The nature of the Star of Bethlehem has been discussed for centuries, if not millennia.
Look around the Web, and you will find a remarkable number of pages attributing it to a variety of astronomical causes or astrological interpretations. Other pages hypothesise a paranormal cause, while still others state that we will probably never know what it was.
In fact there is ample evidence of the true nature of the Star of Bethlehem. But as even those pages that identify it correctly fail to give an adequate presentation of the evidence, I decided to see if I could do better myself.
To understand the Star of Bethlehem, it is necessary to examine it in the context of the New Testament as a whole, and the nativity story in particular.
Anyone who takes a careful look at what the New Testament tells us about the nativity story, can hardly fail to be struck by one simple fact: most of the writers never mention it.
Consider for a moment how odd this is. We have a group of people in the early church, trying to demonstrate to a sceptical Jewish audience that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah (in Greek: the Christus). We have as prime evidence – second in importance only to the resurrection – the story of the birth of Jesus, where he was visited by angels announcing him as the Christ, and wise men from the East doing the same. And yet look at the writings of Peter and Paul and Mark and John: none of them ever referred to the story at all!
Given the obvious importance of the story, there are just two reasonable explanations for their silence: either they had never heard the story, or else they didn’t believe it.
Only Matthew and Luke mention the nativity. Let us look at their stories.
When referring to Matthew I should call him “the author of the gospel attributed to Matthew” or place “Matthew” in inverted commas each time, as the manuscript is anonymous, and there is no good reason to suppose the author was actually called Matthew. The same is true of the other gospels as well. But as this gets tiresome, I will simply refer to the authors by their traditional names.
When one looks at the stories of Matthew and Luke, it is immediately apparent that one cannot speak of the nativity story. There are two stories, with almost nothing in common – apart from two points that I will address shortly. For example:
These differences are already hard to reconcile with the idea that we are dealing with a factual account. How could Matthew know only one half of the story and Luke the other half? Are we to suppose that one group of neighbours saw the shepherds and angels and preserved the story for decades before it was eventually passed on to Luke? While another group saw only the wise men and preserved the story for decades before it was eventually passed on to Matthew? And that neither group spoke to the other in all those decades?
Did Mary and Joseph speak to the apostles or early church members about the birth of their son? If they did, why didn’t Luke mention the wise men, and why didn’t Matthew mention the angels and shepherds? If they didn’t, where did the stories of the annunciation come from? Credibility is already been stretched.
But it gets worse: there are also clear contradictions.
It is evident that at least one of the stories must be fictional, and indeed likely that both are.
There is further evidence against Matthew’s story being a factual account.
Firstly, the strange tension between verses 1-17 and verses 18-22 of the opening chapter. Matthew starts with a grand genealogy demonstrating Jesus’s descendancy from Abraham and David – and then tells us that the genealogy is irrelevant because Jesus is not actually the son of Joseph. This looks like an amalgamation of two different stories, not a single factual account.
Secondly, take the story of Herod being tricked by the wise men, who did not come back and tell him where (and who) Jesus was. Is this likely? If Herod seriously believed the story of a pretender, and wanted to know who he was, he would surely have sent a lieutenant of his with the wise men. After all, Bethlehem is only a few miles from Jerusalem. Why would a despotic ruler trust some people who he had never met before?
Thirdly the massacre of the infants. Herod was not a nice character, and a lot of his misdeeds have been documented. But killing all the male infants of a city would have been extreme even for him. No such event has been recorded, other than in Matthew’s brief note. It is scarcely credible that his worst misdeed would have gone otherwise unrecorded.
Fourthly, the flight into Egypt. Why should Joseph and Mary go all that way? Leaving the Bethlehem region would have been enough. To be on the safe side, a journey of only about 20 miles eastwards or southwards would have taken them out of Herod’s kingdom altogether. Why go to Egypt? The only reason given by Matthew was to fulfil a supposed prophecy: “Out of Egypt have I called my son”. This is a very weak reason to start with, and it disappears completely when one realises there is no prophecy to fulfil. The only place a similar phrase occurs is Hosea chapter 11. And even a quick examination of Hosea makes it obvious that the passage is not a prophecy at all, but a reference to the Exodus.
