The (bah) Star of (humbug) Bethlehem

By Phil Plait | December 25, 2007 2:47 am

When I was younger I was something of a grinch. As I’ve grown older I’ve relaxed considerably about Christmas, and now I enjoy this time of year with my family quite a bit.

But still, sometimes my heart is maybe a size too small. I’ve been pondering writing my thoughts about the legend of the Star of Bethlehem for many years, and Christmas is as good a time as any; maybe even the best time! After all, ’tis the season for planetaria across the country to show their annual Star Of Bethlehem show, where they strive mightily to explain what astronomical phenomenon could have been behind the Biblical tale.

I have some bad news for them.

It is my personal opinion, based on looking through the evidence, that the Star did not exist. It is a simple story, a fictional account that too many people take way too seriously. Why?

Let’s see.

First, the story:

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.

[…]

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.

Right away, I have to wonder: if the wise men came from the east to Jerusalem, and they saw the star in the east, then following it they would have traveled away from Jerusalem, not toward it! They started east of the city, and headed east. So am I missing something here?

This right away makes me think something is perhaps amiss in this story.

Forgetting for the moment that this story is already somewhat inaccurate, what do we make of the idea of a notable star in the sky? The quotation above is from the King James version of the Bible, translated from Greek, and is similar to other versions of the book. The word in the Greek version is aster, which means literally "star", but could be fairly construed as some sort of astronomical event other than a simple star. It wouldn’t make any sense for the wise men to have followed just any old star, so we have to assume that this apparition was something unusual, and also rather bright. A really faint object wouldn’t have aroused much in the way of religious fervor and the desire to trek hundreds of miles across the desert; plus it is generally depicted as being very bright.

What could it have been?

The obvious thing to do is to think of bright astronomical phenomena such as a planetary conjunction (when two or more planets pass very near each other in the sky), a comet, and a nova or supernova.

Events like these have been exhaustively searched for. You can find many places online with descriptions, like Nick Strobel’s Astronomy Notes, for example. A Google search will yield dozens and dozens of potential phenomena. I think many are very unlikely to be right on their merits (a comet wouldn’t be mistaken for a star, a supernova would have most likely have been too bright, and so on).

But it doesn’t matter. The legend is almost certainly impossible. Why?

It has to do with the east again. Almost all stars rise and set over the course of the night, which is a reflection of the spin of the Earth. When viewed from above the north pole, the Earth spins counterclockwise, which means stars rise in the east, make an arc which peaks in the south, and then set in the west. The only stars which don’t do this are ones in the north, near Polaris. They make circles around the north pole of the sky, never rising nor setting (though they do get higher and lower in the sky as they circle).

So if the wise men saw a star "in the east", we see immediately there are problems. Was it in the east at sunset? If so, it would rise until about midnight, whereupon it would be toward the south, and then by sunrise it would be in the west. Following it would make them go in circles. Because of the Earth’s rotation, a star cannot stay in the eastern part of the sky. If it’s in the east at sunrise that’s both better and worse; better because the star may still be in the east when the Sun rises, so they only see it toward the east, but worse because then how can they then follow it?

It’s not an option for the star to be only in the east all night long. The rotating Earth prevents that. And if it’s far enough north it can stay in the north, but that’s not what the Bible says. It’s very specific about it being in the east; Matthew states that not just once but twice.

There are only two options: if it stayed in the east then it either orbited the Earth at a nearly or exactly geosynchronous rate (taking 24 hours to go around once, so it appeared to hang in one spot in the sky like a TV satellite), or it was a miracle and just hung there. The first is physically impossible, and the second… well, if you assume it was a miracle, why look for a supportive scientific explanation at all?

Speaking of support, there is another important point: Arabs and Chinese were phenomenal astronomers, and rarely missed any spectacular events (barring records being missing from key times). Note that most bright stars in the sky have Arabic names, a testament to the prowess of Arabic astronomers. It is unlikely in the extreme for them to have missed something like the Star of Bethlehem, and to my knowledge they didn’t record anything for that time period that fits the story, miracle or no. Update: It has been pointed out to me by various commenters below that Arabs did not start significantly contributing to astronomy until much later. So while we owe quite a bit to them sky-wise, you can ignore what I said about them here.

I think, in the end, there is a far simpler explanation: the star is a legend, a story, a tale told by people long after the actual event, getting bigger and more garnished with time. That does happen sometimes, you know. I am no fan of Biblical literalism, as searching my Religion category will show. There are hundreds upon hundreds of examples where the Bible cannot be literally true, so why can’t the Star of Bethlehem be yet another example?

If you are a religious sort, then there is little need to look for scientific explanations of miraculous events. By definition, a miracle is something that defies the laws of physics (and you can just guess how I feel about that). And if you are a scientist (and/or a planetarium show writer), you’re welcome to look for some physical representation of the Star, but bear in mind that your starting premise must perforce be flawed: if the story is literally true, there cannot be a scientific explanation, and if it’s a story that’s been embellished, you have too many free parameters to choose from. Which part of the myth do you ignore? How it hung in only one part of the sky, in the east? How bright it was? When it occurred?

The fact that no one has found a definitive explanation of the Star supports my idea that it’s a fictional tale. If it were as bright and obvious and critical as Matthew made it out to be, then we’d know what it was for sure by now.

If you’re a Christian, then it’s a nice story, and if you’re not, you can take it or leave it on its merits. I don’t think it takes anything away from the meaning of the holiday, whatever it may mean to you.

As for me, I’ll be happy looking at real stars, and opening my real presents on Christmas morning.

Happy holidays!

Comments (140)

  1. Donnie B.

    As far as the problem of seeing the star in the East goes, consider this reading of the verses:

    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 WHEN WE WERE in the east, and are come to worship him.

    […]

    9 When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw WHEN THEY WERE 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.

    However, that point aside, I agree with your main idea that there is no known phenomenon that could match this account. It’s either a miracle or a myth. I vote for myth, myself. It seems to me like one of those things in the Jesus story that was added to match some prophesy (e.g. his line of descent from King David), or to lend the tale some gravitas. Of course, if wise Persians came and worshipped, he must have been God Jr.!

  2. Edward C

    Just wondering, could the Bible have errata in it?
    Could in translation error, the Magi came from the west?
    This does not explain the geosyc. of the star.

    Just wondering.

  3. Boy, I’m glad you said that (and not me). This pretty much echoes my thoughts on the subject. Of course my wife is constantly berating me for “taking all of the wonderment out of things” when I do such an analysis. Your “if the wise men came from the east to Jerusalem, and they saw the star in the east, then following it they would have traveled away from Jerusalem, not toward it!” is exactly the sort of thing I say all the time that gets her riled up (although that’s not my intention).

    It’s right up there with “axial tilt is the reason for the season” that I coined about 10 years ago, but have since seen in other places. I still don’t have the guts to put that on an actual lighted display on my roof.

    – Jack

  4. Trebuchet

    Certainly the Arabs were fantastic astronomers, but wasn’t that much (like 1000 years or so) later? At around 0 BCE, I don’t think that much, if anything, existed in the way of Arabic culture, which reached its peak about 800-1000 years ago. The Chinese, on the other hand, would likely have noticed.

  5. I can think of two explanations:

    1. God placed a highly reflective satellite of some kind in geosynchronous orbit directly over the Manger. (Caveat: Even so, this wouldn’t remain in “the East” for long. One would assume that as the three Kings got closer it would gradually move overhead.)

    2. The frankincense was actually crack.

  6. Rick

    Most planetarium folk I know, refer to it as that SOB program, pun intended. At Hyde, a public observatory, we run Horkheimer’s ancient video on the subject only because we get flack when we don’t. When we do run it, those same folk who complained we don’t run it enough, never show up for it!

    Those I know in this field agree with you but just don’t say so out loud. Gotta keep the customers coming in. Hyde is free (donations appreciated) but we still run it and cringe.

    Rick

  7. BTW, while we’re debunking, that sure does look like a fake Santa hat you’re wearing. The contrast and texture are a little too crisp, and it doesn’t appear to be conforming to the shape of your head, although I admit the possibility that you may have gone “gangsta” and purchased an oversized hat for the occasion. The big tip-off, however, is that you appear to be otherwise occupying the exact same moment in spacetime whereupon you took your original blog profile picture.

  8. For what it’s worth, the magi were wise men, astrologers, not astronomers, that would have studied the heavens for astrological signs, not astronomical signs. A planet, moving from one astrological sign to another would have had some meaning for them, but not to the average person living at the time. Is it possible that that’s what all the fuss is about? The Discovery Channel did a show on this last Christmas, and that’s the theory they were putting out there anyway. As a person that has both studied, and taught the Bible at one time, I am in full agreement that it should not be taken literally, nor should it be considered infallible. It is a collection of books, written over a span of centuries by different authors, each with their own perspectives and biases on matters of faith. As far as the Christmas story being true? It’s a nice story. It makes us all feel “warm and fuzzy” inside. I mean the idea of angels, shepherds, all coming to see a cute little baby born in a manger is nice. The idea of peace and goodwill to our fellow man is something I think even the most hardened skeptic could get excited about. It’s too bad, that in traditional Biblical fashion, the story changes quickly from the babe in the manger, to the “Slaughter of the Innocents”, as Herod tries to track down this future “King of the Jews”.
    Well, this will be the first time in 24 years that I have not stepped into a church, since my break with Evangelical Christianity a year ago. I’m looking forward to spending it with my young daughter as she is coming from Seattle. However you celebrate, religious or secular, have a Merry Christmas, and celebrate safely!

  9. Phil.

    Phil, Phil, Phil.

    Buddy, you skipped right past the simplest possible explanation and understanding of the story, and one that would pass muster with the post-Fides et Ratio Catholic Church no less.

    The word in the Greek version is aster, which means literally “star”, but could be fairly construed as some sort of astronomical event other than a simple star.

    The magic word (so to speak) is “astrologer”. And the three wise men are generally accepted to have been astrologers. Now you and I can agree that astrology is a bunch of hokum, but they didn’t think so. So these guys see some event to their east and say “hey, something’s going down!” Then they look up in various of their sources of lore and head off towards the west, but ultimately following the guidance of their legends, kicked off by the “star”.

    They get near Bethlehem and there’s a fuss going on. As we both know from studying cold reads, these guys stop and say, “hey! this is the thing we’re looking for!” At this point if you’re a believer you can say that the whole thing was orchestrated by the FSM to bring them to that point, but whatever.

    Since then, what with bad translations and five hundred years now of people being encouraged to come to their own personal understanding of the (badly-translated) scriptures we get the current folk tale of literally following a literal star.

  10. tre

    i believe christmas was better and more of a pure holiday when it wasnt so commercialized.
    first off…the holiday was supposed to signify the birth of jesus…NOT TO SPEND MONEY ON GIFTS!
    jesus’ birth was actually in the SPRING, not in december, read it for yourself.
    christmas is a time for families to come together, to enjoy each others companionship, family and friends, loving each other.

    here is a question for you…
    if the story of the bethlehem star is in the bible, and you are alive today, what gives you the right to judge and why would you even want to?, ruin the thoughts and dreams of people who do actually
    find something pure for once in thier lives to believe in??
    who are you to discearn what is right to believe that something as
    small or as insignifigant as a star even merely exists?
    it doesnt really matter what you believe in anyway, just that you
    believe.
    its hard enough to find anything at all to truely believe in nowdays
    anyway…dont you have enough to worry about down here on
    the planet, or do you just like to nit pick on Gods creation?

  11. Were the Wise Men’s camels equipped with GPS devices, like a Magellan? Well, obviously it wouldn’t have actually been called a Magellan, since Magellan wouldn’t have been born for another 1500 years, but hopefully you get my point.
    Anyway, if archeologists could get their hands on one of those units, perhaps they could retrace the Wise Men’s precise route. Of course, after all this time, it would likely need new batteries….

