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Some of our star lanterns have cut-outs so that the light inside projects patterns onto walls, creating a unique atmosphere. Most of these paper star lanterns are handmade and dyed in India, and most have a hollow center where you can place a light bulb to make your artistic star come alive and glow. Every star is 3-dimensional. A hanging paper star lantern has a rich history, most popular at Christmas time, but used throughout the entire year.

The tradition that the Magi were kings dates from the sixth century AD, and is almost certainly legendary. According to Herodotus , Magi existed in Persia in the sixth century BC, they were a priestly group among the Medes who performed religious ceremonies and interpreted signs and portents. Persia now Iran conquered neighbouring Mesopotamia now Iraq and from the fourth century BC onwards Magi were increasingly associated with astronomy and astrology, the observation and the 'interpretation' of the stars being closely related in ancient times.

Babylon in Mesopotamia was the world centre of astronomy and astrology at that time and Magi were important members of the Babylonian royal court. From the time of the Exile onwards Babylon contained a strong Jewish colony, and the knowledge of the Jewish prophecies of a Saviour-King, the Messiah, may have been well-known to the Babylonians and to the Magi.

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Plato, The Republic , Thus the first century AD Jewish scholar Philo of Alexandria stated that the student of astronomy perceives 'timely signs of coming events' since 'the stars were made for signs' De Opificio Mundi, There is a strong tradition that the Magi who visited Jesus came from Arabia now Saudi Arabia , which lies between Mesopotamia and Palestine. Matthew simply states 'Magi from the East arrived in Jerusalem'. It is important to realise that there are many references in ancient literature to Magi visiting kings and emperors in other countries. Thus a visit by the Magi to pay homage to Jesus, the new King of the Jews, would not have appeared as particularly unusual to readers of Matthew's gospel.

There are several specific characteristics of the star of Bethlehem recorded in Matthew's gospel which, if accepted, allow the type of astronomical object to be identified uniquely. The characteristics are as follows:. Matthew states 'Then Herod summoned the Magi secretly and ascertained from them the exact time when the star had appeared'. The Magi 'saw his star in the east' Matthew then they came to Jerusalem where Herod sent them to Bethlehem, then 'they went on their way and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them' Matthew Since Bethlehem is to the south of Jerusalem the clear implication is that the star of Bethlehem moved slowly through the sky from the east to the south in the time taken for the Magi to travel from their country to Jerusalem, probably about one or two months see later.

Matthew records that the star 'went ahead of them and stood over the place where the child was'. Popular tradition has the star pointing out the very stable in which Christ was born, but Matthew neither states nor implies this: according to Matthew, viewed from Jerusalem the star stood over the place where the child was born, i. If the above textual evidence is accepted then all but one of the astronomical objects suggested in the literature as the star of Bethlehem can be ruled out.

The Star of Bethlehem

For example, the most popular theory, demonstrated in many planetariums, is that the star of Bethlehem refers to a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 7 BC. The next most popular theory is that the star was a nova or a supernova. The first suggestion that the star of Bethlehem was a nova was made by Foucquet in , and possibly earlier by Kepler in see also Sachs and Walkerg 9 and it has received considerable recent support. Similarly, all other suggestions for the star of Bethlehem e. Comets probably have the greatest dramatic appearance of all astronomical phenomena.

They can be extremely bright and easily visible to the naked eye for weeks or even months. Spectacular comets typically appear only a few times each century.

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  8. They can move slowly or rapidly across the sky against the backdrop of stars, but visible comets usually move through the star background at about 1 or 2 degrees per day relative to the Earth. They can sometimes be seen twice, once on their way in towards perihelion the point in their orbit which is closest to the sun and again on their way out. However, from a given point on the Earth's surface, a comet is often only seen once, either on its way in or its way out, because of its orbit relative to 87The Star of Bethlehem the Earth.

    Since a comet usually peaks in brightness on its way out, about one week after perihelion, most visible comets are seen on their way out from perihelion. If the star described in Matthew was a comet, was it seen twice, first in the east on its way in towards perihelion and again in the south on its way out, or was it seen continuously moving from east to south and then to west on its way out? Matthew states 'the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them [to Bethlehem in the south]'.