Fifthly, the journey to Nazareth in Galilee. The reason Matthew gives for this was that Joseph was afraid to return to Bethlehem because it was ruled by one of Herod’s sons. What Matthew either didn’t know, or hoped his readers didn’t know, was that Galilee was also ruled by one of Herod’s sons! The story as given makes no sense.
Sixthly, Matthew’s claimed prophecy “He shall be called a Nazarene”, that was supposedly fulfilled by Jesus going to live in Nazareth. There are three problems with this:
Seventhly, the absence of information about Jesus’ life between his infancy and the start of his ministry, which Luke places at about age thirty. Luke gives us a single anecdote; the other three gospel writers give us nothing. Apparently we are supposed to believe that, after someone had been announced with supernatural phenomena as the son of God, nobody thought it worthwhile to note anything about his life for the next thirty years. When you consider the detail in which the lives of heirs to thrones get recorded, even in these days when monarchs are no longer considered to reign by divine fiat, this is obviously incredible.
(In addition, note that John 8:57 refers to Jesus as being “not yet fifty years old”. This implies that John thought that Jesus was in his forties, and not about thirty as Luke states. This reinforces the idea that the gospel writers actually had little idea when Jesus was born.)
Finally, I must refer to one of the most notorious quotations in the bible (Matthew 1:22-23):
Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, “Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.”
This refers to Isaiah chapter 7. Most comments on this quotation refer to the fact that the original Hebrew word almah means ‘young woman’ not ‘virgin’. That is not terribly important for this discussion, as the mistranslation originated in the Septuagint translation, well before Matthew’s time. Far more important here however is that chapters 7 and 8 of Isaiah are clearly talking about the time of the Assyrian empire, some six centuries before the time of Herod and Pilate. Isaiah’s prophecy most certainly has no connection whatever with Jesus. This again shows that Matthew was simply not interested in accuracy.
In summary then: in the brief space of 48 verses, Matthew has four points which are inconsistent with Luke’s version, five points which directly contradict Luke, and eight further points which are either highly implausible or manifestly inaccurate.
Clearly, it is overwhelmingly more likely that Matthew’s story is a piece of (post-crucifixion) fiction, or rather religious propaganda, than a factual account. (The same is pretty much true of Luke’s version, but here I am concentrating on the Star, which Luke does not mention.)
In the unlikely event that you are still resisting the idea that Matthew might include fictional elements in his gospel, let us look at the later chapters.
In both chapters 27 and 28 Matthew reports earthquakes – the second one is even a “great” earthquake – which seem to have completely escaped the attention of all the other inhabitants of the area, and also of the other gospel writers. More fantastic still is the remarkable passage 27:52-53:
And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, and came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.
But apparently the “many” were so unimpressed that they found no need to tell anyone about it! And even Matthew found it unnecessary to tell us any more about this extraordinary spectacle.
Clearly these are pieces of decorative fantasy, tossed out as casually as Mozart might adorn his music with a trill or an acciaccatura.
Returning to the nativity, Matthew deftly undermines his own credibility. Remember that Jesus’ birth was announced by angels, wise men and a star, and inspired Herod to mass infanticide? Yet oddly enough a few years later no-one could remember any of it (13:54-57), not even Herod’s heir (14:1-2).
The point which finally and definitively clinches the fictional nature of the nativity stories is the fact that we can determine why they were written in the first place. This becomes apparent when one considers one of the only two points that the two stories have in common. Both stories state that Jesus of Nazareth was born in Bethlehem.
We know from Old Testament, New Testament and extra-biblical sources that those Jews who were expecting a Messiah, were expecting him to come from Bethlehem, this being the city of David. When Mark wrote his gospel – the first of the four – the story was not universally well received in the Jewish community. See for example John (chapter 7):
“Many of the people therefore, when they heard this saying, said, Of a truth this is the Prophet. Others said, This is the Christ. But some said, Shall Christ come out of Galilee? Hath not the scripture said, That Christ cometh of the seed of David, and out of the town of Bethlehem, where David was? So there was a division among the people because of him.”
Faced with this, Matthew and Luke clearly decided independently of each other to include in their gospels a story in which Jesus was actually born in Bethlehem, in spite of growing up in Galilee. Similarly they both decided to add supernatural aspects (the angels in the case of Luke, the star leading the way in Matthew, the virgin birth in both) to strengthen Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah. In this light it is not surprising that the two stories have almost nothing in common.
