Jesus’ Birth – The Star of Bethlehem

When Was Jesus Born?

Note: The following Post is taken from an upcoming book by Joseph Lenard entitled Mysteries of Jesus’ Life Revealed—His Birth, Death,  Resurrection, and Ascensions. For an overview and chapter listing of this fascinating study, click here.

What Did the Magi See in the Sky?
Biblical Description of the Star

There are two verses in the Gospel of Matthew which mention the Star of Bethlehem that the Magi observed and followed:

“. . . Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews? We saw his star in the east [or: when it rose] and have come to worship him.” (Matthew 2:1b-2 NIV)

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east [or: seen when it rose] went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.” (Matthew 2:9-10 NIV)

From these verses we see that the star was defined by the Magi as “his star” and that it was seen when it rose while they were in Persia. Later, the star seemingly moved in the sky, heading in a southerly direction as the Magi traveled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. The “star” then stopped any movement and was directly overhead when the Magi arrived at the place where Jesus was located in Bethlehem. These are all wonderful clues to help identify the “star.”                       

Unusual Astronomical Activity in the Years 3 BC to 2 BC

So what cosmic events would have focused the Magi’s attention and caused them to travel the long distance to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem in search of the One born King of the Jews?

As it turns out, the night sky in the years immediately before the birth of Jesus – and for several years thereafter – was literally ablaze with the signs of the Zodiac. These heavenly signs were discerned and interpreted by the Magi, but the Jews in Jerusalem apparently did not recognize them. Perhaps they did not see the signs because they were not trained in the movements of the heavenly bodies. More likely, they were unconcerned because they were not even looking for the Messiah who had been foretold in Daniel’s prophecy (Daniel 9:26).

Certainly, “the heavens were declaring the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1); and God was providing signs throughout the heavens. However, these were not like the burning bush which Moses could not possibly ignore (Exodus 3:1-6). The signs in the heavens which the Magi saw were much more subtle, and indications are that King Herod and the Jews did not even notice them.

In his early work The Birth of Christ Recalculated (1978), Ernest Martin sums up the cosmic signs which were evident during the period 7 BC to 2 BC in this manner:

“We are told in the New Testament that the main factor that brought the Magi to Jerusalem was ‘his star.’ What star or heavenly body could this have been? Though there was an interesting conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 7 BC with Mars forming a triangular aspect with those planets in early 6 BC, the planets at that time were at least two diameters of the Moon away from one another and they could not in any way be considered as a single ‘star.’ [‘The conjunctions of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, occurring in Pisces, are the ones some present-day historians feel were connected with the signs indicated by Matthew in his account of the birth of Christ’].

As for the years of 5 and 4 BC, there was nothing of astronomical importance that would have impressed anyone to journey to Jerusalem. But in 3 and 2 BC, the whole heavens burst forth with astronomical signs and wondrous displays. It may well be, that the celestial occurrences in this latter period of time were the very ones that prompted the Magi to go to Jerusalem.”

Another writer (unknown) wrote in a similarly-titled article in 1988 that

“The year 3/2 BC stood far above any near contenders for a period of exceptional signs in the heavens to herald Christ’s birth (Genesis 1:14).”

What kind of signs were so prominent during 3/2 BC? According to the above authors, beginning in August of 3 BC and ending December of 2 BC, a number of conjunctions of the planets Jupiter, Venus, Mercury, Mars, and Saturn occurred. In addition, movements of planets within constellations associated with the Messiah occurred [Leo the lion, Virgo the virgin, and Cancer the crab]. Finally, planetary conjunctions with key stars occurred [Jupiter with Regulus (the “King star” – in the constellation of Leo, the “Royal Constellation”)]. This was quite a show in the heavens for those trained to see it!

What specifically attracted the attention of the Magi while they were in Persia? What was it they saw that heralded the upcoming birth of the Messiah, Jesus Christ? In the words of Paul Wierwille, it probably

“. . . began in August of 3 BC, when Jupiter the King planet became visible above the eastern horizon as a morning star, seen by the Magi ‘in the rising.’ On August 12, Jupiter came into conjunction with Venus, the bright morning star, in the constellation of Leo, the sign of Judah.”

