The Star of Bethlehem: What Was It?

Posted by Worldview Warriors On Sunday, December 23, 2012 0 comments

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 born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.” –Matthew 2:1,2

What was the star that the Magi were following after the birth of Jesus? It is a minute detail within this very popular and important narrative that the author neglects to mention. I know that it is not the most important or significant detail in the entire Bible, nor is it a detail that should steal the attention away from the grander narrative of Christ’s birth and life. Nonetheless, it has fascinated me every time I come across a possible explanation for the identity of the star of Bethlehem. Proving its former existence and identity would make a strong case for the authenticity of the Christmas story. If it were proven to be nothing more than a myth, it would cause damage to the authenticity of the entire Gospel message.

The first possibility, and perhaps the most obvious in relation to the story, is that it may have been supernatural. There is evidence within the text that this was the case. For instance, the star appeared at a particular time and prevailed for the majority of their journey. After they visited Herod, it appeared that the star went ahead of them until it rested over the home of Jesus (Mt 2:9). How would it have rested over the child’s home had it not been supernatural?

Although this seems like an adequate explanation, I have always found other explanations quite intriguing. After all, Genesis tells us, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky…and let them serve as signs to mark season and days and years” (1:14). Could this have been one of the days that the stars were meant to indicate?

In 1603, Astronomer Royal Johannes Kepler observed a conjunction of stars. Saturn and Jupiter were en route to align with the constellation Pisces. He remembered a prediction by an ancient rabbi that the Messiah would appear after Saturn and Jupiter met in conjunction with Pisces. This event, according to his observations, would have taken place around 6 or 7 B. C. It is assumed that Jesus would have been born after these dates, but many scholars have speculated, and rightly so, that our current calendar does not perfectly coincide with the birth of Christ. The current calendar is probably off by a few years. There was doubt concerning Kepler’s observations, but in 1925 A.D. German scholar P. Schnabel analyzed ancient documents from Babylon that confirmed that this conjunction of stars did indeed occur in 7 B. C. (Werner Keller, The Bible as History, (New York: Bantam books, 1980) 361-362.

Another possibility is that the star was a supernova. Certain early church historians, Ignatius, Eusebius, etc., noted that ancient records testified to the birth of a “new star” that had appeared in the sky. Such an occurrence would indicate the event of either a nova (the birth of a new star) or a supernova (a star exploding). Either of these events would have emitted a great amount of light and could have been acknowledged as being a new star by the ancient observers. The new star was supposedly observed from around the world near the supposed time of Jesus’ birth. Morris claims that a comet, conjunction, or a supernatural guiding light would not have been confused as being a “star” by the Magi who were brilliant scholars in regards to astronomy. Note, however that a supernova would have been the destruction of an existing star opposed to the creation of a new one. (Henry Morris, The Biblical Basis for Modern Science, (Green Forrest, Arizona: Master Books, 2008) 166-167.

This topic is should not be taken dogmatically because the most important aspect of this star was that it existed. Thus far the most likely explanation given only the testimony of Scripture would be that the star was supernatural. Nonetheless, it is still likely that the star may have been entirely natural and ordained by God through his created order to announce the season of his Son. This possibility is quite exciting because evidence of the star’s existence would have been left behind in either ancient records or in the sky itself. Most importantly, the uniqueness of the star of Bethlehem drew strangers from a foreign land to the town of Bethlehem to worship a baby who they believed was royal, possibly divine. It was a baby who, like the star, was totally unique. Whatever the star was, it must have been magnificent.