What was the Star of Bethlehem?

I want to remind the readership of a cool DVD (sent to me last year by a reader) and website wherein a good argument is made about the Star of Bethlehem.

What was the Star of Bethlehem, anyway?

Surely it is a fact. It happened. But what happened?

This is the best explanation I have seen, and it is compelling.  It is offered by a Christian lawyer who examined all the available evidence from Scripture and added to it historical information from other ancient sources.  He also used spiffy software to recreate the motions of the planets during a period of time around Christ’s birth as viewed from the Holy Land.  This is also, therefore, an argument about the date of Christ’s birth… with some help from God’s big celestial clock, this solar system and view of the greater created cosmos.

HINT: An ancient manuscript copying error made a huge difference!

His presentation is available online HERE. Check it out. It’s fascinating. I won’t spoil the fun of drilling into it.

HINT: It was not a comet.

UPDATE:

It’s on YouTube:

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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22 Responses to What was the Star of Bethlehem?

  1. Clemens Romanus says:

    I remember hearing this gentleman give this presentation back in college. Blew me away back then.
    If I recall, I think Anne Catherine Emmerich saw the star as a mystical phenomenon, not a naturally occurring one. It’s been awhile since I’ve read it, so I could be mistaken.

  2. Susanna says:

    It is awesome… have watched it multiple times. The full video is also now available on YouTube – https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=kO7Dz0uOMjM

  3. Father P says:

    Clemens,

    I don’t think that the one excludes the other.

  4. Kathleen10 says:

    I watched this a few years ago and really enjoyed it. He makes a most scientific and reasonable explanation for the wonderful star of Bethlehem. Very compelling.

  5. Augustine says:

    Count me outside this camp. No heavenly body turns on a dime from the east-west direction (when the magi were approaching Jerusalem) to the north-south direction (when the proceeded on to Bethlehem). It’s a flawed analysis in its astrophysics. If the conclusion then is that the physics was bent miraculously, then it sounds rather contrary to the whole analysis, for other miraculous things might fit the events too (my favorite is that the star was an angel, after the Old Testament’s tradition of referring to them as stars).

    Veni Emanuel

    [You had better look at the site more carefully.]

  6. Augustine says:

    Fr Z, I did look at the site and watched the video and an interview with its creator. As someone who, in my physics major, took all the astronomy and astrophysics electives available, physics laws were misinterpreted and misunderstood in the making of his argument. As a lawyer, he could surely convince a jury, as these comments boxes indicate, but he ain’t right.

    [You need to look at it again, I think, and maybe go through it with the the software as well.]

  7. Orphrey says:

    I watched the video on YouTube just a couple nights ago (for the 3rd time), and my main qualms about it are that, if I understood and remember it correctly, the analysis concludes that the Annunciation took place in September and the Nativity was in June. Is that an issue for Catholics? Jimmy Akin at Catholic Answers had a short and basically positive comment about the film:

    http://www.catholic.com/video/how-accurate-is-the-star-of-bethlehem-documentary

  8. steve51b31 says:

    Augustine,
    You might recall that stop and loop “phenomenon” was long observed but not mathematically understood until the derivation of Bodes Law and the arrival of “The Calculus”. The dominant issue was the perspective of the observer.
    We have to remind ourselves of the fact that these orbits were all hand calculated based on observation using 15th century instrumentation.
    I take some exception to your issue of the presentor simply being an attorney.
    As a scientist, I have the old baseline version of the program, not the souped up edition. The computational formulae do not change? Are you suggesting that the program is in error?
    Follow Fr. Z’s suggestion and watch it again. Perhaps this time take notes.

  9. Augustine says:

    Steve,

    The apparent retrograde movement of celestial bodies still happens primarily on one single axis, typically along the ecliptic, roughly in the east-west direction. [Depending on the time of year and where you are on the planet! In December, in the Northern Hemisphere, we are just after the shortest day of the year because your Earth is tilted on its axis. That changes the angle at which you Earthlings view the rest of the solar system. ] Only forcing the facts into a theory would someone say that the star suddenly turned 90°. [No, it doesn’t mean that at all.  It’s December, not June!] Not to mention stopping about the cave, which no celestial object could possibly do, something he glossed over, since the astronomical software could not reproduce this fact. [Go back and do your review. I think you didn’t understand what he was saying.]