This might have been the “first sighting” which the Magi later communicated to King Herod when they were questioned by him after arriving in Jerusalem. Perhaps, the Magi began preparing for their long journey to Jerusalem to find the Jewish Messiah after this initial sighting. The Magi undoubtedly were in awe of Jupiter’s multiple celestial displays in 3/2 BC and of the significance of these.

As detailed by Paul Wierwille, Jupiter, the “King planet,” had a highly unusual three conjunctions with Regulus, the “King star” during the years of 3/2 BC.  These conjunctions occurred on September 14, 3 BC; on February 17, 2 BC; and on May 8, 2 BC.  Then on June 17, 2 BC, Jupiter again came into conjunction with Venus, when the two formed a dramatic brilliant “star” in the western night sky. On August 27, 2 BC, Jupiter came into conjunction with Mars in another dramatic astronomical configuration.

Regarding the constellations, their component stars, the planets, and the Magi’s celestial interpretations, Joseph A. Seiss, in his book The Gospel in the Stars (1882) offered the following insight:

“How, then did these Magi come to know so much about Christ as an adorable King and Savior? How did they come to such full conviction that His birth had occurred in Judea? The true answer is: By the signs and constellations of the primeval astronomy, and the legends connected with them, interpreted as we have been contemplating them in these Lectures [his book]. . . .  It was to Jesus . . . that the primeval astronomy conducted these remote Gentile believers [Magi].”

What Was the Star of Bethlehem?
Was the “Star” a Real Star?

In his previously-cited book, Ernest Martin states:

“The language that Matthew employed to describe the Star of the Magi strongly suggests that it was an ordinary star or planet.”

He further notes:

“The word ‘star’ in the first century could refer to a planet as well as a fixed star. Could the ‘star’ have been the planet Jupiter? The historical records recorded in the New Testament about the ‘Star of the Messiah’ chronologically occurred precisely at this time [May, 3 BC to December, 2 BC], and this is the period early Christian scholars [in the first few centuries after the death of the Apostles] said Jesus was born.”

The primary occupation of the Magi was the study of the motions of heavenly bodies, and all indications from Matthew’s Gospel are that this is precisely what the Magi were doing in 3 BC; their decision to travel to Jerusalem and Bethlehem was based upon what they saw.  They were, after all, professional celestial observers and expert interpreters of the heavenly signs involving the sun, moon, planets and stars. These objects certainly fall within the parameters of Genesis 1:14, and King Herod and the Jewish authorities would not have found such interpretations by the Magi to be strange or outside the bounds of Scripture. In fact, Herod asked the Magi for the exact time that they had seen “the star” appear.

 Various Theories of the “Star”

Over the centuries, Bible scholars have proposed various theories for what the “star” was which guided the Magi to Bethlehem. Most of the theories can be eliminated easily by comparing them to the biblical description of the object and its movement in the heavens. Let’s consider each of the options:

* Was it a comet? Most probably not, as comets were typically regarded as harbingers of evil, not of good.. In his recent book, The Great Christ Comet—Revealing the True Star of Bethlehem (2015), Colin Nicholl makes the case that a long-period comet, which appeared in the heavens in 6 BC, was the “star.” Although the amount of research on comets done by Nicholl is impressive, I am not convinced of his conclusions, especially the 6 BC date, which is not in agreement with the 3 BC date of Jesus’ birth, which I have strongly established in previous Posts.

* Was it an actual star, a Super Nova, or a new star? Probably not an actual star, as stars do not move in relationship to other stars. Nor do they stop in the heavens and remain stationary over a particular location on earth.

In addition, the position of a fixed star in the heavens varies at most one degree each day, so a fixed star could not have moved ahead of the Magi and led them to Bethlehem. A nova, which is a star that suddenly increases in brightness and then gradually grows dimmer, is not a good possibility either, as Matthew records two separate appearances of the “star” (Matthew 2:2 and 2:9). A nova will seldom flare up more than once, and very rarely will it repeat its initial brilliance. Some have postulated that the “star” was actually Haley’s Comet – there was an appearance of Haley’s Comet in 12 BC. But that date is too early to align with other astrological events surrounding the birth of Christ.

