The Star of Bethlehem, or Christmas Star, appears only in the nativity story of the Gospel of Matthew, where "wise men from the East" (Magi) are inspired by the star to travel to Jerusalem. There they meet King Herod of Judea, and ask where the king of the Jews had been born. Herod, following a verse from the Book of Micah interpreted as a prophecy, directs them to Bethlehem, to the south of Jerusalem. The star leads them to Jesus' home in the town, where they worship him and give him gifts. The wise men are then given a divine warning not to return to Herod, so they return home by a different route.
Many Christians believe the star was a miraculous sign to mark the birth of the Christ (or Messiah). Some theologians claimed that the star fulfilled a prophecy, known as the Star Prophecy. Astronomers have made several attempts to link the star to unusual celestial events, such as a conjunction of Jupiter and Venus, a comet, or a supernova.
The subject is a favorite at planetarium shows during the Christmas season, although the Biblical account describes Jesus with a broader Greek word παιδίου, which can mean either "infant" or "child" (paidion), rather than the more specific word for infant (brephos), possibly implying that some time has passed since the birth. The visit is traditionally celebrated on Epiphany (January 6) in Western Christianity.
In the Gospel of Matthew account, the Magi (often translated as "wise men", but more accurately astrologers) arrive at the court of Herod in Jerusalem and tell the king of a star which signifies the birth of the King of the Jews:
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East [or at its rising] and have come to worship Him. When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.
Herod is "troubled", not because of the appearance of the star, but because the Magi have told him that a "king of the Jews" had been born, which he understands to refer to the Messiah, a leader of the Jewish people whose coming was believed to be foretold in scripture. So he asks his advisors where the Messiah would be born. They answer Bethlehem, birthplace of King David, and quote the prophet Micah.[nb 1] The king passes this information along to the Magi.
Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also. When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Matthew's account suggests that the Magi knew from the star that the "king of the Jews" had been born even before they arrived in Jerusalem. They present Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and as verse 11 describes: "they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him". In a dream, they are warned not to return to Jerusalem, so they leave for their own country by another route. When Herod realizes he has been tricked, he orders the execution of all male children in Bethlehem "two years old and younger," based on the age the child could be in regard to the information the magi had given him concerning the time the star first appeared.[nb 2] Joseph, warned in a dream, takes his family to Egypt for their safety. The Gospel links the escape to a verse from scripture, which it interprets as a prophecy: "Out of Egypt I called my son." This was a reference to the departure of the Hebrews from Egypt under Moses, so the quote suggests that Matthew saw the life of Jesus as recapitulating the story of the Jewish people, with Judea representing Egypt and Herod standing in for pharaoh. After Herod dies, Joseph and his family return from Egypt, and settle in Nazareth in Galilee. This is also said to be a fulfillment of a prophecy ("He will be called a Nazorean," (NRSV) which could be attributed to Judges 13:5 regarding the birth of Samson and the Narazite vow. The word "Nazareth" is related to the word "netzer" which means "sprout", and which some Bible commentators think refers to Isaiah 11:1, "And there shall come forth a shoot out of the stock of Jesse, and a branch out of his roots shall bear fruit." (ESV).[nb 3]
Many scholars who see the gospel nativity stories as later apologetic accounts created to establish the Messianic status of Jesus regard the Star of Bethlehem as a pious fiction. Aspects of Matthew's account which have raised questions of the historical event include: Matthew is the only one of the four gospels which mentions either the Star of Bethlehem or the Magi. In Mark 6:1-4, the author of the Gospel of Mark, considered by modern text scholars to be the oldest of the Gospels, does not appear to be aware of the Bethlehem nativity story. Scholars suggest that Jesus was born in Nazareth and that the Bethlehem nativity narratives reflect a desire by the Gospel writers to present his birth as the fulfillment of prophecy. The Matthew account conflicts with that given in the Gospel of Luke, in which the family of Jesus already live in Nazareth, travel to Bethlehem for the census, and return home almost immediately.
Matthew's description of the miracles and portents attending the birth of Jesus can be compared to stories concerning the birth of Augustus (63 BC).[nb 4] Linking a birth to the first appearance of a star was consistent with a popular belief that each person's life was linked to a particular star. Magi and astronomical events were linked in the public mind by the visit to Rome of a delegation of magi at the time of a spectacular appearance of Halley's Comet in AD 66, about the time the Gospel of Matthew was being composed. This delegation was led by King Tiridates of Armenia, who came seeking confirmation of his title from Emperor Nero. Ancient historian Dio Cassius wrote that, "The King did not return by the route he had followed in coming," a line similar to the text of Matthew's account, but written some time after the completion of Matthew's gospel.
