Can the Star of Bethlehem Be Scientifically Verified?

Hale Bopp

A Christian commenter has for years encouraged me to watch the video The Star of Bethlehem by Rick Larson, and I finally have. Epiphany (January 6) is the feast day commemorating the visit of the magi to Jesus in Bethlehem, so now is a good time to give my review. This post will summarize the argument made in the video. I have some criticism, and you might have some too as you read the argument, but I’ll hold off for that until my critique post.

The New Testament has two nativity stories, one in Matthew and one in Luke. They both claim Bethlehem as the birthplace and a virgin birth, but everything else is different. Larson ignores that little problem and focuses just on the magi (perhaps best thought of as astrologers in the royal court) following the star in Matthew chapter 2. He claims that remarkable movements in the sky were a message from God at the time of Jesus’s birth.

When was Jesus born?

If you’re going to look at historical astronomical phenomena to find what happened in the sky around Jesus’s birth, you need to know when to look. Matthew tells us that Jesus was born during the reign of King Herod, who scholars say died in 4 BCE. This gives 6–4 BCE as the commonly accepted range of dates for Jesus’s birth. Larson argues instead that Herod died in 1 BCE, which opens up a few more years that have some interesting phenomena that Larson is eager to validate.

Is this astronomy . . . or astrology?

Larson says that he was temporarily sidelined by worries that this might be astrology. The Bible warns its followers away from astrology. For example:

Let your astrologers come forward, those stargazers who make predictions month by month, let them save you from what is coming upon you. Surely they are like stubble; the fire will burn them up. They cannot even save themselves from the power of the flame. (Isaiah 47:13–15)

However, Larson found a green light in biblical references to constellations Orion and Pleiades (Job 9:9) and reminders that God created the stars and named them (Isaiah 40:26). Satisfied that his work wasn’t blasphemous, he soldiered on.

What are the traits of this “star”?

Let’s review the nativity story in Matthew 2:1–9. Larson pulls out nine traits that we must find in any natural explanation of the star.

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?

The first three traits are (1) a birth of (2) a king of (3) the Jews. It’s unclear why these men would’ve been interested in things Jewish. One possibility is that they were Jews, remnants from the Jewish exile in the sixth century BCE.

We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

(4) The star rose in the east, like an ordinary star.

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: “ ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’ ” Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared.

(5) The star appeared at an exact time. (6) This was news to Herod—that is, this wasn’t something so obvious that it was common knowledge. Jesus is referred to as a child, not as a newborn, so months may have elapsed from birth to the arrival of the magi in Jerusalem. (7) The star wasn’t fleeting but was around for a while. The magi saw it from Babylon (or wherever they came from), and it was still visible after they arrived in Judea.

He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.

(8) The star went ahead of them, and then (9) it stopped.

Natural explanations for the star

Taking the story literally, it sounds like the star was a moving light, like Tinker Bell. A miracle is one possibility, but Larson wants a natural explanation, based on astronomical facts that anyone can check.

A meteorite is too fast and transitory. A comet would be long lasting, but it also doesn’t work. The usually reliable Chinese astronomers didn’t identify a comet during this time, Herod wouldn’t have asked about anything as obvious as a comet, and comets were typically omens of doom. A nova is rejected for similar reasons.

That leaves conjunctions, when a planet comes close* to another planet or a star. Larson weaves an interesting story with Jupiter as the star of Bethlehem.

The star of Bethlehem theory is concluded in part 2.

If the concept of a father who plots
to have his own son put to death
is presented to children as beautiful

and as worthy of society’s admiration,
what types of human behavior

can be presented to them as reprehensible?
— The Born Again Skeptic’s Guide to the Bible

 * The conjunction is actually when the line connecting the two bodies is vertical (that is, perpendicular to the horizon), though that isn’t necessarily the closest point.

Image credit: Jukka Kervinen, flickr, CC

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  • Bob Jase

    Science has explored all the apologists naturalistic explanations and none of them work so while science might have proved that the Star existed so far it seems that none did. Why Zoroastrian priests (magi) not ‘kings’ (three or otherwise) would have given a crap about a Hebrew messiah is another problem. My guess is that early Christians really wanted to suck the Mithraists into their fold.

