Astronomers Explain the Star of Bethlehem

By | Dec 26, 2014 12:23 AM EST
The Magi

The Biblical Magi search for the birthplace of Jesus Christ(Photo :

The one big question for some astronomers every Christmas is what was the light that guided the Magi and is there any astronomical truth to the Star of Bethlehem?

David Weintraub, an astronomy professor at Vanderbilt University, said there are several mysteries that surround the story told in the Gospel of Matthew. First, why were the Magi, who were travelers from a distant land, able to see the bright star when local officials in King Herod's court were apparently unaware of its appearance in the sky?

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To get to Bethlehem, the wise men had to travel directly south from Jerusalem but the story told us that the star was "in the east" and "went before them" until it led them to the place where Jesus was born. So, it's odd an eastern star guided the Magi from the south.

"The astronomer in me knows that no star can do these things, nor can a comet, or Jupiter, or a supernova, or a conjunction of planets or any other actual bright object in the nighttime sky", Weintraub wrote in an article for The Conversation.

"One can claim that Matthew's words describe a miracle but Matthew chose his words carefully and wrote 'star in the east' twice, which suggests that these words hold a specific importance for his readers".

Astronomer Michael Molnar believes the term "in the east" is a literal translation of the Greek phrase "en te anatole," a technical term used by Greek mathematical astrologists some 2,000 years ago. It was specifically used to describe the planet Venus that rises above the eastern horizon just before the Sun appeared and then disappeared in its glare in the morning sky.

Weintraub said all the stars remain fixed in their places but they don't move relative to each other.

The Sun, Moon and planets travel along basically the same orbital paths. Each of them moves at different speeds and this occasionally causes them to lap each other.

If the Sun catches up with a planet, that planet can't be seen until the planet reappears. Once the planet reappears for the first time in months, this event is known to astrologers as a "heliacal rising".

"A heliacal rising, that special first reappearance of a planet, is what en te anatole referred to in ancient Greek astrology. In particular, the reappearance of a planet like Jupiter was thought by Greek astrologers to be symbolically significant for anyone born on that day. Thus, the 'star in the east' refers to an astronomical event with supposed astrological significance in the context of ancient Greek astrology," Weintraub explained.

Molnar told Weintraub he believes the Magi were actually wise astrologers skilled in mathematics. They were aware of the Old Testament prophecy foretelling the birth of a Messiah in the bloodline of King David.

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