By DONAL ANTHONY FOLEY
Around this time of year, articles and stories appear in the media on the subject of the Star of Bethlehem. Quite often they focus on the astronomical state of the heavens at the time of Christ’s birth and try to show that some natural phenomenon can be held to be responsible for the appearance of the star — a comet, a supernova, or a conjunction of stars or planets.
If we examine the biblical text, however, it becomes clear that it isn’t quite so easy to categorize the Star in this way, and that the truth may well turn out to be far more intriguing.
The references to the Star are found in St. Matthew’s Gospel, where we read in chapter two that when the Wise Men arrived at Jerusalem, during the reign of Herod, and after Jesus’ birth, they inquired where the newborn King of the Jews was: They had seen “his star in the East” and had come to worship him. This news troubled Herod, and on inquiring of the scribes, he learnt that Bethlehem, which was not far from Jerusalem, was the place prophesied by Micah as the birthplace of the Messiah (Micah 5:2). He then asked the Wise Men to search for the child so he too could worship him. Following this, the Wise Men went on their way, “and lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was” (Matt. 2:1-9).
So there are only a few references to the Star in this Gospel, and we need to consider them carefully. From the Greek word for “wise men” we get the word “Magi.” In the ancient Orient, this was the name given to wise men, teachers, priests, astrologers, seers, and so on, and it can have a good or a bad sense. That is, a Magi could be a genuine seer or a false prophet, as was the case later on in the Book of Acts (13:6, 8). But obviously in the case of the biblical Wise Men, we are dealing with people who were well disposed.
The first thing is to note exactly what they said on meeting Herod, that they had seen his star in the East, and had come to worship him. In other words, they associated this new star with the newborn King of the Jews in a very precise way. It is thought that the Magi in fact came from Persia, modern Iran, or ancient Babylonia, modern Iraq, and that they may well have come to know about the Hebrew Scriptures in their own country, since the Prophet Daniel had lived in that area centuries before.
In particular, the Magi may have been familiar with this prophecy of Balaam on the future coming of the Messiah, which is recorded in the Book of Numbers: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not nigh: a star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel” (24:17). Or alternatively, they may possibly have become aware of Balaam’s prophecy in another way, since he was clearly a well-known seer in his own day.
In any event, whatever the exact reason, they realized the true significance of the Star and set out to find the new King. The interesting thing is that when they reached Jerusalem, it became clear to them that its inhabitants, including Herod, had not seen the Star, since, in secret, he asked the Magi when the Star had appeared. So it was probably only visible to them, which is a strong indication that it was a supernatural sign, rather than a natural heavenly object.
Several possibilities have been put forward to give a natural explanation for the Star, but there are problems with all of them. One theory is that it was due to a conjunction of planets; that is a situation where a planet apparently comes very close to another planet or star in the night sky, so that they may seem to touch and so look much brighter than normal.
There were a number of such conjunctions around the time of Christ’s birth, and it is certainly true that the Magi would have been more aware of this type of thing than most people at the time. However, only one such conjunction, in the year 2 BC, and involving the planets Jupiter and Venus, really comes into the category of a genuine conjunction, in which the two planets actually seemed to merge. But this only happened once, on one evening, and as already indicated, the Magi saw the star on more than one occasion. And this date is also later than the generally accepted date for Herod’s death in 4 BC.
Alternatively, if the Star were a supernova, an exploding star, then that would have been obvious to everyone. Similarly, if it were a comet, then that too would have been seen by all. And neither a supernova nor a comet, nor a conjunction of planets, does what the Star of Bethlehem did according to the biblical text, that is: “The star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was” (Matt. 2:9).
In other words, it stopped over Bethlehem, which is an impossibility for a natural heavenly object, since stars, planets, and comets apparently move in the heavens due to the earth’s rotation on its axis. And if they were not to be forced to look in every house in Bethlehem, which would have drawn unnecessary attention to the Holy Family, the Star must have been quite close to the earth, and not far away off in space.
And this is in fact what St. John Chrysostom, the early Church Father (c. 347-407) believed: “How then, tell me, did the star point out a spot so confined, just the space of a manger and shed, unless it left that height and came down, and stood over the very head of the young child? And at this the evangelist was hinting when he said, ‘Lo, the star went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was’.”
It is interesting to note that a number of biblical miracles involve the sun, which is a star in its own right. These includes Joshua telling the sun to stand still so he could defeat his enemies (Joshua 10:13-14), and God providing a sign for King Hezekiah, through the prophet Isaiah, that the sun should go backward as measured by the shadow on the sundial (Isaiah 38:7, 8).
And more recently, in connection with Fatima, we have the famous Miracle of the Sun, which occurred on October 13, 1917. These miracles — which were far greater in magnitude than that involving the Christmas Star — indicate that God can do whatever He wants, and thus the idea that the Star of Bethlehem was supernatural is quite feasible.
In fact, if anything, the Star of Bethlehem was more like the pillar of fire/cloud which went before the Israelites in the desert, when they escaped from Pharaoh — that is, a purely supernatural sign (Exodus 13:21).
Taking The Gospels
There is a danger nowadays of interpreting scriptural passages in a naturalistic sense, so as to fit in with modern ideas. This is the sort of thing that happens, when, for example, the accounts of the feeding of the five thousand in the Gospels are reinterpreted so as to remove their miraculous nature, and instead are seen as purely natural.
Some modern theologians have argued that what happened was that instead of Jesus miraculously multiplying the loaves and fishes, the people who had followed Him shared the food they had brought with them. Given human nature, that might well have been a greater miracle, but it is not what the biblical text says!
No, if we take the Gospels seriously, it is obvious that the Star of Bethlehem was a marvelous heavenly sign, a fitting manifestation of God’s power, and the way He first announced the birth of His Son to the Gentiles, and ultimately to us.
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(Donal Anthony Foley is the author of a number of books on Marian Apparitions, and maintains a related web site at www.theotokos.org.uk.)