* Was it God’s Shekinah Glory (like God’s appearance in a pillar of fire while leading the Israelites from Egypt)? Probably not, as this does not match the description of a “star” rising in the east or of other biblical descriptions of the “star’s” actions.

* Was it – specifically – a “Shekinah Glory” orb of light? If so, it could have been observed as hovering over Bethlehem at an altitude of about 38 miles – visible on the western horizon to the Magi in Babylon – and later as hovering above the house of Jesus in Bethlehem to guide the Magi to the Christ child. This theory has been proposed in a paper by Andrew Webster. The theory, however, is most probably not realistic, as a bright orb of light present for a period of over 15 months would likely have been noticed by Herod and his court officials. In addition, the theory does not align with Scripture, which specifically states “when it rose” (some translations: “in the east”), which therefore implies that the object was not stationary in the sky. It is more likely that what the Magi observed was a cosmic sign that was “hidden in plain sight,” and uniquely deciphered by them.

* Was it an angel? Probably not, as angels are not referred to as “signs” in Scripture, although their appearance typically brought information and help.

* Was it a miracle? One could say that all of the heavenly bodies and their precise movements are miracles, but it seems that the best explanation for the “star” is that it was within the natural realm of heavenly bodies as understood by the Magi.

* Was it a planetary conjunction? A planetary conjunction is the aligning of either two or more planets, or a planet and a star, as seen by an observer on earth. The problem with this theory is that a conjunction of two planets – even if they were seen to have merged so that one appeared directly over the other – simply could not be referred to in the singular as a “star.” Also, conjunctions of two or more planets do not move together for long periods of time. However, a planetary conjunction would certainly have caught the eye of the Magi, especially if it occurred in a key constellation; and a conjunction might very well have been considered the prelude to an impending event, even the birth of a great leader.

* Was it a planet in our solar system? Planets were also referred to as “stars” in the first century. As it turns out, this is probably the best explanation for what the Magi saw as the “Star of Bethlehem.” The type of movement exhibited by the Bethlehem “star’ is consistent with some planetary motions.

Was the “Star” Jupiter?

Planets are sometimes called “wandering stars.” The main reason for believing that the “Star of Bethlehem” was a planet (and most probably Jupiter) is that planets can exhibit strange behavior in the heavens as viewed from earth. For example, a planet may appear to be standing still in the heavens when compared to the backdrop of the stars which, due to the rotation of the earth, appear to be rotating as a group across the sky. This behavior is exactly what was described in Matthew, “. . . the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was” (Matthew 2:9b NIV).

The apparent ability of planets to stand still in the heavens is due to their rotation around the sun in relation to the earth’s own solar rotation. Because the rotations of planets and the earth around the sun are on different paths and at different speeds, the planets may at times appear from earth as “stationary” or may even exhibit “retrograde motion”.

This description of the “Bethlehem star” star standing still has caused many to characterize the entire account in Matthew as either fictitious or miraculous. Most people have difficulty imaging that a heavenly body could arbitrarily stop its movement over a small village in Judea. However, as Ernest Martin explains:

“Planets do come to a ‘stop’ at prescribed times in their heavenly motions. This happens at the time for a planet’s retrogression and progression. It may be that Matthew was simply showing that Jupiter had become stationary in its motions through the fixed stars at the time it reached its zenith over Bethlehem.”

The theologian F. Steinmetzer, back in 1912, wrote an article stating his belief that Matthew was referring to one of these normal ‘stationary’ positions of the planets. [F. Steinmetzer (Irish Theological Quarterly, VII.61.] Indeed, Steinmetzer suggested that the planet that suited Matthew’s account the best was Jupiter. Dr. Ernest Martin agrees, “This is true.”

The following diagram illustrates the occasional retrograde motion observed from earth of planets like Jupiter. This motion can also make the planet appear stationary in the sky for a period of time, as was the case of the “Star of Bethlehem”.

So, what is the best identification for the “Star of Bethlehem?” I believe – as do many others – that it was the planet Jupiter, due to its movements in the heavens. Jupiter is the “King planet” and the Magi would have regularly observed its movements, including its conjunctions with other planets and with the star Regulus, the “King star”, all of which could have occurred in the time frame stated by Daniel for the coming of the Messiah (Daniel 9:25-26).

