In a Christmas that has strayed far from its humble pious beginnings, the simple beautiful story of the Star of Bethlehem has a hallowed and special place. Amid yule trees and tinsel, cards and glitter and frantic shopping, the Star survives as one of the few remaining symbols of the original Christmas.
But the Star which, according to Biblical legend, led the Wise Men to the place of the Saviour’s birth has become much more than that. Since man three or four centuries ago first began applying scientific methods to the age-old study of astronomy, the Magi’s “star in the cast" has posed a mystery still unsolved. For men of scientific thinking who seek natural explanations for such phenomena rather than write them off as supernatural and unexplainable, the Star of Bethlehem is an intriguing challenge. If some unusual heavenly body did light up the Judean sky at the time of the Nativity, what was it? What facts of modern scientific knowledge fit the quaint and moving Biblical story? What did the Wise Men see?
There are several possible explanations, and modern historical and astronomical knowledge is narrowing them down. They have occupied the attention of astronomers since early in the 1600s when the science of astronomy began emerging from the pseudo-science and mumbo-jumbo of astrology. Since then astronomers have been zealously tracing back through time the movements of known heavenly bodies, attempting to reconstruct the Judean sky of that first Christmas in crowded Bethlehem.
There are three points of view about the Star of Bethlehem story. To many it is a miracle that neither needs nor permits scientific explanation. Others regard it as a myth that existed only in the vivid imaginations of a people who were always diligently seeking religious signs and symbols in the sky. But a majority of both religious skeptics and believers accept the Bible story as evidence that there probably was a Star of Bethlehem, and they seek a natural explanation. Skeptics, however, claim any connection between the brilliant star and the timing of Christ's birth was accidental, whereas most believers prefer to think that, natural or not, it was willed by God as part of the Nativity miracle.
What is the basis for the story? It is certainly meagre. It is described only in the second chapter of St. Matthew's Gospel, twelve verses in all; none of the other gospels refer to it. A great body of embellishing legend has built up around the St. Matthew account, but in none of the early non-Biblical writings accepted as genuine history is there a mention of it. Yet in spite of this limited documentation, it has been a teasing problem for generations of star-gazers, professional and amateur alike.
As a first step into its investigation, it is essential to search back into the historical origins of the Christmas festival and determine as closely as possible the time of Christ's birth. There is much doubt and controversy on this point. One thing is sure: Christ could not have been born on December 25, I AD, as tradition once claimed.
It was not until the sixth century AD that the first serious effort was made to date Christ's birth. By that time Christianity was well established in the Mediterranean world and the Roman historian and monk, Dionysius Exiguus. proposed that the old Roman calendar be abolished and dates be reckoned from the birth of Christ. From records then available, Dionysius placed Christ's birth in the twenty-eighth year of the reign of Emperor Caesar Augustus and this became the basis for the new system of dating. Later historians, however, produced new information about the tenure of Augustus which indicates a three-year error in Dionysius' calculations, and they blamed a purely mathematical mistake for a further year's difference. So these two errors set back the date of Christ’s birth to at least 4 BC.
The New Testament provides corroboration for this. According to the same section of St. Matthew that describes the Star of Bethlehem. Christ was born "in the days of Herod the King." The time of Herod's death is fairly well documented. We know from Jewish historical writing that he was ailing but still alive at the time of an eclipse of the moon that modern astronomy has dated March 13, 4 BC. And we know the king was dead before the feast of the Passover which fell that year on April 12. Somewhere between these dates, therefore, lies the last possible date for Christ's birth.
But other evidence suggests the birth was a few years earlier. The most important of these clues is in St. Luke’s Gospel where it is said Christ was born while Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem registering for a tax-collecting census ordered by Caesar Augustus. There were three such censuses during Augustus' reign and one of them, obviously the one referred to in St. Luke, was decreed in Rome in what, according to our present calendar, was 8 BC. Travel then was slow and at least a year would pass before the census order could have been enforced in distant Judea. This establishes 7 BC as the earliest possible date for Christ’s birth.
