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How Did the Star of Bethlehem Appear? What Science Tells Us and the Saints

Star of Bethlehem 01

Public Domain

Ed Masters - published on 12/24/14

The mystery above the manger
“There’s a star in the east on Christmas morn
Rise up shepherd and follow
It’ll lead to the place where the Savior’s born
Rise up shepherd and follow”

An enigmatic celestial event that has engaged speculation for more than 2000 years, the Star of Bethlehem was an epoch-changing herald of the Messiah’s birth. For centuries saints, scholars and astronomers have wondered about this heavenly body. Was it a comet? A supernova? A conjunction of planets, possibly in constellation? A moon or dwarf planet briefly captured by Earth’s gravity? A free-floating planet or star? Was it a heavenly body that defied the known laws of physics and nature, such as the solar eclipse of the full moon on the first Good Friday? Or did it have divine origin like the shekinah glory that led the children of Israel out of Egypt during the time of Moses?

What the Bible Says

The Star of Bethlehem is mentioned in only one book, the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 2, “When Jesus therefore was born in Bethlehem of Juda, in the days of King Herod, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem. [2] Saying, Where is he that is born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to adore him…” [9] Who having heard the king, went their way; and behold the star which they had seen in the east, went before them, until it came and stood over where the child was. [10] And seeing the star they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.”

This star was foretold in the Old Testament, “A star shall rise out of Jacob and a sceptre shall spring up from Israel: and shall strike the chiefs of Moab, and shall waste all the children of Seth. And he shall possess Idumea: the inheritance of Seir shall come to their enemies, but Israel shall do manfully. Out of Jacob shall he come that shall rule, and shall destroy the remains of the city.” Numbers 24:15-19.

Was it a comet?

Halley’s Comet appears above Earth every 76 years; it appeared in the night skies in the year 12 B.C. or 11 B.C. As Jesus of Nazareth is thought to have been born between the years 7 and 4 B.C, these sightings are several years too early for Halley’s Comet to have been the Star.  Herod the Great is believed by most scholars and historians to have died in March of 4 B.C, which fact alone eliminates Halley’s Comet as a possibility.

But what about other comets? Chinese and Korean astronomers recorded comets in the years 5 and 4 B.C. respectively, in the Constellation Capricorn. These were observed for 70 days and noted that “it did not move.” (The Chinese called it a ‘sui-hsing’ or a star with a sweeping tail. To the ancient Koreans, it was ‘po-hsing’ or a bushy star.)

Giotto di Bondone in his painting Adoration of the Magi depicts a comet as the Star of Bethlehem; Giotto had seen Halley’s Comet in A.D. 1301. Even the early Church Father Origen (who fell into heresy) said, “The star that was seen in the east we consider to have been a new star, unlike any of the other well-known planetary bodies, either those in the firmament above or those among the lower orbs, but partaking of the nature of those celestial bodies which appear at times, such as comets…”

However, in the ancient world, comets were seen as bad omens. In A.D. 66, Halley’s Comet was recorded by Flavius Josephus as “hanging over Jerusalem like a bloody sword”; the first Jewish-Roman war began that year. It is unlikely, therefore that a comet would have been seen by the ancients are an omen of good news – the birth of the Messiah. Certainly the Magi would not have rejoiced "with exceeding great joy" upon seeing a comet, a harbinger of bad things to come.

“They looked up and saw a star,
Shining in the East beyond them far
And to the earth it gave great light
And so it continued both day and night.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel
Born is the King of Israel!”
 The First Noel

Was it a planetary conjunction?

Was the Star a planetary conjunction, possibly in a constellation of significance to the ancients? The famous astronomer Johannes Kepler proposed this theory in 1614 when he determined that three conjunctions of the planets Jupiter and Saturn occurred in the year 7 B.C.

However, Kepler incorrectly thought that a planetary conjunction could create a supernova. Also in that year Saturn and Jupiter were far enough apart that such a conjunction would not have been notable.

