It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Where stores are decked out in garlands and bows, aisles of ornaments glisten and glow, and rolls of gift wrap rise like hands to be chosen. Inevitably, tucked somewhere in the sea of snowmen and reindeer, sits the familiar image of three wise men and their guiding star.
This same scene also appears on Christmas cards, window clings, and other holiday décor. So it’s no surprise, then, that people begin to wonder what the bright light was that led the magi to Bethlehem. A supernova? A regular nova? A ’67 Nova?
Over the centuries a number of explanations have been brought forth, adjusted, expanded, or scrapped altogether. The latest theory to grab people’s attention is presented in Rick Larson’s DVD documentary The Star of Bethlehem. The film has been seen by tens of millions of people worldwide, and producers hope to further broaden their audience by developing children’s books. (Their Facebook page indicates two are currently in production.)
Recently emails and letters started flowing in to RTB asking for our perspective on The Star of Bethlehem—specifically regarding the science. (Larson, an amateur astronomer, holds a BA in philosophy and a Juris Doctor degree.) So I sat down with a few members of RTB’s scholar team, astronomer Hugh Ross, astrophysicist Jeff Zweerink, and philosopher/theologian Kenneth Samples, to get their observations on this überpopular film.
What is the basic premise of Larson’s argument and how does it differ from previously established theories?
Jeff: Larson’s basic premise is that a 3 BC conjunction of Jupiter (the “king” planet) and Regulus (the “king” star) marked Jesus’ conception and a later conjunction of Jupiter and Venus (in 2 BC) marked his birth. Larson then argues that, after the magi had traveled to Jerusalem, Jupiter reached a stopping point in its retrograde motion. At this point, according to Larson, Jupiter would have led the magi south from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.
The main difference between Larson’s model and other theories is the date (most historians contend that Herod died in 4 BC but Larson argues for 1 BC) and the types of astronomical phenomena involved. Larson argues for conjunctions, but others suggest a nova-type event where a star would appear for a while, disappear, and then reappear later.
How does Larson come up with a date of 1 BC for King Herod’s death?
Jeff: As I mentioned before, most historians date Herod’s death in 4 BC based primarily on the works of Flavius Josephus. (This date places Jesus’ birth earlier than 3 BC.) Larson argues (based on research from an unnamed scholar) that a “printing or copying error” around 1544 produced an erroneous date of 4 BC and that, prior to 1544, Josephus’ writings would have given a 1 BC date for Herod’s death.
Larson lists nine characteristics any proposed astronomical explanation for the star must meet. How accurately has he identified and described the essential characteristics?
Hugh: Most of the nine criteria Larson lists seem valid, although Daniel prophesied the Messiah’s “coming” without mentioning “birth,” specifically. The Hebrew word is more general. Here are a few criteria I’d consider adding to Larson’s list:
- The Greek word used in the relevant passages is aster, in the singular, which seems to suggest a single heavenly object.
- Given that the shepherds, Herod’s court, and the Jewish religious leaders took no notice of the star’s appearance, it must have been a more subtle astronomical sign, or event, than the planetary conjunction proposed. This subtlety seems supported by the lack of any mention of the star (or event) in extra-biblical records.
- The star’s reappearance most likely followed its first appearance by at least eighteen months (rather than nine) to account for Herod’s command to kill baby boys aged two years and younger.
What astronomical events may meet these criteria?
Jeff: The two dominant classes of models use either conjunctions or novae to explain the Christmas star. Each have strengths and weaknesses. It seems like the determining factor is what type of event would have attracted the attention of the magi but seemed unimportant to the Israelites living in the promised land.
What are the theological concerns with how Larson develops his theory?
Ken: I’m a little uneasy with how he interprets Scripture. For example, in Romans 10:18 Paul quotes David, saying “Their voice has gone out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.” Larson suggests that Paul is saying to the Jews that they would have known the Messiah has come by looking at the stars. Yet most biblical commentators say this is an analogy and that Paul is instead referring to a universal gospel proclamation going out through the apostles, first to the Jews then to the Gentiles. It seems Larson is using a nonstandard interpretation of Scripture to read more into the stars than is warranted.
With the understanding that there will be personal variances, what is RTB’s general assessment of Larson’s theory?
Hugh: Larson’s theory about the star as a conjunction of planets is not new, nor is it original to Larson (as he seems to suggest). From an historical perspective, it requires an unsupported “late” date for Christ’s birth. From an astronomical perspective, it appeals to astronomical events that would have been familiar to the shepherds, Herod’s court, and the Jewish religious leaders, all of whom were totally unaware, according to the text.
So there may not be a definitive answer to the Christmas star question, but this helps consider what it is or isn’t. What we do know, however, is that this astronomical event led the magi to the Christ child. Once there, they bowed down and worshipped Him. As Christmas approaches, families and faith communities might use discussions about the star of Bethlehem as a reminder to seek out and worship our Savior.