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The Christmas Star

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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. (Matthew 2:1-10)

Star of Bethlehem movie poster (1912)
Star of Bethlehem movie poster (1912)

During a recent staff meeting, I asked my colleagues for holiday blog post ideas. Section head Constance Carter suggested that I write about her mentor Ruth Freitag’s 1979 annotated bibliography the Star of Bethlehem: a list of references. This bibliography, published by the Library of Congress, lists 240 popular and scholarly publications about the phenomenon known as the Star of Bethlehem or Christmas Star, which was seen by the Magi (Wise Men) at Jesus Christ’s birth.

I have never met Ruth Freitag in person, but I am constantly inspired by her and the work she published as a senior science specialist in the Science and Technology Division during the 1980’s and 1990’s. These include the bibliographies Women in Astronomy, Battle of the Centuries, and Halley’s Comet. Her Star of Bethlehem bibliography continues to be the starting point for those who are curious about the Star of Bethlehem’s existence.

Was the star a miraculous event or was it an actual astronomical phenomenon?

Design drawing for stained glass window showing The 3 Magi follow the Star to Bethlehem. From the Lamb Design Collection

Ruth’s bibliography provides an extensive list of references published up until 1978 from astronomical and religious scholarly journals, as well as popular periodicals. She even provides annotations as to what theory the article supports.

The theories are plentiful, numbering in the hundreds, and Ruth presents the body of work about the Star of Bethlehem in a holistic manner. There are references to the theories that the star was a planet, ball of lightning, aurora display, meteor, asteroid,  Halley’s Comet or some other comet (e.g. Hale-Bopp), supernova, occultation (when one object is hidden by another object that passes between it and the observer), and planetary conjunctions.  She also includes translations of ancient Chinese astronomical records into Western languages.

Ruth notes that one of the more accepted explanations is that the star was part of a planetary conjunction (see references to Roger Sinnott and David Hughes). Since this bibliography was published, there have been new and re-worked theories. Most notable are Mark Kidger’s 1999 Star of Bethlehem: An Astronomer’s View that suggests a combination of events in 5 B.C.  beginning with a nova followed by a planetary conjunction  and Michael Molnar’s 1999 The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi which integrates astrological events seen in ancient coins with the double occultation of Jupiter in 6 B.C.

If this blog post has piqued your interest in ancient astronomy and astrology, you might also wish to check out our Archeoastronomy guide.

To all our readers, Have a safe and happy holiday season 🙂

Comments (3)

  1. My favorite story about the Star is Arthur C. Clarke’s short story about a Jesuit priest, exploring other planets, who discovers the remnants of a glorious civilization destroyed by a supernova and calculates when the light would have been seen on earth.


  3. Despite the popular—but misshapen—lay wisdom about stereotypical comets, they were not universal ill-omens, especially to Essene-influenced Zoroastrian Persians. In fact, TSoB was the comet seen by Chinese astronomers in Capricornus during the early spring of 5 B.C.E. I computed the orbit (derived the sextet of orbital elements) using the Laplace method, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) Solar Systems Dynamics Group at the California Institute of Technology verified the ephemerides. Despite the claims of the skeptics, I used a scrupulously-secular approach to the analysis. In fact, while some of the Scriptural accounts in Matthew are confirmed, I found no astronomical evidence for Herod’s slaughter of the two-year olds. Most troubling to believers, however, is my finding that TSoB was no supernatural miracle, but only an optical illusion induced by the motion of the ‘Magi’ south with the background of the Judean Hills.

    That is the way I see it.

    Jim Sentell

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