Unasked questions: How big was the Star of Bethlehem?

The story of the Wise Men following the star is in Matthew 2: 9 “When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.”

It led them, and stopped over where Jesus was.

Obviously, this star was very close to the Earth. Maybe as high as a modern skyscraper over the place Jesus was. Say 1,000 feet. If it was as far away as the Moon, it wouldn’t be leading them and then stopping over where Jesus was. It was a lot closer than the Sun is. A lot closer than the next star, which is 25,277,000,000,000 miles away (4.3 light years, yes, that’s over 25 trillion miles).

Here’s the problem: the smallest that a star can be is 80 times the size of Jupiter, and Jupiter is over 300 times the mass of the Earth. Smaller than that, and the object can’t undergo nuclear fusion. So, to be a star, it has to be at least 25,000 times as massive as the Earth, and even then it would only be a red dwarf. If you want a white star, it has to be 10 times larger still.

Unfortunately, if anything that size came anywhere near the Earth, our planet would be dragged right into it and disappear like a pebble tossed into a pond.

So either the story of “the star leading them, and then stopping over the house” is complete nonsense, or else you have to say “It wasn’t what we would call a star today – it was a light which they thought was a star, because they didn’t have our modern understanding.” Fine. And by the same reasoning you can say “The Burning Bush with the voice of God wasn’t actually a burning bush with the voice of God, it was a phenomenon that Moses didn’t understand and thought was a burning bush with the voice of God… and the vision of Jesus that Paul had wasn’t really a vision of Jesus, he just thought it was Jesus… and the thing called God all through the Bible isn’t really God, it’s just a series of experiences and phenomena that pre-scientific peoples thought was God, because they didn’t have out modern understanding.”

Congratulations, and welcome to the real world! You are now free of religion. Go in peace.

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7 comments on “Unasked questions: How big was the Star of Bethlehem?

  1. Simon K. says:

    There is a theory that the star and the three kings are an astronomical phenomenon. Around the time of the winter solstice the three stars of Orion’s belt align with Sirius (the brightest star in the sky) to form a line which points at the horizon just where the sun rises on the Winter Solstice morning. This is the “birth” of the sun coming after it’s weakening; the days get longer, the sun stronger from here on in. Remembering that Christ is essentially the Sun King, this gives us a much older explanation for the Three Kings story.

    • It could certainly have been an actual astronomical event. But it could not have been a star which led them and then stopped over the place where Jesus was.

      My point is, once you say “It wasn’t actually a star, or it didn’t actually do those things, they didn’t understand in those days”, then everything right through to the concept of God is open for revision in the light of scientific understanding.

      Alternatively you have to treat everything as a fairytale without historical truth.

  2. Teunis says:

    While there are comets who could fit the situation, one of the prevalent theories at the moment is of a guest star (nova) in an astrologically significant location – as opposed to being ‘bright in a visible location’. For comparison, imagine if a major constellation that astrologers paid great credit to were to lose a critical star. It’s an interesting theory! 😉

    Apparently it was understood as a “particular event” taking place in a particular region – but since the gap between Jesus’ theoretical birth and the mysics showing up was a number considerably larger than a week (12 years? could have been). Thing also is, no one recorded what they were looking for, but having some experience with fortune telling suggests to me ‘there was a possible prophecy and he seemed to fit’. Astrologers are strange!

  3. Did you ever read Arthur C Clarke’s story ‘The Star”? If you haven’t do, you’d love it. It postulates that the star of Bethlehem was a supernova that took out a civilisation.

    And I’ve finally signed up for your blog because you talk about stuff that interest me.

    • Thank you, Greta. Yes, I read all of Clarke’s short stories that I could find when I was in my teens. I recognise that astronomical events used to catch the eye and be remembered – in the nights before street lights!

      This post is really aimed at Biblical literalists – if the Bible says it was a star that led the way and then stopped over a particular house, was it therefore an actual star? Then we have the problem of a star’s mass.

      Or, if it wasn’t a star, but we can acknowledge that they called the perceived phenomenon of moving light (whatever it was) a star out of ignorance, then we have to allow everything in the Bible to be open to reinterpretation in the light of modern science, from the Garden of Eden to the very concept of “God”.

      Or, if it didn’t lead the Wise Men to a particular house and stop there (but was just, say, a supernova in the sky), then the whole story is false in its supernatural claims.

      The story only makes sense if it is allowed to stay a fairytale without any perspective, any context, any grounding in science and history.

      Myths are fine, natural, useful, beautiful. But they shouldn’t be allowed to determine the academic curriculum of the physical sciences, the way they often do in parts of the US…

  4. l mapani says:

    Read about the Star of Bethlehem. It explains it better and.thet.have tried to prove it with science.

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