Rick Larson’s documentary on the Star of Bethlehem has become very popular in Christian circles over the past decade. Produced by Stephen McEveety, who co-produced Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, it won five Dove Awards. The DVD has been shown in countless churches across the world and has attracted over a thousand reviews on amazon.com, the average being 4.8/5.0. On YouTube the documentary has been viewed tens of thousands of times. The Facebook page has over 14,000 likes. The theory set forth in the DVD has many fervent advocates who are convinced that Larson has decisively resolved the mystery of the Bethlehem Star.
Unfortunately, however, the position Larson promotes in this DVD is deeply flawed and unworthy of the passionate devotion it has attracted.
In this essay on Larson’s theory, I will seek to expose some of its major problems—biblical, astronomical, historical, and chronological. I write as a Biblical scholar who has devoted years to the study of astronomy and to the mystery of the Star of Bethlehem and who is firmly convinced that Larson’s theory provides a thoroughly inadequate explanation of Matthew’s account of the Star of Bethlehem.
We must start by briefly examining what Matthew says about the Star (a fuller investigation can be read in my book). We discover in Matthew that the Star that the Magi associated with the Messiah appeared suddenly and remained visible for a very long time. Many months after its first appearance it did something in connection with a “rising” that convinced the Magi that the Messiah had been born, persuading them to travel to Judea in search of him. Then, within a couple of months, when the Magi were on the final stage of their journey, the Star was in the southern sky ushering them to Bethlehem before “standing over” one particular house, pinpointing where baby Jesus was. This information is more than enough to expose the flaws of every wrong theory regarding the identity of the Star.
What Larson presents in his DVD and on his website is a subtle twist on the view set forth by Ernest L. Martin in his book The Star of Bethlehem: The Star That Astonished the World.
Their view is founded on a rejection of the consensus 4 BC dating of Herod’s death; they re-date it to 1 BC. This allows them to assign Jesus’ birth, and the Star that signaled it, to 3–2 BC. For Martin and Larson both the planet Jupiter and Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation of Leo, played the role of the Messiah’s Star. They highlight that three times during 3–2 BC Jupiter (in September of 3 BC and in February and May of 2 BC) obscured Regulus. In August of 3 BC and in June of 2 BC, either side of this series of events, Jupiter had a conjunction with Venus.
According to Martin and Larson, Regulus was the Messiah’s Star and Leo was the constellation of Judea. The three times when Jupiter, the King Planet, moved in front of Regulus, they maintain, were interpreted by the Magi as revealing a moment of royal significance. In addition, Martin and Larson propose that the Magi regarded Jupiter as playing the role of royal father and Venus the role of mother during their first conjunction, their coming together hinting at a conception. Since Jupiter in 3–2 BC seemed to be moving through the sky in one direction, then to go in the opposite direction, and then to return to its original direction, the oval pattern of its movement is framed by Martin and Larson as a “crowning.” They claim that Jupiter, the King Planet, was “crowning” Regulus, the Messiah’s Star.
In Martin’s opinion, Jesus was born on September 11, 3 BC, when the Sun “clothed” Virgo and the Moon was under her feet (Rev. 12:1). However, Larson judged that this marked Jesus’ conception rather than his birth.
As regards the second Jupiter-Venus conjunction, on June 17, 2 BC, to Martin this impressive alignment of the planets hinted at a marriage union and symbolized the end of one era and the start of another. And the fact that it occurred in the west may have been interpreted by the Magi as revealing to them that they were to head in that direction. Larson regarded this conjunction as marking the birth of Jesus.
Martin and Larson assert that, when the Magi eventually arrived in Bethlehem, on December 25, 2 BC, Jupiter, about to turn around and head in the opposite direction (from Earth’s perspective), seemed to pause in the belly of Virgo. This apparent “stopping” (relative to the fixed stars) is, they maintain, what Matthew has in view when he speaks of the Star standing over the place where the child was (Matthew 2:9).
As enthralling as the adventures of Jupiter in 3–2 BC were, the hypothesis of Martin and Larson has many problems.
Flaw 1: The theory cannot explain the Star’s sudden appearance
Matthew’s Star first appeared suddenly 1–2 years before Herod gave the order to slay Bethlehem’s infants. That is why the slaughter included children in their second year. Martin and Larson maintain that when Matthew and the Magi speak of “the Star,” they are speaking of Jupiter. Needless to say, Jupiter could not have suddenly appeared. Neither, for that matter could Regulus, which Martin and Larson also call the Messiah’s Star. Curiously, Larson acknowledges that Matthew states that the Star “appeared at a precise time,” but then goes on to assert that this appearing refers not to Jupiter or Regulus, but to a conjunction of Jupiter and Venus!
