What was the Star of Bethlehem—a nova? A planet? A star? A comet? And can any of these explain the Bible saying, "the star ... went ahead of [the magi] until it stopped over the place where the child was"?

Reading Time: 4 minutes

The Star of Bethlehem was (drum roll, please), the planet Jupiter! That fits the Matthew story best, according to the video The Star of Bethlehem by Rick Larson. But taking as a given that Matthew is history isn’t the objective route to truth, and we’ll get to that. First, let’s finish summarizing Larson’s argument.

In part 1, I listed the nine points needing explanations that Larson pulled from the magi/star story in Matthew 2. He claims that Jupiter is the key player in a story that the magi would’ve been able to interpret for its symbolic meaning. He identifies four events in his Bethlehem star scenario that extend for a little over a year beginning in 3 BCE.

1. Jupiter/Regulus conjunction

From a human standpoint, the stars in the sky seem fixed. Planets, however, gradually move against the fixed background of stars (the word “planet” comes from the Greek for “wanderers”). While they do move, and the magi could’ve known this, the motion is subtle. Only by looking night after night is this motion apparent.

Jupiter had not one but three conjunctions with Regulus (September of 3 BCE, then February the next year, and finally in May). Regulus is actually a four-star system, but the magi would have known it as a single, bright star in the constellation Leo.

Planets farther from the sun than earth (Mars and beyond) sometimes move backwards against the background of stars. This is called retrograde motion. For example, from the earth, Jupiter appears to move forward for nine months, backward for four months, and then forward again.

The three Jupiter/Regulus conjunctions are because of Jupiter’s retrograde motion. Looking at the symbolic meaning, the king planet Jupiter moved past the king star Regulus three times. Larson sees this looping motion as Jupiter crowning Regulus. And this happened in the constellation of the lion, the symbol of Judah (for example, “Like a lion [Judah] crouches and lies down, like a lioness—who dares to rouse him?” [Genesis 49:9–10]). He says that the magi would’ve known that Judah was getting a new king.

2. Revelation and the woman “clothed with the sun”

Revelation is full of unfamiliar symbolism, and Christians argue about precisely what it means. We’ll go with Larson’s interpretation.

A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon…. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.” (Revelation 12:1–5)

The woman is Mary, the child is Jesus, and the dragon is Herod (or Satan in the guise of Herod). On September 11 of 3 BCE, during the Jupiter/Regulus conjunction, the sun and moon are both in the constellation of Virgo. In other words, Virgo the virgin is clothed with the sun and has the moon at her feet (as mentioned in Revelation) while the king planet is crowning the king star in Judah’s constellation.

3. Jupiter/Venus conjunction

Next on the calendar was a very close Jupiter/Venus conjunction on June 17 of 2 BCE, so close that the distance separating them was about the apparent width of either planet. Specifically, they were about 40 seconds apart. (There are 60 seconds in a minute and 60 minutes in a degree and 360 degrees in a full circle. For comparison, a full moon is 30 minutes, or 1800 seconds, in diameter.)

The magi would’ve been familiar with conjunctions, and the remarkable thing about this conjunction wasn’t the brightness but the closeness. Conjunctions this close aren’t that rare astronomically, but they would’ve been unusual or unique in the lifetimes of these men.

4. The star stops over Bethlehem

The last element in this lightshow was the stopping of the star (Jupiter) over Bethlehem. Larson says that Jupiter’s switching directions from regular motion to retrograde or vice versa (there are two such switches every 13 months) counts as “stopping.” One of those “stopping” points was December 25 of 2 BCE (though he’s quick to state that this being Christmas day is just a coincidence, since the magi aren’t thought to have visited Jesus as a newborn).

Does this sound like an intriguing story? Don’t get your hopes up.


This is an interesting set of facts, but Larson benefits from 20/20 hindsight. He knows what he wants to find, so he scans the possibilities (and moves the date of Herod’s death to open up more possibilities) to find what he wants. The Bible’s nativity story is feeble evidence that any magi could or did draw the conclusions Larson would like.

Perhaps you’ve had some questions as you read along. Here are some that come to mind for me.

  • Revelation was written a century after Jesus’s birth. Who would marvel about seeing a fulfilled prophecy from Revelation before Revelation had ever been written?
  • How could the magi make the Leo = Judah connection and care enough about the tiny state of Judah to make a difficult trip but not know the Old Testament enough to know about the Bethlehem reference in Micah 5:2?
  • How can Jupiter be deliberately over anything on earth? It moves across the sky each night. From a vantage point in the Middle East, it’s “over” lots of things—pretty much everything to the south of you, depending on the time. Matthew says that “[the star] stopped over the place where the child was.” This could apply to Jupiter only if you had a precise moment at which to take its position. And only if the star were like Tinker Bell (rather than something that might as well be infinitely far away like Jupiter) could you identify “the place where the child was.”

Those questions and more discussed next in the critique.

It takes a certain maturity of mind
to accept that nature works
as steadily in rust
as in rose petals.
— Esther Warner Dendel

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CROSS EXAMINED After graduating from MIT, Bob Seidensticker designed digital hardware, and he is a co-contributor to 14 software patents. For more than a decade, he has explored the debate between Christianity...