The star of Bethlehem, which led the wise men from the East to the newborn Jesus Christ, is perhaps one of the most iconic stories of the New Testament in the Bible (Matt 2:1-13). The story has been depicted in countless artistic representations throughout the last 2000 years and is retold every year in Millions of places around Christmas time. However, what actually is the “star” in this story told by the evangelist Matthew? An interdisciplinary team of scholars involving astronomers, historians, and theologians, gathered at the University of Groningen, The Netherlands to address this question. Here I give a personal summary of what I learned at this conference. Reference to the speaker is given by names of the speakers in square brackets (see also Disclaimer at end and note the reference to the proceedings).
Opinions on the nature of the story are widespread and range from it being an accurate description of historic events that took place around the birth of Jesus Christ to it being a purely literary invention by Matthew as part of early Christian propaganda. Needless to say that the attitude towards Matthew is not necessarily uncorrelated with ones own personal beliefs and socialization and hence discussing this story is not always free of emotions.
However, even for those considering the story pure fiction, it may be worthwhile uncovering whether this story reflects events and motives being on people’s minds at the time. For the astronomer, the question is more down to earth: Was Matthew describing an actual astronomical event that happened around this time? And if so, which one? Suggestions for possible astronomical candidates are plentiful: comets, (super)novae, variable stars, planetary conjunctions, and – yes – even UFOs (though we will not spend any time on the latter suggestion here).
The great conjunction
Most of these events were quickly discounted: comets are usually bad omens and variable stars are hard to see with naked eyes. Chinese records show no supernova during the timeframe in question [B. Schaefer, R. van Gent]. Moreover, the story itself does not give the impression that the event was particularly spectacular, such that the star was easily recognizable for everybody.
Was it perhaps an astrological conjunction? This idea had been revived in recent years by M. Molnar in his book “The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi” (preceded by Voigt 1911). It was this particular book that was most intensely scrutinized at the workshop.
Center stage in this theory takes a great conjunction of the most prominent planets: Jupiter and Saturn. Such a “great conjunction” actually occurs roughly every 20 years successively in three different zodiacal signs, after which it returns – slightly shifted – to the original zodiacal sign. After 3-4 of these trigons (Figure 1) the conjunction shifts to the next set of three zodiacal signs (i.e., after 10 conjunctions per zodiacal sign) only to return after some eight hundred years to start a new circle with Aries (the Ram), the first of the signs.
It was, in fact, Johannes Kepler who observed in 1604 a supernova that occurred right in such a great conjunction, while the eight hundred year cycle was restarting. He noticed that a previous cycle had started around 7-6 BC and made a connection to a putative birth date of Jesus Christ at 5 BC [O. Gingerich]. He also wondered, based on the very unusual sighting of a nova, i.e. a “new star”, whether it was that great conjunction in Aries which actually spawned it. The likelihood of finding a Supernova, occurring every few hundred years, right in such a special conjunction is exceedingly small, yet today we understand that Supernovae are simply random stellar implosions of distant stars that are completely uncorrelated with our solar system.
Molnar reminded everyone that one should read the sky like an ancient astrologer and not judge it by what we would consider exciting or spectacular today. He goes on to argue that in those days Aries was the zodiacal sign associated with Judea. Hence, when the sun and the moon accompanied the great conjunction in Aries at a certain date in 6 BC, in particular when the moon occulted the regal planet Jupiter in the early morning during his helical rising, it would have made for a very unusual horoscope that signaled the birth of a new king in Judea. The great conjunction itself was visible for a good part of a year, where it would move across the sky, stop, return for a while, stop again and then move further.
The reason for this behavior is the structure of our solar system, where the Earth rotates on a smaller and faster orbit around the sun than Jupiter and Saturn. While the Earth moves in a direction towards Jupiter and Saturn, both planets will advance forward. However, as the Earth catches up with them – leading to a triple conjunction of the two planets with Earth – both, Jupiter and Saturn, look like they are moving backwards (Figure 2).
