BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

24 September 2014
BBC NorfolkBBC Norfolk

BBC Homepage
» Norfolk

Contact Us

Graphic: You are in Norfolk > KidsGo to Norfolk homepageGo to kids index

Graphic: What was the Star of Bethlehem?
Pic: Mark Lawrik-Thompson
Norfolk astronomer and Chairman of the Norwich Astronomical Society Mark Lawrik-Thompson writes about the Star of Bethlehem.

Picture: a nova star in a neighbouring galaxy
A nova star in a neighbouring galaxy

What was the Star of Bethlehem? Did the star really exist?

Find out more with our kids' guide to astronomy by local astronomer Mark Lawrik-Thompson.

Graphic: Internet links
CBBC Homepage
BBC Space
BBC Four: Light Fantastic
Norwich Astronomical Society
Breckland Astronomical Society
North Norfolk Astronomical Society
Heavens Above
NASA for kids

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites

Graphic: Have your say

Have you seen something interesting in the skies?

If so, we'd love to hear from you! E-mail

Grahpic: Check this out

Astronomy index

Make a rocket

Venus passes in front of the Sun

Planet Jupiter

Planet Mars

Planet Saturn

Planet Venus

The outer planets

The Moon

The Sun

The Star of Bethlehem

Ask the astronomer

Your questions answered

Make a sundial

National Astronomy Week in pictures

Graphic: Print this page
print friendly version of this page.View print friendly version of this page

As children, we all learned about the Star of Bethlehem at school.

Many of us remember hearing how the three wise men followed the star, which led them to baby Jesus.

For many centuries, scientists and historians have used mathematics and biblical writings to try and understand its origin.

It's only now that we can truly start to understand exactly what it might have been.


With modern computer software, it's easy for astronomers to calculate the positions of stars thousands of years ago, at the click of a button.

Before computers, ancient astronomers had to plot the stars and planets using nothing more than paper, ink and lots of calculations.

It would often take them days to make one plot representing one instance of time.

Now we can use software that will do the same thing in seconds.

The Star of Bethlehem

Picture: The Nativity church in Bethlehem
The Nativity church in Bethlehem, Israel

We can get some very important pointers to the origin of the Star of Bethlehem from the Bible.

The wise men said "We saw his star in the east," they didn't say "We saw his star whilst we were in the east".

This tells us that the star they saw was rising in the east, just as most celestial objects do.

They then believed from this that a king had been born, so whatever they saw suggests it represented the birth of someone important.

Later the bible refers to King Herod asking the Wise Men the exact time the star appeared.

This suggests that the star did actually just appear, rather than being an object that can always be seen in the sky.

Herod then sent the wise men to find the child. The bible goes on to say:

"They went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was."

The moving star

Is all this possible? Did a star guide them there? Possibly not!

Bethlehem is, and was, only about five miles south from Jerusalem on the main road.

Picture: space
Our galaxy

So the star wasn't really needed to guide them to Bethlehem - they'd have had quite a job to miss it.

If the star had moved like all other night sky objects, then it could easily lay south by the time they reached Jerusalem, having moved from its position in the east as it rose.

As they travelled to Bethlehem, the star would have stayed roughly ahead of them, heading south.

Finally, and much more crucially, it stopped over Bethlehem. Another way to interpret this is that the star stopped shining when they reached Bethlehem.

What was the star?

So, with all that information what could the star have possibly been?

The most popular hypothesis explains how it could have been a nova. A nova is simply an exploding star.

If it was nearby, then it would certainly have been rather bright in the sky. They do suddenly appear, as if by magic and do often disappear as quickly.

So could the Star of Bethlehem have just been an exploding star that just happened to 'lead' the wise men to Bethlehem?

Science seems to think so but we may never know for certain.


Check out more astronomy stuff here »

jump to homepage.
jump to kids index.
send an e-mail to the BBC website for Norfolk.
jump to top of page.
Graphic: More Norfolk kids

Picture: Lydia: link.

Book review: The Inventors

Jake pops back home

Gardening with grandpa Gipp

Graphic: Not to be missed

Norfolk has loads of cool stuff for kids to do. Check out what's on offer and enjoy these features.
Graphic: Stuff to do and make

Looking for stuff to do at home or with your mates? Try these makes and science experiments.
Graphic: Live webchat with Chris Rankin: link

Weasley webchat: What did you ask actor Chris Rankin?
Graphic: A-Z of Norfolk Science: link

Amazing scientific facts and features where you live

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy