Star of Bethlehem & Astronomy – Truly a Star?
Many have wondered if the Star of Bethlehem, “His star” observed by the Magi, really existed. If astronomy can corroborate Matthew’s Gospel, it could also establish the birthday timeline for Jesus of Nazareth.
Only Matthew’s Nativity account of Jesus’ birth references the star, yet it holds two compelling clues that can be compared with factual astronomy data produced by NASA astronomers, professors, experts and others. According to Matthew, the Magi saw “His star” twice; first in their homeland, then again in Jerusalem – how can a star appear, disappear and reappear again months later?
MT2:1-2 “…‘Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.’” (NASB, NKJV)
MT 2:9-10 “When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them…When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. (NKJV)
Astronomy as a science began thousands of years ago with the Assyrians and Chaldeans who charted star and planetary positions and developed the ability to calculate their advance movement in the night skies. Magi were expert astronomers who used this same knowledge and skills. Today’s modern science community considers this ancient expertise to be remarkable.
After thousands of years, major advancements in scientific astronomy began in the 1600s with Johannes Kepler’s formulation of the Three Laws of Planetary Motion. In the 1960s, Bryant Tuckerman took Kepler’s breakthrough to the next level using the then highly advanced IBM 704 vacuum-tube computer to calculate the alignment of planetary stars going back millennia, even down to specific to global regions such as the Babylonian/Baghdad time zone.
A simple fact known to the Magi astronomers: fixed stars hold their positions while planet-stars normally appear and disappear during their rotation around the Sun. Movement cannot be visually seen at any given moment; rather, changes in position can be observed in periodic views of the night sky or from night to night.
Eventually a moving planet will briefly appear on a single night in close visual proximity with another planet or fixed star known as a conjunction. A separation of less than 1° proximity is considered a rare conjunction event. Putting the degree proximity into perspective, the pinkie fingernail on a fully extended arm held towards the night sky covers about 1° (1 degree), the moon covers about ½ of a degree.
A single conjunction today is newsworthy such as when UniverseToday.com touted a 3° separation between Venus and Jupiter in 2012. It was a close 3° – chances of witnessing a conjunction of merely 1° proximity can be a once in a lifetime opportunity. Imagine the excitement if there were seven conjunctions of less than 1° separation in just 18 months?
Extraordinary planetary conjunctions were exceptionally prolific during the final seven years of the BC era. Among them, from May, 3 BC, through June, 2 BC, were seven sensational, rare conjunctions:
3 BC: 
May 19: Saturn-Mercury conjunction of only .67°/40′ (arc minutes)†
June 12: Saturn-Venus conjunction of only .12°/7.2′
August 12: Jupiter-Venus conjunction of only .07°/4.2′
September 14: 1st of Jupiter triple conjunction with Regulus of only .33°/19.8′
February 17: 2nd of Jupiter triple conjunction with Regulus of only .85°/51′
May 8: 3rd of Jupiter triple conjunction with Regulus of only .72°/43.2′
June 17: Jupiter-Venus conjunction of a mere .0073°/ 26.2″(arc seconds)
May 19, 3 BC, the Saturn-Mercury conjunction of .67° proximity, only 2% this close are visible from Earth. A person living to the age of 77 has less than a 50-50 chance to possibly witness one.
June 12, 3 BC, Saturn came into .12° conjunction with Venus. While these conjunctions happen about once per year, close encounters like this occur in about 8% of all their conjunctions with just 17% being visible from earth – a once in a century opportunity.
August 12, 3 BC, amazed stargazers with the Jupiter .07° conjunction with Venus. Separation with this extraordinarily tight proximity occurs in a scant 3% of their conjunctions, about once every 120 years.
Ending 3 BC, September 14th initiated the first of a triple conjunction between the king planet Jupiter and the king star Regulus, each with less than 1° proximity. Jupiter-Regulus triple conjunctions recur in 12 and 71-year cycles.
Most striking of this Jupiter-Regulus triple conjunction is the timing and galactic visual location. It played out during the 9 months between the two Jupiter-Venus conjunctions of August 12th and the upcoming June 17th conjunction. Last two of the triple conjunctions took place in the heart of Leo the Lion royal constellation.
June 17, 2 BC, as the sunlight faded away in the early evening western sky of Jerusalem, emerged the amazing sight. A reunion of Jupiter and Venus formed an occultation conjunction displaying an elongated, brilliant star more than twice the size of any other in the heavenly panorama. Amplified by being the two brightest planet-stars, “the star” would have been an impressive phenomenon to behold.
“Occultation” is an astronomy term referring to when one celestial object visually appears to move in front of another. Jupiter-Venus occultations are among the rarest – only 3 might have been visible to the naked eye from Jerusalem since 2 BC.
Rarer still, the Jupiter-Venus occultation occurred inside the Zodiac’s royal constellation of Leo the Lion, the natal sign of Judah. An occultation this close inside Leo only happens once about every 2000 years.
Modern software makes it possible to actually see the remarkably rare series of 3-2 BC conjunctions in an animated, time-lapsed recreation. The amazing heavenly pageant wows crowds and astronomers alike at planetarium observatory Christmas shows.
Magi expert astronomers undoubtedly saw these celestial phenomena compelling a quest traveling hundreds of miles. Advance knowledge of this upcoming event in the heavens may have been a sign that prompted the Magi to consult King Herod in Jerusalem immediately before the brilliant marvel arose.
The question is simple: is “His Star” witnessed by the Magi in Matthew the two Jupiter-Venus conjunctions on August 12, 3 BC, and June 17, 2 BC?
† Degrees ( ° ), arc minute ( ′ ), arc second ( ″ )
Updated November 21, 2022.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
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