The Star of Bethlehem

Supernova remnant N 63AIn 1955 Arthur C. Clarke published a short story titled The Star, about (spoilers!) a Jesuit astrophysicist investigating the remnant of a supernova referred to as the “Phoenix Nebula” that destroyed a civilisation when it exploded. This is revealed to have been the source of the star over Bethlehem, concluding:

[O]h God, there were so many stars you could have used. What was the need to give these people to the fire, that the symbol of their passing might shine above Bethlehem?

Did I mention spoilers?

Anyway, Your Origins Matter has today posted an article called The Most Famous Star, about possible explanations for the event – supernova or supernatural. They say:

Each Christmas, articles appear in both secular and religious publications trying to explain the famous star that led the wise men to Bethlehem when Christ was born. Many learned men have offered theories, seeking to account for this remarkable event recorded in Matthew 2:1-12.

Part of the problem is that the even is recorded only in Matthew 2, and the chapter isn’t exactly chock full of useful details on the matter. My personal opinion is that the entire thing is made up as just another attempt to show that Jesus fulfilled all these prophecies, and was considered a Big Deal from the beginning, but I’m no biblical scholar and it’s still fun to speculate regardless.

The YOM article seems to my eye to be hypocritical. They begin by bashing those that would claim that it was not a real star that was observed, but something supernatural:

If we really seek to take the Bible as written, we need to think of this star as a real star, not an angel or some miraculous atmospheric light that the wise men thought was a star. The Greek word aster occurs some 24 times in the New Testament. A similar word, astron, appears four times. Both words refer specifically to real stars, unless the context indicates otherwise.

So the word refers to a literal star, except when it doesn’t. They add:

The magi certainly knew what a star was, as well as anybody in that day. And they called it a star (in fact, His star), not an angel or an atmospheric guiding light of some kind. Nevertheless, many Bible teachers, unable to see how a fixed star in the heavens (or even a moving star, like a planet or comet) could actually guide the magi to the very house in Bethlehem where the Christ child was staying, have decided it must have been an angel, the Shekinah, or some other miraculous moving light seen only by these foreign wise men. But the idea that the star was not really a star involves serious difficulties, in addition to that posed by the straightforward use of “star” in the narrative.

What these “serious difficulties” are is not exactly explained, at least for the supernatural explanations.

A popular explanation is that the “star” was merely a conjunction of two or three planets at the time of Christ’s birth. The great astronomer, Johann Kepler, was the first to suggest this type of explanation. In 1605, he calculated that there had been a conjunction of three planets (Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars) in 7 B.C. Others have said that a conjunction of Jupiter, Venus, and the star Regulus in 3 B.C. was the Christmas star.

This is not an explanation that I have heard of before, but I might well be the only one. YOM doesn’t say anything else about the conjunction idea, though it seems they don’t like it. The Saturn-Jupiter “great conjunction” of 7 BC is no longer considered to have been as impressive as Kepler believed, and so far as I can tell Mars had nothing to do with it. As for the other, Herod was already dead by 3 BC and so wasn’t in a good position to carry out his alleged part in the story.

Next, comets:

Some ancient and modern writers have suggested that the Christmas star was a comet. But comets are fairly frequent and travel in regular, predictable orbits, just like planets and their conjunctions. Comets also have a different appearance than ordinary stars or planets, with a sort of tail following each of them.

While comets may be frequent and predictable to us, the people of the time did not know this. And if we are prepared to accept the definition of “star” to be broad enough to include planetary conjunctions, why not a comet?

But what YOM really wants to talk about are supernovae:

But one special type of star does not involve any of the difficulties of those previously mentioned. Novas and supernovas are sudden, rare, entirely unpredictable explosions of existing stars. These are real stars—not conjunctions of stars, comets, or atmospheric phenomena. Somehow, what seems to be an ordinary star suddenly increases tremendously in brilliance for several months until it finally fades away.

I very much hope that the “somehow” isn’t serious, and that they aren’t denying what we know about the mechanisms behind supernovae. I wouldn’t put it past them.

Since supernovas are very rare and entirely unpredictable, they have no astrological significance. There have only been a few visible supernovas reported in our galaxy, the oldest of which occurred in 1054 A.D., as reported by Chinese astronomers. Tycho Brahe reported one in 1572 A.D. and Kepler another in 1604 A.D.

