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Last updated: 08 May 2006 1141 BST
Pic: Mark Lawrik-Thompson
Graphic: What was the Star of Bethlehem?
Norfolk astronomer and Chairman of the Norwich Astronomical Society Mark 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 Thompson.


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.

Calculations

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 »

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See also
 

On this site

Astronomy index

Ask the astronomer

International Space Station

Make a rocket

Make a sundial

New Planet

Planet Jupiter

Planet Mars

The Moon

Planets Pluto, Neptune and Uranus

Planet Saturn

Planet Venus

The Star of Bethlehem

The Sun

Your questions answered

Venus passes in front of the Sun

On bbc.co.uk

BBC Space

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On the rest of the web

Norwich Astronomical Society

Breckland Astronomical Society

North Norfolk Astronomical Society

NASA for kids

Inspire Science Centre


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