Observations on life; particularly spiritual

The Christmas Star

What was the star that led the wise men to Christ?What was the star that led the wise men to Christ? Was it a conjunction of planets, a comet, a supernova, a moon, an angel, or something else? Opinions abound, but many of them do not fit the details of the biblical text. What does the Bible have to say about this star?

This post is based on an article with the same title by Dr Jason Lisle of the Biblical Science Institute. Dr. Lisle is an astrophysicist.

Background

In the second chapter of Matthew, we read of magi or “wise men” (Appendix A) from the east who travelled to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem, following a star that led them to the Christ child. These ancient scholars were most likely from the Persia region which is east of Jerusalem and includes the pagan city of Babylon. As far as we know, these magi were the only people to see or follow this star. We do not read of any Jews following it. Herod and his advisors apparently didn’t notice the star because he had to ask the magi when the star first appeared (Mt. 2:7). This is ironic because it was not Jews who were seeking the King of the Jews and recognized His sign, but rather Gentiles. How strange that Gentiles from a pagan nation would respond to a sign from God and come to worship the King of the Jews, while the Jews were apparently oblivious to this sign. How is this possible? It was according to God’s plan.

God is not responsible for people rejecting Him, but He did anticipate the rejection of Christ by the majority of Jews, and even used this to bring salvation to the Gentiles (Rom. 11:11). Matthew emphasizes this ironic truth more than the other three Gospel writers (see for example Mt. 11:20-26, 21:28-46, 22:1-10, 23:1-39). The account of the Christmas star is therefore an indictment against the nation of Israel at the time of Christ’s birth. The majority of Jews were not anticipating Christ’s coming, were not seeking Him, and did not notice the sign of His coming. So, God instead blessed Gentiles from a pagan nation and granted them the opportunity to see and worship the King of kings.

The magi were the scholars of their day. They were advisors to kings and would be called upon to settle disputes. Although many Christmas cards portray only three magi, there were many. We don’t know how many visited Christ, but it seems likely that there were many more than just three. The magi had their own personal army, and so their journey from the east was probably an impressive caravan. They likely travelled by horseback, not on camels; the Persians were accomplished horsemen.

Another “Christmas card” myth is that the magi arrived at the manger scene. But this is not so. Since Persia is some distance from Bethlehem, their journey likely took many months. And, they may have taken considerable time to prepare for the journey. It may have been over a year after Christ was born that the magi arrived (we know from Mt. 2:16 that it was less than two years).

But how did they know about the Messiah? As scholars, the magi would have had a substantial library, and access to many ancient documents. So, it is reasonable to suppose that they had access to Hebrew writings, including most of the Old Testament. Recall that the Jews had been taken captive by Babylon centuries earlier. In fact, the prophet Daniel was appointed chief of the “magicians,” (Dan. 5:11-12) which may very well be the same order of magi that would visit Christ centuries later. Daniel, being a godly man, would certainly have shared the truth of the Scriptures with those under his authority, including the promise of the coming Messiah. Daniel himself was given revelation from God regarding the timing of Christ’s coming (Dan. 9:24-25).

In particular, the magi may have been aware of Balaam’s prophecy recorded in Numbers 24:17NIV: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel”. This passage poetically describes the coming of the Messiah as being a star or scepter that will rise from Jacob/Israel. Perhaps the Christmas star literally rose over Israel, and the magi took this to be the sign of the Messiah and the fulfillment of Balaam’s prophecy. As scholars, the magi would have understood the basics of astronomy, and would pay attention to any possible signs in the heavens. Certainly, the appearance of a new star over Israel would get their attention.

“In the east”?

The magi arrived in Jerusalem, and began asking “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” (Mt. 2:2). The Greek phrase often translated “in the east” is most literally translated “at its rising.” So why do some versions translate this text “in the east?” The reason is that the expression “rising” was the normal way of saying “east” in Greek, just as “setting” was the normal way of saying “west.” This is because the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, as do all the natural stars, planets, and the moon. So, the term “rising” became a synonym for “east.” To see the moon in the eastern sky is to see it at its rising, and to see the moon rising is to see it in the eastern sky. So, normally, it would not matter how we translate this phrase into English since one meaning implies the other for every natural object.

But the Christmas star may not have been a natural object. What if the Christmas star rose in the west from the perspective of Persia? This would have to be the case if it literally rose over Israel. And it would be a literal fulfillment of Balaam’s prophecy. From Persia, Bethlehem is almost due west, and so a star rising from Israel would rise in the west – the opposite of every natural star which sets in the west. The biblical text literal states that the wise men saw the star at its rising, and in light of Numbers 24:17, this was quite possibly in the western sky over Israel. As scholars, the magi would have immediately recognized this as a non-natural phenomenon, and possibly the sign of the Messiah.