The ancients believed that astronomical phenomena were connected to terrestrial events. Miracles were routinely associated with the birth of important people, including the Hebrew patriarchs, as well as Greek and Roman heroes.
I see him, but not now;
I behold him, but not near;
A Star shall come out of Jacob;
A Scepter shall rise out of Israel,
And batter the brow of Moab,
And destroy all the sons of tumult.
Although clearly intended to refer to a time that was long past, since the kingdom of Moab had long ceased to exist by the time the Gospels were being written, this passage had become widely seen as a reference to the coming of a Messiah. It was, for example, cited by Josephus, who believed it referred to Emperor Vespasian. Origen, one of the most influential early Christian theologians, connected this prophecy with the Star of Bethlehem:
If, then, at the commencement of new dynasties, or on the occasion of other important events, there arises a comet so called, or any similar celestial body, why should it be matter of wonder that at the birth of Him who was to introduce a new doctrine to the human race, and to make known His teaching not only to Jews, but also to Greeks, and to many of the barbarous nations besides, a star should have arisen? Now I would say, that with respect to comets there is no prophecy in circulation to the effect that such and such a comet was to arise in connection with a particular kingdom or a particular time; but with respect to the appearance of a star at the birth of Jesus there is a prophecy of Balaam recorded by Moses to this effect: There shall arise a star out of Jacob, and a man shall rise up out of Israel.
Origen suggested that the Magi may have decided to travel to Jerusalem when they "conjectured that the man whose appearance had been foretold along with that of the star, had actually come into the world".
The Magi are sometimes called "kings" because of the belief that they fulfill prophecies in Isaiah and Psalms concerning a journey to Jerusalem by gentile kings. Isaiah mentions gifts of gold and incense. In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament probably used by Matthew, these gifts are given as gold and frankincense, similar to Matthew's "gold, frankincense, and myrrh." The gift of myrrh symbolizes mortality, according to Origen.
While Origen argued for a naturalistic explanation, John Chrysostom viewed the star as purely miraculous: "How then, tell me, did the star point out a spot so confined, just the space of a manger and shed, unless it left that height and came down, and stood over the very head of the young child? And at this the evangelist was hinting when he said, "Lo, the star went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was."
Although magi (Greek μαγοι) is usually translated as "wise men," in this context it probably means "astronomer" or "astrologer". The involvement of astrologers in the story of the birth of Jesus was problematic for the early Church, because they condemned astrology as demonic; a widely cited explanation was that of Tertullian, who suggested that astrology was allowed 'only until the time of the Gospel'.
In 1614, German astronomer Johannes Kepler determined that a series of three conjunctions of the planets Jupiter and Saturn occurred in the year 7 BC. He argued (incorrectly) that a planetary conjunction could create a nova, which he linked to the Star of Bethlehem. Modern calculations show that there was a gap of nearly a degree (approximately twice a diameter of the moon) between the planets, so these conjunctions were not visually impressive. An ancient almanac has been found in Babylon which covers the events of this period, but does not indicate that the conjunctions were of any special interest. In the 20th century, Prof. Karlis Kaufmanis, an astronomer, argued that this was an astronomical event where Jupiter and Saturn were in a triple conjunction in the constellation Pisces. Archaeologist and Assyriologist Simo Parpola has also suggested this explanation.
In 3–2 BC, there was a series of seven conjunctions, including three between Jupiter and Regulus and a strikingly close conjunction between Jupiter and Venus near Regulus on June 17, 2 BC. "The fusion of two planets would have been a rare and awe-inspiring event", according to Roger Sinnott. Another Venus–Jupiter conjunction occurred earlier in August, 3 BC. These events however occurred after the generally accepted date of 4 BC for the death of Herod. Since the conjunction would have been seen in the west at sunset it could not have led the magi south from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.
Other writers suggest that the star was a comet. Halley's Comet was visible in 12 BC and another object, possibly a comet or nova, was seen by Chinese and Korean stargazers in about 5 BC. This object was observed for over seventy days with no movement recorded. Ancient writers described comets as "hanging over" specific cities, just as the Star of Bethlehem was said to have "stood over" the "place" where Jesus was (the town of Bethlehem). However, this is generally thought unlikely as in ancient times comets were generally seen as bad omens. The comet explanation has been recently promoted by Colin Nicholl. His theory involves a hypothetical comet which could have appeared in 6 BC.