According to Molnar, the stopping and retrograde motion of the conjunction would naturally explain the path of the star described in Matthew “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” (Matt 2:9). Indeed, all astronomers at the meeting [P. Barthel, B. Schaefer, D. Hughes] agreed that no astronomical object, other than planets, would “go before” someone and then “rest” in one location.
Scrutinizing the theory
Hence, it seemed prudent to investigate the various aspects of that story and its historical context in greater detail. For example, what was the relevance of astrology at the time, does the text use astrological terms, would a horoscope be recognized as predicting a royal birth, and would that make someone jump on a Camel to conduct a long journey? Was Aries indeed the sign of Judea and what are the Magi really?
Fist of all, astrology was indeed widespread and an integral part of ancient society. One would miss many important of nuances of the time if one were to ignore this. Already 700 – 400 BC Mesopotamian astronomy was well developed with detailed records of planetary motions over centuries. By 400 BC mathematical tools were developed that allowed reasonably accurate predictions of the sky for any day of the year. Astrological systems developed and were used for multiple purposes, like casting an individual’s horoscope, predicting the fate of future events, or choosing the proper date for an expedition or a journey. This went so far that tables existed which correlated planetary conjunctions with weather and market prices. However, horoscopes were typically not cast in advance to predict the birth of a person or a king but only their death [M. Ossendrijver, A. Jones, S. Heilen].
In general astronomers and astrologers were two different professions – one who would observe and one who would interpret it. An astrologer would not really observe the stars, but merely use astronomical tables to calculate a horoscope. Nonetheless, both occupations were clearly tightly interwoven [K. von Stuckrad]. Still, in general it seems rather unlikely that an astrologer would have suddenly looked at the sky, discovered an interesting conjunction and rushed to Judea because of this.
Astrological language in Matthew?
So, does Matthew actually use astrological terms in his story? Molnar’s interpretation is that Matthew did not want to tell us that the star went in front of the Magi, but that he simply used commonly known astrological terms about planetary motion. The term “ἐν τῇ ἀνατολῇ” (en te anatole, at the rising) in Matt 2:2 indeed has an astrological connotation and can refer to a helical rising, i.e., a rise just before sunrise or at least a morning rising [A. Jones, A. Panaino]. On the other hand, “astér” is really a single star and can neither be applied to a conjunction or a comet. Identification as a single planet is possible though, but with difficulties [A. Panaino]. Within the Molnar theory one could perhaps argue that it was only Jupiter that was visible in the early morning and hence the regal planet could have been called “his star”. Overall, Matthew fails to consistently use proper astrological terms [S. Heilen], potentially because of ignorance.
Relating zodiacal signs to Judea?
So, what about the zodiacal signs: Does Pisces or Aries really refer to Judea, thereby giving a clue for the Magi where to go? Here the Molnar theory hits some opposition. It is indeed true that certain zodiacal signs were assigned to countries, however, in the traditional astrological systems of the time it would have been much more likely to associate Aries with Persia or Syria, while Judea was simply too insignificant to be included here explicitly. Only with the revision of Ptolemy later, can we see Judea being associated with Aries [J. Steele, S. Heilen].
As an interesting side remark, Heilen pointed out that the countries mentioned in the story of Pentecost in Act 2:9-11 rather closely follow the list of countries associated with zodiacal signs. This in itself suggested to me, that astrological themes are in fact being used in the New Testament – not judging whether the authors were aware of it or not.
Astrology in Jewish society
Indeed astrology played a much larger role in Jewish circles then one might have thought. While officially the Jewish religion would have nothing to do with it, astrological practices and knowledge were prevalent also in the ancient Jewish society. In particular king Herod the Great seemed well versed in astrology, engaging in discussions with the Roman emperor about it [von Stuckrad]. Moreover, van Stuckrad suggests that the great conjunction occurring in a new house most likely would have made Herod even more nervous than he already was. Known as a paranoid tyrant who was afraid of being overthrown, he slaughtered his two oldest sons in 7 BC and some 300 military leaders. In that respect the slaughter of the innocent (Matt 2:16) – estimates range from 7-40 children – would not be surprising, but is also not recorded elsewhere.