    His theories stretch the science and his conclusions, bypass it. Again, perhaps enough for the court of public opinion, yet still shy of the truth. [You’ve gotten this wrong.]

    Veni Emanuel

    [I went to the Starry Night site and punched in the numbers. HERE  To get to 2 BC enter -2.  Thus, I set the map for Jerusalem. I turned the view to the south, toward Bethlehem. There’s Jupiter, in the southern sky, directly south in the direction of Bethlehem. And it is “stopped” because it is at its full retrograde position of its retrograde motion, the end of its loop. After this it will appear to head back in the other direction. So, the map shows precisely what the lawyer claimed in his presentation for 25 Dec 2 BC in the morning well before sunrise (late at that time of year).]

    15_12_25_StarryNight_03

    The conjunction or occultation of Venus and Jupiter took place earlier in the year. See THIS. From Babylon, modern Al Hillah (32° 29’N), the spectacular near occultation on 17 June 2 BC would have been in the Western sky (near the Summer Solstice, long days – towards Jerusalem (31°47′ N), as they set together close to sunset.

    15_12_25_StarryNight_02

    You can find interesting information HERE (which includes this list – below), which has a different theory about the star, but includes great info.

    celestial events surrounding birth of Christ

    It’s really fun to use Starry Night to look into those dates and celestial phenomena, even adjusting hour by hour.

  10. taffymycat says:

    i’ve seen this several times and the poetry and beauty of Gods hand makes me weep.especially the symbolism and the astronomy of the heart of the ram and blood moon. awesome. my most beautiful savior.

  11. Andrew says:

    Questions:
    Who were the “magi”? When did they set out on their journey? Where and how far did they come from? How did they know about and why were they interested in the “King of the Jews”? Why did they associate a star with him? Why did the star move when they moved and stop when they stopped? Why did the star lead them west to Jerusalem, then wait for them, before leading them south to Bethlehem? How did the star point the way for them? How did the star show them the location of a town and even of a building? Was all of this a coincidence of a natural phenomenon with something else? What is the sacred author trying to convey by this narrative? What were the opinions of the Church Fathers on this? Are Scriptural miracles to be understood as “coincidences” where for instance, due to an earthquake that happened to shake the Red Sea at the time, the Israelites were able to escape from the Egyptians?

  12. JARay says:

    If I am right then EWTN showed this presentation three or four years ago and I was very impressed when I saw it. It made such sense to me. I must confess that I have now ordered this video from Amazon. Videos can be nasty things since the producers divide the world up into regions and then they produce videos for Region 1 (America) and these videos will not play in Region 4 (Australia) or in Region 2 (UK). I discovered this some time ago when I had to replace my video recorder/player and found that I had a significant number of videos which would no longer play on my new machine! After a period of frustration I did some searching on the Internet and I found a particular blog which is devoted to cancelling out these regions which the manufacturers have imposed on the general public in order to increase their sales world wide. I found the details for my particular machine and followed them. Now my machine will take no notice at all about the region for which a particular disc has been made and I can play discs for any region. I pass this information on to all interested readers here. This particular disc, by the way, has been made specifically for the American market so most of you will have no problem with it. But, if you live in the UK then you may well have to find out how to change your machine from only playing Region 2 discs. It can be done!

  13. oldconvert says:

    All ancient and pagan cultures seem to have associated unusual celestial phenomena with significant events on earth. So probably the magi simply assumed that whatever they saw was signalling to them to follow it in order to be present at a momentous event. As they journeyed, they would have become aware, if they weren’t already, of the political situation among the Jewish nation under the Romans and the birth of a “king” (rather than a Messiah) would have chimed in with their own culture. Hence their fateful visit to Herod. One trusts that, as they travelled away into history and legend, they went safely and were believed.

  14. Makemeaspark says:

    I also have seen this video several times, it was presented a couple years ago by our pastor, who strongly recommended that we share it and pass it around. My impression has always been that this man was NOT trying to say that A) The star was some mystical event that went against nature, NOR B) That the star was pinpointing a specific location.

    I thought that what he was saying is that the events of the time, occurred when the “fullness of time had come”. In other words, God had a plan, and it was presented for all of Heaven and earth to recognize if they were looking.

