Was the Star of Bethlehem a real astronomical event?

The Star of Bethlehem appears just once in the Bible, in the Gospel of Matthew in the New Testament, yet is now synonymous with the holiday season. However, astronomers are still asking what could have inspired that part of the Christmas story, and whether the bright Star of Bethlehem was actually real.

But unearthing the origins of the story Star of Bethlehem might prove difficult to those using a calendar. While the Bible notes that the three Wise Men used the reliability of the Star to find Bethlehem, modern astronomers believe that if it was real, the Star was definitely an uncharacteristic event.

Historians already agree that Jesus Christ probably wasn’t born in December, because the date for Christmas has its origins in the ancient Roman solstice holiday, Saturnalia; many argue that Jesus was most likely born in the spring when shepherds would be tending their flocks. In fact, Christmas only takes place on December 25 because of the Roman Emperor Constantine, who moved the holiday in order to coincide with the shortest night of the year.

Some historians suggest that the Wise Men may have  followed a bright meteor, comet or even a supernova, but there are problems with these theories as well. While meteors are extremely bright, they flash when burning up upon entry to the Earth’s atmosphere, so the Wise Men would have needed something a  longer-lasting to last the 900 mile journey from Persia.

A comet is a stronger possibility, as Halley’s Comet was visible in 11 BCE (admittedly a few years before when most believe Jesus was born), but ancient astronomers considered comets to be bad omens; hardly something that would herald the arrival of the Son of God. And while supernovas certainly provide astonishing sights in the sky, there is no historical record of a bright nova at that time.

There is, however, another explanation as to what the Star could have been: a visible planet, like Jupiter. Jupiter was in retrograde at the time, meaning it would have appeared to travel east as it rose in the sky each night. Moreover, ancient astronomers considered Jupiter to be the ‘King of Planets’, and its appearance in the Leo constellation would have been significant for people who saw meaning in the movements of the stars and planets.

Historians might never be able to precisely say what inspired the story of the Star of Bethlehem, but at least we can take a good guess at what it was.

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