Theories rise and fall about the nature of the star that led the wise men to Bethlehem, but the fact remains: they saw something, and came on time to see Jesus.
It’s one of the most beloved stories at Christmas time: the star that led the wise men to the baby Jesus. It’s also one that should be amenable to astronomical investigation. It’s a story of an astronomical object real enough to serve as a guidepost to the astrological experts of ancient Persia known as Magi. What was it?
The story as told in Matthew 2 provides only a few clues. The wise men saw it from the east, meaning it was west of them. It was something they could follow. It apparently moved somehow, reappeared, and stood over the place where Jesus was. There aren’t many choices for astronomical objects that behave this way without twisting the interpretation of words and phrases. Interpreters need to also take into account what the pre-modern-astronomy observers would have understood by the words.
One shouldn’t think Matthew or his readers were scientific dolts, even without the benefit of modern Copernican astronomy, telescopes, and scientific instruments. Centuries before, Greek astronomers had figured out the radius of the earth using astronomical measurements. Knowledge of seasonal changes, the behavior of “wanderers” (planets) and constellations goes back even further. Learned men of Greece, Alexandria, and Persia were probably better observers of the skies than many people alive today, despite their captivity to cosmological systems long since discarded.
While Matthew was not a student of the leading cosmologists of his time, that shouldn’t imply he knew nothing about contemporary thought. He certainly had his own two eyes on many a night unclouded by the lights of modern cities. But one must also keep in mind his purpose: to show the kingship of Messiah, such that important kingmakers of the East came to bring him gifts and worship him. He was not writing a lesson in astronomy. The details of the star, fascinating as they are to use, are incidental to Matthew’s purpose.
Ayleen Fattal at Florida International University is surely not oblivious to the annual Christmas Star programs put on by many public observatories, or Powerpoint presentations and DVDs produced by many a speaker with a pet theory. But writing for FIU News, she maintains that the origins of the Christmas Star remain a “scientific mystery.” Taking cues from astronomy professor Caroline Simpson, she lists the possibilities: (1) a stationary object, (2) a comet, (3) a nova or supernova, or (4) a planetary conjunction. Some possibilities are better than others; it could not, for instance, be something as fleeting as a meteor, and probably was not a comet, which was an omen of disaster at the time. Both Fattal and Simpson think the conjunction theory is the best candidate.
Simpson cautions these are all just likely scenarios. There is no indisputable scientific proof or evidence for a definite conclusion. Until such discovery occurs, the Christmas Star will continue to be a mystery that only faith can explain.
Presumably, Simpson defines “faith” as the word of a religious text that must be believed by adherents without evidence. But actually, scientists believe in many things that remain mysterious, like dark matter, without appeals to “faith.” And the reliability of a careful writer like Matthew cannot be dismissed as requiring mere religious faith, when he documents other things (King Herod’s character, the reigns of Roman emperors, details of geography) that can be corroborated from history. There’s no reason to dismiss the Christmas Star account just because it stands alone. Many things historians believe are based on one account. The issue is the credibility of a witness, Matthew, who apparently did careful research and walked as a disciple of Jesus for three years, knowing Mary and possibly Joseph who would have been eyewitnesses to the star/magi events. That should be respectable even to those who do not accept Matthew’s guidance by divine inspiration. For that reason, even secular astronomers don’t laugh off the story. They, too, are curious about something that real wise men actually saw in the days of well-documented Herod the Great.
Roger Barlow has some fascinating thoughts about the Magi in his article on The Conversation. He thinks they were the scientists of their day! He finds many parallels with what they undertook and what scientists do in our age, despite an understanding of the cosmos that is “crude and primitive in our eyes.” For moderns with a superiority complex, he adds, “but what will today’s scientific theories look like in 2,000 years time?” Barlow, a physicist at the University of Huddersfield, points out flaws with each of the leading theories for the Christmas star, but he doesn’t doubt that the wise men saw something in the sky worth an arduous trip to investigate.
I’ve heard many a theory about the Christmas Star. You probably have heard several. Some speakers present really convincing cases for unique, once-in-history planetary conjunctions that are known to have occurred about the time of Jesus’ birth (which had to be before 4 BC when Herod the Great died, since he ordered the execution of the toddlers in Bethlehem after the magi returned). Some of these occurred and re-occurred at intervals seemingly perfect for signaling the wise men. Intriguing as these theories are, they don’t quite match Matthew’s description in all respects without tweaking the meanings of his words a bit, or assuming what the Magi would have understood the conjunctions to mean
Feel free to believe your favorite theory. Just remember that God’s word presents the truth, whether or not fallible scientists who weren’t there are able to explain it on their own terms. God had a purpose in signalling these wise men, who could have been looking for the fulfillment of the prophecies that Daniel documented centuries earlier (see, for example, the precise clues in Daniel 9:20–27). The magi may have had additional written records in Persian archives, now lost, that told them what time to expect a sign. God’s purpose was fulfilled; the star served its purpose, and the wise men came—even if the “star” was a unique object inexplicable in modern astronomical terms. The important thing is that Christ was born, on schedule, at the place prophesied, and that by coming as the Lamb of God, he redeemed a lost world.
To all our readers, Merry Christmas. Joy to the world; the Lord has come!