Christians in Science (CiS): Part 2 – Star of Bethlehem: The Myth and the Reality


By James Clark Ross

Welcome back to the Deriving Morality. As discussed in my last post, “Christians in Science: Part 1 – An Introduction”, my first experience at a CiS talk involved an ever so familiar story to us all, one that pillars many Christian traditions: The Nativity of Jesus (Jesus’s birth). The question posed at the talk was as follows. Was the star that led the Wise Men through the desert to baby Jesus an act of fact or fiction?

This biblical narrative is so ingrained in us all. Most young schoolchildren enthusiastically play a part in their school’s version of events.  You may have been assigned the role of a shepherd, like me. (My outfit was often just a tea towel wrapped around my head.) Perhaps you had the luxury of playing the Virgin Mary. Maybe the memories of your contribution were merely the groans of a farm animal. Whatever it means to you, the story has traditionally been a big part of the Christmas festivities here in the U.K. (and in other countries where Christianity is prevalent).

The story’s moral foundations have manifested themselves into Christian traditions and customs – even today. For example, the virtue of respect is evident in the presentation of three gifts to Jesus (each has been theorised to have a symbolic meaning) and the act of kneeling down that accompanies it is often practised today in churches.

If you are unaware of this story, here are its origins briefly explained for you. The story features in two of the Gospels (four books in the New Testament), but the Star of Bethlehem is only described in the Gospel of Matthew. Here, men called Magi (usually translated to Wise Men or Astronomers), inquired to King Herod of Judea the whereabouts of the newborn baby Jesus so they could pay homage to him (an event they predicted from the star itself).

Herod wanted Jesus returned to him as he was afraid he would usurp his throne, so he ordered the Magi to retrieve him. They agreed and followed the star to Bethlehem. Upon arriving, and thanks to some divine intervention in the dreams of the Magi and Joseph (the Father of Jesus), they fled the city. This was to avoid horror that ensued following the birth. King Herod slaughtered every child under two-years-old in the hope of eliminating the new Messiah (Jesus) – an act known as the Massacre of the Innocents.

So what about the talk? Interestingly he, an extremely qualified Scientist, opened up by proclaiming a near 100% biblical accuracy as a whole, citing other religious scripture such as the Qur’an to compute the accuracy. (This screams contradiction to me.) But as is widely acknowledged — even by Theologians — this story’s claims are not only ambiguous, but different compared to fellow Holy Christian books. So why he focused on accuracy from the outset startled me, but I guess he was taking comfort from doing so. (There are some logistical clashes across both of the aforementioned Gospels. For example, there is a disparity in where Mary and Joseph lived between Nazareth and Bethlehem.

The most topical point of the talk was whether the event was a miracle or an act of science. For these people, however, it’s a concoction of both. No longer is a belief in God solely dependent on Faith. In an age of profound scientific knowledge and technological development, people prefer evidence over miracles.

For me, if it was scientific, the story would be more believable since it would have been natural; there would be more substance to the biblical accounts. A miracle has no boundaries; believing it seems counter-intuitive and contrary to recorded astronomy that people can relate to. People today need that justification to believe. This is probably why CiS exists: to bring Faith and logic together. When he conjured up his own shooting star theory, he postulated that it could have been an act of God — that is, scientific events guided by God.

The shooting star he described “stood over” the birthplace of Jesus in the Bible – but shooting stars don’t tend to remain stationary. He made some reasonable guesswork as to how fast the celestial object was required to have moved to coincide with the time it took the Magi to make the trip. He said something like two or three degrees an hour and thought that the stationary part was either an inaccurate description or an illusion of the orbit.

To my accompanying friend and I’s annoyance, there were pictures and paintings (by no accountable witness) used on the slides that portrayed the illusion. Annoying because he implied that they were on the verge of evidence. The audience – not knowing any better – seemed to believe every word.

In terms of the ‘star’ itself, the main candidate in his theory was a meteor (colloquially a shooting star), but he didn’t rule out any other similar celestial objects, such as meteoroids. But, because he wasn’t an astronomer, I don’t think he realised the insinuation.

I think there was a major flaw in his theory in the claimed brightness of the shooting star. In his pictures, descriptions and quotes from the Bible, the star was intensely bright and large. He rules out stars (rightly so) because their orbits exhibit only tiny motions relative to us. Planets have a similar problem. (Johannes Kepler, a famous astronomer and Christian, put forward the idea of the conjunction of two planetary orbits and another celestial object, but computer simulations don’t agree.)

So, the implication of the size and brightness of the shooting star meant the thing had to be huge and extremely far away to match the described velocity of the orbit. This is unprecedented and probably impossible. You don’t get objects that big unless it really was an outright miracle.

The talk had many contradictions and mirrored the battle between Faith and intuition in the minds of many Christians today. I have many reservations with regards to combining science and Faith: one is guided by knowledge and reason, the otheris guided by unfounded belief and scripture.

God is thought to be supreme, irrational and infinite, but his word – which permeates stories of the Bible – can be tested and probed. More than a leap of Faith will be needed to reconcile Christianity and science for the story of the Star of Bethlehem.

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