The lack of reports at the right time is a serious problem for this hypothesis, because it’s not like there wasn’t anybody looking back in the early BC.

There is also the realistic possibility that this new star occurred in one of the constellations associated with God’s primeval promise of the coming Savior. It is difficult at this late date to pinpoint the specific constellation in which the star appeared. The date of Christ’s birth is uncertain and so is the date of the star. But it seems reasonable to assume that the star appeared in a constellation that the magi knew was depicting the coming of the promised Redeemer.

Does anybody know which constellations these are? I certainly don’t.

Even though YOM claims that supernovae don’t have the same problems as comets, they have to admit that it still has some different ones:

It is difficult to be dogmatic about any of these possibilities based on Matthew’s Gospel. Dr. Jason Lisle, astrophysicist with the Institute for Creation Research pointed out that none of the above speculations fully explain how the star “went ahead” of the magi nor how it “stood over” where the child was. Indeed, no known natural phenomenon would be able to stand over Bethlehem, since all “natural” stars continually move due to the rotation of the earth. They appear to rise in the east and set in the west, or circle around the celestial poles.

Indeed. They now backtrack on their panning of the supernatural idea:

It is possible that the “star” was a supernatural manifestation visible only to the magi. Dr. Lisle noted that the magi seem to have been the only ones who saw the star—or at least the only ones who understood its meaning. Israel’s King Herod had to ask the magi when the star had appeared (Matthew 2:7). If the magi alone saw the star, this further supports the notion that the star of Bethlehem was a supernatural manifestation from God, rather than a common star that would have been visible to all.

The conclusion, I think, is the most amusing part of the post:

Whether the “star” was an astronomical phenomenon or a supernatural manifestation from God interpreted by the magi as a star, the fact that the star led the magi to Christ is evidence that the star was uniquely designed, made by God for a very special purpose. God can use extraordinary means for extraordinary purposes. Certainly the birth of our Lord was deserving of honor in the heavens. It is fitting that God used a celestial object to announce the birth of Christ since “the heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1).

“[T]he fact that the star led the magi to Christ is evidence that the star was uniquely designed” – on such shoddy logic do all creationist claims of design in nature rest.

According to many of the fundamentalist & creationist persuasion, the bible gives accurate and detailed information about science and history. Given the above confusion over what you would think was a fairly simple matter, it’s demonstrably clear that this perspective on the bible is false. And I hope you can appreciate why I might conclude that the best explanation is that the whole story is made up.

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5 thoughts on “The Star of Bethlehem

  1. The Nativity story appears only in Luke and Matthew and only Matthew has the story of the star and the Magi. The birth narratives are composed of elements of older stories and even to believers seem to be tales added to make the birth of Jesus fit the prophecies and his ultimate destiny,
    The Magi may have been added to show how even the pagans recognised the Messiah,
    In the “Massacre of the Innocents” Herod orders the killing of boys under two years old suggesting that the Magi may have arrived at least a year after Jesus was born..
    There are all sorts of speculations as to where they came from – even China has been suggested given a two year journey.
    Using the Nativity readings in church services is a recent idea. The official Christmas reading was formerly the prologue to John’s Gospel which mentions nothing about stables or stars or even babies.
    The whole “no room at the inn” thing is another piece of storytelling that doesn’t fit with the gospel accounts or the customs of the time but that’s another story.
    And that’s what this is – a story.

  2. I don’t know why YOM doesn’t just leave it at “phenomenological” and be done. Astrophysicist aren’t going to jump on people who lived 1,600 years before the telescope that play fast and loose with the term, “star.” If YECs are going to say the passages about the sun orbiting the Earth are phenomenological, then this should be, too.

  3. COMET ISON may be the return of the STAR OF BETHLEHEM

    the orbit of COMET ISON brings it back every 333 years,
    so it can be established that the comet was here in 15 a.d.
    considering that an exact year has never been established
    for the birth of christ,
    is it more than coincidence that
    there was a census in 14 a.d. called by Caesar Augustus?

    you heard it here first !
    http://www.facebook.com/events/371628202915203/

  4. Pingback: The Star of Bethlehem in the Blogosphere | Fleeing Nergal, Seeking Stars

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