What The Star of Bethlehem Was Not 


Many theories have been proposed to explain the Star of Bethlehem: plausible; implausible; practical; impractical; possible and improbable. Here is a selection of some of the easiest to discount.




Almost every year Venus can be seen around Christmas time. In 2006 Venus is an evening object visible just after sunset, very low on the horizon. In 2007 it will be a morning star and in the year 2008 an evening star again at Christmas – on both occasions it will be high in the sky and beautifully visible. Inevitably, many people will ask whether or not it could have been the Star of Bethlehem and others will think that it is the Star of Bethlehem.

Venus is a glorious sight when it is high in the sky after dark and, because of this, it is an unlikely Star of Bethlehem. We are as certain as we can be of anything that the Magi were assiduous watchers of the sky and would certainly have known Venus and recognised it for what it is. Similarly, apart from a period of a few nights around superior and inferior conjunction (when Venus passes either behind the Sun, or in front of the Sun), the planet is always visible. It would not have appeared suddenly to the Magi.

Even so, one Russian group did suggest quite seriously in the 1960s that Venus was the Star of Bethlehem. However, as Patrick Moore, the British astronomer and populariser is so fond of saying: "if the Wise Men were fooled by Venus they couldn’t have been very wise!".


Comet Halley

Comet Halley is another perennial favourite candidate amongst the public as the Star of Bethlehem. In this case the suggestion has much more merit. During the 18th Century, after the return of Halley’s Comet was successfully predicted people realised that, if it returned every 76.5 years, it would have been visible very close to the time of the Nativity and, for this reason, suggested that Halley was the Star of Bethlehem.

In fact, contrary to popular belief, the period of the comet over the last 2000 years is almost exactly 77 years and it was soon realised that Halley had returned a few years too early. In fact, the Chinese observed Comet Halley in August and September of 12 BC and left quite a detailed description of its appearance.

If Jesus was born in 5 BC, the Magi would have taken 7 years to arrive in Jerusalem. This would indicate that they were not exactly in a hurry! This means that Comet Halley is not a plausible candidate to be the Star.


Supernova Bethlehem?

A popular theory for many years was the idea that the Star of Bethlehem might have been a brilliant supernova. Unfortunately, this can be discounted. Many old supernovae are known around the sky – some, like the 1054 supernova, have left a prominent nebula (the Crab Nebula), others, like Tycho’s supernova, in 1572, have left a bright radio source. No supernova remnant is known which is of about the right age to have been the Star of Bethlehem, in the position of any bright object seen by the Chinese which might have been a supernova. There is no possibility of error. Between the Chinese chronicles and radio maps of the sky we think that we know all supernovae of the last 2000 years. The nearest in date to the Nativity was seen in 185 AD – almost 200 years too late.


A meteor

This theory has been championed, in various guises, by Patrick Moore. He suggests that the magi saw a bright meteor, or possibly two bright meteors – one to tell them when Jesus was born, the other to tell them that they had arrived at their destination. An alternative which he has proposed is a "Cyrillid" meteor shower. The Cyrillids were a meteor shower seen on just one occasion, early in the 20th Century, when a string of bright meteors crossed the sky from one side to the other, all appearing and disappearing at approximately the same points in the sky. Such a shower would be truly compelling to the Magi, especially if the meteors all aligned from east to west and, if so, would have suggested to them that they should travel west. Unfortunately, this theory has the handicap that a meteor lasts only for a very few seconds. One could invoke a double meteor – one appearing initially to send them on their way, a second telling them when to stop, but such an explanation is artificial and very unlikely (very bright meteors do not appear "on demand". Even a stream like the Cyrillids, assuming that such streams occur occasionally, rather than having been a one-off event, would last for only an hour or so at most and not the weeks that the Magi would need for their journey; unless the Magi had some extremely rapid camels indeed, they could not have followed a meteor or a meteor shower across the desert to Jerusalem.



This is one of the most unlikely theories that I have met, although compellingly argued! It states that Uranus would have been close to Jupiter and Saturn around the time of the Nativity and the attention of the Magi might have been drawn to the planet as a result. In fact, Uranus was in conjunction with Jupiter on February 27th 7BC and with Saturn on February 5th 8BC. Neither conjunction would have been easy to observe, as the both occurred very close to the Sun in the sky. In fact, I doubt that they would have been visible at all. Similarly, Uranus moves so slowly that the Magi would hardly have noticed its displacement in the sky and, even if they had seen it, would have had no reason to think that it was anything other than a faint star.