The (bah) Star of (humbug) Bethlehem

Contributed by
Dec 25, 2007
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When I was younger I was something of a grinch. As I've grown older I've relaxed considerably about Christmas, and now I enjoy this time of year with my family quite a bit.

But still, sometimes my heart is maybe a size too small. I've been pondering writing my thoughts about the legend of the Star of Bethlehem for many years, and Christmas is as good a time as any; maybe even the best time! After all, 'tis the season for planetaria across the country to show their annual Star Of Bethlehem show, where they strive mightily to explain what astronomical phenomenon could have been behind the Biblical tale.

I have some bad news for them.

It is my personal opinion, based on looking through the evidence, that the Star did not exist. It is a simple story, a fictional account that too many people take way too seriously. Why?

Let's see.

First, the story:

1 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, 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 worship him.

[...]

9 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. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.

Right away, I have to wonder: if the wise men came from the east to Jerusalem, and they saw the star in the east, then following it they would have traveled away from Jerusalem, not toward it! They started east of the city, and headed east. So am I missing something here?

This right away makes me think something is perhaps amiss in this story.

Forgetting for the moment that this story is already somewhat inaccurate, what do we make of the idea of a notable star in the sky? The quotation above is from the King James version of the Bible, translated from Greek, and is similar to other versions of the book. The word in the Greek version is aster, which means literally "star", but could be fairly construed as some sort of astronomical event other than a simple star. It wouldn't make any sense for the wise men to have followed just any old star, so we have to assume that this apparition was something unusual, and also rather bright. A really faint object wouldn't have aroused much in the way of religious fervor and the desire to trek hundreds of miles across the desert; plus it is generally depicted as being very bright.

What could it have been?

The obvious thing to do is to think of bright astronomical phenomena such as a planetary conjunction (when two or more planets pass very near each other in the sky), a comet, and a nova or supernova.

Events like these have been exhaustively searched for. You can find many places online with descriptions, like Nick Strobel's Astronomy Notes, for example. A Google search will yield dozens and dozens of potential phenomena. I think many are very unlikely to be right on their merits (a comet wouldn't be mistaken for a star, a supernova would have most likely have been too bright, and so on).

But it doesn't matter. The legend is almost certainly impossible. Why?

It has to do with the east again. Almost all stars rise and set over the course of the night, which is a reflection of the spin of the Earth. When viewed from above the north pole, the Earth spins counterclockwise, which means stars rise in the east, make an arc which peaks in the south, and then set in the west. The only stars which don't do this are ones in the north, near Polaris. They make circles around the north pole of the sky, never rising nor setting (though they do get higher and lower in the sky as they circle).

So if the wise men saw a star "in the east", we see immediately there are problems. Was it in the east at sunset? If so, it would rise until about midnight, whereupon it would be toward the south, and then by sunrise it would be in the west. Following it would make them go in circles. Because of the Earth's rotation, a star cannot stay in the eastern part of the sky. If it's in the east at sunrise that's both better and worse; better because the star may still be in the east when the Sun rises, so they only see it toward the east, but worse because then how can they then follow it?

It's not an option for the star to be only in the east all night long. The rotating Earth prevents that. And if it's far enough north it can stay in the north, but that's not what the Bible says. It's very specific about it being in the east; Matthew states that not just once but twice.

There are only two options: if it stayed in the east then it either orbited the Earth at a nearly or exactly geosynchronous rate (taking 24 hours to go around once, so it appeared to hang in one spot in the sky like a TV satellite), or it was a miracle and just hung there. The first is physically impossible, and the second... well, if you assume it was a miracle, why look for a supportive scientific explanation at all?

Speaking of support, there is another important point: Arabs and Chinese were phenomenal astronomers, and rarely missed any spectacular events (barring records being missing from key times). Note that most bright stars in the sky have Arabic names, a testament to the prowess of Arabic astronomers. It is unlikely in the extreme for them to have missed something like the Star of Bethlehem, and to my knowledge they didn't record anything for that time period that fits the story, miracle or no. Update: It has been pointed out to me by various commenters below that Arabs did not start significantly contributing to astronomy until much later. So while we owe quite a bit to them sky-wise, you can ignore what I said about them here.

I think, in the end, there is a far simpler explanation: the star is a legend, a story, a tale told by people long after the actual event, getting bigger and more garnished with time. That does happen sometimes, you know. I am no fan of Biblical literalism, as searching my Religion category will show. There are hundreds upon hundreds of examples where the Bible cannot be literally true, so why can't the Star of Bethlehem be yet another example?

If you are a religious sort, then there is little need to look for scientific explanations of miraculous events. By definition, a miracle is something that defies the laws of physics (and you can just guess how I feel about that). And if you are a scientist (and/or a planetarium show writer), you're welcome to look for some physical representation of the Star, but bear in mind that your starting premise must perforce be flawed: if the story is literally true, there cannot be a scientific explanation, and if it's a story that's been embellished, you have too many free parameters to choose from. Which part of the myth do you ignore? How it hung in only one part of the sky, in the east? How bright it was? When it occurred?

The fact that no one has found a definitive explanation of the Star supports my idea that it's a fictional tale. If it were as bright and obvious and critical as Matthew made it out to be, then we'd know what it was for sure by now.

If you're a Christian, then it's a nice story, and if you're not, you can take it or leave it on its merits. I don't think it takes anything away from the meaning of the holiday, whatever it may mean to you.

As for me, I'll be happy looking at real stars, and opening my real presents on Christmas morning.

Happy holidays!