Christmas Special — The Star of Bethlehem

Uncover the truth about Jesus' birth date. Explore historical records and astronomical clues in this intriguing investigation.

All who celebrate Christmas, do so on the 25th December each year. This date marks Jesus' birth in a manger somewhere in Bethlehem. It was a major event, prophesied and expected for a long time and it had a profound effect on the way the modern world unfolded. For one, Jesus birth gave rise to the Julian and Gregorian calendars, the primary system of global timekeeping today. But the big question is: Was Jesus really born on 25th December in the years spanning 1 BC to 1 AD? In this show, we investigate Biblical texts, historical records and astronomical events to find out if we can get a better handle on the actual date of Jesus' birth.


Thomas Budge asks the awkward questions you would like to ask, he pokes holes in rigid belief systems, and challenges the way the world taught us to think. His aim is to stimulate debate and encourage lateral thinking, so it's okay if this podcast occasionally makes you feel a little uncomfortable.

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Any iconic Christmas card has one or more of the following symbols: a bright star; a baby in a manger; proud parents; and three richly dressed, wise men, bearing gifts for the newborn infant. These symbols represent the heart of the nativity scene, a moment in Christian history that had been prophesised for a very long time. It was the birth of the King of the Jews, God's only begotten son, descended to Earth and now in human form. The belief is that only through his death and resurrection, are humans reconciled to God.

As important as this date is on the Christian calendar, there is quite a bit of controversy as to whether Jesus is indeed the prophesised Messiah or not. Islam recognises and reveres Jesus as a prophet and as a man who lived in holiness and free of sin. The Jewish view of Jesus is that he was an ordinary Jewish man and a preacher living during the Roman occupation of Israel. Most historian scholars who wrote on the subject agree that Jesus existed but many of them contend that he was a Galilean Jew who lived in a time of messianic and apocalyptic expectations. From the evidence at hand, we can accept the fact that Jesus lived on earth some two thousand years ago, and that he was a very influential character in history.

Science will always be at odds with Christian religion over the beliefs about Jesus' virginal birth, his claim to be God's only son in human form, Jesus ability to perform miracles and of course and his resurrection from the dead. Where one branch of science (astronomy) can offer some help is in solving the puzzle as to the actual date of Jesus' birth. What is not certain is exactly when he was born. The popularly accepted date is 25th December, in the transition between 1 BC and 1 AD but is there any evidence to back this up? I have had a long association with the Johannesburg Planetarium and have given many public lectures there on astronomy. One of the popular topics presented over the years during the Festive Season is a show that tries to solve this puzzle.

Astronomy is the scientific study of the stars and planets and it plays a significant role when figuring out the date of Jesus' birth. Why so? Because there is one shared link between astronomy and the Biblical account of Jesus' birth — the Star of Bethlehem.

If astronomy can shed some information about what this star could have been, then that information might help us to pinpoint Jesus' birthday.

Our first reference on our quest for knowledge about the Star of Bethlehem has to be the Bible itself because it is here where we find reference to this unusual star, (Matthew 2:1-9 New King James Version):

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, "Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him." When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. So they said to him, "In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet: 'But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are not the least among the rulers of Judah; For out of you shall come a Ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.'" Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also." When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was.


What facts do we glean from this record?

The Bible refers to a phenomenon and we can presume from this that it was some unknown star-like object seen somewhere in the night sky. It was not a willow-the-wisp luminous ball of gas that moved across the surface of the ground and seems to be celestial and star-like.

The star was an omen or portent of some major importance. It seems from the Biblical passages that the wise men became aware of this phenomenon some time before the child's birth and they decided to take the journey to Israel based on the significance of the omen. It would not have been an easy journey. Crossing the Arabian dessert might have been difficult and so their route would have taken them along an arc through what is now Syria, near to the Turkish border. The mysterious object which they saw in the East guided them.

Babylon was the ancient capital of the Mesopotamian world, situated almost due east of Jerusalem some 885km away as the crow flies. The runes of this ancient city lie near the town of Hillah in Iraq. The short account in the Bible neither explains where these wise men originated, nor does say how many there were that took the journey to Jerusalem. As time passed, traditions around Christmas have become increasingly embellished. Today, it is popularly believed that there were three wise men but the Bible doesn't tell us their actual number. The count of three is an assumption based on the number of gifts they bared. These were men of great learning with enough reputation to have Herod consult with them. Some versions of the Bible refer to these wise men as the Magi. The word is a Latinised form of the Greek word magoi, transliterated from the Persian, designating a select sect of priests. We derive our word magic from the same root. The Magi were Kurdish priests credited with profound and extraordinary religious knowledge and were established over the state of religion in Persia. It is very unlikely that they would have arrived stealthily, instead, their sudden appearance in Jerusalem, traveling in force with all imaginable oriental pomp and accompanied by an adequate cavalry escort to insure their safe penetration of Roman territory, certainly would have alarmed Herod and the populace of Jerusalem.

