A couple of weeks ago Take Two discussed 5 common myths about Christmas. Last week, we looked at the significance of the wise men. This week, we glimpse at another key “figure” in the Christmas story—the star of Bethlehem.
Various theories and perspectives abound over what it was that led the wise men to the Christ child. So how does one find clarity in the haze of varied viewpoints? Here’s where having access to astronomers comes in handy. (It comes in handy other times, too.)
Astronomer Hugh Ross explains that the word translated as “star” in Matthew 2 could mean any kind of heavenly body: a star, planet, galaxy, meteor, comet, asteroid, shooting star. It is in the singular, so it’s referring to a single object in the sky. Also, a lot of time had passed between the star’s first and second appearance—something like 15–30 months, Hugh suggests. Finally, the “star” had to be spectacular enough to set the Magi in motion yet not too spectacular as to be noticeable by the average observer or by astronomers and astrologers in Egypt, Greece, India, and China. Hugh explains,
King Herod and the Jewish religious leaders in Jerusalem seemed oblivious to the star (Matthew 2:1–3). The shepherds outside of Bethlehem “keeping watch over their flocks at night” on the eve of the Messiah’s birth made no note of any astonishingly brilliant star (Luke 2:8–20).
In “What was the Christmas star?” Hugh takes a look at the popular explanations through the lens of science to see which best fits the criteria for the Christmas star.
The star must be
- A single object
- Rare in its occurrence
- Yet not so spectacular as to be obvious to all
- Able to appear, disappear, and reappear in the same place
The comet hypothesis
Comets are fairly common and would not garner special attention from the careful observer. Unusual comets would have been well-documented by Chinese, Indian, Egyptian, and Greek astronomers. Yet there’s no record of an unusual comet having occurred at the estimated time of Christ’s birth. Moreover, though a comet can orbit the Sun, it would not reappear in the same place and form.
The supernova hypothesis
A supernova event would be so spectacular as to catch the attention of even the casual observer, yet again there is no record of such an event occurring at the time of Christ’s birth. Moreover, a star could not “go supernova” twice—it’s one and done—so it would not have reappeared.
The conjunction hypothesis
Conjunctions, whether between two planets or a planet and star, are also fairly common. Any conjunction that may have occurred could well have been uncommon enough to motivate the Magi to begin their journey. The conjunction hypothesis that has received much attention recently (via Rick Larson’s popular DVD, The Star of Bethlehem) points to encounters between Jupiter and Venus in 2 and 3 BC and between Jupiter and Regulus (a star) in that same time period. These conjunctions fail to meet the first criterion because each involved two objects, and Matthew 2 uses aster in the singular. More importantly, these conjunctions occurred after Herod died, and we know from Matthew’s account that Herod was still alive when Christ was born.
So if the Christmas star wasn’t a comet, supernova, or conjunction, then what was it? Hugh leans toward the idea that it was a recurring nova: a single object, sufficiently rare yet not too spectacular, and it appears, disappears (after initial explosion), then reappears (second explosion) 1–2 years later. Yet he stresses that this is only one plausible explanation; no one can claim to have positive proof.
What’s important is that these wise men appear to have paid careful attention to Daniel’s prophecy (9:24–27) of the coming Messiah and were ready to journey at all cost when the time came. What do you think?
For a collection of useful articles, audio messages, and video clips (including RTB’s response to The Star of Bethlehem DVD), check out http://www.reasons.org/christmasstar.