Arriving in Jerusalem

According to Matthew 2:1, the magi arrived in Jerusalem and began asking for the location of Christ. But since Christ was born in Bethlehem, why did they go to Jerusalem? Perhaps the star was not guiding them at that time, or at least not guiding them to the exact location. Their first view of the star from Persia would give them only a general idea of the location, not exact coordinates, if indeed the star was directly over Christ (Appendix B). Bethlehem is about 10 km (6 miles) from Jerusalem. So, from the distance of Persia, it would be impossible to tell whether the star was over Bethlehem or Jerusalem – the difference in angle is minuscule.

But since Jerusalem was the capital city, perhaps the magi felt it would be logical to begin their search for the King there. Since they were asking about the location, apparently the star was no longer guiding them. Possibly, there had been a string of cloudy nights, or maybe the star had ceased shining at that point. In any event, no one in Israel seemed to know about the Messiah – another indication of the lack of faith of the majority of the people in the nation. Apparently, even King Herod did not know about the star. He asked the magi when they first saw it (Mt. 2:7).

Herod was a wicked man who had bribed his way into office. He was troubled to learn that the magi were asking about this new-born king of the Jews (Mt. 2:3). According to Roman law, Herod was the rightful king of the Jews. He was apparently concerned that this Christ child would challenge his authority as king. He secretly met with the magi under the pretense of wanting to come and worship Christ as well. But his true motive was to kill the child. Just to be sure, he ordered all male children under the age of 2 years in Bethlehem and the surrounding regions to be slaughtered (Mt. 2:16). He was not about to have his throne usurped by a toddler.

Herod learned from the scribes and chief priests that Christ was to be born in Bethlehem. This was prophesied in Micah 5:2. The magi were apparently unfamiliar with that verse, or perhaps they didn’t make the connection that it was referring to the Messiah. In any case, armed with this new information, they resumed their search for Christ in Bethlehem. After having met with Herod, they again saw the star and they rejoiced (Mt. 2:10). Perhaps they had become discouraged after failing to find Christ in Jerusalem with its inhabitants apparently unaware that the Messiah had come. Perhaps they had begun to wonder if they had correctly interpreted Balaam’s prophecy. With the star no longer guiding them, would they ever reach their goal? This may account for their excitement as the star again became visible.

Arriving in Bethlehem

Matthew 2:9 states that the star went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was. This implies motion, or at least apparent motion, until the star came to hover directly over the location of Christ. The magi already knew the town; they had learned from their meeting with Herod that Christ had been born in Bethlehem. So, it seems that the star led them to the specific house. In any event, they arrived and worshiped the Christ, and presented gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Appendix C). It was the custom of the ancient world to present gifts when coming before a king: in particular gifts of gold, and aromatic fragrances such as frankincense and myrrh (see Gen. 43:11; 1 Ki. 10:2, Ps. 72:10-15, Isa. 60:6).

These gifts also confirm that significant time (at least 40 days) had elapsed between the birth of Christ and the arrival of the magi. Biblical law required Jews to offer a Temple sacrifice for every newborn child. They were to offer a lamb and a turtledove (Lev. 12:6). However, the law had a provision for those people too poor to offer a lamb; they could offer two turtledoves instead (Lev. 12:8). Luke 2:24 states that Joseph and Mary sacrificed two turtledoves in obedience to God’s law, indicating that they did not have the financial means to purchase a lamb. This indicates that the magi had not yet given them the gold.

The nature of the star

From the biblical text, we infer that the Christmas star (1) was seen and understood by the magi, but no others, or at least no others are mentioned. (2) The magi saw the star on at least two occasions: before meeting with Herod and again after. They apparently saw the star when it first rose, and their meeting with Herod occurred less than two years later. (3) The star moved or at least appeared to move, going ahead of the magi. (4) The star remained stationary over the location of Christ, apparently guiding the magi to the correct house. This means the object must have revolved along with Earth’s rotation so as to remain directly above Bethlehem. (5) The magi recognized this star as signifying the Messiah’s birth. They referred to it as “His star” (Matthew 2:2). Given this information, what celestial phenomenon can account for this remarkable event?