    It was not generally recognised years ago that a comet seen twice, once on its way in towards perihelion where it would disappear in the glare of the sun and again on its way out was one and the same comet. It was normally regarded as two separate comets. Since Matthew clearly implies that the star seen in the south was the same star as that originally seen in the east we deduce that the star was continuously visible and suggest that it was a comet on its way out from perihelion travelling east to south to west. In particular it is suggested that the Magi originally saw the comet in the east in the morning sky see later.

    They travelled to Jerusalem, a journey time of 1- 2 months see section 7 , and in this time the comet had moved through about 90', from the east to the south. For the comet to have moved through 90' an additional 60' in one month or 30' in two months motion is required, which is broadly consistent with the 1 or 2 degrees per day typical motion of a comet. In Jerusalem, Herod's advisers suggested the Magi go to Bethlehem, six miles to the south and a journey time of one or two hours.

    The Magi set off next morning and saw the comet ahead of them in the south in the morning sky. Hence it appeared that the comet 'went ahead of' the Magi on this last lap of their journey. The curious terminology in Matthew that the star 'stood over' Bethlehem will now be considered. Phrases such as 'stood over' and 'hung over' appear to be uniquely applied in ancient literature to describe a comet, and I can find no record of such phrases being used to describe any other astronomical object.


    The historians Dio Cassius and Josephus were broadly contemporary with the author of Matthew's gospel. Dio Cassius Roman History , 54, 29 describing the comet of 12 BC Halley's comet which appeared before the death of Marcus Agrippa writes 'the star called comet stood for several days over the city [Rome]'. Josephus Jewish War 6,5,3 states 'a star, resembling a sword, stood over the city Jerusalem]', probably referring to the comet of AD 64 mentioned by Tacitus Annals , 15,47 , comets frequently being described as 'swords' in ancient literature because of their upward tails in a direction away from the sun.

    Marcellinus describing a comet of AD writes'a sign appeared in the sky hanging like a column and blazing for 30 days'. Celestial objects including comets appear to move across the night sky because of the rotation of the earth. In addition, comets move against the backdrop of stars.

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    What did Dio Cassius and Josephus mean when they referred to comets 'standing over' Rome and Jerusalem, respectively? At the time of Christ the prevailing theory of comets was due to Aristotle who had proposed that comets were sub-lunar objects located in the upper atmosphere see, for example, ref. This theory was consistent with the Aristotelian model of comets lying below the 'heavenly spheres' containing the Sun, Moon, planets and fixed stars, and presumably it also appeared to be consistent with visual observations of bright comets which often seem to be close to the Earth many paintings and woodcuts of comets depict them as lying close to the Earth.

    Hence a comet is probably the only astronomical object to appear to be sufficiently low lying to be capable of satisfying the descriptions in Dio Cassius, Josephus and Matthew of a star standing over a particular town or city for part of the night. In addition, the upward tail of the comet would appear to point the head of the comet towards the city. Hence we interpret Matthew's description of a star ,standing over' the place where Jesus was born as meaning that when the Magi left Herod and headed towards Bethlehem, as he had suggested, they looked up and saw the comet in front of them, with a near vertical tail, the head of the comet appearing to stand over Bethlehem.

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    The use of the characteristic term 'stood over' by Dio Cassius and Josephus to describe a comet would seem to leave little doubt that when Matthew uses the term 'stood over' he is also describing a comet. Thus a comet uniquely fits the description in Matthew that the star was new, it travelled slowly through the star field from the east to the south, it went ahead of the Magi, and 'stood over' Bethlehem, the place where the child was.

    The identification of a comet with the star of Bethlehem goes back to Origen in the third century, and this is the earliest known theory for the star. Origen Contra Celsum 1, 58 stated 'The star that was seen in the East we consider to be a new star If then at the commencement of new dynasties or on the occasion of other important events there arises a comet.