  12. Supernova

    Given multiple retranslations, the interpretation “we in the east have seen his star” seems at least plausible. I can imagine a very bright object appearing in the west and setting shortly after sunset, which someone might believe was leading him westward. I personally don’t mind hearing the occasional speculation about astronomical phenomena that might have inspired this legend. However, I think BA’s point about the impermanence and exaggeration of mythical and religious stories is an important one, so agree that astronomers should avoid placing too much emphasis on identifying the definitive Star of Bethlehem. We should also not forget that the modern Christmas tradition incorporates many aspects of the pagan traditions that preceded it, and that the star plays a heavily symbolic role in this story (light in the darkness; return of the sun after the solstice; godhood). Appreciating it on that level seems more appropriate (and ultimately more meaningful) than trying to explain it astronomically.

    Happy solstice, everyone!

  13. Linda Lindsey

    I always figured that whoever wrote the verses was an astrology nut and that they ascribed mystical knowledge to the three fictional characters.

  14. Michael Lonergan

    Oops, sorry BA, I accidentally spammed you by not clearing my browser! I believe the magi were astrologers, not astronomers, and would have been looking for astrological signs. Is it possible that they saw some astrological significance in the heavens?

    As far as it being a miracle, I guess if one operates on the premise that God exists, that he created the physical universe and that universe operates according to unbreakable laws of physics that he enacted, then I suppose he could break them. That would be my definition of a miracle. But why would he do that? I adhered to a charismatic form of Christianity for most of the past 24 years. I believed that God still performed miracles today. Yet in 24 years, I did not see God perform 1 miracle. People made all kinds of claims, cold healed, hurt back healed… all the invisible stuff. No one climbing out of wheelchairs, though. My point? Given the lack of “Miracle Activity” over the intervening 2,000 years since this star supposedly lit up the skies over Bethlehem, why would I believe this too be a miracle?

    The sentiment, “Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men” is a good sentiment. It’s too bad that the biblical narrative so quickly changes from this to Herod’s “Slaughter of the Innocents”, the brutal campaign to slaughter every boy under the age of 2 in order to weed out this future “King of the Jews.”

    I will find meaning this Christmas, not in the babe in a manger, but with my beautiful daughter, that will be visiting me, and the joy of sharing this special time of year, no matter how we celebrate.

  15. tacitus

    It is interesting that the world is divided into three basic types of Christian (yeah, I know, it’s a lot more complicated that that, but bear with me!):

    (a) those who believe the Bible is literally true throughout and that nature reflects what is written in the Bible.

    (b) those who believe the Bible is literally true throughout and that the Bible reflects what happens in nature.

    (c) those who don’t believe the Bible is literally true throughout.

    It’s the Christians in the (b) category who worry most over things like the Star of Bethlehem, believing that the story must reflect some natural phenomenon that occurred 2,000 years ago. Sure (a) Christians will also speculate, but it doesn’t matter as much to them since they “know” it happened no matter what the science or historical record tells them.

    In the end the (b) Christians get it in the neck from both (a) and (c). The (a) people accuse their (b) brethren of twisting the meaning of the Bible’s text too far to fit natural explanations and the (c) people accuse them of twisting nature too far to fit the Bible’s text.

    Anyway, Merry Christmas everyone (yeah, it’s Christmas already here in the UK!) no matter if you’re in group (a) (b) (c) or (d – none to the above).

    :)

  16. Michael Lonergan

    Tre, I don’t think anyone is nit picking, but extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The A in BA is Astronomer. Astronomers have the ability to go back through history and plot exactly where stars and planets would have been when Jesus was born. They haven’t found anything of significance. Also, what would lend credibility to this story are extra-biblical sources. There are none. The journey of the magi would have taken up to 2 years. That can be assumed because Herod had all male children under 2 killed when the Magi asked his about the birth of Jesus. They would not have seen an object, for example, on a Monday evening, immediately hopped on their camels, and arrived in Bethlehem the next day.

    If you believe in the biblical account, great! if it provides a source of strength and faith for you, wonderful. Please don’t judge those that choose not to believe, because we require evidence. For some of us, “Goddidit” is not enough.

  17. A.J. (the bad biologist)
  18. Revmonkeyboy

    I have always been skeptical of the Bethlehem story. If you see a star in the sky, bright or dim, could you really judge the exact point on earth that is directly under it? Would that point, assuming you could judge it, be the same spot an hour later? It would be pretty messed up if the wise men had the wrong address.
    If this was some astrological forecast, how could they have been right one time, and so wrong the rest of the time.
    Was Jesus ever a king of any kind? I read the bible front to back, and do not recall him ever being in any office, in Israel or anywhere else. As I recall he got in a lot of trouble with the government, but never actually held any seat within the government.
    How many pregnant teenage girls would love to get away with the “But, I really am still a virgin”, line? Why be skeptical of all the others, but not of this one? Seems a bit unfair.

  19. k

    The Star- Arthur C. Clarke

  20. yy2bggggs

    I don’t believe it happened either, but the reports of what happened are a bit off. Heterophenomenologically speaking:

    They came from the east. As noted, stars rise in the east and set in the west. They identified this as the star of the king of the Jews, being wise astrologers as they were. So they wandered to Jerusalem, asking about this king that was born. Herod got ticked, and said, where was this king supposed to be born, and they said Bethlehem, because that’s where the prophets fortold he would be born (not because it’s where the star was). Herod then asked them when the star appeared, so he could usurp this king.

    The men went off to the west some more, and the star went before them (going west as stars are want to do), until it came directly overhead.

    So, the “star” in the story isn’t really doing anything special or exotic in terms of its motions–it’s going from east to west just like everything else does.

    Then, to finish our story, after a time, the wise men didn’t show up, and Herod killed all of the two year olds… so it’s not quite like the wise men were at the manger anyway. Then, roughly 75 to 100 years later, a group of people wrote this down to preserve this historical event for future generations.

  21. IMHO, the best thing about the Star of Bethlehem tale is that it inspired Arthur C. Clarke’s short story, “The Star”. THAT gives me goosebumps every time!

  22. Michelle

    Tre, I don’t believe this “nitpicking” ruins the christmas and beliefs of any real christian. If they have faith they can just go say “It was God’s doing” and go on with their joly celebrating of the baby jeebus.

  23. Matt

    @Tre: Furthermore, this is a blog for skeptics. The occasional “believer” will stumble here either accidentally or because a skeptic is trying to show them otherwise. As far as “belief” goes, what could be more pure than knowledge and reality? It’s the world around us that we deal with day after day, and being a skeptic does not mean that we are any more or less human than any other person. By the way, way to paraphrase Shepherd in Serenity.

  24. There is a bunch of indications that the “star” of Bethlehem did exist, and was neither a star nor a comet nor a supernova nor anything quite like that. Consider that the trip took these astrologers months. The biblical account says they saw the star when they were in the east, and they saw it again when they arrived.

    It does however not mention that they saw the star all throughout the trip.

    Now consider 7 BC. In that year, a conjugation of Jupiter and Saturn in the sign of Pisces was seen thrice. In astrological symbolism, Jupiter is a king or lord; Saturn is, among others, a protective symbol for Israel; for the Babylonian astrologers of the time, Pisces was a sign for the west; and finally, rabbinic records exist which say that such a conjugation would signal the coming of the messiah.

    Does that constitute proof?

    Well, the story’s rather too sparse on details to prove anything about it. But the outlined explanation seems to achieve a decent degree of truthiness, at least.

    (If anyone wants to poke holes in it, I’m all ears.)

  25. I always thought this passage meant “we saw the star in our home country in the east.” Its a matter of language, not astronomy.

  26. Michelle

    I don’t think anyone needs to poke holes in it, AP. You pointed it out yourself: the story is way too vague. It’s really just a big load of suppositions at this point.

  27. man on the moon

    As far as miracles, I like CS Lewis’s discussion in his book of the same name. That aside, and considering the aforementioned theories…

    As a kid I would see the pictures with the angel over the manger. I imagined the angels having left the sheperds and hanging out in the sky watching the whole thing. Their brightness is what the wisemen saw and followed, leading them right to the scene wherever the baby had moved to by the time they arrived. Alternatively the angels could have stayed just long enough for the wise men to figure it out and read the prophecies. That way the angels wouldn’t get so tired or bored waiting for them to arrive!

    Regardless, I like the story. Today I’m not sure what I think–though it’s closest to Mike Lonergan’s exposition. Just got there, and so far Christmas is still christmas! Ole and happy holidays!

  28. Matt

    As long as we’re on the topic of stars and Arthur C. Clarke could anyone tell me if I’m correct in assuming this song was inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey? http://www.darklyrics.com/lyrics/wintersun/wintersun.html#6

    I haven’t read the book, unfortunately, but it’s on my list of things I need to do.

  29. Tahl

    Haven’t read the comments thread, as it’s hell’a late to me and I need get myself off to bed..but..

    Geeze, Phil, there’s that whole “pick your battles” thing, and all.. I do not at all decry or denounce your commentary..in fact, I wholly agree with it..but to make that post on Christmas Eve..? That’s just settin’ yerself up as a moving target.. ;)

    Mind, what’s done is done and let the skep-chips (a shameless play on “Skep-Chicks”) fall where they may..

    May you and yours have a wonderful holiday season, regardless of any astronomical basis, thereof.. Feast, enjoy family time in your new home and just plain share the joy of the season.. My best wishes go out to you, this Christmas eve..

  30. Gable

    I personally do not worship Christmas, but I also try not to rain on the parade of others who do. I come here to learn about astronomy as do the high majority of others who visit this site. You do well to consider sticking to that. Poor form.

  31. Blondin

    Ya, but where does the jolly old fat guy in the red suit come in?

  32. Jeffersonian

    There’s no concordance – apparently the other gospel authors didn’t think it happened either since it only appears in the Book of Matthew. Matthew (KJV) simply says wise men came after seeing a star and this worried Herod. Anything else is simply reading too much into it. But, like most of what modern xtians believe, the mythmaking is recent and not of biblical origin. The account does not claim they were kings nor does it say how many there were. But, as a myth, it’s a great literary device as it foreshadows the story to follow. It’s also clear, if you keep reading Chap 2, that Jesus was NOT a baby when the wise men came to visit, he was 2 or 3 years old.
    Matthew may be my favorite gospel because of the scene where the zombies jump out of the graves and attack the city (27:52-53).

    Great analysis, Phil.

  33. Ben

    Two words, just Two: Death Star

  34. I don’t think this is such a downer, which is why I posted it now. It’s not an attack on Christmas; you might notice the silly picture, and the bit at the end. A lot of non-Christians celebrate Christmas as a time for family and to be together, too. I suspect that for most folks, that’s the important thing. If others are actually offended by this post, well, I think their priorities need to be re-aligned.

    And besides, who reads blogs on Christmas Eve…? ;-)

  35. John

    Wow Matt, I didn’t expect to find any Wintersun fans around these parts. :D

  36. Somehow I’m reminded of the best response to any argument about the implausibility of Superman’s secret identity:

    “So let me get this straight: you seem to be able to accept that a man can fly; that he can survive unprotected in space; that he can see through walls, lift entire mountains, fire laser beams from his eyes, and fly around the planet so fast that it actually spins in reverse and makes time go backwards.

    “…But when the writers claim that Superman disguises his true identity with a simple pair of eyeglasses, THAT’s when you cry ‘bull****’?!?”

    :)

  37. uknesvuinng

    Would it be “raining on parades” if I laugh at the fact someone told Phil to stick to astronomy when this is exactly what this post is? I think they mean Phil should stick to astronomy that doesn’t show the falsity of cherished myths. Bad Phil, letting reality ruin a perfectly good make-believe like that!

    Happy Yule (or relevant celebration) to all.

  38. Kimpatsu

    It was the Starship enterprise, thrown back in time as happened quite often in TOS. It even happened to the Enterprise D and to Voyager.
    Of course, it could also have been the Titanic, as Doctor Who was on board to save the day.
    :D

  39. JackC

    I was listening to an interview with a couple of guys that wrote this book: http://www.amazon.com/First-Christmas-Gospels-Really-Jesuss/dp/0061430706

    I was all ready for some apologetic stuff – when the guy comes out and says, “It’s a PARABLE people, DEAL with it!”