 Visit by the Magi – On December 25, 2 BC

What information can we bring together to help us determine the actual day that the Magi arrived in Bethlehem to see and worship the Christ child and present their gifts? First, we have to separate fact from fiction. The tradition that the Magi arrived in Bethlehem just after the birth of Jesus makes for a nice visual image of the “baby” Jesus, Joseph, Mary, the animals, the shepherds, and the Magi all together in the “stable”. This traditional picture is – unfortunately – purely fiction. The Magi did not arrive just after the birth of Jesus, but came some 15 months later.

The Magi would have undergone a journey of nearly 1200 miles by either horse or by camel. Such a distance would have taken anywhere from three to 12 months by camel; and in addition to the actual travel time, there would have been many weeks of preparation. It has therefore been estimated that “The Magi could scarcely have reached Jerusalem till a year or more had elapsed from the time of the appearance of the star.” [Walter Drum, Transcribed by John Szpytman, “Magi” (The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume IX, Robert Appleton Company, 1910)].

It is implied in the Gospel message that when the Magi visited with King Herod in Jerusalem, they reported that they had first seen the star rising in the east (Matthew 2:1–2, 7), signaling to them that a great King had been born. In reality, they arrived in Jerusalem over a year later – after following the “star” on their journey from Persia. Matthew 2:11 states that the Magi saw Jesus as a “young child” (Greek: paidion; Aramaic: talya; a “toddler,” not a “baby/infant!”) and found him in “the house” (not a stable!) – where the Magi bowed down and worshipped him.

Although we know from the Gospel accounts that at the actual time of the birth of Jesus the angel announced to the shepherds in the field that a Savior had been born and that they would find the “baby” (Greek: brephos; Aramaic: ula) in a “manger” (Luke 2:11–12), we now know that the Magi came at a later date, and that they found a child in a house, not a babe in a stable!

Here is a summary of the complete story from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke regarding the events after the birth of Jesus, showing when the visit of the Magi fits into the chronology:

After the birth of Jesus on September 11, 3 BC, Luke’s account states that the baby Jesus was circumcised in accordance with Jewish religious law (at 8-days old) and then presented in the Temple (following the additional days allotted for the purification of “them,” including Mary – an additional 33-day period for the birth of a male, per Leviticus 12:1–8). Still no Magi. Then Luke states that the family returned to Nazareth (Luke 2:39). This is often overlooked! A short time later, when Jesus was a year old or so, the family moved back to Bethlehem. Matthew 2 picks up the story in Bethlehem with the visit of the Magi at this time (Matthew 2:9–12). Subsequently, in response to a warning from an angel in a dream, the family escapes to Egypt (Matthew 2:13–15). Herod then kills all of the children in Bethlehem, “two years old and under” (Matthew 2:16–18). Herod picked this age range to be assured of killing Jesus. Later, while In Egypt, Joseph was informed by an angel that Herod was dead; and the family moved back to Israel and re-settled in Nazareth (Matthew 2:19–23), where the young Jesus grew up.

So, what was the date that the Magi arrived at the house in Bethlehem to worship the Christ child and present their gifts? Once again, we can use astronomy to help us arrive at the date. Matthew described two distinct appearances of the same “star.” The initial appearance is described in Matthew 2:2, where this star was first observed by the Magi in their homeland; they saw it “in the rising” above the eastern horizon. The other appearance to the Magi is described in Matthew 2:9, when they left Jerusalem for Bethlehem; and the star is described as going ahead of them and stopping over the place where Jesus was (Matthew 2:9b). We have discussed previously that a planet can exhibit this strange behavior of appearing to stop in the heavens; and, as previously discussed, I believe that this “star” was most probably the planet Jupiter, the “King planet.”

At the end of 2 BC, Jupiter appeared at its ordinary time for retrogression, and it became stationary among the stars. It was at this time in December of 2 BC that something unusual happened.  Ernest Martin describes the details of this particular occurrence:

“But this time something unusual happened. In 2 B.C. as viewed from Jerusalem, Jupiter came to its normal stationary position directly over Bethlehem on December 25th. That’s right! Just before dawn (the regular time the Magi would have begun their normal observations of the heavens), Jupiter came to a ‘stopped’ position on December 25th directly over Bethlehem as witnessed from Jerusalem. Not only that, the planet assumed its stationary position while in the middle of the constellation of Virgo, the Virgin. What a remarkable circumstance this was.

