The Star of Bethlehem Solved?

Star of Bethlehem
Mural beside Bethlehem Bible College. Photo (cc) James Emery.

The Star of Bethlehem has always seem to be a non-problem to me. If you believe that a god was born to a vir­gin, then ask­ing what the star was seems point­less. Why shouldn’t it be just another mir­acle? Similarly if you think the story is fic­tional then why does there need to be a star? Why couldn’t that be fic­tion too? Another reason to be wary of Stars of Bethlehem is that they are, by and large, unim­press­ive from a historian’s point of view. We don’t have a date of birth for Jesus, so there’s an ele­ment of guess­work. Nonetheless whatever date you pick, there’s always some­thing around which you can choose for a star. This is espe­cially true if you ignore the text. The descrip­tion of the star in Matthew 2 is very brief. It simply describes a star which moves around. This could be a planet or a comet, and plan­ets were mundane. Popular explan­a­tions tend to be con­junc­tions, but these were well known and would not be described as stars, nor neces­sar­ily asso­ci­ated with king­ship. If you can ignore the text’s descrip­tion of the star, then why not save time and ignore the star altogether?

By and large people don’t like this answer. There are some people who refuse to believe that some­thing claimed to have been seen in what is now Iraq could be a fab­ric­a­tion. Last year I blogged on this and noted that there are a few ideas that it could be Halley’s Comet. It doesn’t quite work with the birth of Jesus without ser­i­ously shift­ing chro­no­logy, which Nikos Kokkinos does. I also men­tioned in passing that it could be con­nec­ted to a Neronian appear­ance of Halley’s Comet, and that later appear­ances inspired the idea of the star in art.

Since then Rod Jenkins has got in touch with me. He’s writ­ten an art­icle on Halley’s Comet and the Star of Bethlehem in the Journal of the British Astronomical Association and it’s bril­liant. You can down­load it for your­self from the Bristol Astronomical Association web­site. I like it a lot. Jenkins never loses sight of the fact it’s a his­tor­ical prob­lem. I can’t be 100% cer­tain he’s right, but I think his is the most prob­able answer because his solu­tion solves more his­tor­ical ques­tions than it raises.

If you’re impa­tient the Star of Bethlehem was Halley’s Comet dur­ing its appear­ance in AD 66. Given that’s thirty years after Jesus’s death I accept it needs a bit of explan­a­tion, but Jenkins work does exactly that.

The first thing we try and drill into the ancient his­tory stu­dents on degree courses is that texts are not products of the time they write about. They’re products of the time they’re writ­ten in. This is import­ant. For instance some of the Iliad will not make sense unless you know that Homer wrote it in the Iron Age and imposed some Iron Age assump­tions on what is said to be a Bronze Age story. Similarly the period when Matthew wrote his gos­pel could influ­ence what he would write about Jesus. When was this gos­pel written?

The date isn’t cer­tain. We can’t even be sure who the author of Matthew’s gos­pel was. Clues in the text do give us some idea about the range of time it was writ­ten in. It relies on the gos­pel of Mark, so it must date from at AD 70 or later, because it couldn’t be writ­ten before Mark. Ignatius of Antioch wrote about it around AD 100, so that has to be the very latest date, and Jenkins says that the favour­ite dates fall between AD 85–90. If it’s a late 1st cen­tury text then we know some things about the gos­pel. It can’t have been writ­ten by an eye-witness, nor a dis­ciple of Jesus. Jenkins also men­tioned that it must have been writ­ten after the destruc­tion of the temple in Jerusalem. So far like other Stars of Bethlehem we have a date and an inter­est­ing match. But because Jenkins is examin­ing the his­tory he’s able to start find­ing more evid­ence for the Nativity.

In addi­tion dur­ing these times it is a his­tor­ical fact that a depu­ta­tion of Magi did come from the east to bring gifts and pay homage, and they did return home by another route. Also a bright comet with an impress­ive tail appeared over Jerusalem. These were both not­able events of the time.