It appears however that Matthew and Luke did not entirely invent their nativity stories themselves. Intriguing parallels have been pointed out between the life of Jesus and the legendary lives of Krishna (dating back about nine centuries BC) and Buddha (about six centuries BC). Particularly of interest here are:
Literal truth was not what mattered to Matthew – what mattered was a good story.
Religious people often accuse people who analyse religious documents of being closed-minded with respect to supernatural matters: of refusing to admit even the possibility of supernatural events.
Actually that is often unfair. Sceptics note that fantasy, propaganda (also known as advertising), misunderstanding, delusion and fraud are all commonplace, while supernatural events are not. One therefore only needs to even consider the possibility of a supernatural event if it is so well documented that fantasy, propaganda, misunderstanding, delusion and fraud are all excluded.
In fact you will have noticed that in my discussion above I made no reference whatever to the improbability of supernatural events. But now I will indeed note that in respect of the virgin birth, angels and the guiding star, the available documentation is miserably inadequate to establish their reality. All we have is the text of the gospels, and the brief notes they make of these events are superficial in the extreme.
I might describe this as the final nail in the coffin of the story, had this coffin not already been buried too deep for remedial carpentry.
So there you have it. The Star of Bethlehem does not need to be identified with any astronomical or astrological occurrence, nor do we need to fall back on the “we don’t know, it’s just whatever you choose to believe” position. There is abundant evidence, and it reveals the Star of Bethlehem to be, far beyond reasonable doubt, a piece of fiction.
All the books and essays calling attention to a particular planetary conjunction or opposition, or some astrological configuration, or hypothesising a nova, are not so much wrong (though they may well be that) as simply irrelevant. There is no need to explain something which did not happen.
The sources I have used for this essay are:
For a truly exhaustive analysis of the dating issue, including the various (more or less desperate) arguments put up by apologists, see an essay which I came across recently: The Date of the Nativity in Luke by Richard Carrier.
After writing this essay I received a number of responses from ardent Christians which said that it was “full of errors” (or less polite and rather unchristian expressions). Oddly enough, none of those correspondents were able to point out what any of these errors were.
Since then, perhaps encouraged by an early version of this section, some more correspondents have offered actual arguments against my essay. (One even went so far as to say “almost every sentence on this webpage will be refuted”.) But most of the arguments offered so far have been exceedingly weak, some of them even blatantly contradicting the text of the story they are supposed to be supporting.
Nonetheless, if you think you have indeed found any errors on this page, do please tell me what they are – but do please take the trouble to check your facts first.
Just one argument raised so far deserves more attention. That is the claim that there is nothing very strange about Paul, Mark and John ignoring the birth of Jesus, since they didn’t feel the need to replicate everything written in other documents, and just wrote down the aspects they found most important. This point is not the most important point of my essay, but in any case the argument fails for a number of reasons:
I will also discuss two other arguments; the arguments themselves are not worthy of attention, but the fact that they are made at all is. Both have been made by more than one correspondent. Indeed they seem to be a common idea in certain circles.
The first one is the idea that the genealogy given in Luke is the genealogy of Mary, not of Joseph. The argument itself can immediately be seen to be silly. The relevant passage in Luke runs:
And Jesus himself began to be about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph, which was the son of Heli, which was the son of Matthat, which was the son of Levi ...
In other words it is clearly and explicitly a genealogy of Joseph, not of Mary.
So why do people claim this? It seems that in their desperation to prove that the bible is inerrant, fundamentalists will resort to any argument, however detached from reality. Scientists, historians and indeed reputable scholars in every field start with evidence and work from that to conclusions. If subsequent evidence doesn’t fit, they adjust their conclusions accordingly. Defenders of the accuracy of the bible, however, start with their conclusions and invent whatever evidence seems necessary to support them. While people who trust these apologists accept the arguments without taking the trouble to verify them themselves.
The second argument is another example of this: the idea of resolving the location of Jesus’ birth by stating that he was born in a stable and then moved to a house by the time the wise men arrived. One could immediately point out some objections (when? whose house was it? why didn’t they go there directly? how does this tie up with Luke's story?) but this would be to miss the point. The point is that there is not a trace of evidence to support this assertion, either in the bible or elsewhere. So the conclusion is: religious people today think that you can rescue the veracity of a story by inventing a new piece of fiction to fill in the gaps.
And that, dear reader, is precisely how the nativity stories came to be written in the first place.