Star of Bethlehem Reflections

If I had a 10€ note for every time that I am asked about the Star of Bethlehem around this time of year I would probably be able to retire (well, maybe not “retire”, as I do have a mortgage). I have been writing and speaking on the Star of Bethlehem for nearly forty years and, every year, seem to do at least one interview or broadcast somewhere in the world, often at times that other people would be sleeping.

Over the next two or three weeks I will do a series of posts on the Star of Bethlehem from the scientific and historical point of view, addressing some of the issues and looking at possible explanations.

I do not pretend to sell a theory, although I will not hide the fact that I favour one explanation over others, but aim simply to lay out the evidence as it is.

First Impressions

Christmas Day 1967. A seven-year-old English child has woken up very early. No one else is up. It is still dark outside. He slips downstairs, presumably to check that there are presents under the tree, and opens the curtains. Looking through the south-facing window with a magnificent view to the east, what does he see?

Something like this:


And fifty years later, I can still remember the impact it had on me.

Venus was hanging in the south-east, brilliant in the brightening sky. And, not far away, the waning crescent of the Moon. The combination was immensely impressive to me. Anyone who sees a sight like that about Christmas starts to think about that mysterious star that guided the Magi. Was it the trigger for me?

Whatever the reason for my lifelong interest in this legendary star, my first attempt to explain the Star of Bethlehem – a science fiction story involving the visit of an expedition to Earth from a distant planet – must have been written when I was ten or eleven years old and, fortunately, was lost decades ago.

When you see something like this around Christmas time it is only natural to think about what many people call “The Christmas Star” – the Star of Bethlehem. Such a sight is a powerful reminder of the story of the Star and the Magi. It provokes questions such as: is this the Star of Bethlehem? Did it exist really? What was it? Can we ever prove its existence?

The Star of Bethlehem is probably the oldest scientific mystery in the world. We know that people were debating about it certainly as early as the 3rd Century AD and possibly earlier. In terms of astronomical mysteries, maybe only the debate about the purpose of Stonehenge is older. It has inspired millions of words, science fiction stories, and all kinds of speculations.

Generic Theories

There are three generic explanations for the Star of Bethlehem:

  1. It did not exist. It was added to the Nativity story later.
  2. It did exist, but it was a miraculous event. No further explanation is needed.
  3. It was a natural scientific phenomenon. It existed and can be explained.

It did not exist – I have often heard comments like “the majority of experts think that the Star did not exist”. In this context they mean Bible experts. There are various reasons for being sceptical. It is often pointed out that Matthew’s Gospel omits the phase “that what had been spoken by the prophets was fulfilled” (or one of its many variants) when speaking of the Star of Bethlehem. This is often taken as meaning that the Star did not appear according to the Old Testament prophesies. Another is the lack of contemporary references: if the Star was so important, surely someone else would have mentioned it. If the Star never existed, any book about it would be very short.

It was a miraculous event – Science and religion have often had an uncomfortable coexistence and scientists who have stood against the church have sometimes paid with their lives. Science is the search for truth, a willingness to question everything in an attempt to prove the theories that explain our universe. A believer would reply that “proof denies faith and without faith I am nothing”. If the Star was a miraculous act it needs no further explanation. He put it there because it pleased him to do so.

It was a natural phenomenon – Even if the events recounted in the Bible are not always literally true, many, maybe even most of them, have some basis of truth, and speak of real people and real events. With this perspective, the Star of Bethlehem is taken to be based on something that was genuinely seen in the sky, and that can be explained. As scientists we must look at the evidence and weigh it. As Sherlock Holmes put it “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”

Myths and Legends

When you hear someone say the Star of Bethlehem is a myth, they are making a strong statement: it did not exist and has no basis of reality. A myth is simply a falsehood. A lie. A good example are mythical beasts such as flying horses or centaurs; they simply do not and could not exist. In contrast, a “legend” is a story that normally is based on reality, even if it has been exaggerated in the telling and re-telling. An example of a legend is King Arthur, or Robin Hood. In both cases it is likely that they are stories based on some real people, but have been greatly exaggerated and embellished over the centuries. It is quite likely that King Arthur was a minor unifying regional monarch in the chaos of the post-Roman Britain, whose importance has increased over time, and acquired additional characters such as Merlin, Excalibur, Camelot and Lady Guinevere that have increased his perceived powers. Similarly, Robin Hood first appears in ballads of the mid-14th Century as a person who lived during “the reign of King Edward” (either King Edward I [1272-1307] or Edward II [1307-1327]). In the case of Robin Hood, we can even trace how the story has mutated over the centuries, changing the monarch to Richard I and, by the 16th Century, adding characters such as Maid Marian.

So, if we say that the Star of Bethlehem is a legend we are admitting that it has some basis of reality… if we can separate fact from fiction. This is what we will attempt to do in these posts.

This journey will take us through many fields including bible history, archaeoastronomy, ancient religions, Roman roads, superstitions, the habits of shepherds, Chinese chronicles and climate history.

We’ll start with the story of the Nativity in our first post.

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