A recent (2005) hypothesis is that the star of Bethlehem was a supernova or hypernova occurring in the nearby Andromeda Galaxy. Although it is difficult to detect a supernova remnant in another galaxy, or obtain an accurate date of when it occurred, supernova remnants have been detected in Andromeda.
The Magi told Herod that they saw the star "in the East," or according to some translations, "at its rising", which may imply the routine appearance of a constellation, or an asterism. One theory interprets the phrase in Matthew 2:2, "in the east," as an astrological term concerning a "heliacal rising." This translation was proposed by Edersheim and Heinrich Voigt, among others. The view was rejected by the philologist Franz Boll (1867–1924). Two modern translators of ancient astrological texts insist that the text does not use the technical terms for either a heliacal or an acronycal rising of a star. However, one concedes that Matthew may have used layman's terms for a rising.
Astronomer Michael R. Molnar argues that the "star in the east" refers to an astronomical event with astrological significance in the context of ancient Greek astrology. He suggests a link between the Star of Bethlehem and a double occultation of Jupiter by the moon on March 20 and April 17 of 6 BC in Aries, particularly the second occultation on April 17. Occultations of planets by the moon are quite common, but Firmicus Maternus, an astrologer to Roman Emperor Constantine, wrote that an occultation of Jupiter in Aries was a sign of the birth of a divine king. He argues that Aries rather than Pisces was the zodiac symbol for Judea, a fact that would affect previous interpretations of astrological material. Molnar’s theory was debated by scientists, theologians, and historians during a colloquium on the Star of Bethlehem at the Netherlands’ University of Groningen in October 2014. Harvard astronomer Owen Gingerich supports Molnar’s explanation but noted technical questions. "The gospel story is one in which King Herod was taken by surprise," said Gingerich. "So it wasn’t that there was suddenly a brilliant new star sitting there that anybody could have seen [but] something more subtle." Astronomer David A. Weintraub says, "If Matthew’s wise men actually undertook a journey to search for a newborn king, the bright star didn’t guide them; it only told them when to set out."
The events were quite close to the sun and would not have been visible to the naked eye.
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This conception of the star has been referred to as “a serious study of what could have been a messianic Jewish perspective concerning the heavens two millennia ago.”
Attorney Frederick Larson examined the biblical account in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 2 and found the following nine qualities of Bethlehem's Star: It signified birth, it signified kingship, it was related to the Jewish nation, and it rose "in the East"; King Herod had not been aware of it; it appeared at an exact time; it endured over time; and, according to Matthew, it was in front of the Magi when they traveled south from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, and then it stopped over Bethlehem.
Using astronomy software, and an article written by astronomer Craig Chester based on the work of Ernest Martin, Larson thinks all nine characteristics of the Star of Bethlehem are found in events that took place in the skies of 3-2 BC. Highlights include a triple conjunction of Jupiter, called the king planet, with the fixed star Regulus, called the king star, starting in September 3 BC. Larson believes that may be the time of Jesus' conception.
By June of 2 BC, nine months later, the human conception period, Jupiter had continued moving in its orbit around the sun and appeared in close conjunction with Venus in June of 2 BC. In Hebrew Jupiter is called "Sedeq", meaning "righteousness", a term also used for the Messiah, and suggested that because the planet Venus represents love and fertility, so Chester had suggested astrologers would have viewed the close conjunction of Jupiter and Venus as indicating a coming new king of Israel, and Herod would have taken them seriously. Astronomer Dave Reneke independently found the June 2 BC planetary conjunction, and noted it would have appeared as a "bright beacon of light".
Jupiter next continued to move and then it stopped in its apparent retrograde motion on December 25 of 2 BC over the town of Bethlehem. Since planets in their orbits have a "stationary point", a planet moves eastward through the stars but "After it passes the opposite point in the sky from the sun, it appears to slow, come to a full stop, and move backward (westward) for some weeks. Again it slows, stops, and resumes its eastward course," said Chester. The date of December 25 that Jupiter appeared to stop while in retrograde took place in the season of Hanukkah, and is the date later chosen to celebrate Christmas.
