Star of wonder, star of night,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light.
I’m sure you’ve heard these words sung, or sung them yourself, in the run up to Christmas. They are from the carol, We Three Kings, and are about the legendary star which guided the Three Wise Men to the place of Jesus’ birth. But did such an event ever take place? Was the star real and, if so, what could it have been? Let’s investigate and see if we can discover the truth about the Star of Bethlehem.
For such an amazing event, there is very little historical evidence for the star. It is only mentioned in one book of the Bible – Matthew’s Gospel. In it, three magi from the east travel to Bethlehem after following the star. This event, however, is not mentioned by Mark or Luke, whose books also describe Jesus’ birth.
So, with the Bible short on details, what can we learn from ancient astronomers? The first potential candidate is Halley’s Comet. We know that it appeared above Bethlehem in 11BC. But there are two problems with this – firstly, we think that Jesus was born between 8 and 4BC so 11BC is a little early! Secondly, if the comet was hanging directly over Bethlehem, why did King Herod not know where to find the newborn child he wanted dead? I think we can discount this explanation.
Another possibility is that the star was a supernova – an exploding star. Some astronomers believe that there was such an event around 4BC. Rather strangely, neither the Ancient Romans nor the Chinese (both keen stargazers) record having seen one. Also, supernovas do not ‘hang’ above one spot. This explanation can also be discounted I think.
Another theory, perhaps more plausible, is that the magi were not astronomers but astrologers. These are people who, rather than studying the heavens, use them to make predictions. With people at the time expecting the birth of the Messiah, it seems likely that some would try to predict when the event might take place – probably by looking at the movements of the planets.
A cynical explanation for the event is that it never took place at all and was invented by the author of Matthew in order to fulfil a prophecy made in the Old Testament which associated the coming of a star with the coming of the Messiah. This is probably the theory most likely to be true. But, for those of us with a religious faith, there is one other possibility…
Many Christians believe that the Star of Bethlehem was a miracle – a supernatural event which could never be explained by science. This would tick all of the necessary boxes but, to me, as a man of science, it is lacking. Who knows, maybe I am wrong, but I think I’ll go with either the astrologers or the cynical explanations.
Whatever you believe in – miracles, science or something else – have a very Happy Christmas from all of us at Education Quizzes!