The Star of Bethlehem

What was the Star of Bethlehem?

Many have attempted to explain the existence of the Star of Bethlehem.  Before examining these explanations it is important to examine Matthew, chapter two, which is the only place where the star is mentioned.  "Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, 'Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?  For we saw His star in the east, and have come to worship Him.'" Matthew 2:1-2  Notice first that the magi came "from the east" and thus were not Jewish.  They were statesmen from the scholarly class in Persia and were thoroughly familiar with astronomy.  The only passage in the entire Bible that foretells the first coming of the Messiah is found in Daniel.  The prophet Daniel's influence while in the courts of Darius and Cyrus had been profound and lasting in Persia.  So such "wise men" would have been familiar with the teachings of Daniel and the promise of a Savior for all people, not just the Jews.  Thus we see also in this passage that they came to worship Him. 

It is estimated that they traveled about 600 miles from Persia; a trip that would have taken several months.  In addition, there is no reason to think there were only three "kings"; we are just told of three gifts.  In fact, it is likely that they descended upon Jerusalem with a full military escort causing King Herod to be "troubled and all Jerusalem with him."  Interestingly, they responded to Herod's question about the location of Christ by quoting the Old Testament.  Then, after receiving instructions from Herod to find the Child apparently the star reappeared: "and lo, the star which they had seen in the east, went on before them, until it came and stood over where the Child was."

Of the many explanations of this star I will address three.  First, the great astronomer, Johann Kepler, proposed that a conjunction of planets was the Star of Bethlehem.  It is thought that Christ was born about 2 B.C. The conjunction of the planets Mars, Mercury and Jupiter is estimated to have occurred in this time frame and this would have appeared as a single, bright object in the sky.  In addition, at a later date the movements of Jupiter and Venus and the Star Regulus caused a series of very close conjunctions.  This would account for the star apparently reappearing.

Another common explanation is that the star's existence was supernatural, like the Shekinah glory cloud.   

This conclusion may be unsettling for some but this was a time of miracles and such a miracle is certainly within the ability of the Creator.  This would explain why there seems to be little or no secular record of any natural explanation and why the star only seemed to appear to the magi.  It must be emphasized that accepting such an explanation is not the same as allegorizing the star or the actual historic event of Christ's birth.

Finally, the explanation that I favor is that the star was just that, a star.  No other event in history deserved such a magnificent display of God's power in heaven then that of our Savior's birth.  The purpose of stars given in Genesis 1:14 is "for signs, and for seasons…"  God did not create a new star because Scripture is clear that His creation was complete (Genesis 2:1).  A rare event called a supernova would explain well the Star of Bethlehem.  A supernova is the result of violent explosion of a star and produces an extremely bright light that can even be seen in daylight.  Most of these are single explosions but some have been recorded as having more than one explosion.  This would explain the apparent disappearance and reappearance of the star.  This spectacular, rare event would have attracted the attention of the Magi, familiar both with astronomy and the promise of the coming Messiah.  Some would argue that there is no secular record of the event, but only three supernovas have ever been recorded in 1054 AD, 1572 AD and 1604 AD.  Surely there could have been earlier, unrecorded supernovas in the past.  Even though it is an argument from silence the question remains, "Why didn't others mention the star if it was so spectacular?"

Regardless, the details about the Star of Bethlehem are insufficient to make any definitive conclusions.  But the Star of Bethlehem is special because it is referred to as "His star," the star of the Child who came to earth to pay the penalty for what humanity deserves.   Like the Magi, we too must be able to know the word of God in order that we will see the signs of His second coming.  Also, like the Magi, we must be willing to make the sacrifice to seek Him, give Him our treasures, and bow down to worship Him.  

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©Tom Carpenter
Originally published in the Rockdale/Newton Citizen