    But keep making excuses believers.

    • Kevin K

      Yeah, I’m pretty sure the professional astronomers have plowed this field pretty thoroughly and come up with zilch.

      The story only makes sense if the “magi” were astrologers. There’s no way, scientifically speaking, that a “star” or any distant light in the heavens can “lead” anyone anywhere, though. Not unless, of course, you’re speaking of a flat-fixed Earth, in which case a magical light could do anything the author wanted it to do. But once the concept of an earth rotating on its axis was proven correct to account for the various “rises” and “sets” of heavenly bodies — then that jig was effectively up.

      An alien spacecraft in near-earth orbit — maybe? Frankly, that’s the most-logical explanation. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/b532428e3577b0871988be9830b17aca535ebfbc590590fe369b276323293314.jpg

    • http://musingsfromacorneroftheuniverse.blogspot.com/ Michael

      For what it’s worth, apparently it only says wise men, not magi. It also doesn’t say how many.

  • watcher_b

    The Griffith Observatory used to do a Christmas presentation in their planetarium that I remember being very interesting. It sounds like they made similar conjectures (without coming to the same conclusions) and showed what the night sky would have looked like at the time. They included a very detailed history of Christmas and its pagan roots as well.

  • Jim Jones

    The star in this story is the Tinker Bell in others. The whole nativity is a fantasy. Or two fantasies.

    • sandy

      That star is right up there with flying carpets and magical lamps.

  • igotbanned999

    It was obviously an alien spaceship, thus finally answering Captain Kirk’s question of what God would need with one.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

    Stay tuned–tomorrow read the thrilling conclusion. I’m sure you doubters will become seekers! Or something.

  • ThaneOfDrones

    You are not using the original Word of God as handed down to King James. Someone has taken liberties.

    Matt 2:
    [1] Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,
    [2] Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.

    These “wise men”, who lived to the east, saw a star east of them, so of course they traveled west. It makes perfect sense!

    Perhaps they should have followed the star to the east when it rose, and to the west as it fell; if so they might have would up at their starting point.

    continuing Matt 2:
    [3] When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
    [4] And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.
    [5] And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet,
    [6] And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule
    my people Israel.
    [7] Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, inquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.
    [8] And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.
    [9] When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.
    [10] When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.

    This is a tad confusing. If the star was guiding them, why did they have to stop and ask Herod for directions? If the star was leading the way to Bethlehem, why was it necessary to divine that destination from scriptures?

    • Bob Jase

      Hell, real Magi never ask for directions.

    • Kevin K

      Good point.

      Another problem. Bethlehem (at least today’s modern Bethlehem) is 9 km south of Jerusalem. So, if the “star” was leading them, how was it leading them in a southerly direction?

      I think I’m gonna stick with “alien spacecraft”. Still the solution that makes the most sense.

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

        From their starting point in Jerusalem, Jupiter and Bethlehem were both south. At some moment at night (they wouldn’t know which), Jupiter was right above Bethlehem.

        • Kevin K

          ‘cept that’s not how that works. Depending on the time of night, whenever Jupiter would be “right above” Bethlehem it would also be “right above” Jerusalem, and every other point on the north-south axis. And then “right above” any other city you would care to mark on the map (in the Northern Hemisphere at least).

          Fucking Earth’s rotation — how does it work?

        • al kimeea

          magnetically?

        • Kuno

          F*cking magi, how do they work?

        • RichardSRussell

          “Tide goes in. Tide goes out. Never a miscommunication. You can’t explain that.” —Bill O’Reilly, citing his proof of God’s existence

    • RichardSRussell

      I’m certainly not trying to rehabilitate the Bible here, or lend any credence to the tale, but solely as a point of grammar it’s possible that the phrase “in the east” was meant to modify “we” rather than “star”. This would hardly be the first time when the infallible and omniscient deity dictated something in a less-than-lucid manner.

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

        I had that same idea, but curiously, the Christian sources I read reject your interpretation. They say it means “the star rose east of our location,” because that’s what Jupiter would’ve done.