What about the time of year? This question can contribute little to a scientific identification of the Star of Bethlehem. but it is an interesting sidelight to the problem of dating the Nativity. If shepherds were watching their flocks by night, as St. Luke's Gospel tells, it was probably spring, the season when lambs were being born and wolves were a special menace. The tax registration that brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem was probably also a springtime occurrence, for it required many of the Jews to make long journeys and spring with its plentiful water and moderate weather was the likeliest season for such an order to be enforced.
How, then, did December 25 become established as the traditional Christmas date? There is some evidence that the earliest Christians observed Christ's birth in spring, but because of persecution by Roman soldiers they switched their Christmas to coincide with the great Roman festival of Saturnalia which marked the winter solstice around December 21. At this date Christians could gather and celebrate and escape detection, because everyone else was celebrating too. When Rome became Christianized, the pagan Saturnalia festival was discontinued as such, but the celebration went on in the name of Christmas instead. Originally it was probably never intended to be an accurate anniversary of Christ's birth.
At any rate, it has been established that to identify the Star of Bethlehem we must find some unusual astronomical event that could have appeared in the Near East sky between 7 and 4 BC—the period during which Christ’s birth must have occurred.
How unusual does this astronomical event have to be? Could the Wise Men have seen some fairly routine heavenly body like a meteor or planet?
Who were the Wise Men?
A meteor could be ruled out immediately. Even the most brilliant of them, which astronomers call fireballs, last only a second or two, whereas the Star of Bethlehem must have remained visible for at least several weeks to give the Wise Men time for their journey to Jerusalem, their interview with King Herod and the continuation of their journey to Bethlehem.
Could it have been a routine appearance of one of the planets? Venus, for example, comes close to the earth every nineteen months to dominate the eastern sky before sunrise with a brilliance equal to that of several hundred of the brightest stars. To answer this we must know who the Wise Men were. Above all, what did they know about astronomy?
The English version of St. Matthew which calls them simply "wise men from the east” could hardly be more vague. But the original Greek from which our St. James version was translated uses the word "Magi." a name for them which has come to be widely used in English as well. Originally the term Magi referred to a group of Persian priests and scholars renowned throughout the east for their reputed knowledge and magic powers, although later it came to be used for a variety of other astrologers and soothsayers. There are two strong arguments for the belief now widely accepted that St. Matthew's Wise Men were authentic members of the Persian Magi. First, "the east" was usually used in Palestine to mean Persia and, second, the religion of the Magi included belief in the coming of a Messiah for all mankind whose appearance would be announced by a sign in the heavens.
Beyond that, authenticated history has nothing more to tell, but the story is richly embellished with legend. One of the oldest traditions is that the number of Wise Men was three, a belief that is thought to have originated because St. Matthew mentions three gifts—"gold and frankincense and myrrh.” Some little known gospels, however, which were at one time seriously considered for inclusion in the Bible as God-inspired and rejected only after bitter debate among early Christian bishops, say the Wise Men numbered twelve. Another apocryphal life of Christ dating back to the second century calls them Persian kings. And another ancient belief says they were descendants of Noah’s sons—Shem, Ham and Japheth, which made them representative of the three known races of mankind. In medieval paintings of the Magi, one of the three is always shown as Negro.
Another story claims the bones of the Magi were found and identified in Persia, removed to Constantinople by the mother of Emperor Constantine, then to Milan in Italy, and finally in 1162 to the cathedral of Cologne in Germany where the skulls are still exhibited as authentic Magi remains. This story, however, disagrees with another recorded in one of the travel books of Marco Polo. In 1299. almost a century and a half after the skulls are said to have been moved to Cologne. Marco Polo says he was shown the tomb and the miraculously preserved remains of the three Wise Men in a city in Persia.
From St. Matthew and legendary accounts we can reconstruct what probably happened. The Magi saw their unusual star and interpreted it as a sign that the long-awaited leader of all mankind was born. They set off on their journey to find Him. This is not unusual, for the Magi are recorded as having made other trips like this, carrying predictions they had read from the stars to the great men of Rome and Athens. St. Matthew doesn't state that the Star guided them on this initial stage of their journey. The gospel statement "we have seen His star in the cast" probably means that they, the Magi, were in the east when they first saw the Star. It is more probable that the Magi headed toward Jerusalem simply because of the belief then widespread throughout the East that the Messiah would be Jewish.