    I am gonna probably have to buy that book.

    It was an Astronomer at the Rauch Memorial Planaterium at the U of Louisville who first “informed” me – at the tender age of about 10 – that the passage was probably mistranslated and most likely SHOULD have read “We, in the East, have seen a star….” – this was way back in about 1965-ish. It definately started me on the way to Questioning Everything.

    He also introduced me to the Boon Sunrise. That is when you are deep in the middle of a good, personal lecture of the night sky – and he accidently hits the house lights.

    JC

  40. Ehrman Minor

    The mainstream academic understanding of the star story goes like this:
    The first gospel written was Mark. Mathew and Luke had Mark in front of them when they wrote their accounts; we know this because they copied parts of Mark word for word. Mark has no nativity story, it begins with Jesus’s baptism by John the Baptist. We can also deduce that Mathew and Luke wrote their accounts independently because everything that is not covered by Mark (before Jesus’s baptism, after his resurrection) is entirely different, including the nativity. About the only thing they agree on with respect to the nativity is that his parents were Mary and Joseph, Mary was a virgin, and he was born in Bethlehem. One has a manger, the other doesn’t. One has shepherds, the other doesn’t. One has three wise men, one has a census, etc.

    Mathew was written by a Jew. We know this because in some of the part of Mark he copied, he quietly corrected some errors Mark made about Jewish practice. We can also deduce from the text that one of Mathew’s main target audiences was Jews, and one of his goals was to convince Jews that Jesus was the legitimate Jewish Messiah (in contrast, Luke is directed at Gentiles).

    Soooo, the current default consensus is that Mathew put the Three Wise Men in for symbolic reasons. They are Magi, Persian holy men. The gifts represented an earthly king (gold) a divine king (frankincense, I think, was used to scent the oil used to anoint a Hebrew King), and a priest (myrrh, I think, was an expensive aromatic resin burned in the temple). Or something like that — I can’t find the source right now — but I believe that was the idea.

    So, yeah, it’s just a story. Mathew made it up to make a theological point. Looking for astronomical explanations is going to be pointless.

  41. jonathan

    I have heard that the origin of this story comes from ancient astrolonomy?

    On the night of the winter solstice, the three stars in Orion’s belt (the 3 Kings) line up with Sirius to show the spot where the sun will rise in the morning. In olden times, ancient astronomers would track the position of the sunrise relative to these stars, and when it was in the right position, they knew the winter solstice was upon them. On the day of the winter solstice, the sun is “reborn” and the days get longer, and yada yada yada.

    Maybe that’s bad astronomy.

  42. Some powerful retconning going on here…

    – Jack

  43. AstroSmurf

    To be fair, the Arabs didn’t really arise as a civilisation until the 8th century or so, so whether they were good astronomers or not is largely irrelevant. That said, the Greek and Egyptian astronomers were getting pretty good. Claudios Ptolemaios wasn’t born yet, but Hipparchos had done a lot of work systemising the Babylonian and Sumerian observations. Hipparchos didn’t have too much interest in astrology, but the ideas were still being toyed with by others.

    I would have posted yesterday, but I was busy enjoying a non-religious solstice celebration with my family. Unfortunately, the weather prevented me from seeing the occultation.

  44. @Kimpatsu — you’re my hero :)

  45. Troy

    I recall, Phil, that you wrote a similar essay for a German newspaper. I think it is great that you discourage these kind of shows at planetaria. Actually it is a natural question for a Christian to ask, and yours is the best answer! While I’m fairly sure Jesus was an actual person, certainly there has been a huge motive to fill in the blanks about who was the hero of early Christians. For example there is a little known book called the Gospel of Thomas, it in fact has (a likely) manufactured epic of Jesus as a child, sort of a divine brat who is coming to grips with his power. I’m a big fan of stories, and even temporary suspension of disbelief to feel the stories and make them relevant to our own lives. That said I agree with Ehrman Minor’s analysis on the symbolism of certain features of the Matthew story. That stories often have symbolic elements that are often hard for modern readers to discern. There are a few issues for the modern reader: symbols aren’t relevant anymore, modern readers aren’t as astute at stories, for some the depth of deep poetry isn’t something people train for. When we read it is rather like a phone book or an instruction manual what you see is what you get. Before television symbolic depth was something that really gave words a lot of bang for the buck. The star is a metaphor wouldn’t be much interest in a planetarium but that’s likely what it was.

  46. Inertially Guided

    Wow…TWO passages written many years after the supoosed event, recognized by NO other authors, describing events NOT observed by any other cultures at the time, and there have been countless articles, books, movies, songs and poems written based on it.

    Frankly, I don’t call that a preponderance of evidence for ANYTHING having happened at all…

  47. Steve

    “Arabs … were phenomenal astronomers”

    In the first century?

  48. Michael Lonergan

    Hello, look blessings. YES, blessings on you at CHRISTMAS! Doesnt matter what you believe as long at it changes you somewhat, and causes you to remember the homeless, the poor, and the less fortunate this holiday season, Put an extra coin in the kettle jar of the sally ann or whatever you choose to do. That’ is what I would like to think Jesus would be like anyway, not caring if one was poor, gay ,bi, straight, democrat, republican or whatever, can we please co-exist? Tanks.

  49. Bill H

    The caravans of the desert navigated by the stars.

  50. It’s already been debunked already … by The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams (the leader of the world’s Anglicans), who recently went and wreaked the Three Wise Men story – http://www.thewest.com.au/default.aspx?MenuID=29&ContentID=51786.

    Apparently ‘stars don’t do that‘!

    http://podblack.wordpress.com/2007/12/24/noodly-holidays/

  51. CammoBlammo

    @Ehrman Minor (and what the heck, everyone else — it’s Christmas!)

    There is another facet here — astrology was, for Jews of the time the gospel of Matthew was written, as verboten as homosexuality and adultery. So not only were the Magi foreigners, they were foreigners who practised an abomination.

    The point is, though, that these guys were able to correctly spot the birth of the King of the Jews whilst up to their necks in sin, and were so sure of their reading they travelled for months to see the child and lavish gifts upon him when they finally found him. This is in stark contrast to Herod and his religious cronies who lived all of six miles away in Jerusalem and tried to have Jesus killed.

    This is a recurring theme throughout the book of Matthew — Gentiles and sinners also have a stake in the Kingdom of God, and Jews aren’t automatically a part of the new Covenant by virtue of their race and religion.

    I think a similar lesson could be adapted for many modern Christian churches!

  52. Corey

    It’s really obvious what happened. The “wise men” story got tacked onto the nativity story early-on in the history of the church. It probably helped lend an air of authenticity for new converts, and it probably happened like this:

    Teacher: “So, ready to join our church?”
    New Convert: “I’m not sure – so how do you know this Jesus guy is the real deal? He was born in a barn, not really impressive …”
    Teacher: “Well, when he was born, a bunch of shepherds came over and totally adored him.”
    New Convert: “Pfft. Shepherds. You want me to base my belief system on a bunch of shepherds? I wouldn’t trust shepherds to do my laundry.”
    Teacher: “Oh yeah? Well, some other men ALSO showed up and adored him later, and they weren’t stupid shepherds. They were, like, all wise and stuff.”
    New Convert: “Hmm. Interesting. Where did these ‘wise men’ come from?”
    Teacher: “Umm…. the east? People are really wise out there. There were, like, um, maybe three of them.”
    New Convert: “So how did THEY know Jesus was the real deal?”
    Teacher: “Well … I think … I mean, I know … well, there was a big huge star, and when it appeared, they knew, because they are all wicked crazy wise and are always looking at stars and stuff.”
    New Convert: “Wow, a star, that makes sense. So these wise men were able to physically observe this star? It proves the divinity of Jesus?”
    Teacher: “Oh, totally. It was in the east. Plus they brought gifts!”
    New Convert: “How did they find him? I mean, the star appeared, signaling the magical birth, but how did they find out where he was staying so they could drop off the gifts?”
    Teacher: “Umm … I think they followed the star right to him, man, it like … hovered right over him and led them right to him.”
    New Convert: “Wow, that’s quite a star.”
    Teacher: “He’s quite a savior.”
    New Convert: “OK, I’m converted now. When do we get to ritually drink his blood?”

  53. Matt writes:

    [[Furthermore, this is a blog for skeptics. The occasional “believer” will stumble here either accidentally or because a skeptic is trying to show them otherwise.]]

    Really? There’s a religious test for entering this blog? I didn’t see anything posted.

    I’m a believer, and I came here because I love astronomy and the debunking of pseudoscience. I know the evangelical atheists like to take over any internet venue they can to spread their religion, but who is and isn’t allowed in BA should probably be determined by Dr. Plait, rather than by the internet yahoos.

  54. if the story of the bethlehem star is in the bible, and you are alive today, what gives you the right to judge and why would you even want to?, ruin the thoughts and dreams of people who do actually
    find something pure for once in thier lives to believe in??

    Uh, I think it’s that he has a functioning brain. That’s what gives him the right to judge.

    Damn, how does a person like you even find a blog like this?

  55. Gareth

    “Led by a star? Led by a bottle, more like!”
    — Mrs Cohen

  56. DrFlimmer

    I haven’t read the comments above, so maybe my point has been mentioned:

    Over the time I am visting this blog maybe you remember my nickname and that I am studying (astro)physics but also that I believe in a (christian) god.
    And Phil! You mentioned something that is very important in my way of believing. I do not take the bible literally. I prefer thinking about what the story wants to TELL me and how I can use it in my own way of life!
    An example: “The blinds can see again”. Let’s think about it: If you have trouble with a physical problem and don’t know how to solve it and some one comes around and gives you a hint and suddenly – bam! – you’ve got the answer! That is (more or less) what “the blinds can see again” means to me – although the bible meant it for religious reasons of course! (You can choose many other examples, of course)

    Anyway, let’s just say:

    MERRY CHRISTMAS to all of you!

  57. Oh man, spare me! For the heck of it, I went to Answers in Genesis to see what they had to say about this “star”:

    http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/am/v1/n2/star-of-bethlehem

    Curiously, 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, which would have been visible to all.

    One would think that any normal person would look at that as evidence that it was just made up. Nice way to avoid having to deal with the lack of winesses/evidence for a biblical story.

  58. Oh man, spare me! For the heck of it, I went to Answers in Genesis to see what they had to say about this “star”:

    http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/am/v1/n2/star-of-bethlehem

    Curiously, 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, which would have been visible to all.

    One would think that any normal person would look at that as evidence that it was just made up. Nice way to avoid having to deal with the lack of winesses/evidence for a biblical story

  59. Lurchgs

    zounds

    I was all set to take up the explanation, expecting to be one of, if not THE, first responders. I mean, who in his right mind is blommenting at this time of day on National Be Nice To Others day?

    Instead, I find a horde of insomniacs have not only been at it most of the night, they’ve covered all the ground I intended to cover. I gotta get a bigger tarp.

    All in all, I tend to regard the story as made up out of whole cloth, with a little bit of history thrown in for local color – and, cynic that I am, I atribute that to bad translation, rather than any design on the part of the author.

    I notice that a couple of blommenters have mentioned drugs (typically tongue in cheek) and hallucinations… Actually, I think there could well be something to this…one only need read the Odessy (or was it Iliad.. I forget) about the Lotus Eaters. So we know that fun drugs were A) known, B) used well before the time of Herod.. and we, as a species, have a history of totally messing with our minds in an effort to see better (I do NOT understand that.. but .. well, that’s a discussion for another time).

    THe problem is, they atribute the drug craze to the wise men – not to Matthew, Luke, or Mark….

    Y’all have a great Present Day (and a great future, too). I’m gonna mosey back to the kitchen and snitch another stickybun.

  60. Tre: When the hard core Christian right seeks to impose their will on the rest of society (such as pretending that intelligent design is some sort of science that deserves to be taught in public schools), I think the rest of us are entitled to “nit pick” if that’s what it takes to defend rational thought and reason.

