The Star of Bethlehem

“Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.”
—Matthew 2:2

THE WORDS OF OUR text are those of the three Magi, or wise men, of the east. As they said, they had come to worship the King of the Jews because they had seen his star in the east. They came to Herod in Jerusalem and inquired of him where they might find him. Herod didn’t know, but he called in the chief priests and scribes to find out where the Messiah was to be born, and they unhesitatingly said Bethlehem, referring to the prophet’s words, “Thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel.” (Mic. 5:2) Herod then privately talked to the Magi and told them to search Bethlehem and report back to him when they found him.

When the Magi left Herod they saw the star again and followed it into Bethlehem, and it stood over the house where Mary and Jesus were staying. They were warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod. So they left after bringing them gifts by another route. Meanwhile, Joseph was instructed by God to take Mary and the child to Egypt immediately because Herod would seek to destroy the child, and Joseph left by night for Egypt. When the Magi failed to return to Herod, he ordered all children of two years of age and younger, in Bethlehem, to be slain.

At this time of the year many planetariums will feature special lectures on the Star of Bethlehem wherein they explain how this phenomenon may have occurred. Recently an astronomer, David Levy, published his scientific explanation of the Star of Bethlehem.

The article was published on December 23, 2001, in Parade, the syndicated magazine section of many United States newspapers on Sunday. The article entitled, “Star of Wonder” was preceded by questions such as “Was the Star of Bethlehem a real event in the ancient sky?” and the comment, “Astronomers ponder the mysterious bright object that led the Magi to Jesus’ birthplace.” Also, it was said, “Modern astronomy can show us how the sky looked on any date in history—including that miraculous night two millennia ago.” Finally, a comment was made that “for centuries some observers thought the Star of Bethlehem was a comet. A bright comet did appear in the eastern sky in 5 B.C.” We publish the article in its entirety.

“In forty years of watching the sky, I’ve been struck again and again by its spiritual majesty. As an astronomer, I have a scientific interest in the nature of the Sun and Moon, the planets, comets and stars. At the same time, a darkening sky and a starry night never cease to fill me with wonder, a feeling of awe shared with diverse individuals who have watched the sky over thousands of years—including a group of wise men who, 2000 years ago, saw an unusual ‘star’ that eventually led them to the newly born Jesus Christ. The story is told in Matthew 2:1-10. The role of the star is described in the following verses:

“‘Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,

“‘Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. …

“‘Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, inquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.

“‘And he sent them to Bethlehem, …

“‘When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.

“‘When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.’

“What was that star? Can its appearance be explained in terms of modern astronomy? Or was it a miracle that defies scientific explanation? Astronomers today, using sophisticated instruments, such as state-of-the-art planetariums, can reconstruct the appearance of the sky on any given night in history—including that miraculous night two millennia ago—and have proposed various theories to explain the Star of Bethlehem scientifically. Such theories are not meant to diminish the mystery and power of the Star, or the Christmas story. As astronomers—not theologians or biblical scholars—we read Matthew’s words and then use technology, mathematics and the laws of astro-physics to figure out what in creation might have occurred.”


“The most plausible theory suggests that the star that appeared over Bethlehem may have been Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system and the second brightest after Venus. To understand how this could be, you need to know a few things about planetary motion.

“As the ancients knew well, the planets move through the sky relative to the ‘fixed’ stars (planet comes from the Greek word for “wanderer”). Today we know that the planets, like the Earth, orbit the Sun. As seen from Earth, they change their positions from night to night, generally moving eastward through a series of constellations known as the Zodiac.

“But the planets don’t always move eastward. At times they appear to reverse their course, moving westward for two or three months before turning back and heading eastward again. This is called ‘retrograde motion.’ It happens because the planets farther from the Sun than we are—from Mars to Pluto—take longer to complete one orbit. Thus, Jupiter moves eastward until a time comes when the faster-orbiting Earth overtakes it; then it suddenly seems to be moving west (in retrograde). The effect is the same as when you’re in a car that overtakes a slower car. As you begin to pass it, the other car appears to slow down, and at the moment of passing, it appears to move backward. These planetary ‘dances’ have been going on from the time the solar system was formed 4.5 billion years ago and were occurring when the Magi looked at the stars and saw a wondrous event that has not happened since.”


“The observations of ancient sky-watchers were as accurate as their technology would allow. But, unlike modern astronomers, they saw in the motions of the stars and planets a connection with life on Earth, often portents of significant human events—a practice that today we call astrology.

“This way of thinking about the stars may have arisen from a real need in early agricultural societies. For example, the ‘rising’ of the star Sirius just before the Sun heralded the annual Nile floods, and the early evening rising of Capella, the goat star, was a sign of winter storms on the Mediterranean.

“Magi, according to biblical scholars, were wise men—originally a respected Persian priestly caste—whose practices included observing the motions of the stars and interpreting their meaning, a combination of both astronomy and astrology as we define those terms today.”