It was a long journey, possibly a thousand miles, for they would have to travel first north around the vast Syrian Desert, and then southward on the Damascus road into Palestine. Travel in the East at that time was leisurely, usually undertaken in the early morning before the sun became too hot on the shitting sands. Even if they used camels, which has been questioned because camels were not yet in common use, the journey would have taken a couple of months. One account calls it a two-year journey which the Magi miraculously covered in a single day. Another says the Star appeared months before Christ's birth so that the Magi reached Bethlehem on the exact day of the birth itself.
Many Bible scholars claim that the Bible itself makes it clear that the Wise Men didn't find Christ until long after His birth. They point out that the shepherds of St. Luke's Gospel found "the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger." But according to St. Matthew, the Wise Men came to "a house” and in this story Christ is repeatedly referred to as a “young child," not a baby. Furthermore, when the jealous King Herod heard the story from the Magi and feared that he had a competitor for his throne, he ordered the death of all children in Bethlehem "two years old and under." From this, it has been claimed that Christ was already possibly two years old before the Wise Men saw him.
At any rate, St. Matthew tells us that the Magi came to Herod in Jerusalem and asked: “Where is He that is born King of the Jews?" At this stage, obviously, the Star is not yet guiding them. Herod called in his priests and scribes and asked them where, according to Old Testament prophecy, was the Messiah to be born. His experts said in Bethlehem, a village six miles to the south. So the Magi went on their way again across the bare and rounded Palestine hills, and not until this stage of their search does St. Matthew state unequivocally that the Star guided them. "And lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was." But we must seek again in the misty limbo of legend for the story's most colorful finale. Many versions claim that at this point the Star of Bethlehem, its mission completed, dropped from the heavens into the well that had provided Mary with drinking water during the throes of her labor. The well is still pointed out to pilgrims. The pure in heart, it is said, are still able to see the Star when they look into it.
The Magi left their gifts and then disappeared into the unknown from which they had come, lost once more to history. But there is one legend that followed them. Mary, it is said, wished to give them a gift in return, but all she could spare from her meagre possessions was one of the infant's swaddling bands—in twentieth-century language, a diaper. The Magi bore it proudly to their king who ordered that it be placed as an offering on the holy fire they worshipped. When the sacrificial fire burned out. the swaddling band still lay on the altar untouched by the flames.
Notice that the one element common to most of these legends is that the Wise Men were Persian Magi. This is an important consideration in the astronomical attempts to identify the Star of Bethlehem, because the Magi were astrologers who spent their lives studying the movements of heavenly bodies as a basis for predicting future events. They were undoubtedly acutely familiar with everything in the heavens visible by naked eye. They would not know that the planets were sisters of their own earth, but they would know the planets well as brilliant stars that had erratic individual courses of their own. A routine appearance of one of the planets would certainly not have excited them. We must find something far more unusual to explain the Star of Bethlehem.
We haven’t, however, entirely eliminated planets from the reckoning, because there is a rare phenomenon involving the planets that has been advanced for centuries as a possible explanation for the Star of Bethlehem. At infrequent intervals two planets will move so close together that to our eyes they appear to fuse into a single, extremely brilliant star. Astronomers call these occurrences “conjunctions." At such times the planets are of course millions of miles apart but their alignment is such that they appear from earth to have collided and melted together. At even rarer intervals three planets have lined up this way producing what has been termed a “triple conjunction.”
One of the first recorded triple conjunctions was one of Jupiter, Saturn and Mars in December 1603, which was studied and reported by the pioneer German astronomer, Johann Kepler. Kepler wondered if an earlier conjunction of this type could have been the Star that St. Matthew’s Wise Men saw, and he began laboriously calculating orbits of the planets backward through the centuries. Kepler made an exciting discovery. He found that the same three planets had come together in a triple conjunction in May or June of 7 BC, a date within the period established for Christ’s birth. Furthermore. the 7 BC conjunction occurred within the constellation Pisces, a section of the zodiac which, according to the mystical beliefs of ancient astrologers, foretold the fortunes of the Jews.
