After the birth of Christ, wise men from the east came looking for the child because, as they reported to Herod, King of Judah, they had seen the star announcing His birth. Innumerable writers have attempted to identify exactly what celestial object or event the wise men saw. A common view has been that the star of Bethlehem was something natural happening near the time of Jesus' birth either by accident or by Providential arrangement. Naturalistic explanations belong to three types. As we consider each separately, we will point out its unique flaws. Then we will discuss the two glaring weaknesses shared by all three.
Nova or comet
Some have theorized that the star of Bethlehem was a nova or a comet. Within the period framed by 10 BC and 1 BC inclusive, a brilliant new star, probably a comet, appeared on March 5 BC and lasted seventy days (1). Another, probably a nova, came into sight on April 4 BC (2). The information we have concerning these objects is meager, derived from ancient Chinese sources that do not clearly distinguish comets from novas (3). Many writers have supposed that either the comet of 5 BC or the nova of 4 BC was the star inspiring the magi to search for the Christ child (4).
Yet the magi were good enough as students of the heavens to know that similar objects had often sprung into temporary view in the past. Halley's comet, a far more impressive sight, had visited the earth's sky just a few years before, in 12 BC (5). The two new stars in 5 BC and 4 BC would not have been seen as momentous omens unless they were unusual in some fashion, whether in their origin, track, or brilliance. But in their class of phenomena, they were quite ordinary examples. Nothing about them pointed to a Messiah's birth in Judea.
A planetary conjunction
It is widely believed, but erroneously so, that the great astronomer Johannes Kepler identified the star of Bethlehem as a triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn on 27 May, 6 October, and 1 December in 7 BC (6). But the wise men, or even less careful observers, could not have mistaken any of these near passes for a single star. At their closest, the two planets were still separated by nearly two moon diameters (7).
Much closer planetary conjunctions occurred twice in the period embracing 3 and 2 BC. On the morning of 12 August 3 BC, Jupiter and Venus were so near in their rising that they seemed to touch (8). Then again on 17 June 2 BC the same two planets essentially merged, becoming one star to the naked eye (9). Nevertheless, the magi, as the most sophisticated sky watchers in the ancient world, could not have failed to notice the separate planets converging beforehand and diverging afterward. It is inconceivable that they would have reported any of these sightings as a single star.
Yet others have imagined that the wise men saw the message of Christ's birth written into the disposition of one or more planets in relation to other planets, a distant star, or the backdrop of constellations.
The most influential interpretation of this kind came from Ernest L. Martin in defense of his theory that Herod died in 1 BC (10). The following is Martin's reconstruction of events. We preface it with the cautionary note that the astrological significance he attaches to the named celestial bodies should not be regarded as beyond dispute.
During the two years preceding 1 BC, Jupiter, the planet representing kingship, underwent a remarkable migration that could have been seen as profoundly significant by ancient astrologers. On 12 August 3 BC, Jupiter appeared as a morning star rising in conjunction with Venus (11). Then on three occasions it came into conjunction with Regulus, the star representing kingship, which rests between the feet of the lion (see Gen. 49:9–10) in the constellation Leo, regarded in those days as symbolic of Judah (12). Then, on 17 June 2 BC, it entered into a rare close conjunction (to the extent of apparent convergence) with Venus, the planet representing motherhood (13). Martin argues that what the magi saw happening in the sky prompted them to search for the Messiah (14). When they spoke of the Messiah's star, they were referring to Jupiter.
Martin claims that Jupiter could have been sighted in the positions that he says are implied in Matthew's account. If we assume that the magi customarily observed the sky in the early morning hours, they would have seen Jupiter rise in the east, then move westward over a period of months, and finally come to a halt due south of an observer in Jerusalem (15).
A sufficient rebuttal is that God would never have bestowed legitimacy on the methods of astrology. It is astrology, not Scripture, that gives earthly names to celestial bodies and imagines that their movements and relationships mirror human destiny. Nowhere in the Bible itself do we find support for the symbolism that Martin takes for granted.
We will raise yet another objection. The names for Venus and Jupiter date back to the time of Christ. To announce Christ's birth, God would never have sponsored imagery in the sky comparing Christ to Jupiter and Mary to Venus. To suppose that the planet honoring the immoral Venus also pictures the Virgin Mary is revolting, and to suppose further that the planet honoring the fierce and unscrupulous Jupiter also pictures the meek and loving Jesus is blasphemous.
Texts Neglected by These Interpretations
All three naturalistic interpretations are inadmissible because they neglect or discount what Scripture actually says.
