The Star of Bethlehem

Much has been written about the star of Bethlehem that led the wise men to Jesus, so why say more? As a scientist I never put much stock in attempts to explain the star, but as a preacher, I felt it essential to study the matter and reach some definite conclusions. So it is as a preacher and a scientist that I approach the passage, and perhaps add a little new light to the old.

Let us begin with what chapter 2 of Luke says and does not say. It begins by talking about wise men from the East coming to Jerusalem. It does not say that they followed a star westward to Jerusalem, but rather that they saw a star in the East heralding the birth of the King of the Jews. Some translations say they saw His rising star, or a rising star, but the Greek says a star in the East, using the same word for the wise men from the “East” and the star in the “East”. What I find interesting in the story is not that there was a star, but rather that the wise men knew it heralded the birth of a king, and not just any king, but the King of the Jews. How could they possibly know this. What detail of this star identified it with the birth of the King of the Jews? Perhaps such knowledge existed at some time, but now is lost. I shall speak more of this later.

Next comes the question of where the King will be born. The wise men did not know the answer. They only knew the King of the Jews was to be born. So what did they do, they went to the royal city of David, to Bethlehem where King Herod ruled over the Jews. If anyone would know about where a king was to be born, the current king was the most likely candidate. But Herod did not know, and found the news most troubling. So he spoke with the Jewish chiefs priests and scribes, and they provided the answer: Bethlehem, in the land of Judah. So Herod sent them to Bethlehem. Now no star was needed to find Bethlehem. Its 100 miles south of Jerusalem, no doubt on a well traveled road.

Now here is where the story gets very interesting. The star they had seen in the East now reappears and goes before them. Now as most people know, stars rise in the East and set in the West, just like the Sun and the Moon. The reason stars rise in the East and set in the West is because the Earth rotates. The stars are essentially fixed points in the heavens. Thus the motion is an apparent motion due to the Earth’s turning, not a real motion of the stars themselves. But Bethlehem is almost due South of Jerusalem, about 100 miles. For a star to lead from North to South, its motion must be due to a real motion of the star. Further, it must be moving West to East as well as North to South in order to counteract the apparent motion due to the Earth’s rotation.

This motion presents certain complications. Consider the television satellite dishes that some people use to pick up TV signals. These point towards satellites that are always in the same position over the Earth (don’t need to steer the satellite while watching a show). These satellites are uniquely located over the equator at an altitude of about 22,000 miles above the Earth, the so called Clarke belt. These are the only locations where an object can orbit above a fixed location on earth without the use of rocket engines. At all other distances from the Earth, some method of propulsion is required to keep then  stationary above the Earth. Thus, unless the Star of Bethlehem was in the Clarke belt, it required a source of propulsion to keep it over the region between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. And it could not be in the Clarke belt and be over Bethlehem, since Bethlehem is not on the equator.

To remain above Bethlehem, the star must orbit the Earth, no matter how far away it is. The nearest star to us is over 4 light years away. That means if it orbits the Earth every 24 hours, it must travel about 25 light years, or about 1 light year per hour. This corresponds to a speed of 8,750 times the speed of light. This pretty much rules out the star being a star as we understand it. Looking at this from another perspective, if the object travels at the speed of light, it would have to be within our solar system at about the same distance from us as the planet Uranus. Uranus presently travels at about 15,000 miles per hour, whereas the speed of light is 186000 miles per second. The fact is, there is no orbit of any sort that would keep an object over Bethlehem.

One last  scientific point has to do with the conditions necessary to tell when an object is over a house. To tell if a star is over a house 100 ft away from your location, you must be able to discern the angle of the star measured relative to the vertical. Unfortunately, this angular difference is about 400 times below what the human eye can detect. The eye can detect an angular difference of about 1 minute of arc (one 60th of a degree). This means that if a house is 100 feet away from you, an object over the house must be at an altitude of less than 65 miles before you could even hope to detect that it was over the house and not over you. In reality, it probably must be 10 times or more lower, say less than 5 miles up, for you to look up and tell the difference. This means the object must be in the Earth’s atmosphere.

So what options are there. Some have suggested that the star was in fact the Shekina Glory cloud that led the wise men, just as it led the Israelites out of Egypt. This is a plausible option. But as I noted earlier, we still have the question of how the wise men knew the star had to do with the birth of a King of the Jews. Looking back through the accounts of Jesus birth, it is noteworthy that Angels appeared to Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph (multiple times), and to the shepherds. Angels can shine brightly, and they are messengers. I suggest that the star was in fact an Angel. Angel’s appeared to many others. They are messengers. They could appear as bright lights. They are not constrained by the laws of gravity. They could have communicated to the wise men. But most of all, it seems only reasonable that angels were in charge of all the PR, including the wise men. This would account for all the loose ends.

In the end, we will have to ask the Lord for the details when we see Him. He certainly could have orchestrated these events any way he wanted to. My observations may be entirely wrong. So I offer them as just another opinion, one based upon the belief that faith and science ultimately are in accord with each other.

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