Flaw 2: The theory offers no explanation of the Star’s “rising”
Matthew makes it clear that it was what the Star did in connection with a “rising” that convinced the Magi that the Messiah had been born and got them on their way to Judea (Matt. 2:2). But for Martin, the sign marking Jesus’ birth didn’t relate to a “rising.” In fact, it didn’t involve the Star (neither Jupiter nor Regulus) at all! He proposes that the natal sign involved only the Sun and Moon in the constellation Virgo. This simply cannot be right. Larson tries to improve on Martin at this point by maintaining that a close conjunction of Jupiter and Venus on June 17, 2 BC marked Jesus’ birth. But Jupiter-Venus conjunctions are very common, and evidence that they might have been interpreted in the way Larson proposes is distinctly lacking. And, of course, a conjunction is not a “rising.”
Flaw 3: The theory is unable to give a plausible account of the Star’s behaviour over Bethlehem
Larson’s explanation of the Star’s behaviour at the climax of the Magi’s journey is inadequate. Matthew 2:9b strongly suggests that the Star was observed to “stand over” a particular house, not the town as a whole, leading the Magi to the exact place where the child was. This is indicated by the context. Matthew in v. 8 underlines how difficult finding the Messianic child would be for the Magi. Then, immediately after Matthew mentions that the Star stood over the place where the child was, he emphasizes the Magi’s joy at seeing this. Finally, in v. 11 he makes explicit what “the place” was—it was a house. Advocates of the 3–2 BC hypothesis are unable to offer a plausible explanation of what Matthew describes in v. 9b.
The Star’s “standing” could not refer to Jupiter becoming stationary relative to the fixed stars immediately before changing apparent direction, as Martin and Larson suggest, because that is not detectable by the human eye in the short space of a few hours. Moreover, as surviving records from Babylon reveal, ancient astronomers would have known when Jupiter would change its apparent direction well before it happened. They would hardly have elected to base their itinerary on this. Had they really modeled their itinerary on Jupiter’s apparent motion, as soon as they arrived in Bethlehem they’d immediately have turned around and headed back to their homeland!
On a side note, Martin and Larson get the date of Jupiter’s apparent pause wrong—the actual date, according to Starry Night® Pro 6, is December 27/28, not 25. In truth, ancient astronomers would have been aware that Jupiter was still moving on December 25. Accordingly, the Magi would have kept on walking!
Moreover, since the Star’s “standing” occurred at the end of the Magi’s journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, not its start, in order to be perceived to be “over” Bethlehem, it would have had to be in the very roof of the sky (the zenith) or near the horizon. However, it was neither. Jupiter never got higher than 67½ degrees over the southern horizon on December 25 and so was 22½ degrees from the zenith. That is a larger gap than the apparent space between Orion’s two brightest stars, Rigel (the blue-white star on the giant’s left leg) and Betelgeuse (the red star in the giant’s armpit)! And because the Sun rose when Jupiter was still 50 degrees high in the southwestern sky, Jupiter was bleached out before it got anywhere near the horizon.
Flaw 4: The theory attributes to the Magi an astrological scheme for which there is no historical evidence
This hypothesis’s interpretation of Jupiter’s movements in 3–2 BC is not consistent with any known ancient astrological principles. For example, no magus would have regarded Leo as the constellation or sign of Judea, nor Regulus as the Messiah’s star. Moreover, there is no basis for the claim that the movement of Jupiter relative to Regulus would have been paradigmed as “crowning.” Indeed, even if ancients could have regarded a planet’s slow apparent loop motion in the sky as an act of “crowning,” Jupiter was hardly crowning Regulus. Regulus was, after all, nowhere near the middle of the “loop” of the planet’s celestial motion….
Flaw 5: The chronology of events that the theory proposes is unbelievable
This theory is unable to offer a plausible chronology of events. According to Martin, the Magi saw the sign marking the Messiah’s birth on September 11, 3 BC, and yet delayed departing for Judea more than 9 months! He proposes that they waited until Jupiter had a conjunction with Venus on June 17 of 2 BC, or until the massing of planets on August 27, 2 BC! And then Martin says that it took them 4 or 6½ months to travel to Judea. Larson himself states that, having set out in response to the June 17, 2 BC conjunction, the Magi arrived “sometime around November” of 2 BC and then traveled down to Bethlehem on December 25, 2 BC. The journey times proposed by Martin and Larson are absurdly long—the trip shouldn’t have taken much more than a month. Moreover, why the Magi elected to stay in Jerusalem for a month or more before heading down to Bethlehem, as Larson suggests, is very difficult to explain.
Flaw 6: The theory is actually inconsistent regarding what the Star was
While Martin and Larson believe that Jupiter is the Star of which Matthew speaks, it is Regulus that in their judgment is the Messiah’s Star through the key celestial events up to June of 2 BC. With respect to the three times when Jupiter obscured Regulus, in their view it is Regulus that is playing the Messianic role, with Jupiter doing the “crowning.” With reference to the two Jupiter-Venus conjunctions, Jupiter is portrayed as the father, with Venus as the mother. In none of these events does Jupiter function as the Messiah’s Star! So why would the Magi arriving in Jerusalem have portrayed Jupiter as the Messiah’s Star (“where is he who has been born king of the Jews, for we have seen his star…?,” Matt. 2:2)? Let’s face it: Martin’s and Larson’s interpretation is fatally inconsistent on this most fundamental of issues.
