Astronomy EssentialsHuman World

Was the Christmas star real? What was it?

Mosaic of three men in ancient Persian clothing, holding gifts, palm trees in background. bright star at upper right.
Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy: The Three Wise Men (named Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar). Detail from 6th-century Mary and Child surrounded by angels mosaic, by the so-called “Master of Sant’Apollinare”. The fabled Christmas star appears at upper right. Image via Nina Aldin Thune/ Wikipedia.

Was there really a Christmas star?

Was the Star of Bethlehem, or Christmas star, a real astronomical phenomenon? It’s a major seasonal symbol around the world. The story tells of three regally attired men on camels, gazing across gently rolling hills to a tiny solitary building in the distance. The night is dark, and one exceedingly bright star appears to hover over the small building, sending a bright shaft of light earthward to illuminate its outline. Another light glows gently inside.

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The biblical record

That is the picture most of us have of the Christmas Star, but it’s an image derived more from imagination and greeting cards than from the Bible. In fact, only the Gospel of Matthew in the New Testament mentions this “star” (Matthew 2:2, 7-10, King James Version). Even there, information on the star is sparse. The most telling reference is Matthew 2:9:

When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.

For anyone inclined to insist on the literal truth of scripture, this verse solves the question. If this verse is literally true, then the Star of Bethlehem could not have been any known natural phenomenon, simply because none would move that way.

However, if we grant the author of Matthew – who assuredly was not an eyewitness at the Nativity – a little artistic license, the “star” might not have appeared literally in the way described. In that case, we can consider some natural, astronomical possibilities. In fact, there is some uncertainty about the use of the word for star in the Greek manuscript. Some contend that the word could have meant or implied an object other than a physical star.

Was a conjunction the Christmas star?

Some believe the Christmas star was really a conjunction – or close meeting – of at least two planets. The conjunction possibly even involved three planets, perhaps Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Planets were “wandering stars” to the ancients, and to many they bore great astrological or mystical significance. Astronomers know there was a series of such conjunctions in 6 and 5 BCE. The conjunctions occurred in the constellation Pisces the Fish, which some say is the astrological “sign of the Jews.” To add more credence for later Christian writers such as Matthew, the sign of a fish later became the secret sign for Christians.

Was a falling star the Christmas star?

But there are other astronomical possibilities for the Christmas star. Some artistic depictions show what appear to be a bright meteor or “falling star.” Although exploding meteors, sometimes called bolides or fireballs, can be startling and truly impressive, they last only seconds. They can occur at any time. People far more aware of the night sky than the modern city dweller probably would not have placed much significance in them. It seems unlikely such transient phenomena could have “led” the wise men to Bethlehem.

Questions concerning the date of Christmas

And there are other problems. For example, we don’t know for sure when Jesus was born. Due to an error by a Church cleric hundreds of years later, the birth of Jesus was thought to be at least four years later than it really was. So today we know that the birth was no later than 4 BCE, and it could have been a little earlier.

And it certainly was not on December 25. The Bible does not say, leaving us few clues. One clue we do have, however, is the reference that shepherds were out in the field “keeping watch over their flock by night” (Luke 2:8). That was something the scholars say shepherds probably only did in the spring when lambs were born. Thus, the birth was likely in the spring, probably between 7 and 4 BCE.

Few astronomical records were kept at the time, except by the Chinese and Koreans. They did record what might have been comets in 5 and possibly again in 4 BCE. The main problem here is that comets were generally regarded as omens of evil and bad fortune by the Chinese and likely also by the magi-astrologers the New Testament calls “wise men.” Rather than follow such a cometary “star,” they likely would have gone the other way.

Another possibility is that the Christmas Star was a nova or supernova, a previously unseen star that suddenly brightens in a big way. Indeed, the Chinese recorded one such star in the spring of 5 BCE. And it shone for more than two months. However, its position in the constellation Capricornus meant that it likely would not have seemed to “lead” the wise men in the manner implied in the Bible.

An unsolved mystery

Unless someone finds some major and indisputable archaeological discovery to settle the question once and for all, the mystery of what the Christmas Star was will remain in the realm of faith. Science cannot explain it as any known physical object. History offers no clear record. And religion offers only an untestable miraculous apparition. But although there may be no agreement on the nature of the star or even its actual sighting two millennia ago, all sides can agree on the message the Christmas star heralded: “… on earth peace, good will toward men.” (Luke 2:14).

Bottom line: Many scientific explanations attempt to explain the Star of Bethlehem. Some of these include a planetary conjunction, a comet or a supernova. But none are in complete agreement with the description provided in the Bible, leaving the Star of Bethlehem entirely a matter of faith.

December 23, 2022
Astronomy Essentials

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