The Star of Bethlehem
The Three Wise Men, spray paint on paper, by Trent Stephens, 2006
by Trent Dee Stephens, PhD, for the Come Follow Me lesson December 25: Christmas
Our favorite family Christmas tradition is that everyone who can be is Home for Christmas. In the many years my oldest daughter, Summer, and her husband have been married, they have only missed one year of being home Christmas morning to open gifts together – and they regretted that one. Even our daughter, Brittani, her husband and children, who live just across town, often load up all their presents and stay overnight Christmas Eve. For many years, with our children, and now our grandchildren, my wife and I have not only read the cherished Christmas story from Luke 2 and Matthew 2, but we have discussed the time of year for the setting, the nature of the taxation, the conditions of the stable, and, most of all, the Star of Bethlehem. I also have been invited several times to present this topic in Church talks and firesides at Christmas time.
From a scientific perspective, here are the data: First, surprisingly, there is not a single reference to or prophecy of the “Star of Bethlehem” in the Old Testament. The only Old Testament reference is: Numbers 24:17, “…there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab...”
On the other hand, there are specific references and prophecies to a star in the Book of Mormon, Another Testament of Jesus Christ. The first ¾ of the Book of Mormon can be considered to be the “New World Old Testament.” We read in Helaman chapters 13 and 14,
“And now it came to pass in the eighty and sixth year, the Nephites did still remain in wickedness, yea, in great wickedness, while the Lamanites did observe strictly to keep the commandments of God, according to the law of Moses.And it came to pass that in this year there was one Samuel, a Lamanite, came into the land of Zarahemla, and began to preach unto the people.”1
“And behold, he said unto them: Behold, I give unto you a sign; for five years more cometh, and behold, then cometh the Son of God to redeem all those who shall believe on his name. And behold, this will I give unto you for a sign at the time of his coming; for behold, there shall be great lights in heaven, insomuch that in the night before he cometh there shall be no darkness, insomuch that it shall appear unto man as if it was day. Therefore, there shall be one day and a night and a day, as if it were one day and there were no night; and this shall be unto you for a sign; for ye shall know of the rising of the sun and also of its setting; therefore they shall know of a surety that there shall be two days and a night; nevertheless the night shall not be darkened; and it shall be the night before he is born. And behold, there shall a new star arise, such an one as ye never have beheld; and this also shall be a sign unto you. And behold this is not all, there shall be many signs and wonders in heaven. And it shall come to pass that ye shall all be amazed, and wonder, insomuch that ye shall fall to the earth. And it shall come to pass that whosoever shall believe on the Son of God, the same shall have everlasting life.”2
So Samuel prophesied:
1. There shall be many signs and wonders in heaven.
2. There shall be great lights in heaven.
3. Insomuch that in the night before He cometh there shall be no darkness, insomuch that it shall appear unto man as if it was day.
4. A new star shall appear.
With those prophecies in mind, then, what actually happened at the time of the Savior’s birth? Interestingly, there is no mention of a star in Mark, Luke, or John; or in any of the letters. Without Mathew’s account, there would be no mention of the star at all, anywhere in the Old Testament or New Testament. In fact, the star is mentioned only four times in the entire Bible; all in Mathew 2.
We may read in Matthew 2:1-12:
“Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judæa in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judæa: for thus it is written by the prophet, And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel. Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, inquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also. When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.”
That’s it, 734,000 google hits, numerous papers, full books (at least ten in the past few years), and countless songs all based on four references in 12 verses, only in the gospel of Matthew.
There have been numerous scholarly works debating which astronomical phenomenon is the best candidate for the “Star of Bethlehem.” Was it Halley’s Comet, or some other of thousands of comets, many of which we know little or nothing; was it a super nova; was it the alignment of Jupiter and Saturn? When scholars debate the star, they have only four citations in 12 verses to go on. Those 12 verses open some intriguing issues:
1. The wise men saw “his star” in the east but did not know where he was to be born.
2. What prophesies were they going on? Perhaps they had read Zoroaster prophesies or some Jewish prophesies not recorded in what became our Old Testament?