In fact, a great conjunction in a new sign had appeared already when the Hasmoneans rose to power in Judea in 126 BC and hence to an astrologically mind the return of this event could create serious unrest. Von Stuckrad also claims that similar astrological arguments played a role in the propaganda surrounding the Bar Kokhba revolt 132 AD.
A royal horoscope?
Molnar presented a particular horoscope for April 17, 6 BC (Figure 3), which looks impressive indeed. All planets, sun, and moon cluster around Aries. While some claim horoscopes can be interpreted literally at will [A. Adair], experts on ancient horoscopes reaffirm that this is only possible to a certain degree – there are, for example, simply good and bad horoscopes. An emperor with a good horoscope (e.g., Hadrian) would proudly use it for his purpose, while emperors with a particularly bad horoscope (Nero), would rather not make a big fuss about it [S. Heilen, K. von Stuckrad].
An issue to be considered is still whether all details of such a constellation as on April 17, 6 BC would have been actually visible in the morning– Saturn was probably invisible in the morning hours. Hence, some aspects of it can really only be calculated. Still, S. Heilen pointed out that indeed the constellation on April 17, BC would have made for a rather powerful horoscope for a royal birth. In particular, the fact that the Sun is preceded by “spear bearers”, i.e. the other planets marching in front of the sun (Figure 4), would be a rather telltale signature. Still, birth horoscopes would typically only be produced after the birth of an emperor.
Who are the Magi?
Another important discussion revolved around the wise men, i.e., the Magi, in the story, who were coming from the East of Judea. Are they really astrologers? Apparently the term could be used in a more derogative sense as sorcerer, however, in the biblical story the Magi seem to enjoy a rather high reputation. These Magi would then be part of caste of priests who played an important role in the ceremonial life at the Persian court, but who where not particularly known for engaging in astrology [A. Panaino]. Astrology was developed in Mesopotamia (Babylon) and widely used in the Hellenistic world, but not so much in Persia. Within the framework of the story, the Magi should be rather seen in their role as “king makers” who would be responsible for initiation rites of a new Persian king [A. de Jong]. On the other hand, it was pointed out that the biblical Daniel could also be considered as being a Magus [A. Panaino] – a story that played out in Babylon, where astrology was practiced after all.
In that respect it is interesting to look at parallel stories in history. Around the time of the writing of the story, one particularly noticeable event was a visit of Tiridates I of Armenia in 66 AD to Rome in order to worship emperor Nero and to be crowned as king. Magi as sign of his royal status and representatives of Zoroastrianism accompanied him and they would bow for Nero as well and present gifts. The word used to describe this act (prokunesis) is actually the same as used in the story of Matthew describing the wise men worshiping Jesus [van Kooten]. It could be that this event, which was still fresh on the mind, played into the writing of the story. Another parallel could be in more distant history: Alexander the great, after having conquered Persia and taking possession of the capital was greeted ceremonially by Magi who presented him with gifts of gold and frankincense – quite similar to Matt 2,11 [M. Ossendrijver].
Messianic expectations at the time
Finally, an important background of the story is the mindset of people around this time. Molnar claims a growing expectation for a Messiah in Jewish society, that would have made King Herod even more nervous and would have amplified or even inspired astrological claims to the same effect. Of course, there was not just one fixed Messianic idea at the time, but a multitude of them and it is hard to judge whether the expectations were really growing or just prevalent throughout the time [M. Popovic].
At least the Roman historians Josephus, Suetonius, and Tacitus make extensive reference to Messianic expectations and prophecies in Judea in their writings. Josephus refers to a well-known oracle that a Messiah would rule over the world and which he identified with the Roman emperor Vespasian. Tacitus mentions that the Jews believed a ruler from their country should rule the world and Suetonius claims that this oracle was known over all the Orient. Strangely enough, it is very difficult to identify this uniquely with any of the biblical prophecies (e.g., Numbers 24:17 or Dan 7:13-14). What would make people apply them to their current period: other omens, horoscopes? Nonetheless, Suetonius clearly refers to an oracle of the God of Mount Carmel [J.-W. van Henten].
