The Star of Bethlehem: A Review
Published: 14 December 2010(GMT+10)
Rick Larson’s quest to figure out the mystery behind the star of Bethlehem
began when he was making Christmas decorations for his yard. Using the program Starry
Night, he says he has found new evidence for the phenomenon being astronomical,
not miraculous (at least in the sense we normally mean it).
Larson is undoubtedly genuine and enthusiastic about what he has found, and he was
very helpful and prompt in answering my correspondence as I was researching the
review. He doesn’t claim to be any sort of expert; just a Christian following
God where He leads. Larson also said that he loves Bereans (Acts 17:10–11), showing that he isn’t hostile
to those who want to examine his claims.
The astronomy itself seems to be sound, but the significance attributed to these phenomena relies on astronomical interpretations of passages that are not normally interpreted in that way.
The astronomy is the centerpiece of Larson’s presentation, and the connections
he draws are breathtaking. The astronomy itself seems to be sound; the software
he’s using is accurate enough to reproduce the night sky that far back, and
other sources say much the same thing about the astronomy (see
here, for instance). But the significance attributed to these phenomena
relies on astronomical interpretations of passages that are not normally interpreted
in that way. For instance, Genesis 49:10 is said to be fulfilled in the sky when Jupiter’s
retrograde motion circled Regulus, the brightest star in Leo, “crowning”
it. But it makes no sense of the last line “and the obedience of the nations
is his.” Also, in the context, are the other blessings also astronomical predictions?
What marks this alone as an astronomical prediction while verse 11, for instance,
is not, and is there evidence that the ancient Jews used the stars and constellations
in this way?
He also interprets Revelation 12 as a view of the heavens at the time of Christ’s
birth, or possibly conception. The virgin is Virgo, which was behind the sun and
so “clothed” with it, and it was “giving birth” to the new
moon at her feet. But he interprets the dragon as Herod; this is impossible because
both the virgin and the dragon are said to be “signs in heaven”. If
the “sign in heaven” for the virgin means it’s astronomical, it
has to mean the same thing for the dragon. The text also doesn’t
say that the woman is a virgin, and the woman is interpreted in several ways; some
interpret her as Israel, some as the Church, or in entirely different ways depending
on their eschatological view.
Most criticisms I’ve read of Larson’s work focus on his DVD presentation
where he claims that some manuscripts of Josephus are consistent with a 1
BC death of Herod. But Larson gives references on his site (and it is
hardly fair to expect footnotes in a DVD; especially when he says that further information
is available on the site in the DVD itself). After researching it, I’ve found
that this is a view that some scholars support, though it is a minority view. If
these things actually happened in the sky in 3 and 2 BC
(which it appears that they did) and if one were persuaded that they were significant
in the way that Larson proposes, then that would tip the scales toward the 1 BC date for Herod’s death.
As Christians, we are understandably excited when new evidence comes to light that seems to support our faith, or to confirm historical events that are important for our faith.
Another common objection is that Jupiter couldn’t lead the Magi to a specific
house. Larson claims that’s not what the Bible says it did. He claims that
Jupiter was switching to retrograde motion at that point, so appeared to
have stopped when they got to Bethlehem. But that leaves one with the question how
the Magi found the specific house, if not by the star. And taking “the place
where the child was” as “the house where the child was” makes
sense of the context. It is difficult to see how any natural astronomical occurrence
could point to a particular location in a town, which the Bible seems to indicate
the “Bethlehem star” did. They didn’t need a star simply to guide
them to Bethlehem, because the Jewish scholars whom Herod consulted had already
told them that the Messiah would be born there (Micah 5:2, Matthew 2:3–8). This would seem to be a miraculous
provision of God, the Shekinah Glory, rather than a natural phenomenon. Matthew 2:9 says that this was the same star that the wise
men saw from the east; the star that they understood as being a sign that the Judean
king had been born (Matt. 2:2). But this seems like a natural phenomenon like
Larson has identified. It’s very curious.
As Christians, we are understandably excited when new evidence comes to light that seems to support our faith, or to confirm historical events that are important for our faith. But it is important to “test everything, hold on to the good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). Larson’s claims are very interesting, but like good Bereans, we need to be cautious. Grand claims need to be thoroughly checked out before we accept them. In this regard it would be nice to see some independent verification of the claims. For instance, I would like to see research that shows that Babylonian astronomers associated Leo with Judah, and some ancient interpretation of Genesis 49:10 in an astronomical sense (this would demonstrate that Larson’s reading of it is not eisegesis; reading a modern understanding into the text).