3. Herod’s chief priests and scribes knew that the king was to be born in Bethlehem, which prophesy the wise men did not know, but the king asked when the star appeared. One can conclude that his scribes must not have seen it, or at least, if they did see it, paid it no heed.
4. The star “which they saw in the east” then reappeared, “went before them,” and “stood over where the young child was.” (vs 9) Its reappearance is inferred from the fact that Herod’s scholars asked when the star appeared – past tense. If the star was still in the sky, the wise men could have taken the king’s scholars outside, pointed into the sky, and said “there it is right now.”
Now let’s consider the “Star of America” and see what additional light, literally, can be shown upon this issue. We are told in 3 Nephi chapter 1,
“And it came to pass that in the commencement of the ninety and second year, behold, the prophecies of the prophets began to be fulfilled more fully; for there began to be greater signs and greater miracles wrought among the people. But there were some who began to say that the time was past for the words to be fulfilled, which were spoken by Samuel, the Lamanite. And they began to rejoice over their brethren, saying: Behold the time is past, and the words of Samuel are not fulfilled; therefore, your joy and your faith concerning this thing hath been vain. And it came to pass that they did make a great uproar throughout the land; and the people who believed began to be very sorrowful, lest by any means those things which had been spoken might not come to pass. But behold, they did watch steadfastly for that day and that night and that day which should be as one day as if there were no night, that they might know that their faith had not been vain. Now it came to pass that there was a day set apart by the unbelievers, that all those who believed in those traditions should be put to death except the sign should come to pass, which had been given by Samuel the prophet. Now it came to pass that when Nephi, the son of Nephi, saw this wickedness of his people, his heart was exceedingly sorrowful. And it came to pass that he went out and bowed himself down upon the earth, and cried mightily to his God in behalf of his people, yea, those who were about to be destroyed because of their faith in the tradition of their fathers. And it came to pass that he cried mightily unto the Lord all that day; and behold, the voice of the Lord came unto him, saying: Lift up your head and be of good cheer; for behold, the time is at hand, and on this night shall the sign be given, and on the morrow come I into the world, to show unto the world that I will fulfil all that which I have caused to be spoken by the mouth of my holy prophets. And it came to pass that the words which came unto Nephi were fulfilled, according as they had been spoken; for behold, at the going down of the sun there was no darkness; and the people began to be astonished because there was no darkness when the night came. And there were many, who had not believed the words of the prophets, who fell to the earth and became as if they were dead, for they knew that the great plan of destruction which they had laid for those who believed in the words of the prophets had been frustrated; for the sign which had been given was already at hand. And they began to know that the Son of God must shortly appear; yea, in fine, all the people upon the face of the whole earth from the west to the east, both in the land north and in the land south, were so exceedingly astonished that they fell to the earth. For they knew that the prophets had testified of these things for many years, and that the sign which had been given was already at hand; and they began to fear because of their iniquity and their unbelief. And it came to pass that there was no darkness in all that night, but it was as light as though it was mid-day. And it came to pass that the sun did rise in the morning again, according to its proper order; and they knew that it was the day that the Lord should be born, because of the sign which had been given. And it had come to pass, yea, all things, every whit, according to the words of the prophets. And it came to pass also that a new star did appear, according to the word.”3
So what actually happened here in America?
1. There began to be greater signs and greater miracles wrought among the people.
2. At the going down of the sun there was no darkness.
3. A new star did appear, according to the word.
Now we have data from two different “laboratories,” one in Jerusalem and one in America. It’s as though they were seeing the same celestial event from two observatories on opposite sides of the world. How cool is that. Here’s the list of events as they may have occurred in time from the two perspectives.
1. There were many signs and wonders in heaven. The time frame here is not specified.
2. The wise men saw “his star” in the east and began their journey to Jerusalem. We are not told how long this journey took but we may assume it required from months to perhaps a couple of years. We do know that Christ may have been as much as two years old when the wise men appeared because we are told that Herod, “…slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.” (Matthew 2:16). However, Christ was probably somewhat younger than two years, as Herod may have required some time to organize the slaughter of the innocents and Joseph had time to get his family out of harm’s way. (Matthew 2:13-15) We also know that when the wise men arrived, Mary and the “young child” were settled in a house, not a stable. (Matthew 2:11).
