Can Astronomy Explain the Biblical Star of Bethlehem?

Written by on December 28, 2014 in Mysteries, Reality's Edge, Spirituality and Religion with 1 Comment
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David A Weintraub | phys.org

Bright stars top Christmas trees in Christian homes around much of the world. The faithful sing about the Star of Wonder that guided the wise men to a manger in the little town of Bethlehem, where Jesus was born. They're commemorating the Star of Bethlehem described by the Evangelist Matthew in the New Testament. Is the star's biblical description a pious fiction or does it contain some astronomical truth?

VENICE, ITALY - MARCH 12, 2014: The Adoration of Magi by Antonio Vassilacchi nickname l'Aliense (1556 - 1629) from Chiesa di San Zaccaria church.

VENICE, ITALY – MARCH 12, 2014: The Adoration of Magi by Antonio Vassilacchi nickname l'Aliense (1556 – 1629) from Chiesa di San Zaccaria church.

Puzzles for astronomy


To understand the Star of Bethlehem, we need to think like the three wise men. Motivated by this “star in the east,” they first traveled to Jerusalem and told King Herod the prophecy that a new ruler of the people of Israel would be born. We also need to think like King Herod, who asked the wise men when the star had appeared, because he and his court, apparently, were unaware of any such star in the sky.

These events present us with our first astronomy puzzle of the first Christmas: How could King Herod's own advisors have been unaware of a star so bright and obvious that it could have led the wise men to Jerusalem?

Next, in order to reach Bethlehem, the wise men had to travel directly south from Jerusalem; somehow that “star in the east” “went before them, 'til it came and stood over where the young child was.” Now we have our second first-Christmas astronomy puzzle: How can a star “in the east” guide our wise men to the south? The north star guides lost hikers to the north, so shouldn't a star in the east have led the wise men to the east?

And we have yet a third first-Christmas astronomy puzzle: How does Matthew's star move “before them,” like the tail lights on the snowplow you might follow during a blizzard, and then stop and stand over the manger in Bethlehem, inside of which supposedly lies the infant Jesus?

What could the ‘star in the east' be?

The astronomer in me knows that no star can do these things, nor can a comet, or Jupiter, or a supernova, or a conjunction of  or any other actual bright object in the nighttime sky. One can claim that Matthew's words describe a miracle, something beyond the laws of physics. But Matthew chose his words carefully and wrote “star in the east” twice, which suggests that these words hold a specific importance for his readers.


Can we find any other explanation, consistent with Matthew's words, that doesn't require that the laws of physics be violated and that has something to do with astronomy? The answer, amazingly, is yes.

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  1. Csanajong@gmail.com' Cliff says:

    The STAR was a UFO

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