Kepler had a convincing case and for a long time his triple conjunction in Pisces was accepted as a possible explanation for the Star of Bethlehem. But more exact calculations have shot many holes in Kepler’s theory and it is no longer very widely accepted. Astronomers have now determined that the 7 BC conjunction was not a true and complete conjunction. The three planets came together to form a very close triangle but at their closest point they would still have been separated easily by eye. Furthermore, it can now be calculated that the sun was near at the time, reducing the conjunction’s brilliance, and making it doubtful that the planets were visible at all during the period of their closest formation. And no conjunction, it is now established, could endure long enough to remain visible during the long Magi journey from Persia to Palestine. There is still another criticism of the Kepler theory. Ancient astrologers were puzzled by the planets because they came and went in an erratic way very different from the orderly unchanging movements of all other stars. For this reason the planets were feared and looked upon as evil signs. It is doubted now that the Magi would attach a benevolent meaning such as the birth of a Messiah to any heavenly phenomenon in which planets were involved.
Comets, another tribe of celestial wanderers, have also produced serious contenders for the Star of Bethlehem honors. Looking like stars with shining tails, comets plunge from outer space into our solar system, make a circuit of the sun and then disappear back into the unfathomable space from which they came. Astronomers still are not certain of the composition of comets. Apparently they are loose collections of meteors, dust and gases—the debris of space—and the big ones are thousands of times larger than our earth, awe-inspiring sights indeed. with tails like searchlight beams spanning half the sky. They remain visible for several weeks before their reflected light is swallowed again by the blackness of space and if one of them appeared at Christ's birth it could certainly have inspired the Star of Bethlehem story.
At one time it was believed well established that one of the great comets did appear for Christ’s birth. This story centres around the greatest and best known of all comets and the pioneer astronomer for whom it was named.
Edmund Halley, precocious and gifted English mathematician and astronomer, was publishing results of his studies on comets while still a nineteen-year-old student at Oxford. This was the 1670s and the infant science of astronomy knew comets only as mysterious and wandering wayfarers from space. In 1682 Halley was only twenty-six but already recognized as Britain’s foremost comet authority when one of the most unusual strokes of luck in the annals of science gave him an opportunity probably not duplicated since for a first-hand study of comet behavior. It was this year that the famous comet which now bears Halley’s name appeared, perhaps the most brilliant and easily observed of all comets recorded to date. From observations of this 1682 comet and studies of twenty-four others whose appearances had been recorded up to that time, Halley determined that comets are not unpredictable wanderers but have orbits which bring them at regular intervals into the solar system for a circuit of the sun and then carry them far out into space again before they return. Furthermore, Halley discovered that his 1682 comet had an orbit and behavior very similar to comets recorded for the years 1607, 1531 and 1456. Halley said that all these comets were actually the same one that returned every 75 or 76 years, the period being subject to some variation depending on how close the comet came to the big planets of Jupiter and Saturn during its penetration of the solar system. Halley predicted that the comet would be back in the year 1758.
His theory was ridiculed by many astronomers, and Halley never lived to see it proven. He died in 1742 at the age of eighty-five. Sixteen years later, on Christmas Day 1758, the comet reappeared right on the schedule that Halley had predicted for it.
Astronomers now began searching through old writings for previous appearances of Halley’s comet, laboriously working out corrections in the time period which would be caused by orbit fluctuations produced by the gravitational fields of Jupiter and Saturn. They found records identifiable as the same comet back as far as 240 BC. And one of these early occurrences was established for the year 11 BC.
At this time Kepler’s triple-conjunction explanation of the Star of Bethlehem was losing favor among both historians and astronomers. Now the 11 BC appearance of Halley’s comet was seized upon as a better explanation. Many theologians were so sure of it that 11 BC became widely accepted as the year of Christ’s birth on the basis of this alone.
But, like Kepler’s triple conjunction, Halley’s comet has also now been rejected, largely on historical grounds. Historians are now certain that the census registration that took Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem was not promulgated in Rome by Caesar Augustus until 8 BC. Halley’s comet, therefore, was at least three years too early to qualify as the Star of Bethlehem.
Another comet, one recorded for 4 or 3 BC by Chinese astronomers, has been considered. The dating for this one, however, suggests that it appeared late in 4 BC, if not in 3 BC, which makes it too late to have been the star the Wise Men saw.