This is a ref­er­ence to the Armenian king Tiridates, who came along with Magi to pay homage to Nero in AD 66. At the same time Halley’s Comet appeared and was later taken as an omen for the destruc­tion of the temple. Jenkins adds that Tiridates’ route would have sent him through Syria, where there were early Christian com­munit­ies. The import­ance of this shouldn’t be under­played. The prob­lem with tra­di­tional astro­lo­gical explan­a­tions is that they only explain the star. They don’t explain the wise men. This is a prob­lem because there are so many plaus­ible astro­lo­gical events that no sooner had they got home then they’d be off chas­ing another star. Tying the nativ­ity to the events of Nero explains the star, the wise men and is con­sist­ent with Christianity using the lan­guage of power which would have been recog­nised by both believ­ers and none believers.

The part of the paper where I dis­agree most with Jenkins is actu­ally one of the good bits. First off the wise men saw a star in the east. Jenkins makes a strong case that this is a ref­er­ence to heli­acal rising, the rising of a star just before dawn. It then moved west in the sky, mak­ing it vis­ible through the night until the end of its vis­ib­il­ity when it stopped mov­ing. I think Jenkins is right in say­ing that Halley’s Comet is there­fore the best match for the descrip­tion in Matthew, but I wouldn’t neces­sar­ily dis­count other comets, If Pliny is to be believed there were a lot of other comets. On comets he wrote:

It is gen­er­ally regarded as a ter­rific star, and one not eas­ily expi­ated; as was the case with the civil com­mo­tions in the con­sul­ship of Octavius, and also in the war of Pompey and Cæsar . And in our own age, about the time when Claudius Cæsar was poisoned and left the Empire to Domitius Nero, and after­wards, while the lat­ter was Emperor , there was one which was almost con­stantly seen and was very frightful.

He goes on to show they are aren’t always bad, but it would seem that Nero and his suc­cessors had no short­age of comets. While I accept that Halley’s Comet is the best match, it is pos­sible that that the concept of a Star of Bethlehem was aided by other comets of the time.

All in all it’s hard to prove with cer­tainty that Halley’s Comet must have been the Star of Bethlehem, but it makes sense to me. If you have strange an ter­rible stars appear­ing in the sky, then an orderly an pre­dict­able con­junc­tion of plan­ets seems a very min­im­al­ist form of divine inter­ven­tion. What makes it much stronger though is the fact that Jenkins is extremely good at integ­rat­ing both the astro­nom­ical and the his­tor­ical prob­lems. I simply can’t recall a Star of Bethlehem art­icle ser­i­ously think­ing about the Magi before. I still think the star is fic­tional, but this explains why it’s a fic­tional comet rather than a fic­tional nova or conjunction.

I may be being too cred­u­lous about this, and you’re wel­come to say so below, but I would recom­mend you read the ori­ginal art­icle first as I’ve sim­pli­fied some of the argu­ments to keep this short.

Other opin­ions:
Mark Kidger’s art­icles. He favours a nova in 5BC. If Matthew’s gos­pel dated from 5 BC or shortly after I’d be temp­ted by this.
The Star of Bethlehem Jupiter, which star­ted mov­ing in a ret­ro­grade dir­ec­tion on December 25, 2 BC. There’s a bit more to it than that but I’m not con­vinced.
The Star of Bethlehem Michael Molnar’s take on the star. It’s Jupiter ret­ro­grade in Aries, which he says only hap­pens once in sixty years.


When he's not tired, fixing his car or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.

3 Responses

  1. My com­ments just grew and grew — until I had to write a post of my own in reply: http://​judith​weingarten​.blog​spot​.com/​2​0​0​7​/​1​2​/​m​a​g​i​-​a​n​d​-​c​h​r​i​s​t​m​a​s​.​h​tml

    It’s a fas­cin­at­ing sub­ject and I hope to con­tinue the conversation.

  2. Peter L. Griffiths says:

    In the whole of the New Testament there is just one year date in Luke ch3 being AD28 which I sus­pect is the author’s year of birth. This means that although most of the facts were taken from the works of Josephus, the dates were at the dis­cre­tion of the author Berenice. This applies as much to the Star as to the other facts. For the extreme case of dis­cre­tion­ary dates we have the Acts of the Apostles which was writ­ten back­wards, with the Last Supper first and the ship­wreck last.

  3. Peter L. Griffiths says:

    In my opin­ion most of the New Testament was writ­ten soon after AD71, the date of the Last Supper com­mem­or­at­ing the Triumph of the Roman vic­tory over the Jews. This means that the appear­ance of Halley’s Comet in AD66 would be in the mind of the author Berenice.