Due to technological progress it is now possible to see more or less exactly what our ancestors saw in the night sky at any time of any year from any vantage point on earth. Computer programs allow us to see this in real time animation, or sped up, or slowed down. We can “zoom in” and “out” to individual stars, planets or constellations, as if we were looking through a telescope.
This has for some years now opened up the exiting possibility of studying in minute detail what was happening in the heavens in the years and months just prior to the birth of Christ. Was there something extraordinary happening that could have prompted “wise men” to go looking for a “new-born king of the Jews” (see the Gospel of Matthew 2:1-2)?
It turns out, indeed there was.
Before I explain further, some relevant personal background.
My personal journey towards God was long, but I can trace the very first step to when I was 11, almost 12 years old. It was early evening, and it was dark outside, so it must have been either in December or January. Waiting for a bus on my own, this being long before smartphones, I had nothing to do but to stare into space. Literally so, as the sky was clear, and I saw some stars. One of them, not far from the horizon, was much brighter than the others. I wondered what it was and why it was so bright.
Arriving home, I asked. Nobody knew. However, my father advised me to look out for the monthly star chart in the daily newspaper. (This was not only pre-smartphone days, but pre-internet days.) When it arrived, I discovered that the bright star wasn’t a star at all, but a planet, namely Venus, our closest neighbouring planet, and therefore so bright. I soon discovered other planets in the sky, and identified many constellations. I remember that at the time, Jupiter (the second brightest planet in our skies) was in or close to the constellation of Taurus. And because Jupiter takes about 12 years to orbit the sun, I know that, whenever I look at the sky and find Jupiter in or near Taurus, that another 12 years of my life have passed from that first, exiting moment of discovering the universe . . . Currently (December 2021), this gas giant of a “wandering star” (what the ancient Greek meaning of the word “planet” is) is creeping towards Taurus for the fourth time since I was 12. It is about to enter Aquarius, which means it is due to enter Taurus in about three years. Which is when I will be, God willing, incredibly, almost 60. And Jupiter will have orbited the sun five times since my birth.
Back to my youth: My interest in the universe grew steadily and rapidly. Psychologically, this was not least due to the fact that the stars and the planets were reassuringly predictable. As opposed to many of my fellow human beings, they seemed to behave much more “rationally”. I knew what I was going to do in life: I would ignore my fellow human beings as much as possible, study physics and astronomy and then discover the origins of the universe. Simple matter.
Only of course it wasn’t. Although I had done well tackling maths and physics at school, at university level these subjects are a quite a different breed of animal. On top of which, I was rubbish at the lab work. After a one-year struggle, I dropped out and switched to studying economics.
In economics, I learnt that the one thing that drives human action is a sense of purpose. (Actually, I learnt that only after achieving my degree, but that’s a different story.) Even our simplest actions are driven by the purpose of improving our situation. Even charitable work can be seen that way (and that’s not cynical egoism, it’s simple, undeniable human nature).
Many years after achieving my degree, through reading some works by Gary North, I learnt how to connect economics with the origin of the universe: through the sense of purpose. The universe is either the product of chance or of purpose. There is no third option. And as humans obviously have a sense of purpose, this must have come from somewhere. As a sense of purpose is part of the universe, is it logically feasible that the origin of the universe itself is purposeless? It is at least highly unlikely.
It took me a while, but through astronomy and economics I had reached my dream goal of finding the origin of the universe: It was God the purposeful Creator. That way, I learnt that, despite the endless irrationalities pervading human action (including my own), God’s purposeful love transcends everything.
So, now, back to the Star of Bethlehem.
Due to my early and intense interest in all things astronomical, I was excited to read in the early 1980s that scientists had discovered that around the year 7 and 6 BC an extremely rare so-called triple conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn had taken place. (See here, scroll down for star charts.) Meaning they were moving in the same part of the sky, apparently close together, and, while doing so, approached and receded from each other three times. (A little later there was another conjunction, this time of the three planets Jupiter, Saturn and Mars.) This, it was said, may very well have been what Matthew termed, in a kind of shorthand, a “star”.
Some time later I learnt that ancient Chinese records on events in the sky include a comet seen in 5 BC. Comets are relatively small chunks of dust and ice, traveling around the sun on orbits that mostly keep them far away from our central star. Thus they are mostly invisible to the naked eye. However, on the rare occasions when they do approach the sun, they heat up. This makes them emit some of that dust and ice, causing a “tail” which can look quite spectacular from earth. And frightening, at least in earlier ages, as they often appeared seemingly from nowhere – even “wise men” were unable to predict them.