    In a similar way, Larson, in his book “Bound for Glory” points out that even though the parting of the Red Sea and the Manna could be explained in a natural way, the fact that the sea would part at JUST the right time for the people of the Hebrews to cross in front of the Egyptian army safely, or that the manna would occur EVERY morning for 40 years, could be the real miracles. It matters not which miracle you want to accept, God can work it out either in a direct intervention into His nature OR make all of nature announce His plans in the natural course of time.

    I love this little film, as it shows that God is the great mathematician!

  15. boxerpaws63 says:

    “I love this little film, as it shows that God is the great mathematician!” Yes and the great scientist,artist,physicist. A very compelling presentation.Watch every time it’s on EWTN.
    thanks to Fr Z for sharing!

  16. Jordanes says:

    This is a fascinating and compelling argument, and it does fit together quite neatly and satisfyingly. Perhaps it’s correct, but I’m not convinced. I think he’s absolutely correct about King Herod’s date of death, though. For so long scholars have gone with 4 B.C. as the year of his death, but Herod had to have died in A.D. 1 as ancient historians and chronologers had always said. It has to do with the lunar eclipse that Josephus says happened in the last year of Herod’s life. The prevailing opinion has been that it was the lunar eclipse of 13 March 4 B.C., but it was rather almost certainly the lunar eclipse of 29 Dec. 1 B.C., with Herod dying about three months later, as this page explains:

    http://www.johnpratt.com/items/docs/herod/herod.html

    Pratt also tries to make a case that Jesus was born around Passover in 1 B.C., with His conception taking place at or near the conjunction of Jupiter and Venus of 17 June 2 B.C. (which he identifies as the Star of Bethlehem or at least related in some way to it). I think he’s mistaken about that, however, since we know from the data St. Luke provides about the conception and birth of St. John the Baptist, and the timing of the Temple service of the priestly divisions, that the only possible times of year for the birth of Jesus are autumn (September) or winter (December). Given that the earliest known and most widespread tradition for Jesus’ birth is Dec. 25, I’m personally inclined to think Jesus really was born in December. But there’s simply no way to fit what St. Luke tells us with a scenario in which Jesus is conceived in September and born in June.

    Whether and how any astronomical phenomena were associated with Christ’s conception and birth is something I’ve got no firm opinions on. The speaker in the video does give a fascinating presentation, though, and the bit about the sun rising in Virgo with the new moon at the Virgin’s feet is quite remarkable. Maybe there’s something to that — it may well have gotten some people’s attention when associated with the movements and conjunctions of Jupiter happening around that time. But I’m not sure it’s quite enough to reach any firm conclusions. What he says about the blood moon of Good Friday, 3 April A.D. 33, and St. Peter’s declaration that he and his hearers had witnessed the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy, however, is convincing and conclusive. There can be no reasonable doubt that Jesus died in A.D. 33, the traditional date of His death (I think all four Gospels agree Jesus died on 14 Nisan, not 15 Nisan and some have mistakenly believed, and only A.D. 33 fits everything the Gospel says about the day Jesus died), and the lunar eclipse beginning at 3 p.m., the hour of His death, can be no coincidence.

  17. The Masked Chicken says:

    (Get ready to throw things at me -preferably, things I can eat or spend…)

    Well, it is fun to speculate about such things, but, really, I have a two word argument against such Biblical literalness: free will. The problem isn’t in the motion of Jupiter (more on that, later).

    It is funny, however, that this is bring trumpeted by a Bible-only Christian and lawyer as if he has scored a coup. He happened to discover it because he owned software that could back-calculate planetary motion, without searching the astronomical literature, first, to see if there are any precedents in the literature? If I were his research director, I would send him to the library before he entered my office. Just a cursory search uncovered:

    The Star of a Bethlehem in Not the Nova do Aquilae, Bradley E. Schaefer, The Observatory, vol. 133, pgs. 227 – 231, 2013.

    Oh, and the idea of Jupiter being the star was postulated in 1999 by the astronomer, Michael. R. Molnar of Rutgers University in his book, The Star of Bethlehem: the legacy of the magi. From the website:

    Could the $50 purchase of an ancient coin by a Rutgers astronomer have unlocked the mystery of the Christmas Star? For years, scientists have looked, with little success, to astronomical records for an explanation of the magical star that guided the Magi to Christ’s manger. Intrigued by the image he found on the latest addition to his coin collection, Michael Molnar thought there might be more to learn by looking, instead, at the teachings of ancient astrologers.

