Episode 1:
The First Step in Solving the Mystery
5 minutes total running time

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Secrets of the Christmas Star 

What was the Star of Bethlehem? Was it a planetary conjunction, a supernova outburst, a comet, or a Sign from God? In this short and fascinating audio series, Astronomer Bill will take you on a scientific adventure of Biblical Proportions.

The First Step in Solving the Mystery

New knowledge of the old astrological beliefs and modern computer-based planetary tables may yet shed new light on this age-old question. But before going back in time to explore the possible answers, one needs to understand the many problems behind the questions.

Matthew is the only one of the four gospels which mentions either the Star of Bethlehem or the magi. The Gospel of Mark, considered by modern text scholars to be the oldest of the Gospels, does not include a nativity narrative or any hint that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. The author of the Gospel of John also appears to be unaware of the Bethlehem nativity narratives. The Gospels often described Jesus as "of Nazareth," but never as "of Bethlehem". Many scholars have concluded that Jesus was probably born in Nazareth and that the nativity narratives are influenced by the desire of the Gospel writers to portray his birth as a fulfillment a prophecy in the Book of Micah concerning a Bethlehem birth. [story continues below]

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Christmas Star Star of Bethelehem

HOLIDAY SPECIAL: Receive a FREE audio CD of the Secrets of the Christmas Star when you name a galaxy.  > learn more

Christmas Star Episode 1
The first step in solving the mystery.

Christmas Star Episode 2
Was the Star of Bethlehem a meteor or a comet? Astronomer Bill finally lays some theories to rest.

Christmas Star Episode 3
Was the Star of Bethlehem an exploding star -- a nova or supernova outburst?

Christmas Star Episode 4
Was the Star of Bethlehem a planetary conjunction?

Christmas Star Episode 5
What the 3 Wise Men most likely saw in the evening sky on the night of Jesus' birth.

Matthew's description of the miracles and portents attending the birth of Jesus can be compared to stories concerning the birth of Augustus, the first Roman emperor. Linking a birth to the first appearance of a star was consistent with the popular belief each person's life was linked to a particular star. Magi and astronomical events were linked in the public mind by the visit to Rome of a delegation of magi at the time of a spectacular appearance of Halley's Comet in AD 66.

There are many other factors that contribute to the puzzle, including the uncertainty in the actual date of Christ's birth and the terminology used to describe celestial events during the Stars appearance some 20 centuries ago. For instance, any heavenly object bright enough to attract attention was apt to be called a "star." Meteors, for instance, were "shooting" or "falling " stars; comets were "hairy" stars; novae were "new" stars and planets were "wandering" stars.

Which event is most plausible as an explanation of the Star of Bethlehem depends on which year is accepted as the year Jesus was born. Matthew wrote that Jesus was born when Herod was king. According to Josephus, Herod died shortly after a lunar eclipse. This is usually identified as the eclipse of March 13, 4 BC. Coins issued by Herod's successors show that they dated their reigns as beginning in 4 BC.

According to Matthew's account, Jesus must have been born sometime between the first appearance of the Star of Bethlehem and the time the magi arrived in Herod's court. As Herod ordered the execution of boys age 2 and under, the star must have made its first appearance within the previous two years. There was, however, no Roman census in 64 BC.

The Star of Bethlehem, also called the Christmas Star, is a star in Christian tradition that supposedly revealed the birth of Jesus to the magi (or "wise men") and later led them to Bethlehem. According to the Gospel of Matthew, the magi were men "from the east" who were inspired by the appearance of the star to travel to Jerusalem in search of a king of the Jews. There they met King Herod of Judea, who advised them that the child they sought was in Bethlehem, a nearby village. While the magi were on their way to Bethlehem, the star appeared again. Following the star, it stopped this time above the place where Jesus was born. The magi found Jesus with his mother, paid him homage, worshipped him and gave gifts. They then returned to their "own country".

The subject is a favorite at planetarium shows during the Christmas season, although the Biblical account suggests that the visit of the magi took place at least several months after Jesus was born

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Christmas Star of Bethlehem

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