So What Was the Star of Bethlehem, Anyway?

The past is full of legends and the present is full of explanations. At least, it tries to be. We love to explore some of the real-life phenomena that could explain seemingly supernatural events described by myths and religions. This year, while balancing the glittering white dwarf atop the Curiosity office's holiday tree, we got to wondering where the whole "Star of Bethlehem" thing came from. And it turns out, we weren't the first ones.

We Three Kings Can't Tell From a Star

One thing is for certain: Whatever it was the "three wise men" (there's no reason to think there were three of them, but that's a whole other subject) were following, it wasn't just a star. We've done some digging and pulled together a few of our favorite theories for what it was that could have been up in the sky that fateful year.


This is a major favorite when it comes to popular explanations for the Star of Bethlehem — it even shows up in Christmas cards. What's more, it wouldn't just be any comet. Halley's comet passed by the Earth around 11 or 12 B.C.E., and while we're not totally sure when Jesus was born, that could have been the right time frame. The only problem is that comets would have been well-known phenomena to the astronomically minded Magi. And what's more, they would have been seen as a bad sign. So we can probably count this theory out.


Again, we've got a great candidate that lines up just right for the timeline. Chinese and Korean astronomers both observed a supernova sometime around 5 B.C.E. And bonus: If this is the culprit, then it really was a star that brought them across the desert. The only thing is that everything those scholars wrote on the subject suggested that the supernova was barely even visible. That won't do on top of a tree. So scratch that theory.


Here's one thing that always struck us a little weird. It's a "star in the East," right? But the Magi came from the East ... so wouldn't it have been "a star in the West" from their perspective? Well, some astronomical scholars suggest that it wasn't so much about literally being in the East as much as being associated with the East. In other words, maybe it was a "star" that rose in the morning, as the sun came in from the East. The contender for this "eastern" light? None other than the planet Venus. We're not too sure about this one. It seems like a lot of hoops to jump through.

A Solution That Holds (Holy) Water

There's one answer that actually does seem to track pretty well with what the Bible claims about the Star of Bethlehem. Astronomer David Hughes hit on a theory that hinges on one major assumption: It wasn't a single cosmic event, but three. Or more accurately, it was the same event, three different times.

The obvious explanation, says Hughes, is an incredibly rare triple-conjunction of the planets Saturn and Jupiter. In the year 7 B.C.E., the two biggest planets in our solar system would have lined up perfectly not once, not twice, but three different times, on May 29, September 29, and December 4. That three-fer alignment happens about every 900 years, so it would have been a big deal. It also would have been hard to ignore. As Jodrell Bank Observatory associate director Tim O'Brien told the BBC, "It's remarkable how much your attention is drawn when two very bright objects come together in the sky."

The idea is that the Magi would have known about a prophesied king to be born in Israel. And when they were watching the skies in their hometown (probably Babylon), they would have seen this bright flickering as a sign to roll out. The second conjunction might have occurred as they were leaving Jerusalem, sending the message that they were on the right track. And the third might have been read as a warning not to tell King Herod of what they saw. You know what? We're convinced. Plus, Saturn's rings are going to look great on top of the tree.

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For more behind-the-scenes tidbits on Christmas traditions, check out "Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas" by Ace Collins. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas December 14, 2017

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