History of the Christmas Star: Natural or supernatural?
HISTORY OF THE CHRISTMAS STAR: NATURAL OR SUPERNATURAL?
The Star of Bethlehem has puzzled scholars for centuries. Some have skeptically dismissed the phenomenon as a myth, a mere literary device to call attention to the importance of the Nativity. Others have argued that the star was miraculously placed there to guide the Magi and is, therefore, beyond all natural explanations.
Most, however, take a middle course that looks for some historical rationale for the Christmas star. Several interesting theories have been offered.
- The Greek term for the star in the Gospel account, “aster,” can mean any luminous heavenly body, including a comet, meteor, nova, or planet (Greek: wandering star).
- The Chinese have more accurate and complete astronomical records than the Near East, particularly in their tabulations of comets and novae.
- In 1871, the English astronomer John Williams published his authoritative list of comets derived from Chinese annals. Comet No. 52 on the Williams list appeared for some seventy days in March-April of 5 B.C. near the constellation Capricorn and would have been visible in both the Far and Near East. As each night wore on, the comet would seem to have moved westward across the southern sky. The time is also very appropriate. This could indeed have been the Wise Men‘s astral marker. Comet No. 53 on the Williams list is a tailless comet, which could well have been a nova, as Williams admitted. No. 53 appeared in March-April of 4 B.C. — a year after its predecessor — in the area of the constellation Aquila, which was also visible all over the East.
Perhaps this was the star that reappeared to the Magi once King Herod had directed them to Bethlehem in Matthew 2:9. Comets do not display all the characteristics described in the full Nativity story. A planet or planets seems more likely.
The astronomer Johannes Kepler noted in the early 17th century that every 805 years, the planets Jupiter and Saturn come into extraordinary repeated conjunction, with Mars joining the configuration a year later. Since Kepler, astronomers have computed that for ten months in 7 B.C., Jupiter and Saturn traveled very close to each other in the night sky, and in May, September, and December of that year, they were conjoined.
Mars joined the configuration in February of 6 B.C. The astrological interpretation of such a conjunction would have told the Magi much if, as seems probable, they shared the astrological lore of the area. Jupiter and Saturn met each other in Pisces, the Fishes.
In ancient astrology, the giant planet Jupiter was considered the “King’s Planet,” for it represented to the Romans the highest god and ruler of the universe: Marduk to the Babylonians and Zeus to the Greeks.
The ringed planet Saturn was seen as the shield or defender of Palestine, while the constellation of Pisces, which was also associated with Syria and Palestine, represented epochal events and crises. So Jupiter encountering Saturn in the sign of the Fishes would have meant that a divine and cosmic ruler was to appear in Palestine at a culmination of history.
There was a recent but much less dramatic “Great Conjunction” of Jupiter-Saturn between December 16-31, 2020. But it was in the constellation of Aquarius rather than Pisces.
Recent Christmas Star Research
Meanwhile, more recent research on the star based on recently available astronomy software and historical research on 1st-century Jewish-Roman historian Flavius Josephus‘ manuscripts is being conducted and collected at bethlehemstar.net
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
Then, from a scriptural perspective, the “star”, followed by pagan astrologers (a practice condemned by the God of the Bible), led them, not to Bethlehem, but to Jerusalem, to Herod, who then killed many children, before REappearing and leading them to Bethlehem (to a “house” and not the stable where Jesus was born).
“Tradition” ignores the biblical account and then tries desperately (and unsuccessfully) to come up with a logical explanation. The Bible makes it much clearer for those who care to know the truth…..
Thanks for the comment, Michael. You’ve almost got it, but you might want to read my article on the “Wise Men” the Magi <https://billpetro.com/history-of-the-wise-men> to get a fuller story.
You’re right that the star “appeared” twice in the Biblical narrative. It appeared to Magi from the East. “Pagan” may not be a useful term for these people, and for this event; the Latin term pagan for “rustic, rural” did not gain traction until the 4th century when it was used by Christians to describe Romans who followed the imperial cult of Greco-Roman gods. A better word would be “gentiles,” meaning non-Jews. While we do not know all their beliefs, they believed that the “king of the Jews” would be heralded by a star and born in Palestine. The first appearance did not lead them specifically to where Jesus was, so they asked at the capital. The second appearance led them to Bethlehem, and as you say, a “house” is described as the residence.
As the Bible is silent as to the number, names, ethnicity, and ages of the Wise Men, tradition has filled in the blanks. But tradition is always less reliable than the recorded history of primary sources like the Bible.
A pastor friend explained that the “star” was actually an angel. Here’s what he said in a discord post in a Christian server.
“2 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,
2 Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.
it was “His star”
9 When they 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.
10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.
The star went before them til it came and stood over where the young child was
Stars don’t do that
Angels do that
The Bible calls angels stars in several passages
stars don’t stand over a child, angels stand over a child
the wise men would not have been able to follow an actual star standing over a manger that was less than 100 miles away from their current location, if you look up and point at a star, and drive to the next state over, that star is still going to be pretty much in the same place
this was a low altitude star, which don’t exist, aka it is an angel
Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding.
5 Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it?
6 Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner stone thereof;
7 When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
stars = sons of God = angels”
I take it you chose the “supernatural” route. I think all would agree that “stars” don’t move, other than how they appear to cross the sky because the earth revolves upon its axis. But planets move, they’re called “wandering stars.” However, neither are in low earth orbit, as you say. The “sons of God shouting for joy” is certainly echoed in the nativity story of Luke 2:13-14.