Flaw 7: The theory’s dating of Jesus’s birth is too late
The whole hypothesis rests on an implausible re-dating of Herod’s death to 1 BC. As the vast majority of historians appreciate, the case for Herod’s death falling in the Spring of 4 BC is extremely strong. For one thing, Herod’s sons all dated their reigns to 4 BC, which can only be explained if Herod died at that time. As most historians and Biblical scholars accept, Jesus was born, and hence the Star’s “rising” occurred, in 6–5 BC.
Martin and Larson claim that Revelation 12:1 describes a scene from September 11, 3 BC. However, if you consult planetarium software, you’ll see that they are wrong. Regardless of which ancient conceptualization of Virgo is assumed (Martin’s is inappropriate and his assignment of stars to the “crown” is preposterous), the Moon can’t accurately be described as being under Virgo’s feet on that date. By contrast, the scene described in Revelation 12:1 does match September 15, 6 BC.
The traditional dating of Jesus’ birth to 6–5 BC remains rock-solid.
Moreover, Larson claims to understand Rev. 12:1 and 5, but admits that he doesn’t understand the meaning of Rev. 12:2-4 (“if you understand this, please email me.”). The problem is that vv. 1 and 5 are inextricably related to vv. 2-4 and form an integral part of “signs” in view. I unpack vv. 1–5 as a whole in my book, The Great Christ Comet.
I hope that it is plain to all readers that the Martin-Larson theory is irreconcilable with what Matthew records concerning the Star—it can’t explain the Star’s first appearance, its “rising,” or its standing over the house. The interpretation that Martin and Larson attribute to the Magi with respect to the significance of Leo and Regulus and Jupiter’s behaviour in relation to Regulus is without foundation. Neither are Martin and Larson able to offer a plausible chronology of events relating to the Magi (or a plausible psychological explanation of the Magi’s slowness to react to the unfolding celestial events). Indeed they aren’t even consistent regarding whether Regulus or Jupiter is playing the role of the Messiah’s Star—if truth be told, they want to have it both ways. Moreover, their theory depends on an illegitimate rejection of the consensus dating of Herod’s death.
On a personal note, Larson’s DVD was my initiation into the debate regarding the identity of the Bethlehem Star. As a Biblical scholar convinced that the true Star would prove a more perfect fit with Matthew’s account than Larson’s theory was, I launched into the field of astronomy in a quest to find the true Star of Bethlehem. Mercifully, I was greatly aided by some of the foremost astronomers in the world. It was an incredibly challenging and exciting venture, with many eureka moments along the way. In the end I emerged with what I, and many Biblical scholars, astronomers, historians, and others, believe is the solution to the Star of Bethlehem mystery. I would encourage you to have an open-minded read of my book The Great Christ Comet: Revealing the True Star of Bethlehem. Like many other former advocates of the Larson view, you’ll see that the Star was much more awesome, majestic, and thrilling than Larson claimed. You’ll discover that the Star was everything Matthew said it was and did everything Matthew said it did, and that it was a stunningly brilliant, thoroughly unique, and completely satisfying fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies about the birth of the Jewish Messiah.
 Because no bright star is closer to the apparent path of the Sun (the ecliptic) than Regulus, it is naturally obscured from time to time by planets such as Venus and Jupiter, which are narrowly inclined to Earth’s orbit.
 Because the orbits of Venus and Jupiter are both narrowly inclined to Earth’s orbit, it is very common for these two planets to be in conjunction.
 Larson claims, based on Herod’s ignorance concerning the timing of the Star’s appearance, that the Star was “an ordinary thing in the sky” that only became “striking when explained.” However, he identifies the Star’s “appearance” with the near-perfect conjunction of Jupiter and Venus on June 17, 2 BC, which, in his own words, formed “the brightest star anyone alive had ever seen.” This conjunction was hardly “ordinary.” The Judean king’s own astrologers would unquestionably have known when this unmissable and unforgettable astronomical phenomenon occurred; there would have been no need to ask the Magi about this!
 Curiously, Martin and Larson both acknowledge that the Star had to “rise” in the east, but they fail to take due account of how important what the Star did in connection with its rising was to the Magi—it convinced them that the Jewish Messiah had been born and persuaded them to start traveling to Judea on a mission to worship him (Matthew 2:2).
 By the first century BC astronomers were able to calculate the movements of the planets long in advance. The Babylonian astronomers even produced almanacs, containing their predictions for a given upcoming year.
 That Jupiter’s so-called “crowning” of Regulus occurs every 83 years is another problem for Larson’s view. Ancient astronomers would have known this regularity very well. It is unlikely that they would have assigned extraordinary significance to what was, in historical terms, an unexceptional celestial event. The Star had to have been a much rarer astronomical phenomenon.
 If they didn’t leave straightaway, why? After all, getting to Judea was obviously a matter of considerable urgency! And they’d had many, many months to prepare....
 By contrast, what happened in 3–2 BC was certainly not unique.
Colin Nicholl taught at the University of Cambridge and was a professor of New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary before devoting himself to biblical research. He is author of From Hope to Despair in Thessalonica and The Great Christ Comet.