The wise men and the star of bethlehem

Every December people wonder about the account in the book of Matthew about the magi who made the trip to Jerusalem and Bethlehem to see the child Jesus. There have been many speculations about what the star was. But identifying the star has never been a burning question to me. Instead I’ve always been more interested in the magi themselves and their story in Matthew chapter 2 in the New Testament. The important thing is really what we believe about Jesus, not what we believe about the star of Bethlehem. Christians have a variety of opinions on the star. There are also some misconceptions Christians have about the events surrounding Jesus’ birth, from not fully understanding what the New Testament tells us. The account about the magi (or ‘wise men’ if you prefer) is only in Matthew 2. The account in Luke about Jesus’ birth does not mention it.

From movies, Christmas card images, and television programs the magi are usually depicted as being present the night of Jesus’ birth, with the shepherds. But this is not correct according to the Bible because the magi visited Joseph and Mary at a house somewhere in vicinity of Bethlehem. Joseph and Mary were not staying with the animals the whole time they were in Bethlehem! So the magi would have visited Jerusalem and Bethelem some months after Jesus’ birth. Another point misunderstood is that it is often assumed that anyone looking in the sky could have seen the special light or star that marked Jesus’ birth. But this is not certain. It could well be that only the magi saw this special light. When Jesus appeared to Saul on the road to Damascus, Saul saw the light from Jesus but his companions did not (Acts 9:3-7). If it was only the magi who saw the light, then it certainly was something supernatural. However, often people today want to identify a natural astronomical event that would “explain” the star at Jesus’ birth. Thus people have proposed many astronomical events as being associated with Jesus’ birth in some way. Everything from meteors, to comets, to supernova, to various planetary conjunctions have been suggested. The problems with these natural astronomical events relating to the star of Bethlehem often revolves around either when it happened or how visible it was to the magi. It is worth noting that to Christian believers it may be encouraging to consider that a natural astronomical event corresponded to the “Christmas star,” but nonchristians may have the opposite reaction. A non-believer may be suspicious of Christians who try to connect Jesus’ birth to an astronomical event because to them it may seem forced and artificial. I would say God is sovereign over both natural and supernatural events, but He does not depend on a natural astronomical event.

What kind of astronomical event could be the star of Bethlehem?

This question has been debated for many generations. There are more than a dozen astronomical events that occurred in the years between 7 B.C. and 1 B.C. that have been suggested to possibly explain the star of Bethlehem. The natural astronomical events do not generally lend themselves to fitting the Biblical account. But we can consider some of them. In considering the astronomical events, we should point out that the Bible does not condone or encourage belief in astrology. So in order to relate an astronomical event to the Biblical account, it has to naturally fit a sound interpretation of the Bible, it has to be an event that would be considered very notable by the Magi, and it must agree with the dates and timing of the events in relation to both the Matthew chapter 2 account and the Luke chapter 2 account in the New Testament. I have doubts that any natural astronomical event can satisfy all these requirements. But we can consider the options.

First, in order to consider the astronomical events that could theoretically be relevant to the star of Bethlehem, we must narrow down the timing to whatever extent we can. This is often done based on the date of the death of Herod the Great, who died some time after Joseph and Mary went to Egypt to protect the child. Many scholars would put the death of Herod at 4 or 5 B.C. His death must be after Jesus’ birth. Some scholars question this date and so the time of the death of Herod has become a controversy in itself. The scholars who disagree with the common 4 B.C. date usually suggest it was 1 B.C. I am no expert on this but I think the later date of 1 B.C. is better for the death of Herod at reconciling various information with Luke 3:1 and 3:23. These verses mention several rulers and give important clues about dates. Luke 3:23 indicates Jesus was about 30 years old when he started his ministry. This and the death of Herod provide the clues to narrow down the time of Jesus’ birth. So I would put Jesus’ birth at probably 2 B.C., but many scholars would say it was more like 5 or 6 B.C., maybe even 7 B.C. So this means that the astronomical events to consider must take place between 7 B.C. and 1 B.C.

Second, for an astronomical event to explain the star of Bethlehem it must be recognizable as unusual and notable to the Magi, who were very likely familiar with making observations of the stars. I think the event should be bright but it is something people could overlook if they are not aware of the stars. The event must also have been visible to the magi in their location at the right time. Astronomical events like conjunctions or comets are not visible to everyone everywhere on Earth. So the when and where becomes important.

