The Mystery of the Star of Bethlehem

For more than two millennia, the Star of Bethlehem, which guided the Magi to the city where Jesus was born, has been rousing the curiosity of researchers worldwide.

Detail of the 6th-century nave mosaic — which depicts the Three Magi wearing trousers and Phrygian caps as a sign of their Asian origin — in the Basilica of Sant' Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy.
Detail of the 6th-century nave mosaic — which depicts the Three Magi wearing trousers and Phrygian caps as a sign of their Asian origin — in the Basilica of Sant' Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy. (photo: Register Files)

“And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was…” (Matthew 2:7).

The Star of Bethlehem, mentioned in St. Matthew’s Gospel, is one of the main symbols associated with Jesus’ birth, embodying the light of hope of salvation in the midst of darkness. But beyond its symbolism, this star is also an exhaustible subject of debate as a scientific phenomenon.

Was it a historical event or only a pious fiction invented by St. Matthew? And if it was a historical event, how can we scientifically explain the occurrence of this exceptional astronomical event? Such questions have given rise to many different interpretations over the centuries.

Moreover, as it is difficult to determine with certainty the exact year of the Nativity, a scientific explanation of the phenomenon would also be a potential time marker to help pinpoint the date of Christ’s birth.

According to a calculation by German astronomer Johannes Kepler in the 16th century, an extremely rare conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn occurred three times in the constellation Pisces in 7 B.C., appearing to observers as a single luminous star. This would coincide with St. Matthew’s description of the celestial body appearing, disappearing and then reappearing to the Magi. A century earlier, Portuguese Rabbi Isaac Abravanel had already claimed that this specific kind of conjunction triggered the birth of the Messiah.   

This theory gained more credibility in 1925, when German orientalist Paul Schnabel deciphered ancient cuneiform tablets from the astronomical school of the Babylonian city of Sippar, which described the exact same astronomical conjunction in 7 B.C.

“This is a good theory,” Father Giulio Maspero, a physicist and theologian at the pontifical University of the Holy Cross, told EWTN, mentioning other plausible scientific explanations, including the possibility of a comet.

“Another theory, which may be shocking for us, is that the star was an angel. So, no astronomy here, but just a spiritual light that accompanies the Three Wise Men along their path,” he said. Father Maspero says this explanation is “coherent with the whole narrative,” as Bethlehem was filled with angels who were “proclaiming the glory of Jesus and announcing to the shepherds what was happening there”.

There is also the possibility of an appearance of a nova or the explosion of a supernova around 5 B.C., as suggested by several Chinese and Korean astronomer’s chronicles, but this has never been definitively determined.


The Spiritual Strength of Mystery

For Brother Guy Consolmagno, astronomer and director of the Vatican Astronomical Observatory, the importance of the shining Star of the Holy Night lies above all in the fact that it shows that the physical universe can be used to get closer to God.

“We don’t know whether Matthew was intending this to be a pious story to show that Christ was even more significant than Augustus, who had used astrology to say that he had to be an emperor, or if he was describing a real star or a real astronomical event, or if it was something totally miraculous and we will never know until we can interview St. Mathew himself and find out!” he said.

But if there is no definitive scientific conclusion regarding the nature of the Star, the mystery surrounding this story makes it even more powerful for Christians.

“We have to read the symbols, we need to look at the narrative, otherwise we cannot catch the true meaning of what God is saying to us,” Father Maspero said, adding that everything in the Gospel is a mystery.

And the universality of redemption and assurance that God always answers those who seek him is the central meaning of the Christmas Star — a symbol that shouldn’t be distorted by an excess of scientism.