Many astronomers now think that the 5 BC comet may very well have been the actual “star”. What I learnt recently is that this comet may have been something rather special even in a scientific sense. Namely that its movement around the sun may very well have been contrary to that of most objects in the solar system. For example, if you’ve ever seen the new moon, and then observed it over a few days or nights, it gradually moves away from the setting sun, i.e., it moves from west to east. The same applies to the planets. While they orbit around the sun, they appear, from our point of view, to gradually move from west to east.
Now, the Chinese recorded only one comet in or around 5 BC. This is significant. For, had this comet moved “normally” around the sun, the Chinese astronomers would very likely have first seen it moving closer to the rising sun, and soon after appear “on the other side” and then move, like the moon and the planets, away from the setting sun, from west to east.
This is significant with regard to what it says in the Bible because of something Colin J. Humphreys writes in a long article in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society from 1991 discussing this comet as the possible actual Star of Bethlehem:
It was not generally recognised 2000 years ago that a comet seen twice, once on its way in towards perihelion (where it would disappear in the glare of the sun) and again on its way out was one and the same comet. It was normally regarded as two separate comets.
(See same article, more easily accessible, here.)
Though we can’t be entirely sure about this, but it appears that this comet was moving “the other way” in the sky as seen from earth, against “normal” movement, i.e. not from west to east, but from east to west. (It would have been seen in the early morning, before sunrise, moving gradually away from the sun. I.e., each morning it would be seen earlier, and thus further away from the rising sun.) Which would very much tally with what the wise men said according to the Bible, namely that they saw the star “in the east” (some translation even say “rising in the east”) (Matthew 2:2). See here:
Noun – Dative Feminine Singular
Strong’s 395: From anatello; a rising of light, i.e. Dawn; by implication, the east.
It is not entirely unique for a comet to move in retrograde motion. Halley’s Comet does, and we know from ancient records that Halley’s Comet was seen at least as far back as 260 BC. However, it is rare enough to be something very special.
Unfortunately, as opposed to the planets, we don’t know the exact path of the 5 BC comet and therefore can’t track or find it. It may have returned since then, it may not return for thousands of years, if ever. We may find it in the future with better technology and/or more data. But for the moment, we have to go with what we’ve got.
Assuming a comet as the Star of Bethlehem, instead of a planetary conjunction, even instead of a very rare conjunction, would explain the following: The fact that the wise men obviously started traveling after they had seen (or started seeing) the “star” (“we saw the star in the east”, past tense). Because even in those days, astronomers were able to predict the movements of planets to a surprisingly accurate degree. In other words: Had they assumed that the planetary conjunction of 7/6 BC alone was a sign of the birth of a King of the Jews worthy enough of such a trip and the precious gifts they brought, they would have started traveling before the conjunction and arrived in time for it in Jerusalem/Bethlehem. But they didn’t. They arrived some time later. That indicates that the event in the sky that prompted them to move was something even they could not have predicted. Which a comet in those days was. (Even today, some are unpredicted because, as mentioned above, they usually “lurk” so far away from the sun, and are so small, that they are practically invisible.)
Some astronomers say the unpredictable object could also have been a supernova, an exploding star. And though the ancient Chinese records indicate that there may well have been such a supernova around that time (in 4 BC), it would not have moved “from east to west” in the fashion of a comet in retrograde movement. As opposed to planets and comets, it would have stayed fixed in the sky in relation to all the other far away stars, and its only discernible “movement” would have been due to the earth’s rotation like everything else. Nonetheless, a supernova would have been something special, though not unheard of.
The exact dates of these events are important for one particular reason: They have to happen well before King Herod died, because the Bible records that the wise men spoke to him extensively on arrival in Jerusalem. And that he subsequently had all boys up to the age of two in Bethlehem and its region killed.
Discussing the date of Herod’s death brings me to another, third theory of what the actual star of Bethlehem was. And that is another rare conjunction of planets, this time of Jupiter and Venus, happening in the constellation of Virgo (the virgin) no less. (The 7/6 BC conjunction happened in the constellation of Pisces.) In addition, it was a very, very close conjunction. That alone would have been unseen and unheard of. So close did the two planets get (optically, not actually) that they appeared as one. And remember, these two are, on their own, the two brightest objects in our sky (after the sun and moon).
Also, pretty much exactly 9 months before that conjunction, Jupiter appeared to circle a significant fixed star (Regulus, which means king) in the constellation of Leo (the lion, the “king of the animals”). The lion was the symbol of the tribe of Judah, which in Genesis was prophesied to be the tribe from which the future King of Israel would originate. See Genesis 49:10:
The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he to whom it belongs shall come and the obedience of the nations shall be his.
This particular event must have been very spectacular and must have been seen at the time as signifying something very special happening on earth. However, the problem with this event is that it happened in 3/2 BC, a year or so after Herod had died. Or had he? Rick Larson, an American lawyer who for years researched this subject and made a very compelling, educational and entertaining documentary about this particular event, claims that older documents show that Herod died in 1 BC. I’m in no position to judge that. However, I very much recommend Larson’s documentary. It does a great job explaining planetary movements and what significance the people at the time would have attached to them. It’s just over one hour long and is available on YouTube here.
Larson very much favours the “3/2 BC” conjunction theory of the Star of Bethlehem. Regarding the comet theory, Larson rejects it, saying in his film that throughout human history comets were seen as a sign of impending doom or disaster. So why would a comet be the Star of Bethlehem, a sign of something joyous happening? This however is a weak argument. We know that in 1066 AD, Halley’s Comet appeared in the sky shortly before the Norman invasion and was seen, at least in retrospect, as a sign of impending doom for the English King Harold. However, for William the Conqueror it obviously wasn’t a sign of doom.
Indeed, as Humphreys writes in the article linked above:
[A]n examination of historical records shows that comets were interpreted as heralding both good and bad major events, in particular the births and deaths of kings and important victories or defeats in wars.
So, a comet may indeed have heralded the arrival of a New King, and at the same time the doom not just of Herod, but of the “prince of this world”. (“Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out.” John 12:31)
So, what to make of all this? What was “the Star of Bethlehem”? Was it a comet? Was it a rare planetary conjunction? Was it a supernova? Or something altogether different?
Here’s my personal theory.
It wasn’t anything altogether different. However, it was all of the other above things put together. The planetary conjunctions of 7/6 BC and 3/2 BC would have been pre-calculated and known beforehand, and wise and knowledgeable people would have puzzled and debated the significance and meaning of them years before. (By the way, Larson makes clear that this kind of investigation has nothing to do with what today is called astrology, meaning the belief that the stars can influence our lives – they don’t. However, it is clear that the movement of stars was in ancient times seen as a heavenly reflection of earthly matters.) They will certainly have thought that something of immense importance was going to happen around that time. What exactly, would have been unclear.
And then the comet came. Seemingly out of nowhere. Probably in retrograde motion, possibly seen as signifying a complete “turning around” and turning “inside out” of conditions in the world. Bookended by two long predicted, but super-rare and spectacular conjunctions, and possibly supplemented by an equally rare but unpredictable supernova. This appears to me to be the most likely explanation, which conveniently avoids the problem of Herod’s date of death with regard to the later conjunction in 3/2 BC.
One problem remains however, and it is a huge theological problem. Many theologians would rather stick to the theory that the Star of Bethlehem is a mystery intentionally left unsolvable by God. They do not like this talk about planets, comets, supernova and so on. Not one little bit. Not because of an uncomfortable (but ultimately unproblematic) closeness to astrology, but for other theological reasons.
For if Jesus’ birth did coincide with a combination of celestial events which was essentially unique in all human history (and future), and if these events were indeed interpreted as heralding the arrival of the “King of kings” who would supersede at the very least one existing king, and likely much more, this would point to predestination. Because, if you concede the link between actual celestial events and the birth of the Son of God, it means that everything that happened in history prior to Jesus was an unavoidable build-up to his birth which had to happen when it did, on time. It means that everything in the past happened according to a plan that was laid out before the universe began.
Meaning that, now looking into the future, whatever we do or not do, everything is predestined by God. Some go so far as to say that it is already predestined who will go to heaven (and, by implication, who won’t). Predestination is a problematic concept, in that it appears to contradict human free will. Which in itself has implications on the concept of sin. I think that it is this what makes many theologians uneasy when discussing the “real” Star of Bethlehem.
Nonetheless, it is clear that the two conjunctions happened, and that there appeared a comet in between those two events. Even people who don’t take the Bible literally must concede that this was a unique sequence of celestial events which will, at the time, have heightened the expectation of something utterly unique happening in history. I believe that among the people of Israel this would have meant a heightened expectation of the arrival of the Messiah. From then on, it was, at the very least, a case of “seek, and you will find”. (Matthew 7:7)
And the rest, as they say, is history.