There are no other known comets that could be contenders for the Magi’s star, but this doesn't eliminate comets from the contest. The number of comets whose orbits and periods are known to astronomy must be only a small fraction of those that do exist. Many of them could appear once yet have orbits so vast that it will take thousands of years for them to put in a second appearance. One of them in the morning sky of ancient Persia, its tail a luminous arrow pointing westward toward Palestine, could have been the “star in the east” that sent the Magi on their historic quest, yet it could easily have remained unrecorded except for the Bible story.
The possibility can never be disproven. But modern astronomy has produced a more likely theory.
This theory carries us far out beyond our own solar system, beyond interplanetary space into the staggering immensity of interstellar space. This new explanation for the Star of Bethlehem dwarfs those other explanations involving planets and comets which are merely the mirrors of borrowed light from our sun. For this idea takes us to the root source of all the universe’s energy—atomic fusion, the fuel of our sun and the stars, the most terrifying and dazzling of all nature’s wonders which man has only begun to understand and duplicate in the awesome dreadful devastation of the hydrogen bomb.
This cosmic fuel of the universe, this conversion of hydrogen into helium by fusion, is an economical process that keeps stars like our own sun burning at an even moderate rate for billions of years. The stars of the Big Dipper tonight will shine with the same undimmed brilliance they had when Neanderthal man first began noticing them. Yet periodically one of these stellar furnaces goes berserk, releasing its vast store of light and energy in a single tremendous explosion which burns it out in a few days or weeks. Astronomers call these exploding stars "novae” or new stars.
No one knows why these stellar suicides occur, but with vast sections of the heavens being explored now in detail for the first time with giant telescopes, novae are no longer uncommon and astronomers are familiar with the results if not the cause. In a typical nova, a star often visible only by telescope suddenly increases a hundred thousand times in brilliance in the space of a few hours. This previously invisible star may suddenly become visible by naked eye, sometimes dominating for a few nights its region of the sky.
Yet at very rare intervals, stars are capable of exploding with a violence that dwarfs even that of the novae. These the scientists call "supernovae." Whereas a nova may increase its light a hundred-thousandfold, a supernova increases its brilliance by a thousand million times in a matter of hours. And whereas a nova is usually burned out in hours or at most a couple of nights, a supernova can endure for weeks.
Supernovae are so rare that astronomy has records of only three that have occurred in our own galaxy, that is in the Milky Way family of stars to which our own sun belongs. But these three are well described by the astronomers of their day, leaving no doubt about their identity. The first was in 1054 AD and was recorded by Chinese astronomers. The next was in 1572 and was thoroughly studied and described by Tycho Brahe, famous Danish astronomer; this one was so brilliant it remained visible during daylight. The third one appeared in 1604. There have been no supernovae in our galaxy since 1604 but since the development of telescopes they have been seen and studied many times in more distant galaxies.
The German astronomer Kepler who saw the supernova of 1604 was the first astronomer to suggest that an earlier supernova could account for the Star of Bethlehem. Kepler, however, merely suggested it as a possibility; he preferred his theory that the Magi's star was a triple conjunction of planets. But with Kepler's triple conjunction and Halley's comet both now rejected, the supernova theory is the current popular one in the continuing search for the Star of Bethlehem.
If an otherwise unrecorded supernova was the Bethlehem star, it gives the Nativity story a new and stirring element of drama and wonder that was never bestowed upon it by the earlier planet and comet theories. For many persons, the contemplation of a Supernova Bethlehem is as moving and humbling as the Nativity miracle itself.
To contemplate the full soul-stirring wonder of it, it is necessary first to discard our familiar ideas of time and space and employ a new measuring-stick capable of expressing the infinitely greater concept of distance that interstellar space requires. The measuring-stick that science has created for this purpose is the "light-year," the distance that light, traveling at 186.000 miles per second, spans in one year—about six million million miles.
We know a good deal more about supernovae now than Kepler knew. We know that the typical one produces a brilliance at its source a hundred million times brighter than our own sun. And we can assume that the light from Supernova Bethlehem when it reached our earth had dimmed to the point where it was about as brilliant or possibly a little more brilliant than one of our planets at its brightest phases. If it were more brilliant than this, it would have begun turning night to day, and St. Matthew's Gospel would have called it a second moon or a second sun, and not a star. We can calculate that, for a supernova a hundred million times brighter than our sun to have its brilliance reduced to that of a bright planet, it would have to be approximately three thousand light-years away.