Third, the star or astronomical event has to fit the information from Matthew 2 and Luke 2 in the New Testament. It is important to consider who the magi were. They were apparently from Persia because Matthew 2:1 says they were from the East. The Bablylonians and Persian Kings employed “wise men” also known as “magi” to be advisors to the King. The term “magi” may be connected to Zoroastrianism which had been prevalent in Persia. There were also some Jews in Persia and there were some similarities between Jewish beliefs and the Zoroastrians since the Zoroastrians were monotheists. Some Jews never returned to Israel after the end of the exile period. Daniel was treated as apparently one of this group in the early reign of Nebuchadnezzar because Nebuchadnezzar threatened to kill all the wise men (see Daniel 2). Daniel was lumped into this group but God revealed the dream of Nebuchadnezzar to Daniel and so he was able to interpret it. This saved the lives of the wise men of Babylon at that time. We get our term “magic” from the singular terms “mage” or “magus” which referred to people like the sorcerers and others in these “wise men” of Babylon. These magi were very likely familiar with observing the stars and they may have believed aspects of astrology. The Jews were not supposed to believe astrology but we can’t be sure how astrology might have influenced some of them who were exposed to those ideas. It is not impossible that there could have been Jews among the magi but I would assume the magi at the time of the birth of Jesus were Zoroastrians.

From Matthew 2:1-12 there are certain key points to notice.

  • Matthew 2:1 indicates it was after Jesus was born that the magi arrived in Jerusalem.
  • Matthew 2:2 says the magi asked Herod, “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.” (NASB).
  • The magi apparently found out the significance of Bethlehem only after Herod spoke to the Jewish priests and scribes.
  • After they left Herod and started toward Bethlehem it says “the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.” (Matt. 2:9-10, NASB).
  • Matthew 2:11 says they entered a house to see Mary and the child. Then they worshiped and presented their gifts.
  • We are not told how many magi there were. They could have had some soldiers with them and a large retinue of servants and supplies.

Could it have been a supernova?

A supernova is when a star explodes. Only large stars with enough mass can explode after they use up their hydrogen fuel. The Chinese reported an object referred to as a “guest star” in 5 B.C. that some thought could be a supernova. But later astronomers came to suspect it was only a comet. It was also described by the Chinese as not very bright. This makes it an unlikely candidate for the star of Bethlehem. There were two astronomers who proposed another interesting idea in 1978 and 1998. There is a pulsar with the designation PSR 1913 + 16b. This is a binary pulsar. These objects spin rapidly and give off pulses of radiation. It was proposed that the first of the two pulsars formed in 4 B.C. from one supernova and then the second pulsar formed in 2 B.C. from a second supernova. This sounded good but other astronomers used magnetic data to argue that the pulsars have existed for about 40,000 years. This would put the supernova that formed them much earlier than 4 B.C. Also the second object is relatively small and would not have enough mass to explode in a supernova. So this idea was abandoned. Supernovas would be notable events to people who observe the stars, but there doesn’t seem to be any known supernovas in the right time range of 7 B.C. to 1 B.C.

Could it have been an occultation of Jupiter by the Moon?

This was proposed by an astronomer by the name of Michael Molnar. Molnar studied ancient coins for evidence of ancient astronomical events. He found some coins from Antioch in Syria that show a ram (Aries in the Zodiac) looking back at a star, or a crescent and a star. These coins were reportedly from the early first century A.D. This was an argument from astrology. Aries the ram was considered a symbol for Judea. Jupiter is seen as the King of the planets. So some thought a new king would be born when the Moon passed in front of Jupiter. This occultation happened twice in 6 B.C. This has been seen as matching the two events where the magi saw the star, once when they were in the East and the other when they traveled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. The first of these occultations was March 20, 6 B.C. around sunset. The second occultation would have happened April 17th, 6 B.C. at Noon. A plus for this theory is that the March/April time for it could agree with Luke’s gospel regarding shepherds feeding their flocks at night. But this would not really be notable to people unless they believed astrology regarding these events pointing to something about a King. Also the second occultation happened at Noon, when Jupiter would not be visible. So this means the magi would have to know of an occultation that could not really be seen, though the Moon itself could be seen.