For example, the magi reported to Herod that they had seen the Messiah's star in the east (Matt. 2:2). Why did they expect a star to announce the Messiah's birth? Undoubtedly they were familiar with the prophecy given through Balaam almost 1500 years earlier, during the time of Moses. Balaam, speaking of the coming world ruler, declared,
I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel.
The most straightforward interpretation is that the star would be seen rising out of Jacob.
Like the magi, Balaam himself was from the region of "the river" (Num. 22:5), probably a reference to the Euphrates River in Mesopotamia. Therefore in his prophetic vision he stood close to the place where the magi observed the same star. He saw it rising from Jacob, the land of Israel. Israel is to the west or slightly to the southwest of Babylon, for millennia the chief Mesopotamian city. We conclude that when God enabled him to look at a night sky in the distant future, Balaam beheld with amazement an event contrary to nature, a star rising in the west.
Celestial bodies might, after sunset, make their first appearance near the western horizon, but none seems to move upward from it. None seems to actually rise in the west. The observed travel of stars in the night sky is always toward the west from the east.
We understand now what the magi meant when they reported to Herod that they saw the rising of the Messiah’s star (Matt. 2:2). They meant that they saw a star bearing the distinct mark foreseen by Balaam. It was a star rising in the west.
It follows that the star they saw could not have been Jupiter at any stage of migration, not even when it rose in conjunction with Venus on 12 August 3 BC. Jupiter was then a morning star in the east. Every other celestial event or object proposed as the star of Bethlehem fails the same test. On a given night, it would have moved from east to west. No observer anywhere would have seen it emerge from the west and rise upward, thus moving from west to east.
Matthew's account of the star
The many popular attempts to link the star of Bethlehem to a recorded observation of an unusual object or to alignments we can determine by backward computation simply ignore all the clues in Matthew's Gospel.
Notice this statement:
When they [the wise men] had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.
Three clues are hard to miss.
- The interjection "lo" marks the moment when, to their great surprise and wonderment, the star reappeared to guide the wise men on their way. The placement of "lo" in the narrative shows that they sighted the star immediately after they departed from Jerusalem.
- In Greek, the verb tense in the statement, "The star . . . went before them," is imperfect. A more precise translation would be, "The star . . . was going before them," indicating that the star was in motion ahead of them as they traveled south from Jerusalem (16).
- The place pointed out by the star is not said to be the village of Bethlehem, but the very place where the child dwelt. The magi needed no help to find the village of His birth, since the learned men of Jerusalem had already named that village, and no doubt Herod had told the magi how to get there, or perhaps had furnished guides. The magi needed help only to determine which child in Bethlehem was the one they were seeking.
It is obvious that no celestial body could perform the feats attributed to Christ's natal star. No celestial body moves through the heavens at the pace of travelers on the ground, and no celestial body ever moves south along the celestial meridian. Moreover, if the star moving ahead of the magi had been a celestial body, it would have kept to the south and led them beyond Bethlehem (17). Finally, the position of a celestial body cannot be used to locate an object the size of a human dwelling.
The True Identity of Jesus' Natal Star
For these reasons a legion of commentators ancient and modern have believed that the star was a supernatural sign or visitation (18). One reasonable possibility is that the star was an angel, perhaps Gabriel, manifesting himself as a point of brilliant light in the distant sky. The magi would likely have called him a star even if they perceived that he was closer than the other stars of heaven.
In Scripture, a star often figuratively designates an angel. For example,
And the fifth angel sounded, and I saw a star fall from heaven unto the earth: and to him was given the key of the bottomless pit.
Just as an angelic star once pointed to the lowly but godly origins of the Christ, so an angelic star will point to the infernal origins of the Antichrist. The message blazoned on the sky by these stars past and future can be understood only by wise men.
It is reasonable to suppose that the angel who conducted the wise men to Bethlehem was the same one that caught their attention back home, probably in Babylon. He must have risen into their sight at the same azimuth as Judea beyond the horizon. So, in fulfillment of Balaam's prophecy, the star rose out of Jacob.
The Relevance for Dating Christ's Birth
If the natal star was something supernatural, it provides no help whatever in pinpointing exactly when Jesus was born. We know nothing about it beyond what Scripture says, and Scripture tells us only that it appeared near the time of Jesus' birth.
Some scholars who categorize the story of the magi as mere legend nevertheless believe that the star has a historical basis, which might help us date Jesus' birth. Yet it is an arbitrary procedure to accept some elements of the story while rejecting others. If no magi visited Bethlehem, we should for the sake of consistency presume that no celestial sign appeared either, or at least not at any time close to His birth.
It is safer to presume that Matthew, a man of integrity and good sense, has given us a true account of the magi's visit to Bethlehem.