The theme resurfaced when Nero was presented with astrological predictions, in fact based on the association with Aries (actually preceding Ptolemy), that he would lose his power and regain it in Judea. After Nero’s death this led to widespread rumors and fears that he was still alive and would return from there [G. van Kooten]. Hence, it seems quite likely that oracles and prophecies about a Messiah as a new King of the Jews were known and probably widespread at the time.
Fact or Fiction?
So, what can we conclude from all of this? The most frequently stated conclusion drawn by scholars from the humanities was that the story is a pious fable, i.e. a literary fiction made up by Matthew himself to spread early Christian propaganda that Jesus was the new King and savior of the world. Consequently, astronomers would not really have any business in this matter. Moreover, some members of the audience questioned repeatedly why one would take this story serious at all and spend any time on it, while others rose in its defense.
Personally, I tried to play the part of an objective judge in this matter, trying to rid myself of pre-existing bias and enter this workshop with a rather open and perhaps even naïve mind. So, I was equally accepting that the story could be completely made up or was actually an accurate description of events that took place around the birth of Jesus Christ. It seemed that not everyone was willing to consider the latter position as a possibility.
As the workshop went on, I became fascinated and stunned by the elaborate picture of the ancient world that emerged from the combination of all the presentations. On the other hand, I grew somewhat disappointed when asking myself the question: Where is the data that confirms some of the conclusions? How unique is it really? Is the conclusion, e.g. pious fable, really born out by the presentation?
Contradicting biblical time lines
A theologian [A. Merz] working on the historical Jesus probably made the strongest argument in favor of the literary fiction interpretation. After all Matthew was the only Evangelist to report the story of the wise men. Moreover, stories from the childhood of Jesus are naturally less reliable than stories from his public life, which were witnessed by many more people, some of which would still be alive at the time of writing of the Gospels.
Merz pointed out that the time scales for the childhood of Jesus given in Luke and Matthew seem incompatible. In Matthew the family stays in Bethlehem for some time and then flees to Egypt, while in the gospel of Luke (2:39) Jesus’s family seems to return to Nazareth right away after having finished the required rituals at the temple. While both Luke and Matthew talk of a birth in Bethlehem followed by a youth in Nazareth, Luke misses the detour as fugitives to Egypt. Also, the local census of Quirinius, mentioned in Luke, was in 6/7 AD, while an Empire-wide census of Augustus took place in 8 BC, which, however, only involved Roman citizens. Both, Luke and Matthew, claim that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod, who died probably 4 BC (close to a lunar occultation).
Moreover, the bible reports that his own family initially did not accept him as King (Mk 3:21) and even labeled him being “out of his mind” when he started preaching. This they might not have done had they witnessed the worshiping of Jesus as a King by the Magi. Of course, one might argue that Jesus’ understanding of kingship was probably rather different from that of his contemporaries and family. Jesus’ unorthodox behavior might have in any case been very confusing and scary for his mother – independent of whether she really was expecting Jesus to rise to a leadership position in Judea.
Other speakers mentioned as arguments for the fable interpretation mainly certain potential inconsistencies and ample motives that conveniently served to reinforce early Christian messages. On the other hand, some inconsistencies are not too surprising after 60-80 years of oral tradition and a motive in itself does not yet make a crime.
Middle ground – considering the early church
So, is it pure fiction indeed or literal transmission of historic events? Personally, I suspect the truth lies somewhat in the middle. It seems unlikely to me that the story, even if handed down via Jesus’ mother and her relatives, would not have undergone reinterpretations and misunderstandings, certainly if one considers that Mary most certainly did not undergo any higher-level training in astrology or politics.
On the other hand, the idea that Matthew would sit down and completely make up a fabulous story to spread his propaganda also does not make sense to me. This interpretation, though making a historian’s life simple, smells more of a post-modern view of a powerful church that is perceived as deeply corrupted. After all, the early church was different from what it was in the middle ages: no palaces, no power, and people longing for a distinctly less corrupt way of life. A purely fictitious story in order to produce well-polished propaganda as a marketing company might produce it today, does not really fit to the ethical standards of the early church. In fact, the Gospels do not shy away from reporting conflicting views and seemingly contradicting stories.