Could it have been a planetary conjunction?

Multiple planetary conjunctions have been proposed for the star of Bethlehem. A conjunction is where two objects come near each other in the sky. In some cases they can even overlap, making the object appear brighter than normal. Johann Kepler suggested the star of Bethlehem could have been from a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn that happened three times in 7 B.C. The three occurrences were in May 29th, Sept. 30th, and Dec. 5th that year. Astronomers have found the closest approach of Jupiter and Saturn in these events was about 1 degree. This means Jupiter and Saturn would not look like one object to the naked eye they would be separate objects. So this does not seem very notable really. Would the magi consider it important? Another question is about the later two dates, in September and December. December can be cold enough in Israel that it can snow. So there is some question whether these dates would agree with Luke. Personally I would also consider 7 B.C. too early because this would make Jesus about 36 when he began his ministry, which may not agree with Luke 3:23. (Note that there was a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn on December 21, 2020 that was similar to the one in 7 B.C. and the separation of the planets was one fifth of the diameter of the Moon.)

Another conjunction suggested was one of multiple objects in February of 6 B.C. This involved Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, and the Moon. All four objects were visible relatively near each other in the sky on Feb. 20th. The planets would have appeared separated by a few degrees, not “touching.” So, again this doesn’t seem notable enough because it was not that bright and they were separated in the sky.

Another interesting conjunction proposed is with Jupiter and Venus, which are the two brightest planets. On August 12, 3 B.C. Jupiter and Venus were rising in the East. Magi in Persia could have seen this near their eastern horizon. Then, on June 17, 2 B.C. Jupiter and Venus were setting in the West which would be good timing for the visit with Herod. In the second instance Jupiter and Venus came very close so that they would have truly appeared to the naked eye as one object. So it would combine the brightnesses of Jupiter and Venus to make a sight brighter than any planet normally is. I would consider this to be at times that would agree with Matthew 2. So this may be the astronomical event that comes closest to agreeing with Scripture. However, there is one significant problem with this. Astronomers have pointed out the second occurrence was only visible mainly in the Southern hemisphere such as South America and some of Africa. Though not all astronomers seem to agree on this, I doubt that it could have been seen from Jerusalem. But even if it could have been seen, it would be seen only very low near the Western horizon. Also, how could this guide the magi to one house where the child was? The magi had to travel South to get to Bethlehem.

So what is my opinion on the star of Bethlehem?

Below is how I reconcile the history and the Scripture about the star of Bethlehem. To me a natural astronomical event cannot explain what the Bible describes. Also, there is no need for astrological arguments with what the Bible tells us. How did the magi learn that the child would be born King of the Jews? I think the fact that this was part of their question to Herod indicates they had some knowledge of the Old Testament prophesies about the Messiah. Or, possibly they encountered some Jews during their journey who told them about the prophecies. What they exactly understood and believed is something we can debate. God can use many things to draw people to Jesus. But in this case God used an unusual light in the sky that the magi knew was uncommon.

  1. The star was a miraculous light seen while the magi were in Persia. This would have been around the actual time of Jesus’ birth, probably in the Spring of 2 B.C. This would also coincide in time with the Luke account about Mary, Joseph and the shepherds.
  2. My speculation is that they had heard of Balaam’s prophecy from Numbers 24:17 about a star and a king coming out of Israel. This made them connect what they saw in the sky to Israel and made them expect a baby to be born king of the Jews.
  3. They did not arrive in Israel until some months after Jesus was born. So Jesus was at least a few months old, or he may have been a year or more old. When they arrived in Jerusalem they assumed that Herod would know about this child born king of the Jews, but he didn’t. So they asked where to find him. Then they found out about Bethlehem and started on their way. As they started towards Bethlehem, they saw the star again and they recognized it as like what they had seen before.
  4. After the magi visit Mary and Joseph and leave their gifts, they leave without returning to Herod. The angel then tells Joseph to leave for Egypt and Herod gives the order to kill children in the vicinity of Bethlehem.
  5. Herod’s plan fails. Then some months later, Herod dies in 1 B.C.
  6. Jesus grows up to fulfill many prophesies from the Old Testament, and be the only savior of mankind.

Merry Christmas!

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