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 (Matthew 2:1-2).
When Herod the Great, the vicious ruling king, heard of this inquiry, he was intensely disturbed. He 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, who performed priestly functions and were very learned (The Histories, 1.101.132). Herod then dispatched them to Bethlehem with instructions to locate the child and report back to him—under the guise that he himself wished to worship the babe. As one later learns, the real motive in the diabolical scheme was to murder the infant Savior (Matthew 2:16ff). Subsequently the vicious ruler 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, the Jewish historian, who, in his writings Antiquities and Wars of the Jews, 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 (2:9-10).
Here are the facts gleaned from the narrative:
(a) The Wise-men saw a “star.” The Greek term is aster; the word is generic. It can refer to any luminous body (other than the sun) in the sky, e.g., a single star or a planet (Danker et al. 2000, 145).
(b) 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 (John 1:3, 14); in this context it clearly designates the “star” (i.e., a unique source of light) that, as a divine sign, was orchestrated to lead the Magi precisely to where the Christ child was.
Exactly what was this heavenly phenomenon? Let us consider several theories that have been proposed.
A Conjunction of Planets
The astronomer Johann Kepler (1571-1630) suggested that this event might have involved a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn (the movement of two bodies very close to one another) that occurred somewhat near the time of the birth of Christ. Supposedly the Magi, who possibly lived in Persia, saw this “light” and interpreted it as a sign of the birth of a king (though Kepler 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, intrigued by Kepler’s suggestion, 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, though 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).
Others suggest that a “nova” (the sudden brightening of a star) or a “supernova” (the explosion of a massive star) are possible explanations. But neither novas nor supernovas move in a certain route, as 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 earth’s 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), which does not conform to Matthew’s depiction.
The Bethlehem star actually moved and stopped. It guided the Wise-men from the east toward the west, hundreds of miles—requiring at least several months of travel—and then from Jerusalem some six miles south to the small community of Bethlehem, where it again stopped so as to specifically identify the very “house” in which the young child was to be found (Matthew 2:11). No one could locate a particular “house,” based upon the relationship of any single star—anywhere in the universe!
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, which for a long time has been held to be slightly before Herod’s death in 4 B.C.
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” (better rendered as “messengers” in this context perhaps), of seven churches of Christ in the Roman province of Asia. Such is a fanciful stretch that 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 (1:20; 2:2ff).
A Better View
A better view than those sketched above, one that fits all facts quite neatly, is that the star of Bethlehem was a special, supernatural luminary. It was unique, provided especially for the guidance of the wise men, moving specifically at the bidding of God, and operating precisely in harmony with the unfolding of the sacred plan of redemption. It cannot be explained in any scientific fashion, and one need not 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 (Exodus 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 Exodus 24:17; 34:29-35; cf. 2 Corinthians 3:7ff).
Supernatural light led the Israelites during their night passages in the wilderness of Sinai (Exodus 13:21; 14:20). There was the extraordinary glow at the instance of Jesus’ transfiguration (Matthew 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” 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.