  61. Bill Nettles

    BA,
    For a couple of ideas that you haven’t included in your post, check out the DVD “The Star of Bethlehem.” You might not enjoy the “designer” aspects of it, but the guy looks at the “star” as a series of astronomical events, not a single exhibiting non-normal behavior.

  62. Rose

    Great post, but you’re forgetting something.

    “Whenever you notice something like that… a wizard did it.”

    Cheers!

  63. Gary Ansorge

    Some of the readers here really should read Josephs Campbells book, ” The Heros Journey”. It’s a recapitulation of the myths and legends that give rise to all those stories of excellence throughout our history.

    The Jesus story is lifted (nearly whole) from Egyptian myths. Including the resurrection,,,

    ,,,but that’s ok, Skeptics,,,,Santa still loves you anyway,,,

    Peace,

    GAry 7

  64. Michelle

    @Reynold Hall: So, the star was all in their heads? :P

    The incense was really strong stuff.

  65. antaresrichard

    Well, at least Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe had a highway under theirs.

    Concluding lines from ‘The Misfits’ (1961):

    Roslyn: Which way is home?
    Gay: God bless you girl.
    Roslyn: How do you find your way back in the dark?
    Gay: Just head for that big star straight on. The highway’s under it. It’ll take us right home.

  66. Wildride

    @Gary Ansorge

    >The Jesus story is lifted (nearly whole) from Egyptian myths. Including the resurrection,,,

    … You’re building a mystery …

  67. Ehrman Minor

    >The Jesus story is lifted (nearly whole) from Egyptian myths. Including the resurrection,

    A lot of two birth stories, stories from his adult life, and stories regarding his resurrection definitely have been lifted or influenced by other myths and legends.

    However, what is probably historically true would include following:
    1) He was from Nazareth

    2) He was Jewish

    3) His parents were named Mary and Joseph

    4) He was baptized by John the Baptist

    5) He was an itinerant preacher in Galilee

    6) He was rejected by most of the towns he visited

    7) He had an apocalyptic message that differed from other contemporary apocalyptic teachings. Specifically, he taught that a) God was going to throw the Romans out and establish his kingdom in Jerusalem b) if you want to survive the apocalypse, you should humble yourself and relinquish all power and wealth, lest you be cast out yourself; the more you are humbled the greater will be your glory in the coming kingdom and c) in order to prepare for the kingdom, you should live your life as if it were already here.

    8) He was betrayed by one of his own followers, then arrested and crucified by Pontius Pilate during the festival of Passover, for the crime of sedition, specifically for claiming that he was the King of the Jews

    9) His followers honestly believed he rose from the dead, and that his resurrection was the first of a general resurrection of the dead. This made sense when taken with 7b: he had submitted ultimate act of humiliation, hence he would be glorified above all.

  68. Gable

    uknesvuinng it was biblical commentary pure and simple. I do not agree with the general concensus of said account, and as I said before I do not involve myself with Christmas. But the bible is full of stories of burning bushes, resurrections, and voices coming from heaven. If people choose to believe all these other stories, then I don’t think they’ll have a hard time believing that a celestial body was made manifest, even if temporarily, in order for the child to be found. Good luck though. I hope everyone has a good, safe time with their families regardless of their faith or lack thereof.

  69. Gable

    And as a final note I myself have mis-interpretted the meaning of this website. I thought it was just basically for astronomy with a politicalreligion forum for kicks. I now see it centers around one dude’s blog which doesn’t interest me. I’ll link directly to the astronomy forum and bypass the commentary in the future so that you don’t have to deal with my “preaching”.

  70. quasidog

    From what I have been told … the ‘Star’ .. was an angel, moving along in the sky leading the way. It makes perfect sense, and fits the story nicely on all levels, that is. if you believe in the possible existence angels.
    Of course this goes along the lines of not being scientific, but it fits. I guess its a faith thing. I am not really sure if its possible, but I do know one thing, as a lover of science I can’t in all honesty dismiss the possibility that there is other life in the universe. It’s all ET. If it was an angel, who is to say it wasn’t using power that although appearing ‘supernatural’, was solely in the realm of what is possible in physics. I really can’t see much of a difference with that and searching for life on other planets. One idea has more mythical baggage, but just because man has a great imagination, doesn’t mean some of this mythical stuff can’t be somewhat true.

    Please don’t glance at this post and think I’m ranting about angels, as I have just as much trouble as most of you in believing in that sort of thing, but I refuse to be close minded as to what is possible and what isn’t. EG: I think searching for life on other planets is a waste of time, but is that going to stop the ET hunters ? no. It comes down to faith. You can crunch numbers till the cows come home, but nobody is really 100% positive, either way. I don’t have faith in life on other worlds, but I would love to be proven wrong. That’s why I love science.

  71. Randome additions: they were “wise ones,” not necessarily men, and not three. So go buy however many new figures of whatever type you like for your local nativity scene to make it more literal.

    Don’t navigational star readings often take place when you can see the horizon. IE at dusk (or dawn)? So if you always take your readings at dusk, couldn’t you see a star “in the east” each day? I like the they saw it “from the East” mistranslation thought myself.

    This is a story that was added a hundred years later to boost credibility, folks have made that obvious point.

    The separation of the stories is worth noting. The angels weren’t in Matthew, the “wise ones” weren’t anywhere else. Mark (the first written) didn’t have a birth, hell it didn’t originally have a resurrection! They added that later. Talk about a cliffhanger. That’s how the disciples must have felt, abandoned and lost. So they started telling each other stories.

  72. tenacious

    My 2 pence–late as they may be.

    I’m uncertain why some of you would bother posting, having nothing significant or thought-provoking to …Okay, I might as well rant a little.

    At no point was any of this “bright and obvious”, Phil. In fact, it was something that went unnoticed by the rest of the folks mentioned in the Bible. Herod even asked the Magi when they had seen the star. Whatever they saw must have been a sign needing interpretation and not a large marker on google maps. John Armstrong, I completely agree with you.

    It truly bothers me when people cannot accept that the Bible can be read in a non-literal fashion. An editor I know once said, “There is no one so illiterate as the literal-minded.” It is not just the religious who fall into this illiteracy. I’ve read too many atheistic writings that treat the Bible as if it were a literal explanation of how we got here instead of a revelatory insight into our human nature, interpersonal relationships, and connections between our souls and the divine. There are truths told in the Bible, which cannot be discerned through a scientific lens. Truths about who we really are that only the mythic can relate. Someone once defined a myth as a truth greater than the facts.

    The Bible is a great piece of Literature. Is it so profane to some of you to read it in that fashion, even to criticize it as such? Surely literal-minded perspectives can only discourage people from appreciating the Bible as the literary masterpiece it is. It would be like reading Shakespeare or Tolkien for the plots and not the beautiful language. You might as well read the Bible as you would some technical manual. I agree with Robert Alter who said that while authors of the KJV may have been deficient in Hebrew, readers today are deficient in English.

    For those of you confused at whom I’m preaching to, your deep-seeded prejudices betray you. Stop being so holier-than-thou; I’m not convinced. My Christmas wish for all of you would be to reflect on the work of the late Francis Church–my favorite piece of Christmas literature.

    http://www.stormfax.com/virginia.htm

    What moral will you read into it when you go there? As Yoda said, “Only what you take with you.”

    There. I feel better now! :o)

  73. tenacious

    “Right away, I have to wonder: if the wise men came from the east to Jerusalem, and they saw the star in the east, then following it they would have traveled away from Jerusalem, not toward it! They started east of the city, and headed east. So am I missing something here?”

    By the way, Phil. They didn’t start following the ‘star’ until they were actually in Jerusalem. Matthew says they were headed to Bethlehem after seeing the star because of prophecies suggesting that’s where the messiah would be found. …and now you can stop wondering. :o)

    The story is quite believable to me up until the point where it says the star came to rest over where the young child was. I simply cannot understand what is being inferred here. But the rest of the account seems plausible.

    –Terry

  74. tussock

    However, what is probably historically true would include following:

    1: Rome ruled over a great many old cultures, allowing a free flow of ideas and information from the near east and northern Africa into southern Europe.

    2: The Council of Nicaea collected a lot of resultant regional myths propagated by various popular doomsday cults (that had long troubled the increasingly unstable militancy of the Roman state) and built a ‘one true way’ religion out of it to better keep the people in line.

    3: Names of exotic foreign places and their historical rulers where used as a setting for the story of society’s salvation, with the key point “Suffer in silence and obedience and you too can be happy after you die; do not fight the power.”

  75. Random Axis

    Long time reader, first time poster.
    /cliche

    My $0.02 is that this is something that still happens today.

    Not the miraculous star, but the idea that things in the sky are unpredictable. I work at a nuclear power plant, and find people that are surprised that the Moon is full or that Mars is near the Moon. The fact that someone 200 years ago could have predicted both of them seems to be something people repeat but don’t *act* like they believe.

  76. DTdNav

    I have one question.

    What the heck did Asian astrologers have to do with a middle-eastern religion? Why were they hip with all the prophesies of the Torah? Why would they even give a rat’s keester who the king of the Jews was?

    OK, that was three questions. But they all pertain to the non-relevance of a small local religion to the relatively advanced cultures of the east who were probably way more interested in their own religions and politics of the time.

  77. rswartz

    Why does everyone hate Christianity these days. What is so scary about it? Wow! If you are an atheist why are you so full of hate? Get over it. If you think it is just a fable or story why so spiteful against it. Just bigotry? Probably.

    I am no bible scholar but what if the wisemen were from the east but traveling in the west at the time?

    I am from the south but have traveled in the north. Just because I am in the north doesn’t mean I could not see things in the southern sky while I was there. So what’s the problem? You are reading a lot more into it than is required. Or, is it just the hateful anti-Christian bigotry that makes you look for something to discredit the bible? Hey, I like your hat.

  78. Michael Lonergan

    rswartz: I fail to see how questioning something that millions of people take as fact, without providing evidence to back up their claims, can be interpreted as hatred. I haven’t really seen anyone here spouting rank hatred. I do see people questioning one, or some of the basic teachings of the Christian faith. Now, it seems like you are saying that when we do question your faith (assuming you are a Christian), it is hatred and persecution. Many of us here have studied the Bible and followed it’s teachings for many years, as I did, before coming to the conclusion that the evidence it provides for the existence of God is very tenacious at best.

    Listen, I would be the first to re-embrace Christianity if any of it’s claims could be verified. If the Shroud of Turin could be proven to be the burial shroud of Jesus Christ, and the image burned into it by some type of radiation that could prove the resurrection, then I would believe it. If they could prove unequivocally that Noah’s ark rests on Ararat in Turkey, it would go along way to bolstering the validity of the Bible. It is not simply enough to say “Goddidit.”

  79. Radwaste

    Two things: Eratosthenes not only calculated the diameter of the Earth, but discovered the precession of the pole – all around 200 BC. Get your ‘scope out and duplicate this feat! This is very different from the building of mythos, Biblical or not, and indicates to me that Biblical authors worked at the equivalent of the National Enquirer. They put out such popular stuff that we STILL have to fight crap like “the Earth is flat”, the Earth is “young”, and the “Flood” happened.

    Then, the present site of Nazareth was a burial ground c.2007 years ago. There are no records of it existing for nearly 200 years AD. Properly, we should quit “begging the question” about it being anyone’s birthplace at that time.

  80. Artifex

    To answer some of these questions, consider:

    http://www.bethlehemstar.com/

    I was puzzled about this as well until I found this man’s explanation.

  81. DGKnipfer

    StevoR

    Some info on the Planetary name origins for you.

    The Roman Saturn = Cronos in Greek (Son of Uranus).

    Uranus was the Latinized word for Ouranos the Greek Sky Father and Grandfather to Zeus (Jove or Jupiter in Roman).

    Jupiter (The King)
    Saturn (The King’s Father)
    Uranus (The King’s Grandfather)

    I’m sure that their brightness in the night sky had something to do with the names given to each of them. But that’s more about Astrology and Myth than Astronomy.

