Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” Matthew 2:1-2
For centuries, an astronomical mystery called the Star of Bethlehem has fascinated both casual readers of Scripture and the most serious observers of heavenly bodies. Matthew records the account of the Magi’s trek to Bethlehem from the east by the movement of a special luminary in the sky that stopped over Jesus’s nativity in the Judean Hills. Is the tale true? Did it happen the way the Bible recalls the Christmas story? Or, is the Bethlehem Star a myth?
Before I answer, a little background might help. To his primarily Jewish audience, Matthew tells the Christmas story like a defense attorney walking into a court of law and presenting evidence to support his claim that Jesus is the King of the Jews. First, he presents details from Jesus’s own genealogical record, necessarily linking Him to the line of David (1:1-17). Then he submits Jesus’s virgin birth as fulfillment of Isaiah’s Old Testament Messianic prophecy (1:18-25). Finally, he tells the story of the Magi who followed the star in the sky all the way to Bethlehem (2:1-23). But is that last bit of evidence true? Furthermore, who are these so-called Wise Men and from where did they come?
Traditional nativity scenes place the Magi at the manger. Actually, they came some time after Jesus’s birth, perhaps up to two years later as suggested by Herod’s order to murder all boys under the age of two. According to Matthew, the Magi came to a “house” not a stable to look for the Child, and there were probably more than three of them. We assume three Wise Men because they brought three types of gifts—gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Much mystery surrounds the Magi. Matthew says they came from the east, perhaps from Arabia as suggested by recent scholarship. They were experts in science, astronomy, and astrology. Were they fortunetellers and soothsayers, and if so, does their presence disturb the purity of the Christmas story? Does our interest in the Bethlehem Star make us astrologers?
The short answer is no. Astrology is a form of divination that trusts the movement of the stars to influence human events. The Bible calls this “detestable” and warns against any act of worship aimed at “the sun or the moon or any of the heavenly host” (Deuteronomy 17:2-5).
Even Job confessed, “If I have looked at the sun when it shone or the moon going in splendor, and my heart became secretly enticed, and my hand threw a kiss from my mouth, that too would have been an iniquity calling for judgment, for I would have denied God above (31:26-28). On the contrary, the Magi clearly came to worship the Child, believing God manipulated His own creation to send an obvious message about an important earthly event.
The Magi represented the best wisdom the world had to offer at the time, which is always easy for the wisdom of God to make look foolish (1 Corinthians 1:26-31). Perhaps this is why the Lord allowed them to first look for the Messiah in Jerusalem. This might have made perfect sense from a human perspective, but God had a different plan. As the prophet Malachi predicted, King Jesus was born in a small town called Bethlehem about six miles from Jerusalem, the center of all religious life. He lay in a feeding trough for cattle, not an exquisite crib adorned with silk and lace. Christmas reminds us that God is full of unexpected surprises. What sort of worldly wisdom are you still trusting that is keeping you from worshipping Jesus this Christmas?
Let’s return to the Star of Bethlehem and to the veracity of the story. For people of faith, it is not difficult to imagine how the same God who created the heavens and the earth could also wield the stars for His own divine purposes, in this case to announce the birth of His one and only Son and the Savior of the world. Indeed, the Bible proclaims, “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1) It also says of God, “He is the maker of . . . the constellations of the south” (Job 9:9). Even Jesus predicted strange happenings in the heavens at the end of the age that will point to His Second Coming (Matthew 24:29).
But the skeptic fairly asks, “Did a star actually stop over Bethlehem two thousand years ago, and is there any proof of it beyond the record found in the Bible?” Furthermore, can modern astronomy with the aid of super-fast-processing computers recreate a first-century stellar phenomenon called the star of Bethlehem? Can we go back in time? I am glad you asked. The answer to those questions is amazingly yes.
Thanks to a sixteenth century cosmologist named Johannes Kepler, we have the ability to pinpoint the location of stars at any point in history and view them from any place on planet earth. A brilliant mathematician, Kepler was a contemporary of Galileo. The great Isaac Newton received his inspiration from both Kepler and Galileo. In the early seventeenth century, Kepler first published research that became known as the Second and Third Laws of Planetary Motion. NASA, the European Space Agency, and pretty much everybody else studying the movement of stars today still use his calculations. Kepler even has an astronomical event named after him that took place in 1604 called “Kepler’s Supernova,” one of only three star explosions in the Milky Way that were visible to the naked eye during the last one thousand years. However, centuries ago, Kepler’s computations took a lot of pen, ink, and time to work out. Today, with the aid of computers, those same calculations happen in seconds. Astronomers can now animate the universe in real time, turning back the clock to “view the sky precisely as it moved over Jerusalem 2000 years ago.1 Sounds fascinating, doesn’t it?
Every explanation known to humankind has been posited for the Bethlehem Star. Was it a meteor, or Haley’s comet, or a supernova? Astronomers have eliminated these as radiant possibilities that even king Herod would have noticed in the sky. However, because the evil despot asked the Magi when the Star appeared, it seems the Star was more likely a startling alignment in the normal night sky that the trained Magi observed and pointed out to Herod.
Experts now calculate that around the time of Jesus’s birth, Jupiter, called the “King Planet” in Roman mythology, had a close encounter with a star called Regulus. Astronomers sometimes call this a “conjunction.” The Babylonians called Regulus Sharu or “king” and the Romans referred to the star as “Regulus Rex” which also means king. Around the time of Jesus’s birth, a rare triple conjunction produced an illusion that made Jupiter look like it reversed its motion, known to astronomers as a retrograde, leaving a halo or coronation above Regulus, the Star of Kings. This rare but normal movement in the sky would have grabbed the Magi’s attention for sure. 2
Kepler’s seventeenth-century mathematical equations boosted by modern technology confirm what we already know about the Bible’s Christmas story, that every sparkling detail is true and trustworthy including the one that says, “When the Magi saw the star they were overjoyed” (Matthew 2:10). Picture joy welling up in their hearts so large that it flows over the edges like water pouring over Niagara Falls.
Two thousand years ago, stargazers from the east stumbled upon a newborn King. The Child’s birth and their discovery changed the course of history. The first Christmas was a time of great joy. For that reason, we sing, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come. Let earth receive her king.” Someone once said, “Joy is the flag that flies over the castle of our hearts announcing the king is in residence today.”
As you think about the Bethlehem Star and the Savior that lies in a manger beneath it, is the flag flying over your heart this Christmas?
1. “The Star of Bethlehem,” http://www.bethlehemstar.com/setting-the-stage/why-are-we-hearing-this-now, accessed on September 7, 2016.
2. Ibid, http://www.bethlehemstar.com/setting-the-stage/why-are-we-hearing-this-now, accessed on September 7, 2016.