Most importantly, the early church was rather diverse from the start, as is evident still today from the four different Gospels and many letters from different writers. While there was no Internet yet, the ancient world and also the early church were still highly connected and diverse. Debates in search for truth took place between the various fractions of the movement and there certainly existed something that one today might boldly describe as “peer review”. Someone known to regularly make up stories would have lost credibility among his peers rather quickly. When the evangelists report events that seem fantastic to us today and which they obviously did not witness themselves, like the “zombiecalypse” [A. Adair] in Matt 27:52, they might simply retell stories as they were being told on the street. Also Tacitus reports not lesser miraculous events around the destruction of the temple (see footnote above).
At the very least, I would therefore suspect that such a story reported by Matthew had been around already for a while in some Christian circles and hence did not come as a complete surprise to his readers. Hence, there is reason to search for a historical and astronomical nucleus of the story after all. In the following I will therefore try to summarize what I consider a reasonable scenario that can emerge from choosing such an approach.
The star of Bethlehem – what to make of all this?
In the last years of the reign of Herod the Great a number of things culminated: Herod grew increasingly paranoid over his fear of loosing power. Ubiquitous prophecies of a new Messiah or King of the Jews certainly amplified those worries. Given the relevance of astrology, it seems not unlikely that certain astrological constellations would have made these expectations even timelier.
To picture this, we just need to think of the fascination of the Woodstock generation with the alleged new age of Aquarius or the worries associated with the last great conjunction in Aquarius 1583 which was supposed to herald apocalyptic changes and even triggered a papal bull. Astrological topics might therefore have been the talk of the street at the time.
Horoscopes were not cast just for fun to predict the birth of a particular person and they were somewhat time-consuming to calculate, hence one should not expect that horoscopes were produced for every day and hour to predict the potential birth of a king in another country. On the other hand, horoscopes were produced every day in large numbers throughout the entire Orient for all kinds of other purposes – not only for the past, but also to address the future. The great conjunction – in various levels of proximity – was most certainly known and was directly visible for a long part of an entire year.
It therefore seems unlikely that the advent of this potentially powerful conjunction went completely unnoticed and was not a popular topic at ancient Cocktail parties. Whether this really implies the particular constellations pointed out by Molnar were recognized in advance is less clear, but perhaps also irrelevant from a larger point go view.
This electrifying mixture of a mentally unstable ruler, Messianic prophecies, and various astrological omens coupled to potentially emerging ideas that a Jewish ruler shall rule the entire world would also not have gone unnoticed in neighboring countries. Certainly, against the background of the traumatic experience of Alexander the Great, who came virtually out of nowhere and conquered an entire empire, Persian and Mesopotamian kings probably watched carefully the development in the region.
In that respect the question whether Aries is to be associated with Judea, Syria, or Persia, might have been secondary. The sole thought that a horoscope could have predicted the advent of a “new Alexander the Great” somewhere in the region would have been scary enough for anyone in power there – independent of where that new ruler is born. It might then simply have been the buzz going around in Jerusalem that attracted the attention of foreign dignitaries.
Would it then be unusual that official or unofficial delegations, perhaps involving Magi and/or other higher-ranking officials, occasionally or even regularly visit surrounding capitals, such as Jerusalem, for gathering intelligence, exchange notes, or simply to foster economic and political relations?
In fact, the account of Matthew does not really explicitly state that the star was the sole reason that made the Magi engage in their journey – it is mainly popular lore that has established this link so firmly in our minds. The Magi could have been one of many regular delegations in the Orient, carrying with them a long mission list – investigating the potential astrological prediction of a new king might have been just one item among many.