Today we know that in 6 B.C there was a conjunction of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn;  and in 3 B.C. Jupiter and Venus came close to one another in the constellation Leo. Jupiter also came close to the bright star Regulus in late 3 and 2 B.C. However, while there were any number of notable planetary and stellar conjunctions within the accepted time frame of Jesus’ birth, this theory has to be rejected in spite of the significance it held for astronomers and astrologers in ancient times.

Firstly, conjunctions were not and are not that rare. Secondly, the Bible specifically uses the singular “star” and not the plural “stars.” Thirdly, both the Bible and the Church condemn astrology and the notion that the stars guide our destiny. There must have been something extraordinary and unusual about this star for St. Matthew to mention it in his Gospel.

“Star of the East, Oh Bethlehem’s star,
Guiding us on to Heaven afar!
Sorrow and grief and lull’d by thy light,
Thou hope of each mortal, in death’s lonely night!”
Star of the East

Was it an ancient supernova?

The possibility that the Star of Bethlehem was a supernova or hypernova is an intriguing one. A supernova is an explosion of a massive super giant star that can shine with the brightness of over ten billion suns; a hypernova is even brighter. The supernova seen in the year 1054  — ironically the same year the Catholic and Orthodox Churches split — and now called the "Crab Nebula" was bright enough to be seen in the daytime. Furthermore, supernovae that can be seen with the naked eye are quite rare, so this also supports the theory that the Star was this natural, but rare, phenomenon.

The problem is that other than the possible appearance of a supernova in the year 5 B.C. (though most observers have decided this was a comet) the first known definitive recorded observance of a supernova was in the year 185 A.D. by Chinese astronomers; it is now known by astronomers as the gaseous shell RCW 86. A supernova also leaves a nebula visible to astronomers over certain regions of the sky, and none can be found that would have been in the region over Bethlehem. Almost 200 years late, with no tell-tale aurora — these factors disqualify this supernova as being the Star of Bethlehem.

“There were three wise men from afar
Directed by a glorious star
And on they wandered night and day
Until they came where Jesus lay
And when they came unto that place
Where our beloved Messiah lay
They humbly cast them at his feet
With gifts of gold and incense sweet”

Wexford Carol

Was it an orphan planet? A rogue star?

Possibly the most convincing explanation from a scientific viewpoint is the theory of a free-floating planet or star. Also known as a rogue planets, nomad planets, orphan planets or interstellar planets, these are extraterrestrial spheres which have either never been captured by the gravity of a star or have been the victims of a cosmic ejection from the solar systems they have been formed in. They continue to wander throughout the galaxy aimlessly. So far, a handful of these planets have been discovered by astronomers and there may be many more. The closest to Earth is WISE 0855–0714, around seven light years away. Rogue or intergalactic stars are thought to be the result of colliding galaxies tossing stars out into the vastness of space; they have been observed in the Constellation Virgo.

The only problem with this theory is that neither a rogue planet or star could come close enough to Earth without severely disrupting the atmosphere, planetary winds and oceans – all major geophysical events of which there is no record. although if they were bright enough they could be seen from quite a distance away.

“Sages, leave your contemplations,
Brighter visions beam afar;
Seek the great Desire of nations,
Ye have seen his natal star”

Angels From The Realms Of Glory

But what of other non-scientific explanations? Could the Star have had a strictly divine, supernatural origin? Certainly this was the opinion of some of the Church Fathers.

A star shone forth in heaven above all the other stars, the light of Which was inexpressible, while its novelty struck men with astonishment. And all the rest of the stars, with the sun and moon, formed a chorus to this star, and its light was exceedingly great above them all. And there was agitation felt as to whence this new spectacle came, so unlike to everything else in the heavens.
 — St. Ignatius to the Ephesians

St. John Chrysostom (A.D. 347-407), and St. Thomas Aquinas after him, also believed it was a miraculous event. He wrote in his Commentaries on the Gospel of Matthew:

For if ye can learn what the star was, and of what kind, and whether it were one of the common stars, or new and unlike the rest, and whether it was a star by nature or a star in appearance only, we shall easily know the other things also. Whence then will these points be manifest? From the very things that are written. Thus, that this star was not of the common sort, or rather not a star at all, as it seems at least to me, but some invisible power transformed into this appearance, is in the first place evident from its very course. For there is not, there is not any star that moves by this way, but whether it be the sun you mention, or the moon, or all the other stars, we see them going from east to west; but this was wafted from north to south; for so is Palestine situated with respect to Persia.

