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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.