We should first note that the Greek word translated “star” in Matthew 2:2 is “aster” (Strongs #792) and has a broader semantic range than our modern astronomical definition of a star. When astronomers say “star”, they refer to a spheroid of hydrogen gas powered by sustained nuclear fusion in the core. But the ancients would use the word to refer to any point-like light that appeared in the sky. For example, planets do not fall under the modern scientific definition of a star, but they do fall under the ancient definition. In fact, planets were referred to as “wandering stars” because they slowly move relative to the background stars. So, the Christmas star need not be a star in the modern technical sense of the word. Any luminous point will do, and so we need to consider this in our analysis.

Some people have suggested that the Christmas star was a supernova. A supernova is an exploding star. When a star explodes, it brightens dramatically for months, and can even outshine the combined light of all the other stars in the galaxy. A supernova in our own galaxy occurs roughly once per century, and they are occasionally bright enough to be seen during the day. Could the Christmas star have been a supernova?

Although they are spectacular, a supernova does not fit the description given in the biblical text. A bright supernova would have been noticed by everyone, but only the magi apparently saw the Christmas star. More importantly, a supernova could not stand over the location of Christ for any length of time, because as the Earth rotates, all fixed stars appear to revolve in the opposite direction. And a supernova could not lead someone to a specific house, or even a specific town because many locations would consider the star to be “directly overhead.”

Another suggestion is that the Christmas star was actually a comet. A comet is a mass of ice and dirt that orbits the sun in an elliptical path, ejecting material along the way. Comets tend to have a fuzzy appearance because solar heat is constantly vaporizing their surface, forming a cloud of debris. Solar wind and radiation pressure can cause some of this debris to form a tail pointing away from the sun. Unlike a supernova, comets move relative to the background stars.

Unfortunately, this explanation is also problematic. Although comets do move, they do not revolve around the Earth. A comet could therefore never stand over Bethlehem for any length of time. And, like a supernova, a comet’s great distance would make it impossible to figure out which house is directly below it. So, a comet could not direct the magi to the right house, or even the right city or town.

Another proposal is that the Christmas star was a conjunction of planets. There are a few different versions of this claim, but they are all similar. A conjunction is when a planet appears to pass very close to another planet or a star as seen in Earth’s sky. Several conjunctions took place around the time Christ was born. A triple conjunction (three passes in a row) of Jupiter and Regulus occurred in the years 3 and 2 B.C. And there was a spectacular conjunction of Jupiter and Venus on June 17, 2 B.C. Could one of these be the Christmas star?

The problem with most of these claims is that a conjunction really would never be called a “star.” A conjunction is two stars. But the biblical text clearly refers to the Christmas star in the singular. So, this eliminates the claim that the star was a conjunction of Jupiter and Regulus. But one conjunction deserves further analysis. The conjunction of Jupiter and Venus on June 17 was so close that the two planets may have briefly appeared as one on that evening, and could be called “a star.” Could this spectacular conjunction be the Christmas star? A popular DVD has been distributed making this very claim. But does it fit the biblical text?

Though the June 17, 2 B.C. conjunction was a spectacular and rare event, there are good reasons to think that this was not the Christmas star. This pair of planets did not (and could not) stand over Bethlehem for any length of time, nor did it go ahead of the magi, nor could it possibly lead them to the correct house – all things that the Christmas star did do. Recall that the magi saw the star at least twice, but this close conjunction occurred only once, on the evening of June 17, 2 B.C. Even the date is problematic. Most conservative scholars believe that Jesus was born around 4 B.C., or perhaps 5 B.C. The conjunction of Venus and Jupiter is at least two years too late. And since Venus is the third brightest object in our sky, it is likely that everyone would have seen this event – not just the magi. So, for many reasons, we can conclude that this conjunction was not the Christmas star.

What about a second moon? Today Earth has only one natural orbiting body – the moon. But what if a second, very small moon, fell into Earth’s orbit around the time of the birth of Christ. Could it orbit in such a way as to remain directly above Bethlehem? Any object placed in a prograde circular orbit around Earth’s equator at a distance of 42,163 km (26,199 miles) from Earth’s center will naturally orbit at exactly the same rate Earth rotates. This is called a geostationary orbit. From our perspective on Earth’s surface, the object will appear to remain fixed at the same spot in the sky while the other stars rise and set. Could the Christmas star have been a geostationary moon?

This explanation almost works – but not quite. A geostationary moon can remain directly above a location on Earth’s equator, but only for such locations. However, Bethlehem is not on Earth’s equator, rather it is at latitude 31.7 degrees. No natural object can orbit in such a way as to remain directly over Bethlehem because the plane of all natural orbits around Earth must intersect Earth’s center of mass.