  82. DGKnipfer

    I love how posts are given a local time stamp then sorted as if given a universal time stamp. My posts appear in order before the people they are providing info too. It’s almost like I’m psychic or something. What will the BA think of that?

  83. Gary posts:

    [[The Jesus story is lifted (nearly whole) from Egyptian myths. Including the resurrection,,,]]

    I can see you haven’t actually read the Egyptian myths.

    The resurrection of Osiris involved his many body parts being physically sewn back together by his sister and wife, Isis — except for one very important part, which remains missing. And after his “resurrection,” Osiris became king of the dead.

    Yeah. Just like the Resurrection.

  84. tussock writes:

    [[The Council of Nicaea collected a lot of resultant regional myths propagated by various popular doomsday cults (that had long troubled the increasingly unstable militancy of the Roman state) and built a ‘one true way’ religion out of it to better keep the people in line.]]

    Ah, the conspiracy theory of Biblical inspiration.

    tussock, the Council of Nicaea was concerned simply and solely with suppressing the Arian heresy. It had nothing to do with collecting myths or keeping anybody but Bishop Arius and his followers in line.

  85. Michael Lonergan posts:

    [[Many of us here have studied the Bible and followed it’s teachings for many years, as I did, before coming to the conclusion that the evidence it provides for the existence of God is very tenacious at best.]]

    I couldn’t have put it better myself.

  86. Rivi

    The story of the magi bears symbology that in the antique and medieval world probably everyone, at least everyone of knowlegde, would have understood. Much of it was explained before in this thread, so I just add something not yet mentioned: The three have been understood as symbols of a) the age of men, i.e. youth, matureness, old age, as well as the known continents, Europe, Asia, and Africa. So what the story basically told to in pre-modern times is that the entire humanity and world (as known then) came to bow to the birth of the son-of-god. This symbology is just too good to leave it out, and possibly good enough to invent it to make those pagans understand that they should _really_ think it over and convert. The star of Betlehem then would just just a mock-up to get the magi there in time. In any other book such a thing would have been called deus-ex-machina, while in the bible it’s called deus alone.

  87. Ordinary Radical

    “There are only two options: if it stayed in the east then it either orbited the Earth at a nearly or exactly geosynchronous rate (taking 24 hours to go around once, so it appeared to hang in one spot in the sky like a TV satellite), or it was a miracle and just hung there. The first is physically impossible, and the second…”

    Phil, are you saying it is physically impossible for a natural object, of sufficient luminosity to be noticed from the earth’s surface, to be in a temporary near-geosynchronous orbit? Its apparent motion of moving from west to east would indicate it was decelerating, supposing the “standing over” part only indicated the people searching reached Jesus at the same time it appeared to be directly overhead.

    While the chances of such an event occurring must be minuscule, (you’d know better than I) isn’t it nevertheless possible this could happen? And because such a phenomena would be so rare, that the last time it happened, some people (without the aid of telescopes and spectrascopes and such, thought it portended a significant religious event?

    Just sayin’

  88. crucified in space

    “East of East” by the Alpha Band?

  89. Ordinary Radical

    While many myths involve resurrected gods, I’m not sure how much effect this has on the veracity of the gospel writers. Just because there were similar stories about resurrection, doesn’t necessarily mean the gospel writers were fabricating anything. Luke states up front that he researched the stories of Jesus and interviewed witnesses, Paul challenges the reader to confirm his writings with the eyewitnesses.

    Btw – the gospels were not written “centuries” after the fact, by people unfamiliar with the events in order to placate and control the masses. Scientific analysis of verifiable events within the gospels and Paul’s letters, together with quotes of the gospels by other writers indicate they were written, and in wide circulation prior to ~110 ad.

    Additionally, if the gospels were pure fabrication, why are there so many seeming inconsistencies? Shouldn’t they all agree? If the First Council of Nicea went to all the trouble of creating these, wouldn’t you think they’d get the gospels in better agreement with each other?

    Just sayin’

  90. Aubri

    I heard the same theory Keith Arnauld did. The way I understand it, the theory says a conjunction of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn would have warned them something was up. Subsequently, Jupiter and Venus had a conjunction, which would signify birth, after which Jupiter made a retrograde loop past Regulus (the Royal star). So to the astrological mind, the “king star” made three passes by the royal star, meaning “the king of kings”. Leo was apparently taken to mean “Judea”, possibly.

    Apparently other cultures did note the unusual series of celestial events around 2-3 BC.

    I personally kind of like this idea. The arrival of the magi would be a strange story to make up out of whole cloth, in my opinion.

  91. tes

    So what about the star reputedly seen at the birth og The Great Leader Kim Il Sung?
    Huh?
    Merry Christmas everyone!

  92. Gareth (bujin)

    While Gary is not quite correct in saying that the Jesus story was lifted from Egyptian myths, I think the point is that there are many parallels in the Jesus story with stories about Osiris and Horus, Mithras, Krishna and the Buddha.

    In my opinion, it’s like taking elements from all your favourite movies, then combining them into one big movie of your own. Of course, you’d also need to use a bit of your own creativity to turn it into an effective story.

    For example, compare the story of Herod slaughtering all the male children (the “Massacre of the Innocents”) because he felt his throne was in jeopardy from the King of the Jews with the story of King Kamsa, who had been told through prophecy that he would die at the hands of Princess Devaki’s eighth son, and so planned to kill all of her children. Certainly not an exact copy of the story, but you can see the similarity in the theme. (It’s also interesting that there doesn’t appear to be any other source of information on Herod’s child-murdering antics!)

    Same with Osiris. The manner of his death and resurrection are very different from the Jesus story, but the theme of death and resurrection are very much there, as they are in several myths that pre-date Christianity.

    So it’s not that the Biblical authors directly copied from earlier myths, but used them and modified them for their own story.

    As an analogy, let’s do the following. Phil’s favourite film in the whole world, “Armageddon” is about an asteroid on a collision course with Earth, and a plan to divert it from its course using a nuclear weapon. Is it unique? No. For example, the film “Meteor” predates it by nearly 20 years, and it to contains a story about an asteroid on a collision course with Earth and a plan to divert it using nuclear weapons. However, in the earlier “myth”, the asteroid is merely 8km wide and the nuclear weapon is an illegal nuclear weapon satellite, and they have to join forces with the Russians in order to save mankind. In the later “myth”, the Americans have to land on the asteroid (which is over 1200km wide!) and physically place the nuclear weapon under the surface.

    Both films essentially have the same premise – big rock heading for earth that would wipe out humanity if it hits, so international collaboration (remember that in Armageddon, they dock with Mir!) to use a nuclear weapon to divert it. Things go wrong at the start, but eventually everything works out fine. But the actual detail within the films are often very different.

  93. Steve Cooperman

    At Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, for more than 2 decades, we produced a program that examined possibilities. If there actually was “a star” (and astrologers (“Magi”) of the time took the term to mean ANY astronomical object or event or series of events), then we felt we could examine any historical accounts from the time and even consult Chinese astronomical records to rule out ideas.

    Much of a historical search tries to pin down the birth of Jesus surrounding an account by Josephus talking about how Herod died close to a lunar eclipse. Most historians have assumed it was the lunar eclipse of March 4 BC that Josephus was talking about.

    But actually, it is NOT at all clear that Herod died in 4 BC. According to Ernest Martin in “The Birth of Christ Recalculated”, the 4 BC eclipse was only a partial eclipse, and there wasn’t enough time for all the historical events that needed to happen between that eclipse and the following Passover (about 1 month).

    What fits MUCH better is the eclipse of January 9/10 1 BC, which allowed 3 months until the following Passover.

    You can use Starry Night to simulate an evocative Star of Bethlehem. Set yourself up for Baghdad, June 17, 2 BC. Look west after sunset, roughly towards the direction of Jerusalem. You’ll see Jupiter and Venus, very close together. As the evening wears on, the planets are too close for the unaided eye to see them as one object, which means you have the brightness of both (admitted, not much brighter than Venus alone, but the Magi were astrologers and would have attached significance to the grouping). The night before and the night after, the planets were widely separated. This could be a plausible reason why King Herod had to ask the Wise Men what time the Star appeared — with chance conjunctions that most people would have missed, only the astrologers would have paid it any mind. (Or been expecting it.)

    Most historians agree that Jesus could not have been born on December 25. Shepherds weren’t tending flocks then, and that’s when the early Christians moved their celebration so that it corresponded with the Saturnalia — the Romans would be too busy or drunk to bother with Christians.

    The Magi might have seen “the Star” when they were IN THE EAST, or they might have been recounting the 1st of three conjunctions of Venus and Jupiter. There might be astrological reasons (all hooey, of course) why such a conjunction near Regulus (“The King Star”) would have been considered important.

    About 10 months after an original conjunction, the third one appeared in June 2 BC. Perhaps the Magi saw it as their final “sign”; they gathered gifts, headed to Jerusalem/Bethlehem, and they might not have arrived until December 2 BC, when it would have been fitting to give gifts as part of the Saturnalia. But Jesus was no longer in the manger (having been born the previous late Spring or Summer), and he was in a house.

    Read Ernest Martin’s book — good historical information backed by sources. Not exciting reading, though. I like the astronomical detective work, provided that Matthew wasn’t just embellishing Luke. Matthew is the ONLY source for the Star of Bethlehem story, and as many have remarked, he might have only been trying to make a point.

    I sure wish I had seen that final conjunction of Jupiter and Venus through a telescope, though. What a sight that would have been!
    (Even better than going back to when Galileo mistook Neptune for a Jovian moon.)

  94. StevoR

    My understanding is the whole of Christmas was a syntheusis of several different groups customs and ideas starting with the Roman festival called ‘Saturnalia’ which honoured Rome’s agricultural god Saturn (as in the planet – Greek version = Uranus?) with feasting, drinking and gift-giving. It was also a celebration of the winter solstice. (For thn hemisphere natch.)

    Post-Roman em,pire conversiontoChristianity (4th century AD?) vChristains chosethis time to celebrate the birth of their hero-God.

    Moreover, (either then or later) Christmas also combined some elements of other cultures solstice ceremonies – notably the Yule log (Christmas tree) ideas of the Vikings who had similar solstice-related feasting rituals as shown in the “Worst Xmas Jobs in History” doco recently on Aussie TV ABC /SBS…

    Distilled down, Xmas is, like the english language, really a bit of a
    hodge-podge of ideas and customs from different places that’s evolved
    and morphed into the festival we know and love today.

    Without meaning to knock it in any way, the nativity of Christ is
    only one aspect of this festival. Not one I personally disagree with
    folks celebrating necessarily but .. Well, one thing we do know is
    the month of Christs birth wasn’t December! Jesus was probably born
    in about April / May. Why? Among other things, because the shepherds
    were guarding their flocks which were kept in pens / houses during
    the snowy winter months but allowed to graze (and had their lambs) at
    nights in the warmer springtime months. If the shepherds were there
    as in the traditional Biblical view it can’t have been December! Not
    that it really matters.

    Some astronomers and scientists – for example, Duncan Steel in his
    book ‘Eclipse’ * – have used dates of astronomical events – notably
    conjuctions + of Venus & Jupiter plus solar and Lunar eclipses to
    calculate various dates for Jesus’s birth and crucificion.

    Various possible explanations and dates for the “Christmas star” have been proposed :

    1) Planetary conjunction(s) +,

    2) A bright comet – Which can look star-like if seen head on & is famously depicted by Giotto in his Nativity scene painting.

    3) a) Novae …
    or b) supernova – which were indistinguishable for people back then lacking spectrographs! A nova could have been brief enough or in the wrong position to be seen from China but visible elsewhere you’d think or if faint could perhaps have still been noticed by sufficentlyobservant astronomer-astrologers … perhaps?

