Over the holidays, EarthSky.org re-ran a piece I did several years ago about the Christmas Star. There was really nothing new in the piece, which was essentially a re-working of ideas from a planetarium script I wrote back in the early 1970s. The topic, however, always stirs up a good bit of interest and one reader urged me to visit the website for a book on the topic, written by an amateur astronomer and lawyer. Here is my response to him, slightly edited for this blog:
Thank you for your note. This is a topic that has been of interest to me for much of my life. I first wrote about it 40 years ago. I am always surprised at how much interest this topic, given very little verbiage in the scriptures, garners every Christmas.
Anyway, my firm belief is that you either accept the star as being a divine miracle, and therefore requiring no further explanation, or you have to accept the idea of the star as being glommed together from the appearance of various events and objects or just simply being totally fabricated. If star was not a totally miraculous event and object, then no amount of reconciling the story with natural events and objects will make the story literally true. Personally I think the story was added on for effect, but based on some of the planetary meetings that have been discussed for decades. It makes for a good mystery story figuring out where the idea came from, but in my opinion does nothing to validate any religious claims.
To be clear, while I have not actually seen the book, I have gone over the website quite a bit and it is abundantly clear that this is not really a book of science but one of religious apologetics. Arguments about who said what and when and what this or that prophecy may mean are all well and good, but is all wide open to interpretation. Further, the appearance of Jupiter or Venus or Saturn or a comet or supernova or any other astronomical object during the general time frame here cannot adequately explain the specific appearance and movement as described in four short verses in Matthew.
I am not against people having beliefs, but I do not understand how anyone can accept the biblical story literally and then explain it away with a series of natural events or objects. No single astronomical event or object can account for the story, which clearly implies that it was one "star." Therefore, even if there was a series of events or objects that gave rise to the story, then the story is not literally true. If this story is not literally true, what does that say about the rest? If this story is not literally true, how can anyone be sure that other stories — the stories of walking on water, changing water into wine or raising Lazarus from the dead — are true? Shall we look for unusual convergences of natural events and processes to explain them, too? If not, why not?
Science is all about the truth, whatever that may be, whereas apologetics is all about proving a point. Science starts with a blank slate and proceeds to determine the truth of specific events and objects through an unbiased examination of the facts. Apologetics starts with a preconceived idea and proceeds to look for evidence to support the idea. Certainly this is not to say that the scientific method is always properly applied or that scientists are always careful or diligent or entirely honest. Scientists are human and science is a human endeavor, based on the investigation of objects and events of the physical world. But religion deals with topics that are intangible and not subject to investigation by the methods of science. Therefore, you cannot really prove the validity of religious stories or claims by the methods of science. You may be able to prove that something happened (e.g., that there was a conjunction of planets at a particular time), but this does not prove the supernatural claim.
So, to restate my point, if the Star of Bethlehem was a pure miracle or a divinely inspired confluence of astronomical events set in motion perhaps at the creation itself, no further explanation is needed or even possible. If, instead, the story of the star is the result of disparate observations of several natural astronomical objects, science can say nothing further about story except to say that it could not be literally true.
I have to add that unless there is some totally unexpected discovery of a natural astronomical object that can adequately explain the sparse mentions of the star in Matthew, I don’t see that there is much more that science can do with this idea. There may be additional discoveries from historical research and biblical interpretation, but I doubt that there will be any further major contributions from science.