“Matthew writes that the wise men asked Herod where they could see the newly born King of the Jews, predicted throughout the Old Testament and heralded, they said, by ‘his star in the east.’ Educated sky observers of the time would have paid attention when, on Sept. 14, 3 B.C. (our planetarium programs tell us), Jupiter appeared to pass very close to the star Regulus, ‘the King’s star.’

“When two planets—or a planet and a bright star—appear to get close together, the event is called a conjunction. The conjunction of Jupiter and Regulus occurred in the eastern sky.

“In the ensuing months, Jupiter headed eastward, stopped and reversed direction. On Feb. 17, 2 B.C., the planet passed even closer to Regulus. Continuing its dance, Jupiter passed Regulus a third time on May 8. Thus, over nearly eight months, the Magi saw Jupiter appear to draw a circle, or crown, above the King’s star, beginning in the east. Would astrologers have interpreted this as a prediction of a royal birth in Judea?

“Jupiter’s role continues: Five weeks after its third conjunction with Regulus, Jupiter formed a dramatic alignment with Venus, a celestial event almost unheard of in the history of astronomy. The sequence, which took place on the evening of June 17, 2 B.C., was first brought to light by the American astronomer Roger Sinnott. As the sky darkened over Babylonia, Sinnott tells us, Jupiter and Venus drew closer and closer until, at 8:51 that night, the two planets appeared virtually to kiss each other, fusing into a single brilliant star in the western sky, seemingly pointing the direction to Bethlehem.

“This scenario, centering on Jupiter, might explain in modern terms what came to be called the Star of Bethlehem. There are other, entirely different explanations. (It could have been a comet, for example. Or it may have been a ‘miracle,’ impossible to explain scientifically.) But if we look up at Jupiter on this silent night, it might help to bring back that amazing event from long ago—thanks to the miracle of modern astronomy.”

What does the Bible say about the birth of Jesus? No date is given in the Bible, and the generally accepted date of December 25, A.D. 1, cannot be correct based on other scriptures. The firmest date we can estimate is based on Luke 3:1-3. “Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judaea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of Ituraea and of the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias the tetrarch of Abilene, Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests, the word of God came unto John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness. And he came into all the country about Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance for the remissions of sins.”

The time that John started his ministry as a voice in the wilderness, preparing the way for the Messiah, was in the spring of A.D. 29. We also know that John was six months older than Jesus. (See Luke 1:36). It is most likely that John started his ministry when he was thirty years old. This makes the date of Jesus’ birth around October, 2 B.C.

It is interesting to note that the astronomical phenomenon presented by Mr. Levy to explain the Star of Bethlehem took place much before December 25, A.D. 1, in 2 B.C. It was earlier in 2 B.C. than the date we can estimate by biblical information. Furthermore, we know that pictures which show the three Magi coming to the stable where Jesus was born cannot be correct because they came after Jesus was born and his family had moved from the inn to a house. Also, Mary (and Joseph) had gone to Jerusalem after the days of Mary’s purification had ended, to present Jesus to the Lord when he was forty days old. The time estimated for the arrival of the Magi is anywhere from three or four months after Jesus was born to as much as two years. The latter number is based on the edict issued by Herod to have all children two years old and younger to be slain in Bethlehem. Herod had interrogated the Magi carefully as to the time of the events which caused them to seek the King of the Jews.

The Magi found the house where Jesus was residing and went in to pay him homage and to deliver their gifts. Being warned by God to not go back to Herod, but to return homeward by another route, they did so. Meanwhile, Joseph was directed by God to take Mary and the child and to flee to Egypt, which he did that very night. When the Magi failed to return to Herod he ordered all children of two years of age and younger to be slain. This fulfilled the prophecy of Jeremiah 31:15, “Thus saith the Lord; A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping; Rahel weeping for her children refused to be comforted for her children, because they were not.”

The prophecy did not stop with the prediction of this great tragedy, but continues, “Thus saith the Lord; Refrain thy voice from weeping, and thine eyes from tears: for thy work shall be rewarded, saith the Lord; and they shall come again from the land of the enemy. And there is hope in thine end, saith the Lord, that thy children shall come again to their own border.”—vss. 16,17

Rahel representing all the mothers of Bethlehem, and environment, is comforted with the promise of the restoration of all those children slain by Herod.

Meanwhile, the one who would make this possible by becoming the ransom for all mankind was safe in Egypt where the family stayed until Herod died. Joseph and Mary were not people of wealth. The gifts brought by the Magi permitted financing of their journey to Egypt and to return to Nazareth later.

The Star of Bethlehem being a conjunction of the two planets was first proposed by Kepler as occurring in B.C. 7 with Jupiter and Saturn in conjunction, a much earlier and unlikely date. Mr. David Levy not only suggests a date much closer to the actual time, but also leaves the door open when he says there may be other explanations. It could have been a comet, or a miracle, he said, but we know that it did happen as a fulfillment of God’s plan.

Dawn Bible Students Association
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