. . . We are told in the New Testament that Jesus was born of a virgin. And precisely on December 25, 2 B.C. Jupiter ‘stopped’ in the abdomen region of Virgo, the Virgin (in the middle of the constellation). This position was right where a woman carries a child in pregnancy. On that day the ‘King planet’ stopped its lateral motion through the stars and remained stationary for about six days. During those days it did not move longitudinally more than one fortieth of the Moon’s diameter from its December 25th position. To an observer on earth it appeared completely stationary in the midst of Virgo.

. . . How was it possible for Jupiter to be stationary over the village of Bethlehem at this time? There is not the slightest problem for it to do so . . . On December 25, 2 B.C. . . . Jupiter would have been seen in meridian position (directly over Bethlehem) at an elevation of 68 degrees above the southern horizon. This position would show the planet shining directly down on Bethlehem while it was stationary among the stars.”

So, how could the Magi have established that Jupiter was precisely stationary over the small village of Bethlehem? There is a possible – though speculative – answer to the question. There was a central well located near the gate to the entrance into Bethlehem, one which David, a thousand years earlier, had once longed to drink from during a military encounter: “David longed for water and said, ‘Oh, that someone would get me a drink of water from the well near the gate of Bethlehem!’” (2 Samuel 23:15, NIV; see also 2 Samuel 23:16, which restates the location of this well).

I would speculate that the Magi, upon arriving at Bethlehem, stopped at the gate to have a drink of water from the well located “near the gate of Bethlehem,” and upon looking down at the still water in the well, saw the reflection of Jupiter, the “King planet”, which they had been following in the night sky during their short journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Seeing the reflection of Jupiter in the well, they would have perceived that the planet was directly over Bethlehem that night, as stated in Matthew 2:9-10. This was surely confirmation to the Magi that they were in the place where Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, had been born.

Granted, it is speculation that the Magi may have used the well at the gate to Bethlehem to determine that the “star” was directly overhead – but it may not be too far-fetched.

Of course, this could only have been possible during darkness, when Jupiter would have been visible. But this is possible, since the Magi first stopped to meet with Herod in Jerusalem before they traveled on to Bethlehem. Yes, it is conjecture, but I appreciate the idea that this particular well might have been used to help point the Gentiles (Magi) to Jesus! At night or early morning, the well would not have been crowded; and the well was “near the gate of Bethlehem.” I would think that the Magi would not have passed up the opportunity to drink from the well and to water their stock, as well. Perhaps, the Magi used this particular well before they then sought the source of “Living Water.”

Was December 25, 2 BC the date that the Magi arrived in Bethlehem to greet and worship the Savior and present their gifts? Certainly, the unusual astronomical sign of Jupiter appearing stationary directly over Bethlehem while in the constellation of Virgo would support this date for the Magi’s visit. This date is also consistent with the argued birth date of Jesus being September 11, 3 BC and with the time required for the Magi to travel from Persia to Bethlehem. This would place the visit of the Magi exactly 15 months after the birth of Jesus, consistent with the sign of His birth in Revelation 12:1–6.

The Magi’s Visit and the Jewish Feast of Hanukkah

It is interesting to note that December 23, 2 BC corresponded to the celebration of Hanukkah on the Hebrew calendar that year. Hanukkah is an eight-day Feast which commemorates the time in 164 BC when the Temple was cleansed of the defilement caused by Gentile idols placed there by Antiochus Epiphanes. In the 9th month of Kislev on the Jewish calendar, on the 25th day, the Temple services were begun again by the Maccabees. At that time the Temple had been desolate of its holiness for three years.

As explained by Ernest Martin, Hanukkah (Hebrew: “dedication”) was a festival of Dedication (actually, Re-dedication) of the Temple and of the Jewish people to the God of Abraham and Moses. The Jews viewed Hanukkah as a second Feast of Tabernacles. It was a time of festivity and celebration, and no fasting or mourning was permitted during the eight days of the festival. Lamps and torches lighted the Temple, synagogues, and homes during this time. Josephus called the festival “the Feast of Lamps.”