3. Apparently Herod’s chief priests and scribes had not seen the star, or at least, if they had seen it, paid it no heed. It had clearly been an event at some unspecified date in the past as, “…Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, inquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.” (Matthew 2:7)
4. The star “which they saw in the east” then reappeared, “went before them,” and “stood over where the young child was.” (vs 9) Its reappearance is inferred from the fact that Herod’s scholars did not appear to know when the star appeared – past tense. If the star was still in the sky, the wise men could have taken the king outside, pointed into the sky, and said “there it is right now.”
5. At the going down of the sun in America there was no darkness.
6. A new star appeared, which could be seen in America.
Now, with those data in hand, we can consider a number of hypotheses about the Star of Bethlehem. In 1604, Johannes Kepler saw a triangular pattern of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. The next year he saw a “new star” appear between Jupiter and Saturn. He later concluded that a similar phenomenon occurred near the time of Christ’s birth.4
In 1981, John Mosley, Program Supervisor at the Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles, stated of Kepler’s calculations that,
“Since the 1940's most of the planetariums in the western world have presented a show on the Star of Bethlehem in what has become one of the newer Christmas customs. As the first Christmas shows are older than most planetariums…we have learned from each other…and for the most part we all present shows that are quite similar and that have not changed dramatically in at least a generation.”
“Unfortunately we have copied each other’s errors along with everything else, and these errors have been repeated in lectures and in print to where they have become planetarium folklore and myth. Yet despite their time-honored status of respectability, they are still errors, and if we represent ourselves as trusted sources of information we have an obligation to be as accurate as possible, even on minor points.”4
Mosley pointed out that one of the most common modern hypotheses of the Star of Bethlehem was an error from its very inception. In the early 19th century, Bishop Munter of Zealand, Denmark, proposed that a “triple” conjunction of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn was the “Star.” Munter apparently stated that since the planets were very close together, “weak eyes” would have seen them as a single star. Whereas the triple star hypothesis was incorrectly attributed to Kepler, it did come from Kepler’s writings, but the conjunction was not the Star.4
On 26 September 1604 Mars and Saturn came into conjunction and were joined by Jupiter on 9 October. Then something amazing happened, the next night, 10 October, a “new star,” as bright as Jupiter, appeared between Jupiter and Saturn. It could be seen in the night sky for several months. While writing his observations in his book, De Stella Nova in Pede Serpentarti (About the New Star in the Serpent's Foot), Kepler came across the proposal by Laurence Suslyga that Christ was born in 4 BC. Kepler realized that this date was only two years after the conjunction of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn that he had calculated to have occurred in 6 BC. He speculated that, just as the conjunctions of 1604 had “produced” a “new star” (Latin, nova stella), perhaps the conjunctions of 6 BC had “produced” a miraculous nova, and that it was the nova, not the conjunction, that was the Star of Bethlehem. However, Kepler, the astrologer, put special importance on its appearance in the triple constellation and believed that such a conjunction could actually produce the nova.4 We now know that a planetary triple alignment doesn’t cause a supernova to appear in the constellation. Its appearance is a coincidence – a coincidence that an all-knowing God and Creator could predict with pin-point accuracy and time events, such as the birth of His Son to precisely correspond. If that triple conjunction and nova occurred two years before the birth of the Savior, that would give the wise men from the east ample time, perhaps four years total, to prepare and then travel to Jerusalem seeking the young child.
A total eclipse of the sun has been held in awe for most of human history. Now, we can go to our computers and see the exact path of the total solar eclipse of 21 August 2017 – long before the event actually happened. It is not too difficult to imagine that a far more intelligent and informed being could predict a supernova alignment with a triangular planetary alignment.
In his painting, Adoration of the Magi, the Florentine artist Giotto di Bondone (1267–1337) painted Halley’s Comet, which he witnessed in 1301, above the stable scene. In the spring of 1066, Halley’s Comet was seen in what is now western France and England and was embroidered onto the Bayeux tapestry. It was viewed by the Normans as a portent of good and by the Saxons as an evil omen. They both were correct.