A miraculous sign?

Since no known natural object completely fits the description of the star provided in the biblical text, it seems that this star was a supernatural manifestation of God’s power. Perhaps similar to the pillar of flame that guided the Israelites by night, this star apparently hovered over the location of Christ by God’s divine decree. Whether God imparted luminosity to an angelic being, or created a new inanimate light source, the star seems to have had unique properties.

The Christmas star was apparently not especially bright – otherwise everyone would have noticed it and not just the magi. The star seems to have risen from the location of Christ at the time of His birth, in a spectacular fulfillment of Balaam’s prophecy; the star would literally have risen from Israel. From the perspective of Persia, this star would rise in the west, unlike any natural star. The magi, being the scholars of their day, would have understood motions in the night sky. They would have recognized a star that doesn’t belong to the known constellations, one that rose in the west and appears to hover over Israel as the rest of the stars rise in the east and set in the west. But those unfamiliar with astronomy would not have noticed. This explains why Herod was unaware of the star.

The star may not have been very high above earth’s surface and may have even descended as the magi approached their destination so that they could easily see which house was directly under the star. A miraculous star also explains why the magi referred to the object as “His star” – a star uniquely created for the purpose of announcing the coming of the long-awaited Messiah. This being the case, the position and appearance of the Christmas star is not something that can be estimated on the basis of natural laws or using computer software. Like the resurrection, it was only possibly by God’s decree.

Natural phenomena are no less a demonstration of God’s power than supernatural phenomena, because God upholds all things by the Word of His power (Heb. 1:3). God causes the universe to operate in a law-like fashion most of the time, using patterns that human beings can discover by repeated observation and experimentation. This is the basis for science. However, God is under no obligation to always uphold His creation in a predictable way. Secularists often arbitrarily assume that all phenomena have natural causes, but there is no logical basis for this belief. So, we are not rationally constrained to natural explanations for historical events. Since God normally upholds creation in a natural way, it is sensible to seek natural explanations first; but if none readily fit the biblical text, we recognize that God is God and does whatsoever He pleases.

Conclusion

Perhaps the main point of Matthew chapter 2 is that God’s chosen people, who should have been anticipating His coming, were largely oblivious to the sign of His coming. So, God allowed people from a pagan nation to be blessed with the opportunity to see the Creator of the universe enter His creation. Is it possible that many Christians today miss out on God’s blessings because we too fail to seek the Lord?

Appendix A

The Greek term here, sometimes transliterated into English as “magi”, describes a class of wise men and priests who were astrologers (NET Bible). Unlike the carol (Appendix D), they are not described as kings.

Appendix B

We know that the star eventually stood directly over Christ (from Mt. 2:9).  However, we do not know for certain that it always hovered directly above Him.

Appendix C

The number of gifts seems to be the source of the myth that there were exactly three magi (as in Appendix D).

"The journey of the magi" by Stefano di Giovanni in about 1434Appendix D: We three kings

This Christmas carol was composed by John Henry Hopkins Jr in 1857. It tells the story of Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection.

We three kings of Orient are;
bearing gifts we traverse afar,
field and fountain, moor and mountain,
following yonder star.

O star of wonder, star of light,
star with royal beauty bright,
westward leading, still proceeding,
guide us to thy perfect light.

Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain,
gold I bring to crown Him again,
King forever, ceasing never,
over us all to reign.

O star of wonder, star of light,
star with royal beauty bright,
westward leading, still proceeding,
guide us to thy perfect light.

Frankincense to offer have I;
incense owns a Deity nigh;
prayer and praising, voices raising,
worshiping God on high.

O star of wonder, star of light,
star with royal beauty bright,
westward leading, still proceeding,
guide us to thy perfect light.

Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
breathes a life of gathering gloom;
sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
sealed in the stone-cold tomb.

O star of wonder, star of light,
star with royal beauty bright,
westward leading, still proceeding,
guide us to thy perfect light.

Glorious now behold Him arise;
King and God and sacrifice:
Alleluia, Alleluia,
sounds through the earth and skies.

O star of wonder, star of light,
star with royal beauty bright,
westward leading, still proceeding,
guide us to thy perfect light.

Appendix E: The guiding light of the Bible

The Magi have come from afar, following a star, but that star can only take them so far. It’s the Bible that points them on their way. The star does appear again, signalling the place where Jesus is in Bethlehem, but in between, the Magi need the guidance of the Bible to find the way to go. King Herod gathered the chief priests and teachers of the law and asked them “where the Messiah was to be born” (Mt. 2:3-5). These Bible experts responded, “in Bethlehem… this is what the prophet has written”.