    The possibility that the star of Bethlehem was a comet has also more recently been suggested 3 , 13 , 14 , 15 , 16 but without the detailed arguments given here and in my previous paper. If the evidence cited above for identifying the star of Bethlehem with a comet is so strong why has it not been previously considered in the detail given here? The main reason seems to be the widespread belief that a comet was regarded as a sign from heaven of impending calamity and divine displeasure. Hence, it is argued, if the star of Bethlehem was a comet, it could not possibly have been interpreted by the Magi as heralding the birth of the Messiah.

    Thus Origen, following his suggestion that the star of Bethlehem was a comet, refers Contra Celsum 1, 59 to a book 'Treatise on Comets' by Chaeremon the Stoic which we no longer possess which lists occasions comets appeared when 'good was to happen'. The Chinese called comets 'broom stars' on account of their tails, and at least two ancient Chinese references make a pun of the word 'broom': a Chinese description of a comet of 5 24 BC saw it as a 'new broom' to sweep away traditions and the old order of things, 17 and Tsochhiu c.

    In the second century AD the Roman historian Justinus quoted from an earlier Roman historian, who in turn quoted from the History of Kings of Timagenes of Alexandria which we no longer possess , as follows: 'Heavenly phenomena had also predicted the greatness of this man [Mithridates, the famous King of Pontus].

    For both in the year in which he was born and in the year in which he began to reign a comet shone through both periods for 70 days in such a way that the whole sky seemed to be ablaze' Justinus, Pompei Trogi Hist. This account was dismissed by many historians as legendary cf. Pliny Natural History 11, 23 records that Augustus 63 BC to AD 14 dedicated a temple to a comet that appeared during athletic games he sponsored in 44 BC, just after the assassination of Julius Caesar. The common people assumed that the comet was taking the soul of Caesar to the heavens where the gods lived.

    The emblem of a comet was added to a bust of Caesar that was dedicated in the forum. Augustus then used an emblem of a comet on some of his own coins, presumably as a symbol of his own greatness and possibly as a symbol of his assumed deity. It seems clear therefore that at the time of Christ comets were associated with great kings and with important events. The Chinese kept careful astronomical records of visible comets, novae etc, and used different terms to describe them.

    Loewe, private communication. A comet without a tail is called a po-hsing, and a nova is called a k'o-hsing, meaning guest-star. A clear distinction is not always made between novae and comets without a tail. Ho Peng-Yoke 20 lists and translates ancient Chinese records of comets and novae. Those appearing within the period 20 BC to AD 10 are all described as comets and are given in Table 1. These objects are the only recorded astronomical phenomena appearing near the birth of Christ which satisfy the description in Matthew's gospel of a star that moved through the sky and that 'stood over' a place.

    The earliest possible date for the birth of Christ can be deduced from Luke 3, which states that he was 'about 3 0' when he started his ministry, which commenced with his baptism by John the Baptist. Luke carefully states that the ministry of John the Baptist started in the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar. Depending on whether Luke used the Julian calendar or the Roman regnal year calendar, the fifteenth year of Tiberius was Jan. The Lucan term 'about 30' is a broad term covering any actual age ranging from 26 to 34, 21 thus the earliest possible year for the birth of Christ is obtained by subtracting 34 years from AD 28, giving 7 BC.

    Hence we can rule out as being too early for the star of Bethlehem the comet of 12 BC Halley's comet in Table 1, although the 12 BC comet has recently been revived as the star of Bethlehem. The latest possible year for the birth of Christ is given by the date of the death of king Herod the Great, since Matthew states that Herod was king when the star was seen by the Magi. The generally accepted date for the death of Herod the Great is the spring of 4 BC 22 although other dates have also been suggested e. The evidence that Herod died in 4 BC is strong, and the accounts in Josephus of the reigns of his three sons, Archelaus, Antipas and Philip, all correlate perfectly with a 4 BC date.

    Thus the latest date for the death of Herod is the end of March 4 BC and hence the comet that appeared in April 4 BC is too late to be the star of Bethlehem. In addition, the Chinese records give no details of the 4 BC comet e. Having effectively eliminated the comets of 12 BC and 4 BC as possible candidates for the star of Bethlehem, we note from Table 1 that the only possibility is the comet of 5 BC. The passage in the Han shu also includes what is termed a traditional comment relating to this 5 BC comet which indicates that this comet was regarded as being of particular significance see ref.

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