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  • The Star of Bethlehem

    by Donald DeMarco

    Domenico Ghirlandaio 1488

    In Matthew 2:1, we read the following:  “Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, Magi came from the East to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he that is born King of the Jews?  For we have seen his star in the East and have come to worship him’.”

    This passage has been the object of a great deal of research, speculation, and conjecture, particularly about the “star.” Origen assumed that the star was a comet. Johannes Kepler believed that it was a conjunction of the planets Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars. Theorists whose names are less known surmised it to be a meteor, a supernova, or an ephemeral star.  Some thought the star was miraculous; others, thought it to be a metaphor. Ferdinand Prat, S.J., whose splendidly researched Life of Christ, published in 1950, states that “We know nothing of the star except what the Gospel tells us.”  He cites Bossuet, a 17th century scholar to offer his readers some consolation:  “ …after all, what difference does it make?  Is it not enough to know that they [the Magi] came from a land of ignorance, from the midst of the Gentiles, where God was not known, nor the Christ promised and expected?” Curiosity, nonetheless, even about obscure facts, is sometimes irrepressible.  Then, again, maybe the real nature of the “star” does make a difference.

    Astronomers, knowing that it is possible to track the movements of celestial bodies back through eons of time have responded to the challenge.  In the 1970s, Professor David Hughes, an astronomer from the University of Sheffield, in England, published a review of the various theories about the Star of Bethlehem. His best scientific explanation of the Star that led the Magi to the Christ child is an astronomical phenomenon known as a “triple conjunction.”  This cosmic event takes place between the planets Jupiter and Saturn, when the two planets come close together in the sky three separate times during a relatively short period of time.  A triple conjunction of this sort occurs, according to Tim O’Brien, associate director of Jodrell Bank Observatory in Chesire, about once every 900 years.  It involves an alignment between the Sun, Earth, Jupiter, and Saturn. Surely, this is a most unusual event, and would have aroused the interest of attentive astronomers and astrologers of antiquity.

    According to many scholars, Jesus was born around 7 B.C. That year, the heavens offered a display that few who studied the stars would have failed to notice.  Three times during this year there was a conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn. Sky-watchers of that time regarded Jupiter as a royal star and a fortuitous one.  Saturn was believed to involve the destiny of the Jews.  Perhaps even more significant, this conjunction occurred in the constellation of Pisces, one that foretold incidents of great importance to Israel.

    A felicitous conjunction also occurs between astronomers and Biblical scholars who share the belief that the first of the three conjunctions may have inspired the Magi to commence their long trek to Israel.  The second conjunction may have helped guide them on their journey, while the third conjunction led them to their destination in Bethlehem.  Faith seeks reason and reason can strengthen faith. There is no reason to believe that faith and science are on separate tracks.

    Yet even as a symbol, the Star of Bethlehem has great importance. “It is not difficult to understand why a star was chosen as a symbol to mark the birth of Christ,” says Astrophysicist Jesse Greenstein of the California Institute of Technology. “Stars are more mysterious and remote than moon or sun gods. At the time of Christ, people all over the world considered them important.”  It is also interesting to note that December 25 was chosen to honor the birth of Christ.  On that date pagans had celebrated Solis invictus (The Unconquered Sun).  One star heralds the passing of a previous star.

    In another sense, stars, so far away from us in terms of geometric distance, are closer to us than many of us realize.  Stars burn and die out. During that process, they produce particles that are scattered throughout the heavens. The earth and its star—the sun—are built up from the ashes of dead stars.  In a very literal sense, therefore, we, and all living forms on earth, are star children. Stars encompass the entire universe. It is a small wonder, then, that stars have always elicited wonder.

    The image above is a detail taken from “Adoration of the Magi” by Domenico Ghirlandaio painted in 1488.

    The views expressed by the authors and editorial staff are not necessarily the views of
    Sophia Institute, Holy Spirit College, or the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts.

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    • Michael Paterson-Seymour

      There is the prophecy of Moses in Numbers 24:17, “I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not near. A STAR SHALL RISE out of Jacob and a sceptre shall spring up from Israel: and shall strike the chiefs of Moab, and shall waste all the children of Seth.”

