressed in a way that has been universally agreed upon, even about when it happened.
To begin with, the events described in the Bible do not concur with other historical evidence of the associated events, including the birth of Jesus.
Rather than December 24, Jesus’s birth was most likely to have happened in the spring, and in any case, was not in the year 0 A.D. (CE)–4 or 6 A.D. (CE) are more likely.
The Biblical account also does not concur either with historical timing of the death of King Herod or historical accounts of the Roman censuses referred to in the Bible
In addition, the references in the Gospel of Luke to the date of the Governorship of Quirinius of Syria are problematic.
Even the accounts of the shepherds watching their flocks at night suggest springtime, which is the peak time for lambs to be born.
Lambing would have been the only time that shepherds would have stayed out with their flocks through the night.
In fact, there is strong evidence that the December 25 date for Christmas was selected later by the church in order to compete with the Roman Saturnalia.
Comet or Supernova
There have been many theories advanced throughout the ages as to whether the star of Bethlehem was a natural occurrence, and if so, what kind.
The most popular possibilities include a comet or supernova, both of which meet the criteria of being brighter than ordinary stars, but only visible for a limited period of time.
A comet is a traveling ball of ice, gasses, and dust, while a supernova is the explosion of some stars at the end of their lives.
Both comets and supernovas have made infrequent enough appearances in the sky throughout history for people the world over to write, wonder, and attribute portents or miracles to them.
One noted astronomer, Frank J. Tipler, has suggested that the scientific evidence that concurs with the biblical account supports a supernova explosion, in the Andromeda Galaxy.
North Star, Multiple Stars, or Something Else?
Other possible theories include those that the star of Bethlehem may have been more than one star, or alternately, the North Star (Polaris).
But there are also less well known, but just as intriguing possibilities.
In fact, “star” is a less-than-exact translation of the original Greek text of the New Testament.
This means that even the authors of the Christian Bible did not necessarily assume that it was a star. even according to the knowledge of stars from this period.
Also, ancient astrologers paid less attention to regular stars than to more unusual occurrences in the sky.
Therefore, it would make sense that the Christmas star as something other than a regular star.
Other possibilities include the visual conjunction (closed meeting) of planets with constellations, which create distinctive effects in the sky, which is sometimes known as “dancing planets.”
Considering that people in ancient times thought of planets as “wandering stars,” this idea has some historical plausibility.
One of the earliest recorded examples were a series of conjunctions in Pisces, between 5 and 6 B.C.(E.)
Given that the constellation Pisces was at the time, considered the “sign of the Jews” (and the fish is now a Christian symbol) this astronomical occurrence is an intriguing candidate. I
In fact, centuries later, the early astronomer, Johannes Kepler promoted the idea that the Star of Bethlehem was actually a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn with Pisces.
Of course, Kepler also believed that angels pushed the planets around!
But Kepler’s idea has been revived by a British astronomer, who cites Babylonian records that the Magi (who were Babylonian) were aware of this “triple conjunction.”
Another planetary conjunction possibility is the alignment of Jupiter and the moon in Aries, a theory that has recently been advanced by the astronomer Dr. Michael Molnar.
Molnar’s theory is based on contemporary information about Roman and Babylonian knowledge of astrology and astronomy, which largely indistinguishable through the Middle Ages.
Molnar also references an image created by an occultation in 6 BC (E). T
This theory’s significance is also based on the belief that the constellation Aries represented the nation of ancient Israel, and that the moon as the birther of kings.
The most recent planetary conjunction theory, however, has been advanced by a lawyer and amateur astronomer named Rick Larson.
Laron’s theory involves a series of conjunctions between Jupiter and Leo, Venus, and the star, Regulus, the last located in the constellation Virgo.
The significance of these heavenly bodies includes the association of Leo and the Lion of Judah, and less plausibly, of the Virgin Mary with Virgo.
Larson has even made a documentary promoting his theory, that is controversial, though popular among Christian viewers.
Christian Beliefs About the Star
Angel or Miracle
Many Christian theologians and believers, however, feel no need to prove that the Star of Bethlehem occurred in nature.
Rather, they regard it as enough that it serves as a literary and/or homiletical device to advance the Christmas story.
Some Christians follow the belief, supported by the Gospel of Luke, that the brightness in the sky at the time of Jesus’s birth was not a star but an angel, serving as a heavenly messenger.
Others consider it to have been simply a miracle, which is either a sign from God or a phenomenon for which there is no naturalistic explanation.
Of course, many of those who argue for a non-naturalistic explanation will w that what the Star of Bethlehem was or wasn’t is less important than the function it served.
Therefore, what was most important about the Star of Bethlehem was that is as a sign pointing the way to Jesus, considered in Christianity to be the Light of the World.