The Magi had to go to great lengths to meet Jesus. They had to look out for the star, pack their bags and travel a long way. They expected a newborn King to be in the capital Jerusalem so when they reach the city they have to wander the streets, asking around if anybody knows where Jesus is. They end up having to meet with King Herod, who was a rather ruthless and feared ruler, the kind of person you’d try to avoid. Even after they meet Jesus, they have to travel the long way home. In short, the Magi had to go a long way to meet Jesus.

Yet today, you and I have the means of meeting Jesus in the palm of our hand. We don’t have to go on a long journey or pilgrimage, we don’t have to trudge the streets of a city looking for answers, instead, we just have to flip open the cover of our Bible (or with one press, open up the Bible app on our phone). The Bible leads us to Jesus, it gives us the chance to meet with Him today, and God has placed this gift in our very hands.

Appendix E: Missing out on inexpressible joy

As the magi dash off to meet Jesus, there’s another group of people who don’t: the chief priests and teachers of the law. After we hear them speaking with Herod, the silence of these chief priests and teachers of the law is deafening. These are the Bible experts; they know what the scriptures promise. They’ve heard the rumours circulating around the city. In fact, the rumours are causing so much of a stir that Matthew notes that it isn’t just Herod who’s disturbed, but “all Jerusalem with him” (Mt. 2:3). And it gets even worse: Bethlehem is just 10 km (6 miles) down the road from Jerusalem. Their promised Messiah is quite literally down the road, yet they stay put in Jerusalem.

The Gentile foreigners (magi) travel a long way to meet the promised, newborn King of the Jews. Meanwhile, the people in the know, the people with the scriptures in their hands and in their heads, the people the Messiah was born among, stay put at home. The Magi worship Jesus; the chief priests and teachers of the law don’t.

When the Magi see the star for a second time, “they were overjoyed” (Mt. 2:10). And that was just when they saw the star! Imagine the joy that overflowed when they actually came face to face with Jesus?! But meanwhile, the chief priests take the easy option, staying put in Jerusalem.

Like the magi, when we read the Bible that points us to Jesus, we can experience the great joy that God is inviting us to. Reading our Bible is an invitation to experience joy in the presence of our generous Lord. Failure to read the Bible is being like the Jewish religious leaders who missed out on inexpressible joy.

Appendix F: Face down worship

There is a striking parallel between the account of the magi (Mt. 2:1-11) and the story of the women at Jesus’ resurrection (Mt. 28:1-9):

Travelling Magi: Gentile foreigners–who aren’t the kind of people you expect to appear in an account of the birth of the King of the Jews, travel to Jesus.
Cosmic power: the creative power of God is evident as a star appears, signalling the birth of Jesus.
Rejoicing: the Magi see the star, the sign pointing the way to Jesus, and they rejoice.
Face-down worship: when the Magi meet Jesus they fall down in worship.

Travelling women: like the Magi, women wouldn’t be expected to play a starring role in an account like this, yet they do as they travel to Jesus.
Cosmic power: there was an earthquake and an angel of the Lord appears to them announcing the resurrection of Jesus.
Rejoicing: seeing the angel, who points the way to Jesus, they rejoice.
Face-down worship: when the women meet Jesus they fall down in worship.

God used His power to show Himself to the magi and the women who are both social groups who would normally be avoided or overlooked in the culture of the day. But God’s greatest expression of power is shown in the person of Jesus Christ. This is the power that gives instead of takes. It humbles itself to be born as a fragile baby, held in a mother’s arms. This isn’t the typical power of a king like Herod who decrees a child massacre just to protect his grasp on the throne. This is the power that is used in sacrificial service.

This is the King who was born to die. “The King of the Jews” was also written as He hung on the cross (Mt. 2:2; 27:37). This is the kind of power and the kind of King who can drive magi to fall to their knees in worship. This is the God who uses all the power of the universe to send His son as a baby held in a mother’s arms, a baby who would die giving His life for you and me. This Christmas, this is the kind of King who can drive us to fall to our knees in joyful adoration.

Acknowledgement

This post (and Appendixes A, B and C) comes from an article, The Christmas star, by Dr Jason Lisle of the Biblical Science Institute.

Appendixes E, F and G come from The road of the magi by Stephen Unwin of Our Daily Bread Ministries.

Posted, December 2022

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