If the story of the Star of Bethlehem described an actual event, it might identify the year Jesus was born. The Gospel of Matthew describes the birth of Jesus as taking place when Herod was king. According to Josephus, Herod died after a lunar eclipse and before a Passover Feast. The eclipse is usually identified as the eclipse of March 13, 4 BC. Other scholars suggested dates in 5 BC, because it allows seven months for the events Josephus documented between the lunar eclipse and the Passover than the 29 days allowed by lunar eclipse in 4 BC. Others suggest it was an eclipse in 1 BC. The narrative implies that Jesus was born sometime between the first appearance of the star and the appearance of the Magi at Herod's court. That the king is said to have ordered the execution of boys two years of age and younger implies that the Star of Bethlehem appeared within the preceding two years. Some scholars date the birth of Jesus as 6–4 BC, while others suggest Jesus' birth was in 3/2 BC.
The Gospel of Luke says the census from Caesar Augustus took place when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Tipler suggests this took place in AD 6, nine years after the death of Herod, and that the family of Jesus left Bethlehem shortly after the birth. Some scholars explain the apparent disparity as an error on the part of the author of the Gospel of Luke, concluding that he was more concerned with creating a symbolic narrative than a historical account, and was either unaware of, or indifferent to, the chronological difficulty.
However, there is some debate among Bible translators about the correct reading of Luke 2:2. Instead of translating the registration as taking place "when" Quirinius was governor of Syria, some versions translate it as "before" or use "before" as an alternative, which Harold Hoehner, F.F. Bruce, Ben Witherington and others have suggested may be the correct translation. While not in agreement, Emil Schürer also acknowledged that such a translation can be justified grammatically. According to Josephus, the tax census conducted by the Roman senator Quirinius particularly irritated the Jews, and was one of the causes of the Zealot movement of armed resistance to Rome. From this perspective, Luke may have been trying to differentiate the census at the time of Jesus’ birth from the tax census mentioned in Acts 5:37 that took place under Quirinius at a later time. One ancient writer identified the census at Jesus’ birth, not with taxes, but with a universal pledge of allegiance to the emperor.
Jack Finegan noted some early writers' reckoning of the regnal years of Augustus are the equivalent to 3/2 BC, or 2 BC or later for the birth of Jesus, including Irenaeus (3/2 BC), Clement of Alexandria (3/2 BC), Tertullian (3/2 BC), Julius Africanus (3/2 BC), Hippolytus of Rome (3/2 BC), Hippolytus of Thebes (3/2 BC), Origen (3/2 BC), Eusebius of Caesarea (3/2 BC), Epiphanius of Salamis (3/2 BC), Cassiodorus Senator (3 BC), Paulus Orosius (2 BC), Dionysus Exiguus (1 BC), and Chronographer of the Year 354 (AD 1). Finegan places the death of Herod in 1 BC, and says if Jesus was born two years or less before Herod the Great died, the birth of Jesus would have been in 3 or 2 BC. Finegan also notes the Alogi reckoned Christ's birth with the equivalent of 4 BC or AD 9.
In the Orthodox Church, the Star of Bethlehem is interpreted as a miraculous event of symbolic and pedagogical significance, regardless of whether it coincides with a natural phenomenon; a sign sent by God to lead the Magi to the Christ Child. This is illustrated in the Troparion of the Nativity:
In Orthodox Christian iconography, the Star of Bethlehem is often depicted not as golden, but as a dark aureola, a semicircle at the top of the icon, indicating the Uncreated Light of Divine grace, with a ray pointing to "the place where the young child lay" (Matt 2:9). Sometimes the faint image of an angel is drawn inside the aureola.
Mormons believe that the Star of Bethlehem was an actual astronomical event visible the world over. In the Book of Mormon, which they believe contains writings of ancient prophets, Samuel the Lamanite prophesies that a new star will appear as a sign that Jesus has been born, and Nephi later writes about the fulfillment of this prophecy.
Among Jehovah's Witnesses the Star of Bethlehem is seen as a product of Satan, rather than a sign from God, since the star led the astrologers to Jerusalem where they met King Herod's plan to kill Jesus.
Paintings and other pictures of the Adoration of the Magi may include a depiction of the star in some form. In the fresco by Giotto di Bondone, it is depicted as a comet. In the tapestry of the subject designed by Edward Burne-Jones (and in the related watercolour), the star is held by an angel.
The colourful star lantern known as a paról is a cherished and ubiquitous symbol of Christmas for Filipinos, its design and light recalling the star. In its basic form, the paról has five points and two "tails" that evoke rays of light pointing the way to the Christ Child, and candles inside the lanterns have been superseded by electric illumination.
In the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, a silver star with 14 undulating rays marks the location traditionally claimed to be that of Jesus' birth.
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