    Molnar argues in his book that the Star of Bethlehem was not a star at all, but rather a regal portent centering around the planet Jupiter that was eclipsed by the moon. He bases this theory on the actual beliefs of astrologers, such as the Magi, who lived around the time of Christ. Molnar found some intriguing clues to the mystery while researching the meaning of astrological symbols he found an ancient coin, which bore the image of Aries looking back at a star. He found that Aries was a symbol of Judea at the time, and that ancient astrologers believed that a new king would be born when the moon passed in front of Jupiter. Molnar wondered, could the coin have been issued as a response to the Great Messianic Portent, the Star of Bethlehem?

    To match the story of the appearance of the Christmas star, Molnar also knew the event had to happen when Jupiter was “in the east.” Using these criteria and a computer program, he was able to chart an eclipse of Jupiter in Aries on April 17, 6 B.C., a day when Jupiter was precisely “in the east,” which confirmed his theory. Moreover, he found that a Roman astrologer described the conditions of that day as fitting the birth of a “divine and immortal” person.

    According to Harvard University Professor Owen Gingerich, “this is the most original and important contribution of the entire 20th century” about the Magi’s star. Using clues from astronomy, astrology, and history, Molnar has created a provocative, fascinating theory on the Christmas Star. He weaves together an intriguing scientific detective story which resolves one of the world’s greatest mysteries: The Star of Bethlehem at the birth of Christ.

    One must be careful when beginners in a field propose to make the find of the century (it can happen, but it is rare). We’ve been able to calculate star and planet positions relatively easily (the Sloan Catalogue has been around for years) and the general public could do so since the earliest desktop computers were built. It would be really amazing if a lawyer could do what trained astronomers and archeologists could not.

    Lawson’s work is pretty fully examined at this competing Protestant website:

    https://answersingenesis.org/holidays/christmas/an-evaluation-of-the-star-of-bethlehem-dvd/

    The fundamental problem, that I alluded to, earlier, is that of free will. Planets don’t deviate from natural laws, apart from supernatural influences. Lawson (the lawyer) presents his arguments from purely natural law arguments (his God seems to be Spinoza’s God, who set the planets into a perfectly calculated motion, then went away), but he makes a serious flaw: people are not always moved by a Natural Law the way that planets are. The problem isn’t the motion of the planets, but the motion of men. From Lawson’s theory, men must have been slaved to the motion of planets, because the people involved never deviated from their (the planets) paths, never hesitated, and had perfect knowledge and conformity to be in the right place at the right time for all of the celestial events. This is like a world without sin or with extraordinary grace. Granted, miracles do happen, but the real miracle, here, is not the star, but the fact that nobody flubbed their lines. No camels were stubborn, sky conditions were perfect for an extended period, the manager of the inn had no room (and no compassion), etc. People behaved like robots, just so the planets could align at the right time.

    The star could have been a one-off phenomenon, like the Miracle of the Sun at Fatima. If so, then it would have been solicitous of the people, rather than the other way, around. I would rather hold to a miraculous star than robot people. God’s grace is wide. For Lawson’s claim to be true required a narrow grace, timed with a stopwatch. That seems wrong, to me.

    The Chicken

  18. robtbrown says:

    MC,

    I don’t intend to argue that the hypothesis of the nature of the star is true, but it would be good to point out a fairly simple principle. God is the First Efficient Cause of everything, moving through instrumental causes. Thus it would be no problem for the First Cause to put all these events in sync.

    Re Free Will: Grace perfects nature, thus Grace perfects Free Will. Unapologetic Thomist that I am, I think that God moves the soul both as Efficient and Final Cause.

  19. Michelle F says:

    Thank you for posting this, Fr. Z. I had never heard of this explanation, and I find Larson’s work compelling to the point of being completely believable.

    I also appreciate the link to the online version of the Starry Night software! This will be handy for checking out upcoming astronomical events!

    To some of the nay-sayers, I would like to say that God’s knowledge of future events doesn’t impede our free will. He knew that x-number of years after creating the world, man’s condition would be ripe for His Incarnation. He also pre-arranged a spectacular celestial show which would make the most important events in the history of creation – the Incarnation and the Crucifixion (especially the Crucifixion) – patently obvious to millions of observers. On the day of the Crucifixion, everyone knew something important had happened even if they didn’t know exactly what it was at first. The Lord’s use of the created world in this manner (stellar convergences, eclipses, etc.) is in perfect keeping with sacramental theology. The Lord can and does use created matter as a vehicle of grace, so there’s no reason for Him not to use it to communicate information to men as well.