    • http://rosarynovice.stblogs.com/ Augustine

      Aastronomical attempts at explaining miracles reported in the Gospels are futile and presumptuous, failing the test of science and of faith. No planet alignment can appear in the Southern sky, as when the star of Bethlehem moved South from West to point to that city when the Magi arrived in Jerusalem. Besides, aligned planets couldn’t hover about the manger. Some similarly try to explain the darkness at the crucifixion as an eclipse, but no eclipse lasts more than a few minutes, much less three hours.

      Honestly, such insistence in searching for a scientific explanation comes across as attempts to explain miracles away. Though well meaning, perhaps they rise from a desire to persuade the unbelievers, but science cannot explain such miracles completely, as I explained above. If Our Lord desired from an easy assent of faith, he’d appear to everyone all the time, but it seems that He prefers that we come to believe in Him and in the Gospel with a free heart rather than with a mind bounded by reason. Perhaps because reason is not a reliable faculty, given that the world is already a miracle, yet its author is hardly recognized by the high priests of science…

      • Michael Paterson-Seymour

        “Some similarly try to explain the darkness at the crucifixion as an eclipse”

        Surely not. The Crucifixion took place at the time of the Passover, which falls on the date of the full moon (14 Nisan). A solar eclipse occurs when the sun and moon are in conjunction, at the time of the new moon, not fourteen days later, when they are in opposition.

        • http://rosarynovice.stblogs.com/ Augustine

          Precisely, not that it stops those pushing for scientific evidence for miracles.

          I’ve even seen some try to push for a lunar eclipse to explain the darkness on Good Friday. But of course, since the moon can only be eclipsed by the Earth when it’s in its full phase, its eclipse would only be visible after the sun sets near 6PM. However, we know that by then Our Lord had already been removed from the cross. Not to mention that there’s nothing miraculous about darkness after the sun sets; it’s called evening.

    • http://therecusanthousemate.blogspot.com/ Chatto

      I agree with Augustine that the insistence of exclusively physical causes for the miraculous is tiresome. Although he didn’t mention it in his post, I hope he’d agree that it’s perfectly reasonable to see if God has worked through some ‘ordinary’ means (secondary causes), since it seems this is how He prefers to work, then to look to the ‘extraordinary’ for an explanation.

      In this particular case, however, I think the only conclusion is “extraordinary.” The ‘star’ behaves in a way that stars never do – they never “go before” someone traveling to a destination, nor do they “come to rest” over a particular building in a particular town.

      As an aside, Dr. DeMarco implies that December 25th was chosen by Christians in imitation of the pagan feast of “Sol Invictus”. Of course, this is a widespread misunderstanding, and we can only hope it dies out soon, especially among Christians. Dr. Taylor Marshall explains this (and more) here:

      http://cantuar.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/yes-christ-was-really-born-on-december.html

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    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Tony-Esolen/1184164082 Tony Esolen

      The star did not “stop” in the sense in which you take it. The stoppage is of the retrograde motion — when the conjunction “pulls apart” for the final time. They were in the vicinity of the house when this happened. There really is not anything surprising about this. Also, at that latitude the planets appear high in the southern sky, in the summer; mid-level in the southern sky, in the winter. After all, Jerusalem is not yet anywhere near the Tropic of Cancer …

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Tony-Esolen/1184164082 Tony Esolen

      A friendly quibble for Professor DeMarco: the feast of the unconquered sun was more likely a very late pagan invention (it was instituted by Aurelian in the third century) to respond to an already celebrated Nativity of Christ, near the winter solstice — so the influence goes in the other direction.

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    • John Morris

      Thank you, Dr. De Marco for your helpful and inspiring insights on Matthew
      2:1. And I’m always indebted to anyone who draws our attention to Fr. Ferdinand
      Prat, SJ. If I may make a careful emendation, it is to your citing the
      publication date of “Jesus Christ: His life, his teachings, and his work.” The
      version I have and I surmise you do as well is the one translated from
      the French by John J. Heenan (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1950;
      however, the French original had been published in 1933).