    Or variant c) I wonder if an outburst from Eta Carinae or another Luminous Blue Variable or another variable star (even Mira type)temporarily achieving sufficent luminosity to create something new and odd to practiced observers … (which the Magi _were_ even if their explanations were non-scientific &astrological …)

    4) A gesynchronous satellite over Bethlehem – Now how it got there whether it was human or alien in origin is of course a whole other can of worms …! (Yes, I know humans at that time could’nt have built one -not unless the Atlanteans existed and were powerful eough or the Mayans (???) really had aircraft to spot the Nazca plain patterns & went one better or, heck, unless it came from the future or ..whatever. Yeah its unlikely! A lot that happens is!;-))

    5) it was Supernatural – & then all bets are
    off…

    &, of course,

    6) as the BA says it was just a story, a made-up metaphor …
    Which could be BUT .. well .. that ain’t testable. Not really. Not well. & it just ain’t much fun. :-(

    I’d prefer tyo look at other possibilitie sthatrcoudl eventually be tested. Simply because its more interesting, more imaginative, more fun …

    Besides just coz its in the Bible doesn’t mean its NOT true all the same. Quite a few people – even some lawyers – reckon the gospel authors make reasonable witnesses after all.

    Afriend of mien noted : “It was long believed that Christian hijacked the day, but in real terms they just joined in the celebrations by doing
    something they believed in. Time and the faith made it one of the
    most prominent celebrations in all time.”

    I’d agree. ‘Hijacked’ is probably a bit too harsh a description and one I
    would’t use. I’d describe be tehChristianisingof Xmas as a synthesis or fusion, of combining various elements and adding a Christian aspect to ongoing pagan customs or along those lines but, yeah, that’s just my understanding & I know there are others with differing views.

    Thatfriedn also added : “The other interesting thing is that the early settlers of the USA saw Christmas as a pagan celebration and did not celebrate it. Philadephia actually banned the celebration of Christmas in those early times. I think it is funny that those same bans are creeping
    back into US society.”

    And a similar historical ban happened one year in England too under, if I
    recall right, Cromwell. There was something on that shown with
    the “Worst Christmas jobs” doco : Some poor saps had to go around
    seeing all the shops were open on Christmas while facing an angry pro-
    Xmas mob and were able only to close one shop – the others kept
    opening behind them and the mob celebrated the day anyway. Proving
    the prohibition of expression – or festivals – really doesn’t work.

    As for the PC-motivated bans in America; I think they’ve probably
    been over-exaggerated by the US media and the US conservative
    Evangelical Christian “Right” but, yes, such PC bans (or forced
    twists like saying “Holiday greetings” rather than “Merry Christmas”)
    are ridiculous, petty and counter-productive.

    I totally disagree with people trying to impose their narrow-mindedness on others. Whether that person is Pope Urban VII ,Osama bin Laden, George Bush or RichardDawkins is irrelevant.

    How people spend Christmas and what meaning they put into it is, far as I’m concerned, entirely up to them & if one community wants to
    emphasise “Christ” while another prefers the focus to be on “~mass”
    why not let each to her own? As long as no group actually harms
    another – & just being “offended” doesn’t count! – let each group &
    community celebrate as they choose. I’ve no argument with Christians
    telling Jews, Muslims, athiests etc .. to back off and let people
    have their Christmas fun as they wish – provided those Christian
    groups apply the same logic in letting atheists, Muslims, Buddhists,
    etc .. celebrate _their_ customs and Holy days in peace.

    (Hmmn .. Holy Days for athiests? Dawkins birthday? Galileos trial
    maybe? ;-) …)

    Finally my friend wrote :

    “Regardless of what you believe, faith, no faith, it is difficult to
    argue the effect of this time on the world, now and throughout
    history. If the [Christmas] day offers a little bit of hope and
    togetherness in a world often at war, or in disagreement, then it is
    still a good thing.”

    & Hear! Hear! I’ll second that.

    I’ll also wish everyone a great New Year incl. wishing everyone – a
    long way in advance – a very merry Christmas for 2008! (Since its now
    too late to do that for this year – hope y’all had a good’un! ;-D )

    * I’d give the reference details but that was a book I borrowed which
    I don’t have handy to quote from. ‘Eclipse’ is a good read although
    some of you many wish to skip some of the technical stuff in it.
    Extracts of ‘Eclipse’ were also used in a series of articles its
    author Duncan Steel wrote for ‘Sky & Space’ ..

    + Conjunction = apparent close approaches of planets in the sky.
    Apparently, around the time of Christs’ birth, Venus and Jupiter –
    the two brightest planets – appeared to get so close together in the
    sky they may have, effectively, breifly merged as far as the unaided
    eye sees. This happened in the constellation of Piscies which was
    considered by astrologers to be specially significant for the Jews
    and is thus one leading scientifically speculated explanation for
    the ‘Christmas star’ guiding the three wise men. Of course Chris
    DeBurgh had another more SF take on it with his “A Spaceman came
    Travelling” song … and literal Christians have another supernatural
    explanation again. Without a time machine, we’ll most likely never
    know for sure…

  95. StevoR

    Yiii-ya-yii-a that was a long post eh? ;-)

    Correction to it :

    My understanding is the whole of Christmas was a synthesis of several different group’s customs and ideas starting with the Roman festival called ‘Saturnalia’ which honoured Rome’s agricultural god Saturn (as in the planet – Greek version = Uranus?) with feasting, drinking and gift-giving. It was also a celebration of the winter solstice. (For Northern hemisphere natch.)

    Anyway, distilled down to ashort version, lighten up Phil – it doesn’t hurt to guess.

    There are a number of different possibilities for explaining the Xmas star :

    1) Planetary Conjunction(s)

    2) bright comet

    3) Stellar-related variable phenomena : Novae, superovae & variables

    (NB. Don’t necs. hafta be bright -if Magi sufficnetly observant anything odd may ctach their eyes …?)

    4) Geosynch. satellite over Bethlehem .. (But how it’d get there is another story!)

    5) Aliens / angels a la “A Spaceman Came Travelling” Xmas carol-y song by Chris deBurgh …

    6) Supernatural : Gods work miracle! (Well who knows … soem believe it. others refuse to. Their choice either way.)

    7) mistranslation, corruption, misunderstanding or outright lie – basically BA’s bet – it didn’t happen.

    The Scrooge’s explanation! No fun … & not really testable w/o atime machine.

    Personally I’d reckon the first option is most likely but all have some slim (very, very slim in some options) chance of being correct.

    Asfor Christmas – lets just let each clebrate itas tehychoose without trying toforce anyone’s ideas or intoleranmceonanybody else … Isd that really so hard?

    Happy New Year to all & to all agood night – & Merry Christams for 2008 too!

  96. StevoR

    & yet more corrections from the above – because the BA won’t let us edit … SIGH!
    ———————————————

    Post-Roman empire conversion to Christianity (4th century AD?) Christians chose this time – the Roman solstice festival of Saturnalia – to celebrate the birth of their hero-God.

    ….

    Explanation for Xmas star # 3 – Stellar-related variable phenomena : Novae, superovae & variables

    (NB. Does NOT necessarily have to be bright – if the Magi were sufficiently observant then anything odd may have caught their eyes …)

    Explanation for Xmas star # 7 – A mistranslation, corruption of the text, misunderstanding or outright lie – basically BA’s bet – it didn’t happen.

    The Scrooge’s explanation! No fun … & not really testable without a time machine.

    As for Christmas – lets just let each person & group & community celebrate the day as they choose without trying to force anyone’s ideas or intolerance on anybody else … Is that really so hard?

    Happy New Year to all & to all a good night – & Merry Christmas for 2008 too!

    (I will get this right ..eventually … More Typos! Yeeearrrrghhh! ;-) )

    ——————————————-

    I totally disagree with people trying to impose their narrow-mindedness on others. Whether that person is Pope Urban VII, Osama bin Laden, George W. “Dubya” Bush or Richard Dawkins is irrelevant.

  97. Kirk

    Look, it was during the “holidays” and the wisemen had been to a business function and after a few pops they were dis-oriented (get it? orient). So they think they saw something and went in the wrong direction (riding a camel under the influence). It could have happened to anyone. In this case, the court papers were twisted & then mistakenly added to the good book. End of story.
    Happy Holidays to all!!

  98. Hi Phil,

    I’m amazed that you haven’t read Mike Molnar’s “The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi”. He argues based on a detailed discussion of 1st Century astrology that the “star” refers to a helical rising and subsequent lunar occultation of Jupiter in April of 6 BCE. The clincher in my mind is that the Greek phrases used in the story show up in astrological texts where they have specific technical meanings. All the bizarre astronomy is down to mistranslation. Read the book – it’s well written and the story about how Molnar stumbled onto the explanation through his hobby of collecting ancient coins with astronomical connections is a good one.

    Happy New Year !

  99. rswartz

    Michael Lonergan,

    Thank you for being so kind in your response to my over the top comment about the hatred. I think I am just so fed up with other people hating religion that I over-reacted. You probably have read some good books on the subject and I would be glad to share them. I think that God did not leave us a sure fire sign because he does not want to force us to love Him. If he left us a true sign almost everyone would love Him but it would be forced. I have a son and daughter and would not want to force them to love me. Hopefully I have done the right things to get them to. I have read an awful lot and I do believe and I take it only on faith. I may be wrong I hope not. I don’t force my religion on anyone. I wish you the best and God bless you.

  100. Tanru

    I think the passage can be read – as mentioned in the first reply – “Seen (from where we were) in the East”.

    Also – this year I witnessed an astronomical event that was visible in the Western Skies, from the “East” – every night, quite brilliantly for about a month… Comet McNaught! Wasn’t up all night of course – but spectacular in the late afternoon, early evening – with the naked eye… it seemed to ‘touch the western horizon’ too. So it could have been a spectacular comet!

  101. Michael Lonergan

    Thanks rswartz. This Christmas was unique for me. it was the first in 24 years that I did not attend religious services. I’m a former pastor, that really got turned off by religion, and I guess hurt by some things. I started doing reading and questioning, and I’m not totally settled in my mind yet, where I am with the existence of God question.

  102. Jim

    The answer has already been posted earlier on. The star is Sirius, brightest star in the Eastern winter sky. The three ‘wise men’ are the three kings of Orion’s Belt, which all point towards it. This explanation satisfies the condition that the star is East of the ‘wise men’. The stars point to where the re-birthed sun (i.e. Jesus/sun god) rises after the solstice. The three wise-men do not return East and back to Herod, but continue journeying across the sky.

    The entire story is astrology based like many others in the bible. It really doesn’t require any of the contortions, coincidences or unlikely alignments that the other explanations require.

  103. I’ve heard jonathans theory before. I like the idea that births of messiahs are tied to the winter solstice. The ‘Three Kings’ of Orions belt form a line through Sirius and that line continues to the horizon, where on the 25th the sun rises one degree higher after being ‘dead’ or not visibly changing its point of rise for 3 days.

    This is the first year I’ve heard the theory, and so I decided to check it out. Unfortunately, it was cloudy this year (and snowing, so not so bad after all), can anyone confirm or disprove the ‘line through Orions belt, through Sirius to the horizon’ theory? Is it true today, or was it true 2k+ years ago due to the procession of the equinoxes?

  104. I believe in gravity.

  105. Chet Galactic

    I know that I am way down to last but if you would go to the Biblegateway website, you can search for “star”. This is one of the references:
    Numbers 24:17
    “I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth.”
    “a Star out of Jacob” is a person.
    The evgangelical writers of Matthew took these prophecies and rewrote them to create their new Christian religion.
    Anyways, the inventor/creator of the “Christ”, St paul, writing from 49 to 62 CE, does not have any birth dates or scenes. Neither does the earliest synoptic gospel of Mark @ 70 CE. Matthew compsed @ 80 CE and Luke @ 90 CE.
    Therefore, the manger and Magi going to a room in the Inn or “house” are separate “scenes” though most maner scenes combine the two. It never really happened. And, there are no clues as to when this “birth” took place. It is just a “miraclous” fictional created scene to make the “Christ” more Divine.

  106. Chet writes:

    [[Neither does the earliest synoptic gospel of Mark @ 70 CE. Matthew compsed @ 80 CE and Luke @ 90 CE.]]