        • RichardSRussell

          I suppose that the original (Greek? Aramaic?) might’ve had some case-specific word endings that would’ve indicated what noun the phrase was supposed to modify, but I don’t know those languages, so I can’t do anything more than speculate.

          Still, it’s kind of bizarre that anyone would feel the need to add that modifying phrase at all. After all, as you correctly point out, where else would you expect to see anything rise over the horizon but the east?

          And why, as ThaneOfDrones asks, would that inspire them to head west? It’s like saying “I saw that the temp outside today is 0°, so I’m gonna get out my swim gear and snorkel.” This is like trying to fit a heptagonal peg into a square hole.

    • TheNuszAbides

      These “wise men”, who lived to the east, saw a star east of them, so of course they traveled west. It makes perfect sense!

      their astral guidance mojo receptors were mounted on the back of the head, obviously.

  • 3vil5triker .

    The Jehova’s Witnesses believe the star was caused by Satan, after all, it lead the Magi to Herod first then Jesus.

    • Kevin K

      Fascinating. What’s their source for this bit of wisdom?

      • Tommy

        From a place where the sun never shines.

        • Kevin K

          I find that the JWs and other similar cults obsess over 1 or 2 particular verses of the bible. It’s interesting because other denominations and even competing cults ignore those passages. So, if there was some source for their fixation, that would be an interesting case study. But, of course, there’s Jack Chick, who routinely pulled stuff out of his nether-regions.

        • MR

          Oh, I remember reading a chick tract that claimed a black hole in space was bringing the New Jerusalem to Earth. Of course, no mention of the millions of light years it would take to get here….

        • Kevin K

          He was a loony loon.

      • epicurus

        Probably from the same place as Norman Geisler, who thinks UFOs and aliens exist and are from Satan to deceive us. I think he even testified to this in some kind of court case or hearing back in the 80s.

        • Kevin K

          Cra-cray…

      • 3vil5triker .

        Their source? The Bible, I guess?

        The way the JW see it, had it been for the star alone, the Magi would’ve led Herod straight to Jesus. It took two additional supernatural interventions, the Magi being warned to avoid Herod on their return trip and Joseph being warned to flee to Egypt, to keep Jesus safe.

        Hence, the idea of the star being a tool employed by Satan attempting to kill Jesus.

        • Kevin K

          Fascinating … but it makes sense, actually.

          But then, does that mean that Yahweh did not wish to announce the birth of his baby boy? Seems kinda cold and indifferent, don’t you think?

  • Michael Neville

    The conjunction is actually when the line connecting the two bodies is vertical…

    …to the horizon (actually perpendicular).

    /pedant

  • MR

    Holy shit, it’s the perfect marriage between science and religion!

    Checkmate atheists!

    This reminds me of the time a dear, elderly friend of mine was all aflutter because “they found the Eye of God in space.” The same way that some of our Christianites get all excited about “the God Particle.”

    It’s a name.

    It’s like how the History Channel uses the term ‘mystery’ to spice up a topic that people would otherwise find boring.

    It sounds like this guy would make a good conspiracy theorist.

  • rubaxter

    The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View Paperback by Aaron Adair, Bob Berman(Foreword)

    Paperback: 168 pages
    Publisher: Onus Books (September 9, 2013)
    Language: English
    ISBN-10: 0956694861
    ISBN-13: 978-0956694867

    All you really need to read and absorb on this fairy tale.

  • epeeist

    Can the Star of Bethlehem Be Scientifically Verified?

    Betteridge’s law of headlines.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      So if I want to buck that law, I’d better telegraph that.

      “Is the Star of Bethlehem story falsified by science? Read this for the shocking answer!!”

      I still need to work “one weird trick” and “Number 5 will shock you!” into my headlines. They’re a work in progress.

  • Greg G.

    The star rose in the east, like an ordinary star.

    IIRC, the Hebrew for the direction “east” is the word for “rising”, I figure it is because it is where everything in the sky rises from that direction.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      According to the video, this is important because it shows that the thing we’re talking about rose like an ordinary star. That doesn’t sound particularly useful, but maybe this is how we eliminate meteors?