The apocryphal Protoevangelium of St. James (ca. A.D. 125) has the Magi saying to Herod:

We have seen a star of great size shining among these stars, and obscuring their light, so that the stars did not appear; and we thus knew that a king has been born to Israel, and we have come to worship him.

Pope St. Leo the Great (d. 461) described it in his thirty-first sermon:

To three wise men, therefore, appeared a star of new splendor in the region of the East, which, being brighter and fairer than the other stars, might easily attract the eyes and minds of those that looked on it, so that at once that might be observed not to be meaningless, which had so unusual an appearance.

But perhaps St. Ephraem (a.k.a. Ephraim), d. 373, describes it best in his “Hymns for Epiphany:”

In the Height and the Depth the Son had two heralds. The star of light proclaimed Him from above; John likewise preached Him from beneath: two heralds, the earthly and the heavenly. The star of light, contrary to nature, shone forth of a sudden; less than the sun yet greater than the sun. Less was it than he in manifest light; and greater than he in secret might because of its mystery.

In her visions of the life of Jesus and other Biblical revelations, Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich mentioned that during the daytime the Star appeared much as the moon does when it can be seen in the daytime at certain phases or times of the day.

“Said the night wind to the little lamb,
do you see what I see
Way up in the sky, little lamb,
do you see what I see
A star, a star, dancing in the night
With a tail as big as a kite
With a tail as big as a kite”
Do You Hear What I Hear?

Was the Star like the pillar of fire?

Given all the evidence presented I would have to side with the Church Fathers et. al. who asserted that the Star was of supernatural origin, a miraculous event not unlike the pillar of fire and smoke that led the Jews out of Egypt. It’s interesting to juxtapose such events; in the Old Testament Book of Joshua, Joshua commanded the Sun to stay still in the sky during the day (the name Jesus is the Greek version of the Hebrew Joshua); at Our Lord’s birth, a Star seemingly defied the known laws of astronomy and physics to stay motionless over the cave in Bethlehem where He was born (traditionally at midnight).

The Star shone with great brightness on one of the darkest nights of the year, just after the beginning of winter. At His death upon the Cross, the light of the sun was obscured during a solar eclipse, impossible during a full moon just after the beginning of spring. One wonders whether or not a Star or some other otherworldly sign might herald His Second Coming.

Other points of interest to note: The three stars that make up the belt of the constellation Orion (Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka — Arabic in origin) are often called “The Three Kings” or “the Magi” in honor of the men who sojourned from afar. On a clear night in the northern hemisphere, this constellation can be seen in the winter’s southern sky. Bundle up and give yourself a treat: a view of the alluring starry symbol of the men who followed the Star of Bethlehem. If you follow the line of Orion’s belt southward, you will see the dazzling bluish-white star Sirius (the Dog Star), the brightest star in the night sky. It’s as if “the Magi” are following the “Star of Bethlehem” forever.

During Christmas week, the Beehive Cluster (in Latin Praesaepe,  “hive,”  “Manger”, or “Crib”) in the Constellation of Cancer can be seen in the eastern sky, while the Constellation Cygnus (‘Northern Cross’) can be seen in the west. It’s the only time of the year in which the Manger and the Cross can be seen in the sky at the same time.

“We three kings of orient are,
Bearing gifts we traverse afar
Field and fountain,
Moor and mountain,
Following yonder star.
O, Star of Wonder, Star of night, Star of royal beauty bright
Westward leading, still proceeding, guide us to thy perfect light.”

We Three Kings of Orient Are

Ed Masters
obtained an Associates Degree in Liberal Arts from SUNY Ulster and is currently pursuing a career in the medical field having attended and completed studies at HVCC in Troy NY and Bryant & Stratton College in Albany, NY. He has an eclectic variety of interests including history (in particular ancient Roman and Church history), astronomy, arts and entertainment and is an avid collector of comic books. This article originally appeared in Regina Magazine and is reprinted here with kind permission.

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