    These are Higher Criticism dates, and the Higher Criticism is a school, not a field. A lot of people place the writing of the gospels much earlier. Here are some sources if you’re interested in the question:

    Albright, William Foxwell 1955. Recent Discoveries in Bible Lands. NY: Funk & Wagnalls.

    Carmignac, Jean 1987. The Birth of the Synoptic Gospels. Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press.

    Duggan, George H. 1997. “The Dates of the Gospels.” Homiletic & Pastoral Review, May 1997.

    Hemer, C. J. 1989. The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History. Tubingen: Mohr.

    Reicke, Bo 1972. “Synoptic Prophecies on the Destruction of Jerusalem.” Studies in New Testament and Early Christian Literature: Essays in Honor of Allen P. Wikgren, 1972., Ed. D. E. Aune, Leiden: Brill.

    Robinson, John A. T. 1976. Redating the New Testament. London: SCM Press.

    Thiede, Carsten P. and D’Ancona, Matthew 1996. Eyewitness to Jesus: Amazing New Manuscript Evidence about the Origin of the Gospels. NY: Doubleday.

    Thiede, Carsten P. and D’Ancona, Matthew 1996. The Jesus Papyrus. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson.

    Tresmontant, Claude 1989. The Hebrew Christ. Franciscan Press.

    Tresmontant, Claude 1996. The Gospel of Matthew. Christendom Press.

    Wenham, John W. 1991. Redating Matthew, Mark & Luke: A Fresh Assault on the Synoptic Problem. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

  107. DTdNav

    rswartz:

    Many of us here have come to our world views via a circuitous route which often led through one or more religious phases. At some point we chose to use our brains in a critical fashion and not give a “pass” to the religious ideas. Some of us rejected the religious, and others found a peaceful coexistence. My path to eventual rejection was catalyzed by an individual who informed me that I could not think in a particular way. Imagine my reaction to your post that seemingly accused me of being full of hate. It reminded me very much of being rebuked for “thinking in a particular way.” I assure you, my rejection of religion is not full of hate. I do, however, get angry when being told how I can and cannot think, or what I may or may not say.

    If you choose to label the questioning of every aspect of a particular scripture as hatred of that entire religion, imagine how many you push towards a negative view of you and your religion. Try to battle the question, and not the questioner.

    Michael Lonergan:

    I appreciate your handling of the issue. I also greatly appreciate the situation you find yourself in this year. You are in a very delicate stage in your journey towards whatever destination. Some of us don’t have a specific destination, but at least try to make it an enjoyable and worthwhile journey with as much integrity as possible. I feel that’s the key, integrity. Truth comes in many forms and from many voices. So far, the clearest and strongest voice I’ve heard comes from science.

    V/R,

    DTdNav

  108. Michael Lonergan

    DTdNav, thank you for your comment. I appreciate that. I found myself in the same situation as you did, being told what to think and believe. I pastored a church in a very conservative evangelical denomination, and the feeling was, “Come as you are, you will become like us.” That’s not the message I hear Christ preaching. As I said, I’m not sure if I’ve rejected a belief in God. I certainly have not been on speaking terms with him lately! LOL. For me, I have always had a rational bent. If there is a God, it is him that gave us a brain, and expects us to use it. Thanks again!

  109. Phil I take it you don’t speak any other languages?

    I speak spanish (central american style) and one way of wording what the wisemen are basically saying would be directly translated to more or less what we read in the Bible.

    I saw a star _in_ the east, is very different from saying I saw a star _to the_ east. Either way, the King James translation of the Bible is widely regarded as a *literal* translation of the texts into English, which gives someone perspective as to why it was worded the way we see it currently.

    It’s only “inaccurate” based on that principle if you allow presupposition to affect your judgment. You wouldn’t do that regarding your analysis of religion would you?

  110. Gary

    Too many people make the incorrect assumption that the Bible can be used as a scientific text. It can’t and wasn’t written to be one. Two simple examples demonstrate the error: 1) bats are listed as birds that must not be eaten according to dietary laws, 2) pi is defined as 3.0 when the circumference of the ceremonial cleansing basin at the Hebrew temple is divided by the diameter (30 cubits / 10 cubits). Hence, using an ambiguous historical reference to an astronomical phenomenon is as likely to be untrustworthy. The point of the story is to tell of a wider significance to the birth at Bethlehem. Extrapolating past the data is either going to get you into logical trouble or let you set up a convenient straw man, depending on your position regarding particular religious beliefs. Speculating on skimpy data may be fun, but hardly proves anything.

  111. To add to the discussion about myth, it’s very likely the star is a symbol of the solstice sun, which was viewed as dying and being reborn at this time. Many northern hemisphere cultures have some sort of celebration centering around a lone light shining in the darkness. The Jewish Hanukkah, Festival of Lights, is likely another such festivity.

    It’s also possible that the “star” was Halley’s Comet, which made a close approach around 11 BCE. Yes, this is earlier than most of the dates given here, but since the story was written years later, it’s completely possible people remembered a very bright star around the time these events supposedly took place. How many people today remember exactly when comet Hale Bopp was visible or when a particular blizzard or hurricane happened? The appearance of Halley’s Comet likely remained part of people’s collective memory for some time and worked its way into this story.

  112. Ordinary Radical

    Playing Angel’s Advocate:

    It’s about a year or so after Jesus was born. While Joseph is out working, Mary is visited by several foreigners. Being the good host, she attempts to make them comfortable with cushions, food and drink, while trying to keep little J from eating bugs and taking his diaper off. During all this, the foreigners, either in a heavy accent or through a translator, excitedly describe the astrological marvels that brought them here. Mary, not even an amateur astrologer, tries to take it all in and after they leave, thinks nothing more of it.

    After Jesus’ death, his followers focus on his death and resurrection, and what this means to them. Secondarily they want to know about Jesus’ teachings and sermons. Only later does anyone think to inquire about his early life.

    When asked, Mary faintly recalls some strange guys showing up one day and talking about stars and kings and such and that version gets passed to Matthew, then to his disciples, who write it down in Greek, which was printed (with many errors) and then translated into the King James Version. (Which is why most bible scholars don’t use KJV for serious study, but use translations from critical texts in Greek.)

    btw – it the *Infancy Gospel of Thomas* that describes the life of the young Jesus. However, since its author couldn’t be substantiated, it was written about a hundred years after the other gospels, and its version of Jesus didn’t jive with the other gospels, it was rejected for inclusion into the Bible. This biographical work is very different from the collection of sayings known as the Gospel of Thomas.

    Also btw – the First Council of Nicea, as previously mentioned, had nothing to do with the adoption or writing of the Bible!! (Thanks to Dan Brown, this can’t be repeated often enough.) There are writings dating from the 60s which reference and quote from several of the canonical gospels and Paul’s letters. The effort involved to have fabricated the Bible and all the historical evidence supporting it compares to the effort to fake the moon landings! There was no conspiracy!!

    Gosh, I hope y’all read this far. I’m hoping to enlighten those who don’t have a full knowledge of the Bible and its history. Willful ignorance is not bliss.

    Just sayin’

  113. Ehrman Minor

    Trying to find an astronomical explanation for the Star of Bethlehem is like trying to locate Hogwarts on a roadmap of Great Britain.

  114. Artifex

    At the risk of sounding like I’m repeating someone else’s conclusion or going off on a tangent…

    There are nine qualifications for the Star of Bethlehem.
    1. It signified birth.
    2. It signified kingship.
    3. It had a connection with the Jewish nation.
    4. It rose in the east, like other stars.
    5. It appeared at a precise time.
    6. Herod didn’t know when it appeared.
    7. It endured over time.
    8. It was ahead of the Magi as they went south from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.
    9. It stopped over Bethlehem.

    When the Magi came from the East to Jerusalem (Matt. 2:1), they asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him” (Matt. 2:2). Therefore, we can see that this section of Matthew lays out the first three prerequisites. Further, when the Magi said “in the east,” the original Greek is “en anatole,” which means they saw it RISING in the east. Since not all phenomena in the sky do this, number 4 is stipulated.

    The Magi wanted to worship a Jewish king. Although one cannot prove this from the Bible itself, the Magi may well have been Jews; this would not only explain why a (Jewish) philosopher, Philo, would have admiration for them, but it would also illustrate why Herod and the rest of Jerusalem took them so seriously. If they were not, then they certainly carried a lot (this is an understatement) of power, because Jews did not take kindly to pagans. We know from historians that, at this time, sky-watching was in a period of intense activity. The Jews were also expecting the Messiah to come to fulfill prophecy, and omens from the sky were accepted as an announcement.

    What was the reason that Jerusalem was quaking in its boots at this time? To see a possible explanation, one must rewind sixty years previous, when other magi made a similar declaration of the birth of a new king to the Roman Senate, which promptly ordered the killings of boys in an appropriate age range. Evidently, the Jerusalem Jews did not wish this to happen to them. So, by extrapolation, this was a sort of precedent in which the Bethlehem babies were slaughtered. But why Bethlehem, and not Jerusalem?

    Matthew 2:4-7: “4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. 5 ‘In Bethlehem in Judea,’ they replied, ‘for this is what the prophet has written: 6 “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 be the shepherd of my people Israel.”‘ 7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared.”

    (The aforementioned prophet is Micah.)

    Note that the star appeared at a precise time (5), and Herod did not know and had to ask (6).

    Matt. 2:8-9: “8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, ‘Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.’ 9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.”

    Thus we can derive the final three stipulations for the Star: (7) It endured for a long period of time: The Magi traveled from some place to Judea and still saw it; (8) It went ahead of them–and it did not need to, for Bethlehem was only around five miles south of Jerusalem by the main road, so the Wise Men couldn’t miss it–and served as further confirmation; and (9) It stopped over Bethlehem.

    Therefore it can be deduced that the Star was NOT one of the following:

    -A meteor. These are too fleeting to have lasted that long and are not at all unusual phenomena.
    -A comet. At this stage of civilization, comets were seen as harbingers of bad tidings. While God could have chosen to use such a symbol to signify His Son’s birth, what would be the purpose, since the event was a joyous occurrence for the benefit of mankind? Additionally, many civilizations (like the aforementioned Chinese) kept records of these events, and not one appears in the timespan of 3-2 BC. Also, comets are conspicuous.
    -A nova/supernova. Again, novae were recorded, and none hail from this point in time; they were similarly conspicuous.

    So what else could it be? How about considering the planets? The ancients called the planets “wandering stars.” The word “planet” is descended from the Greek “planete,” “wanderer.”

    Jupiter has long been known as the King Planet. Since it has acquired this name, does it have anything to do with the birth of Christ? It would have to fulfill the previously stipulated requirements, and at the time of the Jewish Rosh Hashana (sp?), the Jewish New Year, of 3 BC, it began to do just that.

    Jupiter goes into conjunction with Regulus about every twelve years. (Regulus comes from the same root word as “regal,” and it has long been associated with royalty: the Babylonians called it “Sharu;” the Romans, “Rex,” both of which mean “king.”) Ordinarily, this would be nothing special, especially if our Magi had had a fifty-year career or so. However, Jupiter then entered into retrograde motion…and made two more conjunctions, roughly tracing out a halo- or crown-shaped pattern in the sky. But this alone is not enough.

    Judah has long been likened to a lion. In Genesis 49, for example:

    “9 You are a lion’s cub, O Judah; you return from the prey, my son. Like a lion he crouches and lies down, like a lioness– who dares to rouse him? 10 The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his.”

    Since the Messiah came from the tribe of Judah, and a lion was symbolic of Judah, this is a clue. The triple conjunction of Regulus occurred in the constellation of Leo–the Lion.

    Revelation is full of symbolism, which often deals with stars. Jumping forward to Revelation 12, a passage makes more sense when one looks at the sky in September of 3 BC:

    “1 A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. 2 She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. 3 Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads. 4 His tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that he might devour her child the moment it was born. 5 She gave birth to a son, a male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter…”

    Guess what constellation rises after Leo? Virgo, the Virgin. At its feet was a new moon…and Virgo rose with the Sun.

