Lots of talk this year about the merging of Saturn and Jupiter, or the Great Conjunction. Was the iconic symbol of the birth of Christ really a new star, a comet or aligned planets? Have you considered another option? ◊
So, what’s the truth about the Star of Bethlehem? We’ve heard many theories about it and might admit a tinge of excitement when scientists confer on theories of aligning planets or astronomical occurrences that perhaps could be tied to the timeline of the historic event of Jesus’ birth.
Let’s look at what the Bible actually says about the Christmas star, then what astronomers have said about it, and then what Christian commentators have suggested over time.
You can then make your own conclusion on the topic after getting updated facts and information on something that’s certainly more than folklore.
What Does the Bible Actually Say?
The Gospel of Matthew is the only place in the Bible that mentions the Christmas star. The context is the search by the distinguished visitors from the east (Magi) for the predicted child “born king of the Jews.”
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”…Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared…. After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. (Matthew 2:1-9)
If you read the entire passage there is no doubt the star is a critical element of the Christmas story. It is the guiding light for the Magi.
What Do Astronomers Say?
There have always been rational men that have tried to explain the Christmas star as a natural event. In his article The Star of Bethlehem1, T. Michael Davis highlights various scientists, including Johannes Kepler, the 17th century astronomer who believed that the star could have been a supernova (an exploding, changing or dying star that grows in brightness and so appears to be a newly formed star). However, a supernova and/or nova (a temporary brightening of an existing star) are both stars in fixed positions that rotate daily east to west from earth’s perspective like normal stars.
Some modern scientists believe it could have been a comet, a celestial object made up of dust and gases that grows brighter as it approaches the sun. Davis points out that Colin Humphreys argues that the star of Bethlehem was a comet that “was visible in 5 BC and described in ancient Chinese records.”
Additionally, Davis points out explanations by Humphreys and others that involve the occurrence of conjunctions (when two or more planets, in their individual paths across earth’s sky, come into close proximity to each other and appear to merge into a single bright object. In fact, there were conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn in 7 BC, and of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn in 6 BC, and Venus and Jupiter that occurred in 2 BC.
Researcher Michael Molnar concludes from his extensive research that April 17, 6 BC was the date of the birth of Christ. He writes,
“Any horoscope drawn for April 17, 6 BC, (must have been) regal because the Sun, the Moon, Jupiter, and Saturn are in the sign of Aries, conditions which perfectly and simultaneously fulfill the major regal principles (of Greek astrology)! And amazingly, Jupiter, the Magi’s star, was heliacally rising in the east and in a close conjunction (occultation) with the Moon, which gave even more regal significance to that day.” 2
Hmmm. Well, in any event or natural scenario it’s hard to imagine a “star” settling over any one specific house in Bethlehem.
What Do Christian Commentators Say?
In his research, Davis finds most Christian commentators fall into one of three conclusions regarding the star of Bethlehem:
- Ignore the question of the nature and behavior of the star altogether
- Accept a naturalistic explanation
- Say the explanation is supernatural and miraculous but leave it at that.
Origen, a third century AD Christian, considered the star “to have been a new star…but partaking of the nature of those celestial bodies which appear at times, such as comets, or…meteors.”
Charles Spurgeon actually declared that questions about the star “are not of much importance to us.” But he also offered the explanation that it “was probably a meteor, or moving light.” But he also called it “a luminous appearance in mid-air” likening it to the light that led Israel through the desert.
Ignatius (second century AD) opined that it was a normal star, but a miraculous star. Calvin waffled, claiming “it was not a natural star, but extraordinary…It is more probable that it was like a comet…”
So, Davis concludes that most Christian commentators support a supernatural approach and are content to call it “a miracle” or “a special sign.”
Indeed, if you study the text of Matthew, particularly verse 9, you have to conclude that the Christmas Star of Bethlehem goes far beyond natural phenomena. It’s appearance and reappearance are supernatural. To apply finite dates and actual astronomical science is fruitless, like trying to find Moses’ burning bush or evidence of the Shekinah glory (God’s cloud by day and pillar of fire by night – Exodus 13:21).
Certainly the entire purpose and birth of Christ is all about the supernatural. The God of Israel has long performed the miraculous in revelation by extraordinary episodes (Mount Sinai, the virgin birth of Christ, the heavenly host signing in Bethlehem, Jesus’ baptism at the Jordan, Saul/Paul outside Damascus).
I too believe the Christmas Star was just such an event, a direct intersection of heaven and earth through the miraculous power and light of Creator God. Through this supernatural event He led the Magi westward to Jerusalem, then south to Bethlehem, then ultimately and directly to the specific home of the revealed child king.
No, this was no star in outer space. This was the supernatural, moving star-like light, first on the western horizon, then on the southern horizon toward Bethlehem, then finally the directive spotlight that fulfilled the heralded supernatural birth of the Son of God, Savior of the world.
Do you believe in miracles?
“In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet [Micah 5:2] has written: ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.'” – Matthew 2:5-6
1 The Star of Bethlehem, by T. Michael Davis, article in Christian Research Journal, volume 30, number 6, 2007.
2 The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi, by Michael R. Molnar (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1999), p. 87.