The star appeared to move across the sky (no direction given), leading the wise men to the new-born Jesus. They seem to have arrived in Jerusalem a while after the infant had been born. We don't know how long it was and it could have been days or weeks later. Herod desperately wanted precise details about the infant's birth and consulted with the wise men. Of importance was the time and place of the birth.

One last fact we take from biblical accounts is a timeframe in which all of this happened. The scriptures tell us that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great. Herod was a Roman client king of Judea who reigned from 37 BC until his death in 4 BC. Some say that he died in 1 BC which would then extend the timeframe a little. So concerned was Herod that Jesus posed a political threat, that he ordered the infanticidal murder of all young boys under the age of two years. Herod must have used the Magi's information to calculate Jesus age and we can assume that Jesus might have been just under two when Herod made this order to kill the young boys.

But the Bible (Luke 2:1-5) also explains why Joseph and Mary made their trip to Bethlehem. They were traveling because Caesar Augustus wanted everyone to register in their own town. The Roman census dates around this time were in 28 BC, 8 BC and again in 14 AD. This census had to be within the timeframe of Herod's rule. We can safely say that the census in which Joseph and Mary participated was that of 8 BC. This narrows our time window for Jesus' birth down to the period 8 BC to 1 BC.

Given these rudimentary facts, we can now seek a possible astronomical event within our time span of 8 BC to 1 BC that might have been the Star of Bethlehem phenomenon which caught the Magi's attention.


The first type of celestial object worth investigating are comets. They sometimes put on a magnificent display in the night sky; they don't hang around for too long; and they're easily seen. One of the most famous comets of all time is Haley's comet. It makes regular appearances in the night sky every 75-76 years. Haley's comet made a spectacular appearance in the first half of 1910 because it and the Earth were close to each other at the time. The 20th April 1910 marked the midpoint of this most amazing display. But Haley's comet has been around for a very long time and early Chinese records catalogue its appearance as early as 240 BC. There are also other recorded apparitions (that's the astronomical term for a comets appearance) of Haley's comet: its 1066 AD apparition is depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry; its 1301 apparition is linked with the Magi in Giotto's painting, "The adoration of the Magi" and there are historical records of Halley's 1456 apparition in Kashmir and Ethiopia. Some believe that Haley's comet is the Star of Bethlehem but sadly, its apparitions don't coincide with our flipchart. We know that Jesus was born somewhere during Herod's reign in the timeframe 37—1 BC and Haley's comet made its apparition between August and October 12 BCE and then again in January 66 AD. These apparitions of Haley's comet can't therefor be the Star of Bethlehem.

But Haley's comet is not the only comet to pass by the Earth. Could the Star of Bethlehem have been a different comet? Astrologers for thousands of years have always seen comets as representing key portents. The word 'comet' derives from the Latin word 'cometes', which originates from the Greek word κόμη (komÄ“) whose original meaning is 'the hair on one's head'. In 340-341 BC and 60 AD, there were hurricanes when comets passed by, and in 373-372 BC there were earthquakes and tsunamis as comets slid through the sky. Aristotle believed that comets were an indicator of climate. From the Roman Empire onwards, comets became the symbol of another kind of disaster, the human-related one — death, riots, wars and slaughter, the death of a king or noble being are the ones that caught most attention. Up into medieval times, comets were the symbol of evil power which brought forth natural disasters, human-related disorders. In 684 AD when Halley's Comet passed by, there was a three-month rainstorm and an outbreak of the Black Death. So one of our big problems with a comet being the Star of Bethlehem is that they are nearly always associated with death or some other bad happening. They never signify a birth or the start of something good! Besides which, the idea of a comet being the Star of Bethlehem is a relatively new idea that crept into people's minds only after the Italian Renaissance painter Giotto di Bondone painted the Nativity (in about 1305) showing a star that looked like a comet.

Our best source of cometary data are the meticulous Chinese logs. These records list a comet apparition in the year 5 BC. While this apparition fits into our overall timeframe of 8 BC to 1 BC, it seems to be too late after the census to be the Star of Bethlehem.

We can therefore say with much certainty that the Star of Bethlehem was not a comet.


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