Star of wonder, star of night…
It’s a seasonal staple of carols, Christmas cards and nativity plays but what was the Star of Bethlehem? Astronomical fact or pious fiction, theological symbolism or astrological sign, or simply an inexplicable supernatural event?
Only Matthew’s gospel mentions the star and its attendant Magi or wise men (possibly Persian Zoroastrians or exiled priests):
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east [or at its rising] and have come to worship him.”… Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared… [Then] they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.
(Matt 2: 1-2, 7, 9-10)
So according to Matthew the star appeared or rose at a particular time; it moved and then stopped moving (or appeared to); and to the Magi at least it signified the birth of a ‘king of the Jews’.
Today people are understandably keen to find possible astronomical explanations for the Star. But of course in its biblical context, purely or partly supernatural explanations are equally likely.
Such explanations could include an angel, sent to guide the Magi; a heavenly vision or apparition; God’s throne chariot as in the Ezekiel 1 vision; or some other manifestation of divine presence like the guiding pillar of light in Exodus.
Several Old Testament passages make a symbolic link between stars and angelic or heavenly beings (e.g. Judges 5:20, Job 38:7, Isaiah 14:13 and Daniel 8:9). The night sky with its starry host offered an obvious visual metaphor for the spiritual heavens and God’s angelic host. However, if Matthew did mean to link the Star of Bethlehem with an angel, it’s hard to see why he didn’t say so given the number of other direct angelic appearances he has in the early chapters of his gospel.
At the sillier end of the spectrum, some have ascribed the star to paranormal phenomena such as a UFO – as we’re reminded each year by endless repeats of Chris de Burgh’s ‘A spaceman came travelling’…
Moving into the safer realm of science, various astronomical explanations for the star have been proposed over the centuries.
The Greek word Matthew uses for the ‘star’ is αστερα (astera, from which we get ‘astronomy’), which could equally refer to a planet, comet or other celestial object. We’ve assumed that the star was particularly bright, but Matthew doesn’t say this – just that it was in some way new and/or significant.
The best astronomical data we have for the star comes from Chinese records which mention a comet (or possibly nova) in 5BC – around the date Jesus is now thought to have been born (4-6BC). This was recorded as an unusually bright star which appeared in the eastern sky for 70 days.
Paintings have long shown the star as a comet, and the idea dates back to Origen in the 3rd century. Crucially, comets move across the sky against the starry background, which would fit the gospel account. And comets also often have tails which can seem to point towards any point on the horizon (depending on the observer’s position), which might have made the star appear to point to Jerusalem or Bethlehem. The downside with comets is that they were generally seen as bad omens, associated more with the deaths of kings than their birth.
The 17th-century astronomer Kepler hinted that the star may have been a nova or supernova explosion. I won’t go into the technical distinction between a nova and supernova here, but a supernova is unlikely as no associated supernova remnant has been found. (It’s also hard to see how a nova/supernova could have moved to guide the Magi.)
Kepler also thought the ‘star’ might have been a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn – i.e the planets appearing close together in the night sky. There were three such events around the right date, though none close enough that the two planets would appear as a single object.
A similar explanation is the close grouping of Jupiter, Saturn and Mars which occurred in the constellation Pisces in 6BC. As the planets came no closer than about 8° apart, it’s unlikely this would have been called a ‘star’, but it could have had astrological significance.
A plausible idea recently suggested by UK astronomer Mark Kidger is that the star was a variable star (one whose brightness changes over time) which experienced a nova outburst 2000 years ago. The material thrown out by such a nova would be very hard to detect after 2000 years. His candidate for the star is DO Aquilae, now a dim object though still visible with telescopes.
Some object that any scientific explanation for the star would disqualify it as a miraculous event signifying the birth of a saviour. However, this is a modern post-Enlightenment confusion which clearly did not trouble early Christian thinkers like Origen or later theistic scientists like Kepler. In a recent post I discussed how a supreme deity who orders and maintains the universe may use ‘natural’ events to serve divine purposes. And if we accept that the pre-incarnation Christ in some way helped form the stars, we shouldn’t have too much problem with the idea that he could direct them to point to his royal arrival in space and time.
And of course, Matthew nowhere says that the star is miraculous; only that it signified the birth of the King of the Jews. Which brings us to astrology…
There’s actually nothing in Matthew’s account to suggest that the star had any significance for (or was even noticed by) anyone except the Magi. This could indicate that the star was not particularly spectacular as an astronomical phenomenon, but was rather of astrological importance. It’s long been thought that the Magi were probably astrologers, so the star’s astrological meaning could be at least as important as its astronomical explanation.
The triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation Pisces in about 7BC may well have been seen by the Magi as a portent signifying the coming together of righteousness (Jupiter) and power (Saturn) within a zodiacal sign associated with the Jews (Pisces). Furthermore, the two stars would have moved closer together, apart and then together again, which may account for the apparent double ‘movement’ mentioned in the gospel. This explanation is favoured by Prof David Hughes of Sheffield University.
Alternatively, astronomer Michael Molnar has suggested that a double occultation of Jupiter by the Moon in Aries in 6BC could have astrologically signified the birth of a divine ‘king of the Jews’. In which case perhaps the star didn’t need to move to guide them; rather it was a sign which led them to Jerusalem, the Jewish royal city.
A less likely possible candidate for an astrological sign is the star Alpha Aquarii, traditionally known in Arabic as the ‘Luck of the King’ (Sadalmelik). When this star is bright enough to be seen in the dawn sky, it’s possible that this might astrologically have signified a good time for a king to be born. However, as this occurs frequently it would presumably have to be accompanied by other signs to have special significance for Christ’s birth – perhaps the 5BC comet/nova.
Christians tend now to be suspicious of astrology, seeing it as an occult superstition because of its association with horoscopes and divination. However, this was not the case in a pre-scientific age when astrology and astronomy weren’t separate disciplines, and when the stars were thought to have spiritual influence on earth as part of God’s ordering of the cosmos. And after all, might we not expect the stars to line up to herald their creator’s appearance?
So far we’ve been assuming that there really was a Star of Bethlehem. But what if, as some suggest, Matthew simply invented the star, adding it in as a symbolic figure or to fulfil an Old Testament prophecy?
I’ve mentioned before that the writer of Matthew’s gospel is eager to establish Jesus’ credentials as the Jewish Messiah by linking every event in his life with some verse from the OT, however tangentially or questionably. Furthermore, Matthew may well have simply been following the established Jewish tradition of Midrash – theological writing in which non-factual elements can be used to bring out the religious meaning of the factual account. If so, whether or not there actually was a star would be less important than the spiritual message Matthew is trying to convey.
So Matthew, aware of Jewish traditions and prophecies surrounding the birth of the Messiah, may have used the Magi/star story to weave them illustratively into his account, to convey to his Jewish audience that Jesus was indeed God’s chosen and anointed bringer of salvation.
There are a number of ways in which the star and Magi might have had significance to the gospel writer. Most obviously, it can be seen as a fulfilment of Balaam’s fourth oracle, which seems to refer to a future deliverer-king: ‘I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a sceptre will rise out of Israel’ (Num 24:17).
There are also many OT references to the starry host being idolatrously worshipped. That this star points to Christ, and brings even pagans to worship him, thus restores rightful order to the cosmos. It shows that the stars belong to and obey God rather than being gods in their own right (a theological point also made by the Genesis creation account). It also puts astrology (and indeed astronomy) in its place – its rightful use is not as a means of gaining special knowledge apart from God, but as a means to seek, listen to and worship God. And finally it shows that even pagan nations belong to God and will come to his Messiah (fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah 66:20 that ‘they will bring all your people, from all the nations, to my holy mountain in Jerusalem’.)
The star could also be a visual representation of the ‘glory’ of God made visible in Christ (see 2 Cor 4:6 and Heb 1:3, for example). As a moving, guiding light it is perhaps deliberately reminiscent of the pillar of light in Exodus which represents God’s ‘Shekinah’ glory and also his presence as God with us, Immanuel. It is also of course a powerful symbol of light in the darkness, heralding the one who is the Light of the World.
Jesus is even referred to in Rev 22:16 as ‘the Morning Star’ (a common name for the planet Venus). Interestingly, in the OT, it’s Satan who is the ‘morning star’ who fell from his place in heaven (Isaiah 14:13). Matthew’s star could therefore be an indication of Jesus’ status as the new Morning Star who ousts Satan and replaces him as earth’s King. 2 Peter 1:19 further links this idea with the dawn of heaven’s new day in Christ: ‘pay attention to [the prophetic message], as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts’.
Finally, I’ve already said that stars are often linked with angels in the OT. And if the ‘morning stars sang together’ at the laying of Earth’s foundations (Job 38:7), might we not expect a similar celestial welcome for the birth of Jesus?
We can’t know for sure whether, what or when the star was. There’s no reason why the explanation cannot take into account all the different strands – supernatural, astronomical, astrological and theological. In other words, the Star of Bethlehem could have been a genuine astronomical event, supernaturally ordained by God, with astrological significance to the Magi and theological significance to Matthew.
Acknowledgements: thanks to Dr Peter Andrews of Cambridge University for much of the astronomical information and the Midrash idea, to the BBC Radio 2 programme ‘Follow the Star’ (23 Dec 2012) for some of the other astronomical/astrological ideas, and to Paula Gooder’s book ‘Heaven’ for material linking stars with angels.