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The Star of Bethlehem – the astronomical explanation7 min read

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starofbethlehemI was watching the Christmas special Miracles: Fact, Fictions and Faith (a Fox News special, check your local listing, it will repeat tomorrow, Christmas day), and as part of it, they interviewed Michael Molnar, astronomer and author of The Star of Bethlehem : The Legacy of the Magi.  He had long accepted the astronomical explanations of others who had addressed this subject, until he came upon a coin from the Roman empire.

Molnar believes that the star was actually Jupiter, which was involved in an eclipse with the moon in 6 B.C.  While the eclipse, or “occultation,” would not have amplified Jupiter’s brightness, it would have indicated to astrologers that a king was coming.

The Star that Represented “The King of the Jews”

Re-read this passage from Matthew 2:1-2

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the
king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the Eastand have come to worship Him.”

Here are the remarkable characteristics of this alignment of the planets, and how it relates to the birth of Jesus:

  1. King: To Greek and Roman astrologers, Jupiter is known as the “regal star” that conferred kingship (remember, Jupiter is the planet of Zeus, King of the Gods). Molnar relates that not only was Jupiter present in the sky, but the moon, the Sun, AND Regalus (the “regal” star) were all in Aries concurrently indicating, if you will, a super-king.
  2. Jews: These celestial objects were all in Aries, which was a known symbol for Israel (he explains in the intro to his book how he concluded that Aries was relevant, and not Leo as others have previously posited).
  3. In the East: These occultations (eclipses) occurred in the low in the eastern sky

coinBut what is really interesting is, Molnar chose this set of eclipses, not only because of the peculiarities that match the biblical account (even more below), but because of an ancient Roman coin he purchased (he’s a collector).  On it, you can see the Ram (Aries), looking at the star.

The Star that “came to rest”

Now here’s an interesting part, that of the star stopping “over” Bethlehem in Matthew 2:9

And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was.

Well, that hardly sounds possible.  Yet Molnar explains that, from the point of reference of the Earth, the path of Jupiter changed directions twice, and during those switchbacks, would have appeared relatively stationary (click on the coin image for a crude illustration).  According to Molnar, the star would have:

  1. Appeared in the East (when Jesus was born)
  2. Moved West (towards the homeland of the Magi), then appeared stationary for a while
  3. Headed East again (thereby guiding the Magi as it “went before them”)
  4. Changed westerly again (thereby appearing to become stationary in the sky for a time)

What chronology do these astronomical events dictate?

If we use this series of astronomical events as a guide, this would be the timeline:

  1. April 17 â€“ the second of the occultations of the moon and Jupiter, heralding the birth of Christ (the first one, he says, was not part of the story)
  2. August â€“ Jupiter becomes “stationary” in the West as it changes direction (from our perspective).  At this point, the Magi are in the West.  From here, Jupiter then begins to travel East again, going “before them” as they travel East.  Molnar also notes that traveling before August or September during the summer would have been difficult, and that this was the perfect time to start a journey of months across arid desert.
  3. Dec 19 – Jupiter changes direction once more, appearing stationary to the travelers (known in astrological terms as “retrograde motion and stationing”), who sometime after that (early January) probably arrived.

What other biblical descriptions does this fit?

Many previous theories involved comets, or stars that were somehow amazingly bright in the sky.  However, when the Magi approach Herod about the star they are following, he has little idea what they are talking about:

Matthew 2:7
Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared.

This is more reason why it was probably not some highly visible comet or miraculous event, but rather, one that only those who watch the stars would have seen.

What about other explanations?

This week on the 700 Club, I saw another author, Notre Dame astrophysicist Grant Mathews, who also agrees with Molnar.  He was able to search the NASA databases for stellar events that could have been the Star of Bethlehem, and found many.

He used other historical events, like the period for Herod’s reign, to narrow the timeline down.  He then eliminated comets and one supernova candidate, because astrologers would NOT have considered those as signs of a King, but of disaster (comets usually signified the END of a ruler’s reign).  He was left with three planetary alignments, and chose April 17, 6 B.C. as the one with the most astrological significance to the Magi

Mathews believes the April 17, 6 B.C., alignment is the most likely candidate. It makes sense because he believes the wise men were Zoroastrian astrologers who would have recognized the planetary alignment in Aries as a sign a powerful leader was born.

Additionally, Molnar gives some detail about why he thinks the other possible explanations are less likely:

For religious and astronomical reasons people have proposed Pisces the Fishes as the site of the Star. A fish is a powerful Christian symbol. Also the spring equinox moved into Pisces close to the time of Jesus’ birth. So people assumed that Pisces was the sign for the dawning of Christianity – a beautiful but erroneous conclusion. Others have proposed Leo the Lion (thinking that this was the Lion of Judah), and others like Virgo the Virgin (believing that this was the Blessed Virgin Mary). Another notion claims ‘the manger’ of Cancer the Crab. There are other clever ideas using Greek mythology and Christian symbols which have no basis in the ancient texts on Greek astrology.


Molnar’s explanation makes sense, and seems to match the biblical text very well.  But what do these dates mean for people celebrating Christmas, esp. since the Dec. 25th date was merely set by the church to override a pagan holiday (the birthday of Sol Invictus, the Unconquerable Sun)?

First, let’s not forget that the description of Jesus’ birth includes the description that the shepherds were in the field at night because the ewes were birthing, which is a springtime event, which matches the April date.

Second, since the Magi quite possibly arrived with their gifts in late December or early January, our holiday celebration is probably timed just fine for these latter historical events.

So tell your children that we give gifts because baby Jesus got gifts around this time.  And rest at ease, the Bible is the most historically, archaeologically, and astronomically attested to historical document in the world.