What made these Magi perhaps stand out was that they dared to approach Herod directly about the prophecies of the newborn king and the astrological signs right at or before the peak of his “slaughter period“. Such a question might have had rather unhealthy consequences for any other, less prominent visitor. The question likely scared the heck out of Herod who quickly assembled his entire cast of Chief priests and scribes. It is them who educated the foreign visitors about Jewish prophecies (Micah 5,2), which suggest that the new ruler would emerge out of Bethlehem. One could even provocatively wonder whether it was the Magi’s appearance that ultimately pushed Herod over the edge.
Given that Bethlehem was a rather small village not too far away, the Magi could easily have paid a visit to this place – an event that would not have made the history books, but certainly would have stuck in the mind of the few locals there. Deciding thereafter not to return via Jerusalem was probably a beneficial intuition worth of wise men.
Obviously, I just made up a story here. There is no way I can prove that this is the correct order of events that actually took place – other interpretations are certainly possible. However, taking all the information provided at the workshop about the historical context and not dismissing Matthew’s account a priori, the story seems by and large quite reasonable to me and I do not see why one is forced to postulate a literary invention.
Those seeking a non-spiritual interpretation of that biblical story can still easily resort to an oral tradition about foreign notables, inspired by ancient prophecies and modern astrology, visiting the the small village of Bethlehem. This would have being talked about still decades later among family and friends and or other groups and could have served as the nucleus of the story told by Matthew.
The interpretation of the star who “rose in the East”, “went before them”, and “stood still”, ultimately makes sense within the framework of planetary motion, even if not every terminology is perfectly correct.
The more I learned about the wise men, the more emerged the story of Matthew as a masterpiece of Biblical writing that not only transports theological meaning, but that is also able to condense the historical context into a few sober lines – very different from the miraculous story that I had still in my mind from childhood memories.
Whether the Magi actually visited and worshiped the young Jesus Christ in Bethlehem falls outside the realm of this scholarly discussion. Statistically such a coincidence seems unlikely, but then, someone born 2000 years ago who still claims more than 2 billion followers today must have experienced some statistically unlikely events anyway. Math does not help here to draw a conclusion.
Ignoring any theological debates, an explanation of the star of Bethlehem in Matthew 2, as a great conjunction in 7/6 BC makes perfect sense to me. That holds even true if one considers – what I am not convinced of – the story to be a literary invention. Whether there is enough detail to reliably derive a particular date from the historical nucleus, such as Molnar did for the birthday of Jesus Christ, is certainly debatable.
In summary: when asked about what the star of Bethlehem in Matthew 2:2+9 actually is, I would join some fellow astronomers and confidently state that “Jupiter” has become my personal front-runner since last week – despite the visible groaning of some historians and theologians at the conference about this conclusion.
DISCLAIMER: This is a personal summary of the talks and discussions presented at the Star of Bethlehem workshop in Groningen, which I did not do on behalf of the organizers, but just for my personal pleasure. I have given conference summaries before, but then only for astronomical conferences. While I tried to be as objective as possible, my summary will naturally be selective and filtered by my own personal biases. It will also contain errors in understanding and may not always properly represent the opinions and statements made by those I quote in the text. In fact, all references are made to the oral presentation of the speakers, as I understood them. Full references and authorized statements from the authors directly will be available only once the papers appear in the printed version of the book. This text here should be seen as a living document that may be updated once I am made aware of actual errors or if I have changed my mind, based on better arguments.
The final conference proceedings will be published by Brill Academic Publishers (Leiden/Boston), edited by G. H. van Kooten and P. Barthel.
 van Kooten mentions in this respect a story told by Suetonius (“Lives of Caesars”, 2.943) about Augustus, where a similar massacre of children for similar reasons was barely avoided.
 Interestingly Tacitus also refers to visible signs that preceded the destruction oft the Jewish temple, such as the opening oft the temple door, illumination oft the temple, and sounds. [J.-W. van Henten]. One is reminded oft the dramatic death of Jesus described by Matthew (27, 51), where the curtain to the temple was torn.
The Story of The Visit of the Wise Men
2 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men[a] from the east came to Jerusalem, 2 saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose[b] and have come to worship him.” 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:
6 “‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
7 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” 9 After listening to the king, they went on their way. 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. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. 12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.