Halley’s Comet has long been a candidate for the Star of Bethlehem. Mosley, however, has pointed out that, “…modern calculations identify it with one seen for 56 days from August to October of 12 B.C.”4 But there are lots of comets, Halley’s only being the most famous. Mosley noted that, “William's Comet Catalog of 1871 identifies two [comets near the time of Christ’s birth] -- one in 5 B.C. and a second in 4 B.C. Both are described in detail in Chapter 7 of David Hughes' book The Star of Bethlehem: An Astronomer's Confirmation.”5
Mosley goes on to explain,
“The comet of 5 B.C. (number 52 in Williams's Catalog) was first seen between March 10 and April 27, and was visible for 70 or more days. It was a ‘hut’ comet, also called a ‘sweeping star’ or ‘broom star,’ and had a tail or rays. It was seen in Capricornus and there is no mention of motion. It may have been a nova, but the description best fits a comet.”4 “In 4 B.C., a ‘po,’ or tailless, comet was noted in April 24 in Aquila. There is no way to know whether it was a comet or nova.”5
Humans have been observing and recording both comets and novae for countless years. The supernova explosion that formed the Vela Supernova Remnant most likely occurred 10,000–20,000 years ago. Archaeologist George Michanowsky described some incomprehensible ancient markings in Bolivia that were left by Native Americans 7,000 years ago. The carvings showed four small circles flanked by two larger circles. The smaller circles resemble stellar groupings in the constellations Vela and Carina. One of the larger circles may represent the star Capella. Another circle is located near the position of the supernova remnant, Michanowsky suggested this may represent the supernova explosion as witnessed by the indigenous residents.6
In 185 AD, Chinese astronomers recorded the appearance of a bright star in the sky, and observed that it took about eight months to fade from the sky. It was observed to sparkle like a star and did not move across the heavens like a comet. These observations are consistent with the appearance of a supernova, and this is believed to be the oldest confirmed record of a supernova event by humankind.7 The Chinese kept detailed records. The supernova of 1006 was the brightest ever recorded. It was about the brightness of a half moon.
Supernova SN 1054, whose debris field today is called the Crab Nebula, was another widely-observed event, with Arab, Chinese, and Japanese astronomers recording the star's appearance in 1054 AD, but apparently not in Europe at the time.8 It may also have been recorded by the Anasazi as a petroglyph. This explosion appeared in the constellation of Taurus, where it produced the Crab Nebula remnant. At its peak, the luminosity of SN 1054 may have been four times as bright as Venus, and it remained visible in daylight for 23 days and was visible in the night sky for nearly two years. 8 How many more such events have occurred but have not been well recorded?
On the morning of September 1, 1859, amateur astronomer Richard Carrington ascended into the private observatory attached to his country estate outside of London. After cranking open the dome’s shutter to reveal the clear blue sky, he pointed his brass telescope toward the sun and began to sketch a cluster of enormous dark spots that freckled its surface. Suddenly, Carrington spotted what he described as “two patches of intensely bright and white light” erupting from the sunspots. Five minutes later the fireballs vanished, but within hours their impact would be felt across the globe.9
That night, telegraph communications around the world began to fail; there were reports of sparks showering from telegraph machines, shocking operators and setting papers ablaze. All over the planet, colorful auroras illuminated the nighttime skies, glowing so brightly that birds began to chirp and laborers started their daily chores, believing the sun had begun rising.9 Some thought the end of the world was at hand, but Carrington’s naked eyes had spotted the true cause for the bizarre happenings: a massive solar flare with the energy of 10 billion atomic bombs. The flare spewed electrified gas and subatomic particles toward Earth, and the resulting geomagnetic storm—dubbed the “Carrington Event”—was the largest on record to have struck the planet.
Now, let’s look at the list of events occurring around the time of Christ’s birth and see which ones can be explained by various celestial displays.