December 25, 2 BC, the most probable date for the Magi’s visit to Bethlehem, occurred in that year on the third day of the Hanukkah celebration in Israel. This was a traditional time of giving gifts. It is interesting that in this unique calendar circumstance in 2 BC, the Magi would have given their gifts to the Jewish child Jesus.

It is also interesting to note that from the calculations of the births of John the Baptist (near March 10, 3 BC, as previously reported in the Post on Jesus’ birth – Evidence from the Birth of John the Baptist), and of Jesus (September 11, 3 BC, six months following that of John), the conception of Jesus would necessarily have been in December of 4 BC (assuming the normal 9 months and 10 days gestation period). Consequently, Jesus’ conception would very likely have occurred during the eight-day period of Hanukkah in 4 BC. If true, this would align the conception of Jesus in 4 BC with the later visit of the Magi in 2 BC, both of which would have occurred during the celebration of Hanukkah on the Jewish calendar. Remarkable symmetry that could only have been orchestrated by the Heavenly Father!

How Did the Magi Find Jesus’ Specific House?

Once the Magi arrived in Bethlehem – having been “led” by the Star of Bethlehem, whatever that “star” actually was – how was it that the Magi knew exactly which house Jesus was in? This is another mystery not often addressed by religious scholars. Scripture states:

“The star which they saw in the east went before them until it had come and stood over where the child was. And seeing the star, they rejoiced exceedingly (with) a great joy. And having come into the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary. And falling down, they worshiped Him.” (Matthew 2:9–11a, Interlinear Bible)

What is unclear from the literal translation of the Interlinear Bible is whether the “star” stood over the town of Bethlehem or somehow stood over the specific house where Jesus was located. If the “star” was Jupiter, the King’s planet – as this case concludes – then the planet would have been considered to be both over Bethlehem and over the house. As previously stated, a person looking into a well would perceive the reflected image of an overhead object as appearing precisely overhead (Matthew 2:9–10), thereby confirming to the Magi that the star had led them to the precise place they were seeking.

Still, how did the Magi find the specific house in which Mary and Joseph were raising Jesus? Certainly, if we accept the notion of a Shekina Glory orb of light hovering over a particular house, there would have been little doubt where Jesus was residing. However – in my opinion – there are numerous problems with this theory, not the least of which is the fact that the orb would certainly have caught the attention of Herod and his officials.

If it was not due to the “star” hovering directly over the house occupied by Jesus, Joseph, and Mary, how else might God have communicated the location to the Magi? One possibility – entirely conjecture on my part – is that God may have used the same means as he used to communicate to the shepherds in the field 15 months earlier, when He used an angel to announce the birth of Jesus (Luke 2:9–12). Another possibility – similar to Simeon being drawn by the Spirit to meet Jesus when He came to the Temple to be presented to the Lord (Luke 2:27) – would have involved the Spirit of God leading the Magi. Yet another possibility is that the Magi simply made inquiries as to the whereabouts of a 15 month old child who was descended from the family of David. “Everybody” in the tight-knit community of Bethlehem would have known where the child was and would have been able to direct the regal Magi to the specific house.

No, we don’t know all the details regarding how the Magi knew which house held the child Jesus. However, considering the means used by God to notify the shepherds in the field and Simeon in the Temple, it is reasonable to assume that God might have used similar means to point the Magi to the house in which Jesus was residing in Bethlehem. In my opinion, these are distinct possibilities to help bridge this gap in the gospel accounts.

Sure, God could have used a “Shekinah Glory” orb of light to notify the Magi of the location of Jesus’ house in Bethlehem. But my point is that the other means of communication which God may have used better fit with our case for Jupiter being the “Star of Bethlehem.” In my opinion, this is still the stronger case and the one which fits with the other “puzzle pieces” in this topic area.

The study of the background of the Magi (the previous Post) and when/how they came to visit Jesus (this Post) constitute puzzle pieces 4 and in our effort to conclusively solve the “puzzle” regarding the actual birth date of Jesus.

Note: In my next Post I will provide information from Roman History as it applies to the birth of Jesus.