What’s the deal with the Star of Bethlehem? What was it? Can modern Science explain it?
“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…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 2:1-2, 9–10, NIV)
There have been many attempts to explain the Star of Bethlehem scientifically through the years. Three main theories can be summarized as follows:
1. The Star was a comet. In astrology comets have traditionally been associated with important events in human history (e.g. the birth or death of kings). However, there are no historical records of comet sightings that line up with the time of Jesus’ birth. Halley’s comet appeared in 11 B.C., but Jesus was born between 7-4 B.C. so it’s years too early to be the Star.
2. The Star was a supernova, an exploding star. Supernovae are very bright and can be seen even in broad daylight for weeks, even months. But there are no records of a supernova appearance at the time of Jesus’ birth.
3. The Star was an alignment of planets (a planetary conjunction). Because the planets orbit the sun at differing speeds they do occasionally “line up” in the night sky. Astrologers in the ancient world assigned planets to certain political realities on earth, so that a conjunction of certain planets may have carried a type of omen about an important birth in Judea. Johannes Kepler (1571—1630) held to this view. However, planetary conjunctions do not produce a single light source, and they can only be seen at night. They are also quite normal, nothing that would register as miraculous.
So if none of these naturalistic theories adequately explains the nature of the Star, then what was it?
The Greek word for “star” is aster. It is used 24 times in the Greek New Testament, and the vast majority of its uses mean “star” or “celestial body.” It is used in Revelation 12:4 to refer to fallen angels who joined Satan’s rebellion against God. There is an interpretive tradition that sees the stars mentioned in Revelation 1:20 as the guardian angels of the seven churches mentioned in chapters 2-3. Basic rules of biblical interpretation say that we should take the normal meaning of a word, unless there is a compelling reason to suggest otherwise. That being the case, we should understand aster to mean a heavenly body.
Looking at the data that the Bible gives us about the Star we can note the following:
1. It appeared to the magi in the East; most likely they were from Persia (modern day Iran). No mention is made of anyone in Judea or Samaria seeing the star.
2. In Matthew 2:9 we are told that the star led the magi from Jerusalem (where they had an audience with King Herod) to Bethlehem, a distance of about 6 miles north-to-south. Every naturally occurring object in the sky moves from east-to-west due to the earth’s rotation.
3. The star led the magi to a particular house in Bethlehem. It is difficult to see how a naturally occurring object could do that.
Taking all of this information together we may conclude that the Star of Bethlehem can not be explained as a naturally occurring object by science. It was a once-and-done, supernatural and miraculous phenomenon.
God has used supernatural phenomenon to lead His people in the past. He led Israel out of Egypt by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. He showed His presence in the Tabernacle and the Temple by means of a glowing, radiant cloud (the Shekinah glory). It appears that He caused another miraculous phenomenon to lead the magi to the infant Jesus, their Savior and ours.