Was There Really a Christmas Star?

By Ed Neumann, December 22, 2013

Published in the La Crosse Tribune.

Although the Star of Bethlehem looks good on a Christmas card, what was this portentous luminary and how did it direct wise men to the little Judean hamlet?

One might suppose the birth of the Jewish Messiah had been recorded in all four canonical gospels, but this is not the case. Mark, the earliest gospel, is strangely silent on the subject, as is John. And though Luke mentions certain early events, he says nothing about the Star, Magi, Jesus’ Nativity, Herod’s slaughter of infants, or a flight to Egypt. It turns out the anonymously penned gospel we call Matthew is the only source we have for these events.

In fact, Luke and Matthew don’t agree on much. Not only do they list completely different ancestral lineages for their savior, their disagreement as to the year of his birth is irreconcilable. Luke claims he was born during the census of Quirinius (6 – 7 AD), whereas Matthew has it during King Herod’s reign (37 – 4 BC). This is a discrepancy of at least nine years.

However, if we want to explore the origins of Matthew’s Star of Bethlehem, we’ll stick with his timeline — sometime just before 4BC.

Early on, most believers were content to call the Star a miracle. But over the last few centuries, rationalists sought to identify the Star with an actual stellar phenomenon — something natural rather than supernatural. In his book, The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View, physicist Aaron Adair outlines and evaluates the various hypotheses put forward.

Among the explanations were meteors, ball lightning, and even UFOs. But three phenomena stand out as most likely to rise in the east and be interpreted by Persian Magi (Zoroastrian priests) as astrologically significant. Fortunately, the Chinese, among others, kept meticulous records of stellar events during the period.

Nova: The Chinese recorded none of these exploding stars during Matthew’s time window.

Comet: The Chinese witnessed a particularly long-tailed “broom star” in 5BC. Even so, comets were almost universally interpreted as bad omens, more apt to portend the death of a king than the birth of one.

Planetary conjunction: Much ado has been made of the triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 7BC. But the Babylonians thought such a conjunction signified war and hostility, and the Magi’s Avesta literature doesn’t mention them at all.

In agreement with Matthew, these stellar phenomena rise in the east. But so far, there is no compelling argument for an astronomical or meteorological phenomenon that would induce eastern sages to travel to Judea seeking a Jewish king. And that’s not the only problem.

According to Matthew, after the Magi spoke to Herod in Jerusalem, the Star led them south to Bethlehem where, and the Greek is abundantly clear here, it “stood over” where the child was. Matthew employs the word epano, which implies not just above, but hovering directly over in close proximity. As Augustine interpreted it, the Star left the sky and came down to the newborn! Real astral events don’t do this.

Another problem is that Matthew’s Nativity narrative is not independently attested by any contemporary writer. Even Herod’s court historian, Nicolas of Damascus, who wrote a history of the world right up to Herod’s death, neglected to record these events. In fact, there are exactly zero corroborating reports about the Star or a slaughter of innocents.

So if not actual events, what could have influenced the details of Matthew’s story?

We know Greco-Roman writers invented similar yarns with prophecies of coming rulers, miraculous signs, and attempts on an infant savior’s life by the reigning king. Such tales were told of Perseus, Hercules, Zoroaster, Romulus, Alexander and Augustus.

A massacre of infants occurred in the legends of Sargon, Nimrod, Krishna and Moses. And versions exist in which a star heralded the births of both Abraham and Moses. By the time Matthew wrote, these motifs were cliché.

But the Old Testament may have been his biggest influence. Matthew often cites Scripture to show how his narrative “fulfills prophecy.” Consider Numbers 24:17, “A star shall rise out of Jacob, a scepter out of Israel.” Isaiah 60 speaks of eastern kings coming to the rising light of Israel bringing gold and frankincense! Matthew also blends Micah 5:2 (a promised ruler from Bethlehem) and 2 Samuel 5:2 into a contrived quotation to arrive at the connection he wants.

Moreover, we read details only an omniscient narrator could know — the mental state and agitation of Herod, the private conversation between Herod and the Magi, and the Magi’s dream.

In the end, the only record we have of the Star comes from an anonymous figure reworking scriptural passages perhaps a century after the purported events, relating a tale that reads like myth, not history. Rather than a miracle or stellar event, the Star of Bethlehem is best explained as a literary creation. Not only is it historically untenable, but it bears all the earmarks of fiction.

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