A Variety of Christian Beliefs
Christians have been arguing over whether or not the Star of Bethlehem was a natural occurrence since the beginning of Christianity.
For example, the early Christian thinker, Origen, argued in favor of the star occurring in nature.
By contrast, John Chrysostom, one of the principal shapers of the Eastern Orthodox Church, argued that it could only have been a miracle, not explainable in nature.
In fact, Chrysostom has pointedly promoted the idea of the star being an angel who led the wise men and shepherds to Jesus.
For this reason, there are many interpretations of the Star of Bethlehem that is specific to different religious denominations.
Eastern Orthodoxy, for example, emphasizes the symbolic and pedagogical importance of the Star of Bethlehem, regardless of whether it actually happened.
This is consistent with the thought of Chrysostom.
By contrast, Mormons, followers of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints believe that it was not only a natural phenomenon but visible worldwide!
There are even references to it in the Book of Mormon.
Jehovah’s Witnesses notably regard the Star of Bethlehem as a sing not from God, but from Satan!
This is because the pagan Wise men who found the star then alerted King Herod, who wanted to kill Jesus at birth, to the birth site!
The Star of Bethlehem Beyond Religion
The Star of Bethlehem in Popular Astronomy
But even if Christians cannot agree on what the Star of Bethlehem was, it remains a popular and beloved symbol, not only in the Christian religion, but in art and culture, and beyond.
For example, many planetariums offer seasonal “sky shows” that speculate on the possible origins of the Star of Bethlehem.
The most famous of these has been at the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, traditionally showing the Christmas Star against a New York skyline!
Visual Arts and Crafts
The Star of Bethlehem is also a common motif in art, with many paintings on the theme of the Adoration of the Magi.
The most famous of these was painted by the Italian Renaissance artist Giotto, though there are others.
Another well-known depiction of the Star of Bethlehem may be found in the tapestry and painting by the English Artist Edward Burn-Jones.
Beyond the fine arts, there is the representation of the Star of Bethlehem that decorates the Church of the Nativity, as well as numerous Christmas ornaments inspired by the Star.
These ornaments are believed to have originated in the 1830s as a twenty-six-pointed star that originated with the Moravian boys’ school and has spread worldwide.
The Star of Bethlehem decoration is especially popular in the state of Goa, in India.
There are also Filipino glass lanterns modeled after the star, as well as three-dimensional glass ornaments.
Music and Literature
Aside from the visual arts, the Star of Bethlehem is also a popular motif in Christmas stories and carols, the latter including “Do You See What I See?” and “We Three Kings.”
It is also sometimes referenced in popular Christian literature, most notably in Norah Lofts’ novel, How Far to Bethlehem?
Lofts’ book is a retelling of the Christmas story from the points of view of those who saw and followed the star.
But possibly the best-known–and potentially most awe-inspiring reference to the Star of Bethlehem may be found in Arthur C. Clarke’s classic short story, The Star.
This work of science fiction is about a deep-space exploration far into the future, that brings the explorers to the remnants of a planet destroyed by a supernova.
The crew, which includes a Roman Catholic priest, finds the records of a civilization that was much more advanced than any on Earth.
The story ends with the conclusion that the supernova that destroyed this wonderful civilization from long ago, was, in fact, the star of Bethlehem.
And in conclusion, the priest-astronaut wonders why this civilization had to be destroyed in order for God to point humanity towards Jesus the Savior.
These examples show how much the Star of Bethlehem has captivated the religious and artistic imagination.
They also show how the Christmas Star, whether or not it occurred in nature, continues to inspire awe as an essential part of the Christmas story
Learn More With the Help of Video
Main Points About Star of Bethlehem
- The star of Bethlehem is also known as the Christmas star. It appears in the nativity story of Jesus.
- The Bethlehem star was said to be announcing the birth of a King; Jesus was said to be the king of the Jews.
- The Bethlehem star guided the wise men (also known as the three kings or magi) from the east to Jerusalem. The Bethlehem star finally leads to the manger in Jesus’ home town.
- When they met the baby Jesus, the wise men worshipped him and gave him gifts.
- To many Christians, the Bethlehem star is believed to be a miraculous sign.
There are many theories about what the three wise men actually saw. One of the most popular is this one.
It’s said that the constellation of the Pisces was the sign of Israel and Kings within Persian astrology.
Saturn represented old rulers, Jupiter was the Royal planet.
There was a conjunction between them at this time, making them look like one star, which would be looking South straight over Bethlehem if you were in Jerusalem.
Word Cloud for Star of Bethlehem
The following is a collection of the most used terms in this article on Star of Bethlehem. This should help in recalling related terms as used in this article at a later stage for you.
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Chara Yadav holds MBA in Finance. Her goal is to simplify finance-related topics. She has worked in finance for about 25 years. She has held multiple finance and banking classes for business schools and communities. Read more at her bio page.