The Star of Bethlehem
The Gospel of Matthew records the following intriguing words.
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, Wise-men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we saw his star in the east, and are come to worship him (Mt. 2:1-2).
When Herod the Great heard of this inquiry, he was intensely disturbed. The vicious ruling king gathered together leading Hebrew dignitaries and inquired as to precisely where the Christ child had been born. Basing their information on a prophecy in the book of Micah, the scholars replied that the baby was to be born in Bethlehem of Judea.
Herod then consulted with the “Wise-men” (Greek,
Magi) as to the time when the star appeared. The Greek historian Herodotus states that the Magi were a caste of Medes under Persian control. They performed priestly functions and were very learned (The Histories, 1.101.132).
Herod then dispatched them to Bethlehem. They were given instructions to locate the child and report back to him under the guise that he himself wished to worship the babe. The real motive comes out later. The diabolical scheme was to murder the infant Savior (Mt. 2:16ff).
Subsequently, the ruthless Herod slaughtered all baby boys two years and under within Bethlehem and its environs, hoping the Messiah was among them.
The brutality depicted by Matthew is entirely consistent with the record of Josephus. In his writings, Antiquities and Wars of the Jews, the Jewish historian portrayed a number of Herod’s deeds of moral depravity.
Matthew’s record continues:
And they, having heard the king, went their way; and lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. And when they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy (Mt. 2:9-10).
Here are the facts gleaned from the narrative
The Wise-men saw a star. The Greek term is
aster. The word can refer to any luminous body in the sky other than the sun (e.g., a single star or a planet; Danker et al. 2000, 145).
The star is designated as “his [Christ’s] star” (v. 2). Technically it was “his star” in the sense that the pre-incarnate Word created it (Jn. 1:3, 14). In this context, the star (i.e. a unique source of light) was orchestrated as a divine sign to lead the Magi precisely to the location of the Christ child.
Exactly what was this heavenly phenomenon? Consider several theories that have been proposed.
Was the Star of Bethlehem a Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn?
An astronomical conjunction refers to when two bodies appear to be very close to one another from Earth’s perspective.
The astronomer Johann Kepler (1571-1630) suggested that the star of Bethlehem might have involved a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn that occurred somewhat near the time of the birth of Christ. This conjunction will occur again in December of 2020.
Supposedly the Magi, who possibly lived in Persia, saw this light and interpreted it as a sign of the birth of a king.
Although Kepler suggested the conjunction of planets was a possibility, he was personally more inclined to the notion that the mysterious luminary probably was a supernova (see below).
Henry Alford (1810-71), a renowned British Bible scholar, was intrigued by Kepler’s suggestion. He argued that this planetary conjunction was a providential tool employed by God to this end (n.d., 6-7).
More recently Professor Jack Finegan surmised that the Saturn-Jupiter conjunction was possibly associated in some way with the star of Bethlehem. However, he conceded that the two planets “did not come close enough to each other to present the appearance of a single star” (1998, 313, 315).
William Mounce also mentions the conjunction theory as a possibility (2006, 481).
But this is a most unlikely hypothesis. The New Testament depicts the luminary as a “star” (
aster – singular number), not “stars” (
asteras – plural). And as DeYoung notes, “multiple planets do not look like a single star” (1988, 65).
Was the Star of Bethlehem a Nova or Supernova?
Other astronomical events have been suggested as possible natural explanations for the Star of Bethlehem. A nova is a sudden brightening of a star that later subsides. A supernova occurs when a star rapidly expands, ejecting most of its mass. It also results in a sudden brightening of the star.
Both the nova and the supernova have been offered as possible explanations. But neither novas nor supernovas move in a certain route. The Bethlehem star did. Moreover, there are no astronomical records of a supernova near the time of the Lord’s birth (DeYoung 1988, 65).