    Now, these symbols could mean a birth, but what if it meant a conception? Would there be something in the sky nine months later, in June of 2 BC? Indeed.

    By this time, Jupiter had finished its coronation of Regulus and was on its merry way to one of the most spectacular conjunctions of all time, one displayed in planetariums today even by non-Christians because it makes for a good show: Jupiter and Venus would appear to join, indistinguishable to the naked eye. Humans had not seen anything like this before, and this could very well have alerted the Magi that something was up. But did the Jupiter-Venus joining appear in the south, like it would have had to if the Magi were to have followed it? In a word, yes. If our Magi had looked for it in the “wee hours,” there it was, in the south.

    Now, eight requirements are fulfilled. But, as for the ninth: Did Jupiter really stop over Bethlehem? Could a planet stop?

    Yes it could.

    Thanks to retrograde motion, Jupiter would have appeared to have stopped over Bethlehem on December 25, 2 BC.

    There were other signs at Christ’s death, as well, but as this forum deals only with the Star of Bethlehem, I will not get into them here. This may be viewed at http://www.bethlehemstar.com/

  115. Michael Lonergan

    Artifix, you forget one important thing… Jesus wasn’t born on Dec. 25. Most scholars place his birth either late Spring or early Fall, based on the passages that state Shepherds were out tending their flocks. Due to the inclement weather in winter, that would not be happening then.

  116. Just to underline what Keith Arnaud pointed out earlier in this thread:

    Mike Molnar has solved the problem of the Star of Bethlehem.

    Really, all other theories are rubbish in comparison.

  117. Artifex

    Michael, that’s true. But the Magi weren’t there for Jesus’ birth. They came later.

  118. Gable

    Uh, Radwaste, where do you get that bible authors said the earth was flat? Isaiah 40:22 calls it a circle in every translation i’ve seen. Or that the earth is young? I think I would check that the bible actually says something before you call yourself having to correct it.

  119. Rocketman

    Hi Phil, To anyone who cares to dig a little deeper into the life and times of JC it is obvious that the “Star” is not a matter of astronomy but rather one of dynasty. The star symbolized the messianic hopes of the followers of the Line of David, an oppressed people suffering under the Romans. Bethleham was Ground Zero for the Cult of Messiah and the Magi didn’t need a supernovae or a planetary conjuction to know which way to walk to find their king.

  120. james schell

    while you are correct in stating that this has confused many for centuries, let me shed some light on the subject. the star of bethlehem was a spiritual event. it was actually a seven pointed star. if you read the original greek in revelation it talks of christ holding one seven pointed star in his right hand. so the coming king was the seventh king. the jews worshipped david who sported a six pointed as we still see today. satan worshippers sport a five pointed star. and so on. so all the astrologers are wasting thier time looking for a physical event. it is impossible to follow a physical star.
    the reason no one has realized this is because nobody has called upon the name of the lord for many years they all hold to this jesus. a name that was never heard until the venerable bede transliterated the bible in the year 666

  121. phil

    Funny, this article (which on other items tends to be well thought out) miss the point. Perhaps (??) because the author starts from the view there could be no “star” hense it does not make sence and therefore was no star. And the replies equally, well maybe the Bible made an error, or …

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but most objects visible in the night sky are either in the east or west at some point during the night. The Magi, being astrologers (which in ancient near-east culture were also equivalent to astronomers with a religious interpretation of the events) would initially take note of an astronomical event in a particular constellation – planetary conjunction, novae, … something. Jupiter (I think) is a ruling planet so some particular conjunction might be interpreted by the magi (remember, they are not Jews) as heralding the birth of a king, perhaps a great King by some combination.

    Anyway, its rather disturbing that someone would write an article so quickly dismissing the possibility of the Star of Bethlehem, when it is apparent that many possibilities were not considered and the underlying assumption seems to be that the Bible must have been wrong.

  122. Rick

    I am tagging on late in the game, so it is very unlikely anyone will read here. But I will take a chance and expand on the excellent comments of Artifex, above. He and I obviously get our information from Rick Larson’s web site, http://www.bethlehemstar.net, and his presentations.

    I will amplify two points:
    1) How could the star rise in the East and be followed to the West?
    2) How was the star then found to appear over Bethlehem when it stopped?

    Point 1, regarding the star appearing in the East, but then being followed to the West:

    The issue of Jupiter in the east, according to Larson, is more accurately translated that the star ROSE in the east, not that it remained there. The morning of the first conjunction of Jupiter and Venus, the incredibly bright planet combination ROSE in the East. Specifying this makes several other possibile phenomena less likely, including comets, supernovas and meteorites, all of which CAN appear elsewhere in the sky. So it appears to be an astronomical body that rises in the East like normal stars and planets.

    As Jupiter approached Regulus at a new moon following the conjunction, (September 11, 3 B.C., which I believe is conception), it rose again in the East, followed by the woman, clothed with the Sun, with a crown of twelve stars and with the moon at her feet. This combination is unique, since it was bracketed by the double conjunctions of Jupiter and Venus, and at the start of the triple pass of Jupiter by Regulus in retrograde. It is perfectly described in Revelation chapter 12.

    What about following the Star to the West? Well, that requires a bit of imagination, but in a reasonable scenario, let’s assume the wise men were in fact descendents of Daniel’s school of astronomy, in which case they were in the court of the Babylonian monarch. It would have taken some time to convince the court to allow them to travel to Jerusalem, to get funding for the trip and the expensive gifts, and get the logistics together. If the baby was born at the second conjunction of Jupiter and Venus, (June 17, 2 B.C.) then several months of planning would leave us in a reasonable time frame for the wise men to travel to Jerusalem (about 700 miles as the crow flies) and present their gifts on about December 25, 2 B.C.

    And oh, by the way, if this scenario is correct, then as mid November came around that year, each day the caravan started out on their journey to the West toward Jerusalem, Jupiter was west of overhead, and proceeded ahead of them to the horizon, setting at about noon at the start of the journey, and closer to 10 AM nearing December 25th.

    Point 2, regarding the star stopping over Bethlehem:
    This part of the story is reasonable and in line with scripture, but includes some conjecture. But if they did all that, then the star was standing still against its starry background in the early morning twilight hours of December 25th, again, 2 B.C. And it was in the South-Southwestern sky, right where Bethlehem is from Jerusalem. Again, in line with scripture. Coincidence? I don’t have enough faith to believe in coincidences that large.

    I also am not optimistic that skeptics will ever be convinced based on science. They will always be able to find other experts who agree with their skepticism. Their faith in the Bible NOT being true will allow them to ignore its call to repentance and faith in the perfect sacrifice. The truth of this is shown in the numerous posts above claiming myth, but when answered with facts by other readers, I don’t see those who believe this is all made up revisiting this website to tell of their changed views. It is very important to realize that there is repeatable, demonstrable science behind these claims, and to be open to the truth. That openness should result in being open to the claims of the One at the center of this story.

  123. Luke

    To emphasize what Rick and Artifex said, specifically addressing “Following East”:

    As the king planet (Jupiter) crowned the king star (Regulus), The two were in the constellation of the Lion. Judah’s association with the Lion led them to Judah, not to Bethlehem.

    This means they never once had to “follow” the star to the east. They knew where it led before they began, but they had to ask for the final city once they reached Judah.

    The central point of this article is one of the least scientific things I’ve seen in a while: “I’ve disproved that they followed east, that it was possible to follow east, therefore I’ve disproved the whole shebang.” Strawman city.

    I also believe these men followed Daniel’s thought, and would be watching for this specific type of phenomena more than any other astronomers in the world.

  124. Dear Bad Astronomy:

    There really are no problems with the phrase ” we saw His star in the East”. The star (or planet) was very likely seen in the time right before sun rise. The travellers would have seen the star and began their journey from the East. With each passing day it rose earlier and earlier. For example, if the “star” were really Jupiter, it may have have first been seen in the pre-dawn skies of March or April. By December, the star (Jupiter) would have moved Westward across the ecliptic, slowly and methodically into the early evening sky.

    At this point, it, like other planets, would undergo retrograde motion. The star (Jupiter) would literally do an about face and head “back” in an Easterly direction for a day or two. So, the star (Jupiter) would in reality stand over the spot in question on a certain day in time and appear to just hang there. After that day, it would continue Westward until it finally faded into the sunset behind the sun.

    I hope this has been helpful.

  125. Andy eTX

    Take a “Chariots of the Gods” viewpoint, that humans (maybe life itself) are the product of alien intervention, and that Bible references to angels, etc are really descriptions of actual contacts made in those days. Jesus, virgin birth and all, as part of their plan.

    Would it be possible for us to duplicate the Star of Bethlehem today? That is, navigate a spaceship (first seen in the east at nightfall) into an artificially maintained orbit a few hundred miles over Bethlehem (a true geosynchronous orbit is much higher over the equator). Then staying in that position for a few months, self-illuminated when in Earth-shadow so as to be visible both day and night? Then disappearing after the event?

    The truth is out there, LOL.

  126. pat oakes (don't publish this)

    don’t have time to read your stuff, so this might be covered.
    wise men saw his star in the east…why did they go west?
    Karlis Kaufmanis, deceased, prof emeritus of astronomy at gustavus adolphus wondered
    anatole has two meanings: east and heliacal
    in aramaic 2nd “east” is actually replaced by word with only one meaning: heliacal
    genesis 1:14 says sun placed for “signs, etc.”
    planet is in helical when reflects sun in early am
    jewish stargazers were waiting for 2 specific planets (i think saturn and ??) for sign of Messiah
    they would be found in pisces, ie the “house of jerusalem”
    happened about half a dozen times 6 bc
    last occurrence included mars in heliacal and all three planets were within 1 degree
    we know that JESUS wasn’t born 1ad or 1bc because herod died 4bc
    kaufmanis reviewed babylonian records
    babylonians were going nuts reporting these findings
    indicated great king and another thing i don’t remember now
    last sighting as they followed it would have been seen over hills of bethlehem
    kaufmanis says that this would happen as traveled out of jerusalem and earth turned on axis causing them to take right road
    i’m not going to follow your string…just for your information

  127. Michael

    You should probably do more research on this subject. All evidence points to the star having been a real event. I definitely recommend astronomy software called Starry Night where you can actually see if something astronomical happend back then using the software or you could go to bethlehemstar.net which will show you the truth about the star. Hope your not afraid of a little truth ;). Also it wasnt an actual star. :D

  128. jeremy

    You should watch “the Bethlehem star” produced by Stepehn McEveety. It has a phenomenal Explanation as to this “unlikely event” It uses biblical and non-bibical historical evidence. He uses Keplars laws of planetary motion and Astronomical Data and software to see what happened during Christ birth. He proves and describes the event with scientific rigor.

    the website is as follows:
    http://thestarofbethlehemmovie.com/

  129. Stanley from Alabama

    http://thestarofbethlehemmovie.com/

    It is with _great_ regret when I consider that one such as this vain blogger’s egocentric self would even consider that his misguided subjective rationale could even remotely represent Truth (capital T).

    Blogger, please study the documentary of the above website. I hope that it will reveal to you your own silly egocentric worldview, and so may perhaps lead you to atone for the ridiculous falsehoods you suggest to all readers of this page.

  130. Jeremy

    Misguided subjective rationale?? mhh. Keplars laws of planetary motion are not one of subjectivism, but of mathematical fact. Johannes Keplar, a German Mathematician discovered these laws in the late 1500’s. Today NASA uses these laws to ensure the meeting of launched satelites with planets many years into the future (such as Voyager 1 and Jupiter and Saturn). Using Keplars laws allows us to predict the position of the planets at any given point in time, whether in the future or the past. The astronomical events that are presented in the bethlehem star are not of subjective opionion, keplars laws of plantetary motion has proven them.

  131. Paul E.

    http://bethlehemstar.net/ This a a pretty interesting sight talking about the star…check it out!

  132. Paul E.

    Although I see that some others have stumbled on the same thing.. :) fun

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »