December 22, 2023 spike

The Star of Bethlehem: What Was It?

Photo credit: NASA, ESA

This time of year, I often get questions about the Star of Bethlehem.

Is it possible to know what it was?

There’s certainly no lack of proposed explanations. Different people have proposed:

  • A comet
  • A conjunction of planets (Jupiter usually being one of them)
  • A nova or supernova

…and that’s just a partial list.

One of the more popular explanation nowadays is that presented by attorney Frederick A. Larson on his DVD entitled, appropriately, The Star of Bethlehem. More on this in a moment.

Personally, I’m skeptical of these sorts of explanations. Some events in the Bible are miracles, not natural events. They don’t need natural explanations.

However, many Christians are very uncomfortable about accepting miracles. They feel compelled to find a non-supernatural explanation for everything.

But this type of thinking naturally leads to denial of other miracles too. Today there are professing Christians who are denying the virgin birth and other key doctrines, because these things require miracles. Obviously, this way of thinking can lead to grave error.

Also, a natural event seems to be excluded by Matthew 2:9, which says that the star “went before” the Magi until it “stood over” the child.

No natural astronomical phenomenon can do that.

Many try to explain this by talking about planets stopping in the sky. For example, Larson says that on December 25 of 2 BC, Jupiter halted in its motion, as it entered retrograde motion.

Yes, planets do stop and go retrograde (in reverse motion; more on this below). But this is not an unusual event—far from it. Retrograde motion happens quite often, and the Magi would have known this.

In general, the ancients were far more familiar with the night sky that most of us are today. This would have been especially true of the Magi, who were most likely astrologers.

They would have been very familiar with how planets move, stop, go retrograde, stop, and resume forward motion again.

Nor is this “stop” an instantaneous thing. The motions we’re talking about take place over days, or weeks.

Thus, it’s questionable whether or not the Magi would have been especially impressed by Jupiter’s activity.

More importantly, it’s difficult to see how the Magi could have been guided to a specific place by Jupiter (or any other astronomical phenomenon).

So I’m comfortable believing that whatever happened on that night 2,000 years ago was supernatural—a celestial sign sent by the Lord, to announce the birth of His Son.

If this is a subject you’re interested in, astronomer Danny Faulkner (a Christian and a creationist) wrote an in-depth review of Larson’s DVD. You can find it here:

In case you’re curious: more about retrograde motion

To the unaided eye, planets appear as stars – except these “stars” move.

(In fact, our word “planet” comes from a Greek phrase that means “wandering star.”)

We don’t see them moving when we look at them. But if you observe the same planet night after night, you’ll see that it appears in a slightly different place each night, compared to the background stars.

Most people today are oblivious to this. But ancient cultures were far more familiar with the night sky than we are, for several reasons:

  • Many of them had fallen into pagan forms of worship that included the stars, so they were more motivated to learn the sky.
  • Since they didn’t have electricity, they didn’t have all the distractions of modern life that tend to keep us indoors during the evening.
  • They also didn’t have light pollution from electric lights, so the sky they saw was far darker than the one most of us see today.

For these and other reasons, ancient sky-watchers were very familiar with the planets, and how they looked like stars but moved from night to night.

Sometimes this movement is rather odd. Instead of moving in a straight line, sometimes a planet will go retrograde – it will appear to go into reverse and move backwards for a while. Then it will reverse course again and resume moving forward (“prograde”).

This is due to the difference in orbital periods between Earth and the other planet. Here’s a diagram of apparent retrograde motion of Mars, as seen from Earth:

Retrograde motion. Credit: Brian Brondel via Wikimedia under CC BY-SA 3.0

Credit: Brian Brondel via Wikimedia under CC BY-SA 3.0

Here’s a nice compiled photo, showing Mars in retrograde motion in 2009-2010:

Mars in retrograde motion. Credit and copyright: Tunç Tezel (TWAN)

Reproduced from Credit & Copyright: Tunç Tezel (TWAN)

Mars goes retrograde about every two years, each time the Earth passes it as both planets revolve around the Sun.

Notice that the retrograde motion takes a while (for Mars, usually a bit more than two months), and it takes longer for more distant planets. Jupiter retrogrades for roughly four months, and it does so once every nine months or so.

Thus, the Magi didn’t see Jupiter come to a screeching halt* on that night in Israel two thousand years ago. Retrograde motion is a slower and more gradual process than that.

Especially because there’s no sound in space…