    As for no camels being stubborn, sky conditions being perfect for an extended period, and the inn being full ….

    The camels could have been stubborn. We don’t know how long it took for the magi to reach Jerusalem. But if the Lord can inspire a donkey to stop (the story of Balaam, Numbers 22:22-34), I’m sure He can make a camel go. If He can calm a storm (St. Mark 4:39), I’m certain He can provide perfect observing conditions on nights when they are needed. I won’t speculate on the heart of the innkeeper and whether he lacked compassion, but the Lord could have inspired 100 people to choose that particular inn that night so the place would be full by the time Our Lady and St. Joseph arrived.

    Of course all of this is my own speculation, but the Lord can intervene in the created world and in the lives of men without it always being something completely supernatural (above nature), and without trampling our free will.

  20. quamquam says:

    A Fatima connection, slightly off the track but very interesting, I think, to readers here – Following up Larson’s website, I looked at one of the star-chart websites referred to in the comments there (Stellarium, which is free, not Starry Night – but of course the star positions are the same). After looking into the Star of Bethlehem and Crucifixion times, I thought I’d have a look at Fatima at noon on 13 October 1917.

    I was delighted to discover that the sun, at the time of the Miracle of the Sun, was in the constellation Virgo, the Virgin. Make the constellation ‘pictures’ appear, and the Virgin appears to be holding the sun in her hand. Underneath her feet is Serpens, the Serpent. In accordance with Greek and Roman mythology, the Virgin is carrying a sheaf of wheat in the same hand, marked by the constellation’s brightest star, Spica (named, according to Wikipedia, from the Latin for ‘ear of grain’). Spica is very close to the disc of the sun at the time of the 1917 miracle. For the ancient Greeks and Romans, Virgo was Demeter/Ceres, goddess of agriculture (which is why she was carrying a sheaf of wheat).

    So all this imagery of Virgo, Serpens and Spica is pre-Christian – Christians haven’t ‘read this into’ the stars. But for the Medievals, unsurprisingly, Virgo came to represent Our Lady. So a new angle on the Miracle of the Sun – the Blessed Virgin, wielding the Sun/Eucharist, crushes the Serpent. (If God didn’t want us to believe the Miracle of the Sun, he certainly arranged a tempting number of coincidences surrounding it!)

  21. The Masked Chicken says:

    I agree that God could allow all things to occur as recorded in Scripture and I don’t want to start a debate on a Free Will vs. Predestination.

    My point was that the conjunction of Jupiter, etc., while interesting as regards an explanation of the Star of Bethlehem:
    1. does not constitute proof,
    2. seems to have been done in a vacuum with regards to the work of others (the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn was known as far back as Kepler),
    3. makes no predictions,
    4. does not set a condition of falsifiability,
    5. doesn’t take into account other stellar phenomena, like lensing
    6. explains too much, as it fixes the dates of biblical events more precisely than the historical record allows
    7. it possibly conflates two different stars – the birth star (of the shepherds) and the Bethlehem star, otherwise, why did Herod choose to kill children two years or younger based on the information given by the Magi,
    8. Lawson states (from Wikipedia, Star of Bethlehem), that it was [went] before the Magi as they traveled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, and then it stopped over Bethlehem.[85], but Matthew says that the Magi traveled to Jerusalem, stopped for a while at the royal court, then traveled to Bethlehem, indicating, perhaps more nuance to the travel
    9 . Mary was in a house and there is no mention of a manger when the Magi found Him (see 7, above)

    Overall, without doing much more extensive research, I find Lawson’s notion interesting, but more speculation than science.

    The Chicken

  22. robtbrown says:

    The Masked Chicken says:

    I agree that God could allow all things to occur as recorded in Scripture and I don’t want to start a debate on a Free Will vs. Predestination.

    I think you’re referring to the problem of Free Will vs Determinism. The relation of Free Will to Predestination is another matter. The first being a consideration within the natural order, the latter outside of it.

    And I didn’t say “allow”–rather, I referred to causality. Stubborn camel? God causes him not to be docile, most likely by an angelic instrument, and–pace Michelle–not by inspiration.

    I confess that I haven’t much interest in any model that attempts to discover the Star of Bethlehem, simply because we don’t know the day of Christ’s birth.