In short, there is not enough evidence to say whether or not Larson’s claims are true; hopefully other motivated Christians with qualifications in the relevant areas will investigate further to shed light on this issue. But whether or not Larson’s take on the star of Bethlehem turns out to be correct, it should not affect our confidence in the Bible’s record of the events of Christ’s birth.
I have a PhD in astronomy and hence was very interested in this. I can verify that all the astronomical calculations are correct. I was absolutely amazed. It certainly was a unique set of astronomical events that demonstrates the uniqueness of Jesus Christ.
Ed. note: Dr King also sent images extracted from Starry Night software that depict some of the events, posted below (click on images to see higher-resolution pictures):
I purchased and watched Larson’s DVD and was very impressed by his research. What struck me most was the implication that God’s sovereign design of the universe could be shown in the correlation of astronomical events and significant redemptive events.
Notice also in the additional features the mention of the eclipse in the heart of the “ram” at the possible time of Christ’s death on the cross.
For me, while some attempts at explaining the “star of Bethlehem” seem to diminish the supernatural elements, I found Larson’s DVD to simply look at the supernatural work of the Lord from a predetermined and incalculably intelligent viewpoint. By this I mean God could extremely easily shine down on the house where Jesus was—and I think He did, but how even more amazing that before or during DAY 4 He might have said “the position, orientation, and alignment of every astronomical body including the earth will be such that at specific points in earth’s history those that look will see it thus …”
That just gave me an even greater appreciation for our infinite God and saviour.
I have watched his video and your synopsis is very much on point. He only points these things out and does not “preach” this as gospel. It is interesting the presuppositions he admits must be there or COULD be there to conclude as he does but I thought he did a good job of pointing them out as presuppositions and not fact.
Good review of a very interesting DVD. The questions raised are the same as I would have. There does need to be some acknowledgement that God’s supernatural power is likely to have been seen. His criteria for identifying the star seem well thought out and Biblically based. I like that is shows that the sovereignty of God is seen in the events.
With regards to the statements on the star which appeared at the time of Christ’s birth, notice should be taken of evidence in the text which are not considered in your article, and not having seen the DVD or read the researcher’s web site, I don’t know if he considered these things either.
1) How long was the star in the sky for?
- They saw it from their home country
- They travelled from their home country, a journey that must have taken several weeks at least.
- They went to Herod first (assuming that a king must be born in a palace!)
- More time taken as Herod consults and then sends them off and they see the star “going before them” to Bethlehem,then stopping directly over (Matthew 2:9) perhaps a few days or a week or two.
2) Where were Jesus and His family living at the time of this particular visit?
- They find Joseph, Mary and Jesus in a HOUSE (I have learnt that when a specific is mentioned in the Bible (in a historical narrative which this part of Matthew is), it should be taken as it is. When did they move out of the stall into the house (there is the spanner in the works here in that the animal stalls were an extension on the house) I am going on the assumption that they have already moved out of the stall and into the house. This I believe is supported by the next factor.
- Herod has all the baby boys, “from two years old and under, according to the time which he had carefully inquired of the wise men” put to death!
Now, I do not know all that much about astronomy, likewise I am merely a beginner with reading what the text says and allowing the text to tell the story, however, I am convinced that this star either hung around in the sky for almost 2 years (behold my God is a God of miracles!) or it appeared for long periods of time when it was necessary—it seems it must have disappeared from sight leaving the Magi to their own devices (God allowing them to go to Herod to fulfill His perfect purposes!), then allowing them to see it again to lead them to Bethlehem!
For Scott L, it’s generally accepted that the wise men found Jesus around 2 years after he’d been born. Hence he has sinced moved into a house and that’s why Herod, calculating from the time of birth, ordered the deaths of children under 2 years old.
A scientifically rational and powerful argument for the truth of the Star of Bethlehem. I want to see a similar study of the astronomical events preceding and surrounding the parousia of Christ 66A.D.-73A.D. Jesus is Lord
I found Larson had some plausible ideas (having just watched part 1&2 in a single sitting), however there is one vital piece of information that was left out - the consensus that sent Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem in the first place. As interesting as all his astronomical points are without other historical cross referenced points his argument is weak.
I am concerned where this could lead... predicting the end world using astronomy...
It may be a bit unfair to criticize the DVD for not having things that it wasn't really designed to have in it. It's exploring the astronomy, more than the history.
And it would be impossible to predict the end of the world using astronomy; the astronomy programs simply plot the position of stars and planets would be at a particular time. If an astronomy program is able to do calculations for 100,000 years from now, that's not actually saying that everything will still be here 100,000 years from now; that's just using some equations and mathematical calculations to project what the astronomy would be then.