In addition, the only movement of the stars perceived by people on earth as they survey the skies is from the view of our revolving orb (Steidl 1979, 127). Since the earth rotates on its axis at the speed of approximately one thousand miles per hour at the equator, the stars appear from our vantage point to be moving at that speed as well.
This means that any given star is over a particular place (e.g., a house) not more than a second (Unruh 2007, 2). This does not conform to Matthew’s depiction of the star’s movements.
The Bethlehem star actually moved and stopped. It guided the Wise-men from the east toward the west, hundreds of miles. This required several months of travel. The star then guided them from Jerusalem to the small community of Bethlehem some six miles to the south.
Again, it stopped so as to specifically identify the very house in which the young child was to be found (Mt. 2:11).
No one can locate a particular house based on the relationship of any single star—anywhere in the universe!
Was the Star of Bethlehem a Comet?
A few have supposed that the light was a comet, perhaps Halley’s Comet, which was visible in 11 or 12 B.C.
But it is impossible to harmonize this with the date of Christ’s birth. For a long time, the advent of our Savior has been held to be slightly before Herod’s death in 4 B.C.
Was the Star of Bethlehem an Angel?
Some think it is a plausible theory that the star was an angel (Wilkins 2002, 16).
This view is based upon a misconception of Revelation 1:20, where stars are symbolically employed for angels of seven churches of Christ in the Roman province of Asia, although in that context the term “angels” might be better rendered as “messengers.”
Such a fanciful stretch fails to take into consideration the fact that Matthew’s narrative is not of the same literary style as the book of Revelation with its apocalyptic symbolism. Besides, the apostle Matthew makes a strict distinction between an “angel” and a “star” in his opening narrative (Mt. 1:20; 2:2ff).
What Is a Reasonable View of the Identity of the Star of Bethlehem?
A better view than those sketched above and one that fits all facts quite neatly is that the star of Bethlehem was a special, supernatural luminary.
It was unique event, provided especially for the guidance of the wise men. It moved specifically at the bidding of God, operating precisely in harmony with the unfolding of the sacred plan of redemption.
The Star of Bethlehem cannot be explained in any scientific fashion, and we do not need to expect documentation in the astronomical annals of the Middle East.
Such an illumination would be consistent with numerous uses of supernatural “light” in the divine scheme of salvation, as such progressively developed across the centuries.
- There was the “light” of the burning bush that was not consumed when Moses conversed with the Lord God.
- There was the light that illuminated the houses of Israel when Egypt was as black as a coal mine (Ex. 10:21-23).
- There was the light that graced Moses’ face when he came down from Sinai—so brilliant that the children of Israel could not look upon his countenance (see Ex. 24:17; 34:29-35; cf. 2 Cor. 3:7ff).
- Supernatural light led the Israelites during their night passages in the wilderness of Sinai (Ex. 13:21; 14:20).
- There was the extraordinary glow at the instance of Jesus’ transfiguration (Mt. 17:2).
- There was the brilliant light that appeared when Saul of Tarsus saw Christ on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:3; 22:6; 26:13).
Each of these was a direct working of God. Why not the guiding Star of Bethlehem as well?
We believe it is a dead-end road to attempt to discover some sort of natural explanation for the Star of Bethlehem. This is the method modernists have pursued in approaching every miracle of the Bible.
Why should “Christian” scholars adopt the same rationalistic route? It is but an exercise in futility.
- Alford, Henry. n.d. The New Testament for English Readers. Chicago, IL: Moody Press.
- Danker, F. W. et al. 2000. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.
- DeYoung, Donald. 1988. Astronomy and the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
- Mounce, William D. 2006. The Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
- Steidl, Paul M. 1979. The Earth, The Stars, and the Bible. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed.
- Unruh, J. Timothy. 2007. The Star of Bethlehem – What Was It? Creation Science Association News, 25.1, Jan-Feb.
- Wilkins, Michael J. 2002. Matthew. Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. Vol. 1. Clinton E. Arnold, ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.