The Star of Bethlehem: How the Wise Men reached Bethlehem
Examining the Star of Bethlehem as a navigational puzzle leaves no real alternative as to the star by which they navigated or the final month of their journey.
Note: 1’ = one minute of arc or 1 nautical mile.
1’ = 1.8652 km or roughly 2 km on the Earth’s surface
Navigating by the Star of Bethlehem
The Gospels state that the Wise Men followed (navigated by) a star and eventually saw that the star stood above the place that Jesus resided in Bethlehem. For the star to stand above Bethlehem, its declination would have been the same as the latitude of Bethlehem. (31° 43’ N)
Identifying the Star followed
The following is a list of the brighter stars whose declination was within 10’ of the latitude of Bethlehem in 2 BC (Note 2 adds some minor contenders.)
Name Declination Magnitude Designation
Adhafera 31° 52' N 3.5 ζ Leo
Almak 31° 44' N 2.3 γ And
Sulafat 31° 38' N 3.2 γ Lyr
Astronomers/ astrologers at the time could measure their zenith to about 1’ using plumb lines which makes Almak the prime candidate for the Star of Bethlehem (At least as the “Star of Bethlehem” Part II – see remarks).
Where did the Wise Men come from
The Wise Men came from the “East” which means that they travelled in a broadly Westerly direction. Any star used to guide them was therefore setting.
The bearing on which Almak set was 308°.2 at Bethlehem. A line drawn on a reciprocal bearing will pass down through the Arabian Peninsula until it reaches the Indian Ocean just east of the ancient centre of the Frankincense trade; Salalah in Oman. The true bearing of Salalah from Bethlehem is 130°.1 giving an error of less than two degrees in bearing.
A modern navigator, using only a compass, would be pleasantly surprised if he had maintained his track to the level of accuracy above. In fact, divine inspiration apart, it bears closer examination.
Refining the logic; Petra was inevitable
One problem with the logic above is that the amplitude of Almak as it sets from Salalah is 303°.4 because of its lower latitude. The amplitude will change constantly as one goes North West along the track.
If the track is modified every 100’ for the revised bearing of the star as it sets then they would have arrived at Aqaba/ Eilat which is 145’ south of Bethlehem. If the Wise Men then sought directions to the nearest city then they would have been directed to Petra which is about 65’ to the north and the capital of the Nabataeans at that time.
It is hard to imagine that the Wise Men would/ could have avoided Petra as it was on the main caravan route from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean. Traders in Salalah would have acquainted them with Petra even if the Wise Men came from far off lands and had never heard of it before. (The remains of Petra rival the remains of ancient Athens. Fabulous is probably a term that applied for many centuries after its demise.)
Importantly the route existed which means that, if not actual roads then, the way was at least passable. They may have diligently maintained their course, up and over sheer rock faces with camels strapped to their backs, but I am mildly sceptical. One way or the other, the route led through Petra.
Heading North from Petra to Jerusalem.
The Wise Men headed north to Jerusalem for exactly the same reason that they later headed south from Jerusalem to Bethlehem; Almak, or whichever “Star of Bethlehem” that they were following, was north of them (as it crossed their Meridian.) They were 23’.2 too far south in Petra. Jerusalem, by contrast, was 2’.2 too far north when they were redirected and confidently strode off to the village of Bethlehem.
Almak is an unremarkable star in both appearance and reputation among astronomers/ astrologers. The Wise Men may have meticulously refined their observations resulting in a 3km journey south from Jerusalem to find Jesus under the star but the inescapable conclusion is that it marked a point in the sky to which they attached mystical significance. Almak is separate and subsequent to whatever omen they saw in the heavens as astrologers: Almak is the “Star of Bethlehem” Part II.
None of the popular contenders for THE “Star of Bethlehem” lay on the declination of Almak. Furthermore, all the alternate contenders for “Star of Bethlehem” Mk II are beyond the measurement tolerances of the time with the possible exception of 10 Andromeda and 16 Lacteus (see below.) Both are close to the limits of the naked eye and totally unsuitable for navigation., especially at that time.
The main conundrum is why stop at Bethlehem? The known world extended far to the East and West. Jesus is described as a child, rather than a baby, by the time they arrived. Perhaps Judea was not their first stop or they only embarked on their quest after conferring with other colleagues. (International Conference of Magi?) Part of their calculations involved Longitude which may have been based on a bearing such as from another observatory or some alternative esoteric calculations.
Haze near the horizon makes it extremely difficult to see a star on the horizon. Modern navigators use an altitude equivalent to the Sun’s diameter to take bearings with which to check their compass (Amplitude.) This altitude is easy to estimate without instruments and produces results which are sufficiently accurate even in these days of GPS. We use a bowl of about 60cms diameter while they probably used pieces of wood of greater length and possibly unknown additional techniques.
For want of a better alternative the modern altitude for a body rising or setting has been used (34’ of arc.) 1° or 2° would make a small difference if they followed a straight line but it would have driven the “Wise Men” slightly further south and away from Bethlehem. It would not however remove Petra from their path. If Almak was their reference point then they would still have arrived at Bethlehem eventually
Other Stars within 10’ in declination of Bethlehem’s latitude. (No known names.)
Declination Magnitude Designation Hipparchos
31° 53' N 5.9 IS Gem 32740
31° 49' N 4.7 8 Cyg 96052
31° 49' N 5.0 n/a 7918
31° 44' N 6.0 10 And 115191
31° 42’ N 5.6 16 Lac 113281
31° 41' N 5.7 n/a 91883
31° 40' N 5.8 39 Leo 50384
31° 37' N 5.6 n/a 87308
31° 37' N 5.6 78 Her 85790
The use of 2 BC is arbitrary. +/- 100 years is insignificant.
Algol deserves mention because of the intense associations with its names and its proximity to Bethlehem’s latitude. (10' south) Its’ Chinese name, “Piled up corpses,” would be an excellent metaphor for living under the rule of a homicidal maniac such as Herod (The Arab name, which translates as, “Head of the Daemon” is meek by comparison.)
Secondly, Algol’s constellation is Perseus which draws present day astronomers due to the annual Perseids Meteor showers in August. (Records go back to 26 AD.) 200 meteors an hour have been recorded from this phenomenon and could easily have been interpreted as a divine omen.
A riding camel can cover up to 100 miles in a day at an average speed of 10 miles/hr.