What’s up with the star of Bethlehem?


Dear Straight Dope:

During the last holiday season, there were several new "theories" on the what exactly the star of Bethlehem may or may not have been.  Hasn't modern biblical scholarship already determined conclusively that stories relating to the birth and childhood of Jesus of Nazareth are apocryphal, either lifted from the Torah (a process known as midrash) or taken from the many other religious and mythic traditions, for example, Mithraism?

SDStaff Eutychus replies:

There seem to be as many explanations for the star of Bethlehem as there are, well, stars in the sky, so we’ll just be hitting the high spots here.

There are a few aspects of the story we’re not going to get into. We’re not going to incur the wrath of biblical scholars by looking into the possibility that Matthew just made up the story. And as enticing as the idea may be to one with a religious bent, we’re not going to discuss the idea that the story literally describes a miraculous event. There’s no way we could provide evidence enough to support that idea.

I’ll be referring to the author of the biblical passage as Matthew, but for convenience only. There’s much debate on whether this was the actual author of the gospel, but that’s a question for another column. Since some aspects of the star refer to specific dates, I’m figuring the birth of Jesus at about 5 – 3 BC. Once again, the details of that are another question. Lastly, we won’t be looking into any of the loonier ideas such as UFOs or time-travelling satellites.  Said path surely leads to destruction.

There are two ways to approach the story of the star:

  1. It was an actual astronomical event.
  2. It is a purely symbolic story.

Let’s start with (I). There are many theories on what Matthew might actually actually have been describing.

A: The Supernova Theory.  The astronomer Johannes Kepler suggested that the star of Bethlehem might have been a supernova — an exploding star that gives off an enormous amount of light, but is rarely visible to the naked eye. There is no mention of a supernova occuring around the time of the birth of Jesus, although there is a Han-dynasty Chinese astronomical notice which mentions some phenomenon that occurred in the eastern skies around 5 BC. Some have interpreted this as a nova because the thing didn’t move; others say it was just a comet. At this point, the supernova theory is merely a guess by theologians.

B: The Comet Theory. Because of the movement of the star, others have suggested that it might have been a comet, and indeed, Halley’s Comet made its regular appearance around 12-11 BC. The facts that the dates are off needn’t bother us. Remember, the events in question were written about not at the time they occurred, but many years later. It’s possible that Matthew, looking back, may have remembered Halley’s Comet (or more likely, stories about it) and decided that it marked, or at least foreshadowed, the birth of Christ, of whose timing he necessarily had a somewhat vague idea. We’ll deal with this more when we look at symbolic meanings.

C: The Planetary Conjunction Theory. Our friend Kepler the astronomer again noticed that Saturn and Jupiter (and to a lesser extent, Mars) periodically were close enough together in the sky that they formed what is called a planetary conjunction. He saw this happen in October of 1604 and calculated that it also would have happened around 7-6 BC. The problem with this theory is that Matthew reports that the wise men saw a single star and not a pairing of what they interpreted as stars. It does have a lot to offer as a symbolic pointer, though.

All three of these theories fall apart when we look at what the star was actually supposed to have done. According to the account, it appeared for a while, disappeared, and then reappeared again, moving and then stopping over where Jesus was supposed to have been born. The wise men apparently were the only ones who could see it. Herod could not, otherwise why would he have had to ask the wise men where the baby Jesus was? A comet would not have stopped and started again, and its tail would not have been able to point to a specific house as the star was supposed to have done.

Ancient literature is filled with stories of great people being heralded by the appearance af astronomical phenomena. Karl Hermann Schelke writes:

According to Virgil … Aeneas was led by a star on his journey from Troy to Latium. According to the commentary of Servius on the Aeneid, a comet appeared in the sky when Augustus took command. … The description of the star of the magi, as it appears, disappears, and reappears, can be labeled a legendarily stylized narrative.

This brings us to the symbolic possibilities, and to astrology instead of astronomy. The supernova theory we pretty well discount astrologically since there is no real evidence for it. The comet theory is more tempting. When Halley’s Comet appeared at this time, it would have been in the zodiacal region of Gemini with its head towards Leo. Some say Leo (the lion) was associated astrologically with the house of Judah, from which the messiah was supposed to arise. The only problem is that comets generally were portents of catastrophe, not the messiah.

The conjunction theory is fruitful astrologically as well. This conjunction took place in the astrological constellation of Pisces, which is sometimes eschatologically associated with the Jewish people. Jupiter was associated with a world ruler, while Saturn was the “star” of the Amorites of the Syria-Palestine region. This might have led some eastern astrologers to see a coming world leader for the Jewish people in the area of Palestine. However, there isn’t a lot of evidence that there was any first century belief in this type of theory although there is later Jewish support for it.

To paraphrase the original question: hasn’t this been dispensed with already? Well, yes, but some people still believe the earth is flat. Let’s not go there. In the end, it may be fruitless to look for anything but a purely symbolic religious meaning in the story of the star; meaningless to those for whom the story has no relevance. As a Christian, I can live with that.

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.


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