What was the star
that guided the wise men at Christ's birth?
Above: The sky from Jerusalem in 7BC shows a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn (the bright dots at top right of center). It is a common error that this was the “star” the Magi followed.
PEOPLE HAVE PROPOSED NUMEROUS THEORIES TO EXPLAIN THE STAR OF BETHLEHEM — the star that the Bible says triggered the wise priestly kings, the Magi, to head off looking to worship Christ. (Matthew 2:1-12)
Theories have included planetary alignments, comets, UFOs, moving lights, and supernovas. Let's look at the most common theories and see if any of them make sense.
The aligned planets theory
This theory says that the Bethlehem star was a conjunction (alignment) of the planets Jupiter and Saturn, which occurred from May 29 to December 4 in the year 7BC.
There are several reasons why this explanation is wrong.
- Although Christ could have been born as early as 7BC, because there were early problems with calculating the correct year of His birth (see our article When did the present millennium start?), the Bible tells us Christ was in a “house” by the time the wise men, the Magi, arrived. He was no longer in the manger, despite all those erroneous manger scenes we see every Christmas that have Him lying in the stable when the Magi arrive. Christ was probably at least a year old, even up to two years old (that's the age Herod wanted to kill all the babies in an effort to kill Christ), when they arrived. So if Christ was 2 years old in 7BC when the wise men arrived, he would have been born in 9BC, which is much too early even allowing for several years of calendar miscalculations.
- A conjunction of two planets would not look like one star, and the Magi said “We have seen his star in the east” (Matthew 2:2).
- Two planets would not go “before them” (Matthew 2:9) as the wise men travelled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, because celestial bodies appear to travel from east to west, not the south-north direction the wise men were travelling.
- Jupiter and Saturn could not have “stood over” the house where the child was (Matthew 2:9), because planets and stars are so far away that you could keep travelling in their direction all night and never have them standing over any fixed point on earth.
Above: Illustration by Edward Burne-Jones done around 1888, titled The Star of Bethlehem, has the wise men presenting gifts to Jesus as an angel looks on. — © Time Inc.
The meteor and comet theory
Could the star have been a meteor or a comet? The major problem here again is that neither of these would stand over a house. Meteors in particular disappear rapidly, so they wouldn't even be around from the start to the finish of the wise men's journey.
We should note that the Bible doesn't actually say the star led the Magi from the east to Bethlehem. Matthew 2:2 tells us that when they arrived in Jerusalem they said they had “seen his star in the east”, and when they had left King Herod they saw the star again (Matthew 2:9), and this time it “went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.”
So it seems they saw the star once in the east, and then again during their short journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. There is no indication they saw it any other time.
The UFO theory
If the proponents of this theory mean spacecraft from other planets, what interest would extraterrestrials have in Christ's birth on earth? And why would the wise men so clearly tell Herod it was a star if it was an unidentified object in the sky?
In any case, genuine UFO encounters are usually associated with occultic or Satanic activity in an area. They don't lead people to Christ. (See our article Where do UFOs come from?)
The supernova theory
Some prominent Christians support this theory, but again, a supernova won't stand over a single house.
The Shekinah glory cloud or moving light theory
Some think the star could have been a cloud or light, like the pillar of fire that led the Israelites in the wilderness. But as Dr. Henry Morris pointed out, why would the Magi call this a star? “Surely,” he said, “they would know the difference between a stationary star up in the heavens, and a light moving along near the earth.” After all, they were known as the “wise men” — knowledgeable in the astronomy of the time — not naive simpletons.
Dr. Morris asked, “How could the Magi ever identify such a mysterious light as announcing the King of the Jews? And why would it not have led them directly to Bethlehem, instead of their having first to consult with the Jewish priests and scribes in Jerusalem?”
The angel theory
The idea that the star could have been an angel has some support, even if the support is not strong.
In Revelation 1:20 we are told the mystery of the seven stars — “The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches …” This seems to indicate that churches have the equivalent of guardian angels, and they are represented as stars.
It may be stretching the meaning too much to apply this to the star the wise men saw, and remember that the Bible refers to the star as “it”, not “him” (Matthew 2:9). But certainly an angel sent from God could guide from the sky and also stand over a particular house.
The problem is that the Revelation reference is a symbolic representation, whereas the Matthew reference seems to be literal.
The supernatural star theory
The supernatural star proposal is probably the one we are meant to follow. Having had to discard all the theories that try to explain the star as a natural celestial object, the most obvious explanation we are left with is that the star was a supernatural phenomenon created for the sole purpose of announcing the birth of Jesus Christ to those who were able to recognize it as such.
Skeptics and those who do not believe in miracles will find this hard to accept, but it will not trouble believing Christians.
This explanation makes sense when we realize that not everyone saw this star. Herod's chief priests and scribes had to work out from Scripture where Christ was born, which means they didn't see any star that could lead anyone anywhere.
Unfortunately it is easier to say what the star was not than what it was.
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