The Star of Bethlehem
Every year the nature of the Star of Bethlehem is discussed around Christmas time. We know that the nature of the Star has been debated for at least 1700 years, but are we any closer to knowing what it was? Like for the death of the dinosaurs, there are dozens of theories and everyone has their favourite. I have been interested in the subject for nearly 30 years and have studied it for more than 20. Here is just a brief taster of some of the issues. If you want to know more, you can find it in my book on the subject "The Star of Bethlehem - An Astronomer's View", which was published by Princeton University Press in November 1999.
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The Star of Bethlehem is only mentioned in Mathew’s Gospel. In fact, Matthew only mentions the word "star" four times and gives almost no details. The only other Gospel which mentions the birth of Jesus is Luke. Luke does not mention the star and his and Matthew’s accounts of the events around the birth of Jesus have almost no events in common. Some experts use these contradictions to suggest that the Star never even existed (more).
It is absolutely certain that the date that we use for Christmas was not the date of the Nativity. In fact, it is known that the whole basis of the modern calendar is incorrect. That said, it is the calendar that we have and it is not going to change now! The problem dates back to the year 525AD. Dionysius Exiguus, a monk, decided to fix the calendar around the date of the birth of Jesus, but committed two serious and well-known errors in doing so (more).
One important issue in the question of the Star of Bethlehem is the question of the mysterious people from the east who visited Jesus at Bethlehem. Variously called the "Wise Men", or the "Three Kings", who were these people? What do we know about them? Were they even kings (more)?
Favourite candidates which were NOT the Star of Bethlehem
Every year a few favourite names get mentioned as being candidates to be the Star of Bethlehem. Over the years some of these objects have been suggested quite seriously, but they can now be discarded as serious candidates. One of the most popular is Venus as a Christmas star, another is Comet Halley (more).
Favourite candidates which might have been the Star of Bethlehem
There are a number of quite plausible theories. Two of the most enduring are a conjunction and a comet, although both present serious difficulties. Other theories which are more recent include the possibility that the Star was due to an occultation. An old theory (first proposed by Kepler), which has gained favour over the last 20 years is the idea of a nova (more).
What the ancient chronicles report
Surviving observations were by both the Chinese and the Babylonians around the time of the Nativity. Both sets of archives have been carefully studied to see what phenomena were observed which might explain the Star. The curious result of these searches is that very little of note was observed around the time (more).
What was the Star of Bethlehem and how did the Magi recognise it?
Given all the conflicting evidence, how can the Star of Bethlehem best be explained? Whilst various phenomena may have been involved, there is only one really plausible Star as such. Why can we be confident that this was the Star? How and where was it seen (more)?
What was the sky like when the Star of Bethlehem appeared?
If we know what the Star of Bethlehem was and when it appeared, what did the Magi see? With modern computer programs we can calculate exactly what stars and planets were visible at any moment in the past, for any point on Earth. Whaat did the Magi see in the sky and how did it guide them (more)?