1. There were many signs and wonders in the American heavens. The time frame here is not specified; but does cover, perhaps much more than just one night. It is clear that Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn aligned at the time, and American astronomers were plenty sophisticated to take note of such an event. A new star appearing, probably a supernova, in the cantillation would certainly have been notable both in the Americas and the Middle East. Halley’s Comet, and/or some other comet/s of longer periodicity, may also have appeared around the same time, adding to the signs and wonders. A solar flare may have been the icing on the cake, and the ensuing auroras would have added to the night-time spectacle, even lighting up the American sky to appear as daylight. The latter may have been more evident in the Americas than the Middle East.
2. The wise men saw “his star” in the east and began their journey to Jerusalem, following some prophecy that has since been lost to us. The triple alignment of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, especially with a supernova in the constellation, would certainly have been enough of a “sign” to set the wise men in motion.
3. Apparently Herod’s chief priests and scribes had not seen the star, or at least, if they had seen it, paid it little heed. It had clearly been an event at some unspecified date in the past, as Herod asked when the event had occurred. If the triple alignment and new star sign occurred around two years before the wise men showed up in Jerusalem, it’s no wonder that Herod asked when it had occurred. It appears that there were no signs and wonders still going on at the time the wise men were in Jerusalem.
4. The star “which they saw in the east” then reappeared, “went before them,” and “stood over where the young child was.” (vs 9) In my opinion, this is the most difficult of all the heavenly manifestations to explain. A comet, with a tail, could appear to point downward toward a general area, but certainly wouldn’t pin-point something the size of a house, especially if the houses in Bethlehem at the time were built side by side. By the time the wise men arrived in Bethlehem, Joseph had moved Mary and the infant Jesus into a house. How could a star stand over a specific house? One possible explanation is that celestial navigation had been in use for hundreds of years before the birth of Christ, and “sailing” across the desert was much like sailing the seas. It is almost certain that one or more of the wise men were accomplished celestial navigators. Still, the wise men would have had to know where they were going beforehand to chart a course. This is another of the cases in history where I wish I were there as a spectator – with today’s knowledge and questions. Short of that, or waiting to ask the wise men themselves, we may not be able to obtain an answer to this part of the story. Certainly the wise men knew where to go to find the Savior, it’s just not clear exactly how they knew. Some celestial body moving before the wise men from Jerusalem to Bethlehem and standing over a specific house, embedded among other houses, seems to be more like some low-flying object, like a modern drone, than a star, or even a comet, way off in space.
5. At the going down of the sun in America there was no darkness. Much like the night following the 1859 solar flares, colorful auroras illuminated the nighttime skies, glowing so brightly that birds began to chirp and laborers started their daily chores, believing the sun had begun rising. This phenomenon may have been more intense in the Americas than in the Middle East, and may have been in the order of two years before the Wise Men showed up in Jerusalem.
6. A new star appeared, which could be seen in America. This new star could certainly have been the supernova that Kepler connected to Christ’s birth.
Add together a solar flare, auroras during the night, a super nova, and maybe a comet or two; and you have the combination of signs and wonders in America that Samuel predicted, and which the people of America observed. Why wouldn’t the heavens put on a spectacular fireworks show for the creator of heaven and earth? Why should we look for a single event as the accounts in Matthew have suggested? The accounts recorded in the Book of Mormon indicate that the heavenly fireworks show was quite spectacular, and that more than one celestial event was involved. It turns out, apparently, that the main show was in the Americas, not in the Middle East.
In this case The Book of Mormon is not the second witness of Jesus Christ, it is the first witness of Jesus Christ, with the Bible becoming the second witness to those events.
1. Helaman 13:1-2
2. Helaman 14:2-8
3. 3 Nephi 1:4-21
4. Mosley, John, Common Errors in "Star of Bethlehem" Planetarium Shows Planetarian, vol. 10, Third Quarter, 1981
5. Hughes, David. The Star of Bethlehem: An Astronomer's Confirmation, Walker and Company, New York, 1979
6. Michanowsky, George, The once and future star: The Mysterious Vela X Supernova and the Origin of Civilizations, Barnes & Noble, 1979
8. Stephenson, F. R. and Green, D. A. Was the supernova of AD 1054 reported in European history? Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage, 6:46 – 52, 2003
9. Carrington, Richard Christopher, Observations of the spots on the sun from November 9, 1853, to March 24, 1861, made at Redhill, Williams and Norgate, London, 1863