For man confined to his tiny planet circling one of the universe's smaller stars, this is an almost incomprehensible thought. According to this most widely held theory for the Star of Bethlehem, the light that sent the Persian Magi on their historic quest had started its journey through space as a cataclysmic explosion three thousand years before—many centuries before the time of Moses and the exodus of the Jew's from Egypt, in fact many centuries before any record of Jewish history begins.
Originally the Star of Bethlehem was probably a moderately burning star not unlike our sun. Probably it had its own family of planets whirling around it as our sun does, for scientists now believe that the universe has millions of planets. Among those millions it is inevitable that some, probably a great many, have conditions like those on earth suitable for the maintaining of life as we know it. So it is possible, indeed very probable, that there were eyes to see and brains to wonder at the spectacle of Supernova Bethlehem long before the Persian Magi had their opportunity. For some of those eyes. Supernova Bethlehem may have been their own life-giving sun, and it is terrifying even at this distance to contemplate what those first watchers must have seen before their eyes were mercifully closed by blinding light and annihilating flame.
Without warning their sun's light and heat would suddenly begin increasing. It would expand like a balloon, and within an hour its bursting surface would begin to bare the fearful white fires of its core. Any living matter or beings on worlds nearby would be quickly seared and killed. Life on the darkened side of these worlds away from their exploding sun would survive a few hours longer until the revolving of their world brought the sun into view for this last dawn.
Seas would boil and disappear in massive whirling clouds of steam. Mountains would melt, filling their valleys with rivers of incandescent lava. In a few more hours, flaming gases spurting out at two million miles per hour would engulf the nearer planets until even their atmospheres would be ablaze. When the heat wave had passed, perhaps a few days later, any planets in its path behind it would be lifeless gigantic cinders glowing red in the everlasting night left by their dying sun.
The heat would soon dissipate in space, but its light would go on and on, dimming with imperceptible slowness. Some five or ten years later the light ol Supernova Bethlehem would reach its nearest star. If this star had planets, the supernova’s light would burst upon them like a second sun. But its heat would be gone, only its blazing light would remain.
Back at its source Supernova Bethlehem would by this time be a dead cold sphere lost in the gloom of space, but its light spreading outward in all directions would remain a living pulsing thing century after century. It would pass innumerable suns. It would lighten briefly the skies of thousands of planetary worlds and on some of them, almost certainly, there would be eyes like our own to witness its dazzling passage.
When its journey through space began, the new discoveries of agriculture and herding were just beginning to reach the forest-dwelling hunters of Europe. The first Egyptian pyramids may already have been built, but the wheel, metal tools and the invention of writing were all relatively new and civilization was only in its crude beginnings.
The light destined to become the Star of Bethlehem had already been two thousand years on its way before the great civilization of Greece was born. For still another thousand years it sped outward through space like a great ballooning sphere, spanning its six million million miles each year. Greece fell. The Roman Empire rose. In the parched hills of Judea a subjugated people waited for the birth of the deliverer whom their prophets had long promised.
Finally, in the stable of a Bethlehem inn, the birth occurred. And the light of Supernova Bethlehem, three thousand years on its way, yet still piercing the night with a scintillating brilliance, burst upon the Near Eastern sky.
It is a weird thought, but this is not the end of the Star of Bethlehem story. Almost two thousand years ago its light passed our earth and left us behind. But the same light that startled the Persian Magi is still shooting out through space. Somewhere in the distant outposts of the universe, approximately 1,960 light-years beyond the earth, the Star of Bethlehem tonight is still shining. Its light is now stretched out over a sphere ten thousand light-years across with the cold shell of Supernova Bethlehem still marking its centre. But astronomers can calculate that the Star of Bethlehem, despite the slow fading of its five thousand years of travel, is the brightest star yet in the heavens where it shines.
Are there other beings watching it tonight, marveling as the Magi of old marveled at its dazzling splendor? Today's science would answer that there probably are.
Is it bringing them "good tidings of great joy.... peace, good will toward men?”