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THE STAR OF BETHLEHEM: PART ONE

      

       The star of Bethlehem, as it has come to be known, is second to the cross as the most prominent symbol within Christianity.  At Christmas time it is almost ubiquitous.   It is found adorning the top of countless Christmas trees throughout the world.  It is seen hanging in windows and as part of many manger scenes. You will see the Bethlehem star as a background for many Christmas cards and find it the focus of various Christmas songs.

       In the song We three kings of Orient Are, the lyrics speak of the Magi bearing gifts as they "traverse afar."  "Field and fountain, moor and mountain, following yonder star. O star of wonder, star of light, Star with royal beauty bright, Westward leading, still proceeding, Guide us to thy perfect light."

       In the Christmas hymn The First Noel, three of the six verses of this hymn speak of the star of Bethlehem. Here are a few lyrics from theses verses.

       "They looked up and saw a star, shining in the east beyond them far.  And so it continued both day and night.  This star drew nigh to the north-west. Over Bethlehem it took its rest and there it did both stop and stay right over the place where Jesus lay."

       This star certainly has been a star of wonder to scholars, theologians and astronomers for the past two thousand years.  Many different ideas have been advanced to try and explain exactly what it was the Magi saw that prompted them to travel hundreds of miles to worship someone they concluded was born King of the Jews. Why did these Magi react the way they did to something they saw in the heavens?

       We find the story of their travels to Bethlehem in Matthew 2:1-11: 

       "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 and have come to worship him." When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people's chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. "In Bethlehem in Judea," they replied, "for this is what the prophet has written: "`But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.' “Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him." After they had heard the king, 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. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh"  (NIV). 

       The word Magi is a translation of the Greek Magos which is derived from the Persian word Magus which is equivalent to the Hebrew word chakam which means someone having great intelligence, wisdom and prudence.  This wisdom included knowledge of the heavens and ability to extract meaning from the configurations of heavenly bodies.  Therefore, Magi were astronomers and astrologers.  There was no distinction back then between astronomy and astrology as there is today.  

        Some may question why astrologers would be involved in the birth event since several Old Testament Scriptures appear to condemn astrology. In Isaiah 47:13-14 we see astrologers belittled by the prophet. At creation the placement of lights in the sky is seen as being for signs, seasons, days and years. Where these lights to only be for determining seasons, days and years or were they to be signs of other things as well? 

       Genesis 1:14: And God said ,"Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years" (KJV).

        While the Old Testament does speak against using heavenly bodies as objects of worship or to predict earthly events, the dividing of stars into groups called constellations was acknowledged as far back as the time of Job.

        When God answered Job, He asked: “Can you bind the beautiful Pleiades? Can you loose the cords of Orion? Can you bring forth the constellations in their seasons or lead out the Bear with its cubs?  Do you know the laws of the heavens? (Job 38:31-33) {NIV}. 

      The Pleiades are an open cluster of more than 300 stars in the constellation Taurus, six or seven of which are blue-white giants clearly visible to the naked eye. Taurus is one of thirteen constellations that make up what is called the Zodiac. The English word Zodiac is derived from a Greek word which means"circle of animals." The constellations of the Zodiac are named after the shapes they appear to take in the sky which are referred to as signs. For example, the constellation Scorpius is shaped like a scorpion. Pisces is shaped like a fish and Virgo is shaped like a young woman and is called virgin. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, the Jewish temple at Jerusalem had twelve signs of the Zodiac inlaid in its floor.  We are not told of what significance if any this had relative to the Jewish religious system.

        The origins of the Magi are not entirely clear, but they are believed to have had their beginnings with the teachings of Zoroaster, sometime around 1000BC. Zoroaster was a religious leader and teacher in the region of Persia where some believe the Magi seeking the Christ child lived. Some believe the Magi visiting the Christ child lived in Babylon.  Babylon was a hotbed for the practice of astrology.  Zoroaster espoused monotheism and taught that at sometime in the future, there would arise a king who would raise the dead and transform the world into a kingdom of peace and security. Interestingly, the Zoroastrian traditions associated with this prophesied king said that the king would come forth from the descendants of Abraham.

       It should be noted that the Magi are not seen as practicing astrology as such in their response to the star they saw rising in the east. To practice astrology is to make predictions of events based on the belief that heavenly bodies influence the way events occur here on earth.  The Magi didn't view the star as predicting the birth of the king of the Jews but as signaling that this event had already occurred.  The star had nothing to do with influencing or causing the birth.  Some believe the star didn't so much point to Christ's birth as such but to the fact the one born was a king. Under this perspective, the star is seen more as announcing the Kingship of Christ than the birth of Christ.

When was Christ born?

        The Scriptures say nothing about the calendar date of the Nativity but do show that King Herod was alive at the time of the birth of Jesus. Many historians believe Herod died in 4BC.  Since BC means “before Christ,” how could Herod die four years before Christ was born. The Scriptures show him to be alive at the time Christ was born?   

       Our present chronology by which the years are numbered as AD or BC was conceived by a Catholic monk around 523AD. It has since been found that this monk made several errors in his calculations which led him to be off by several years in his dating system.  Scholars have gone to using the designation BCE (before the Common Era) in an effort to remove the ambiguities presented by the designation BC and the dating methods it is based on.

        Since it is commonly believed Herod died in 4BC and in view of Matthews’s report of Magi recognizing a star as signaling the birth of Christ, scholars look to the years just prior to Herod’s death for evidence of the birth of Christ. It is during the period of 8 to 1BC that scholars, theologians and astronomers have looked to determine if anything unusual was going on in the heavens that would have prompted the Magi to do what they did.  Whatever it was the Magi seen must have been very impressive to cause them to travel hundreds of miles west to worship a newborn. 

Was the star a meteor, nova or supernova?

       For those who believe the star seen by the Magi was a literal physical star, various theories have been advanced in an effort to explain what the Magi many have seen.  Some feel it may have been an unusually bright fireball meteor seen streaking toward the horizon. Meteors, however, flash across the sky in mere seconds and then disappear.         

       How about a nova or supernova?  Novas are dying stars that explode.  Most novas suddenly and unexpectedly flare into prominence literally overnight attracting the instant attention of sky-conscious people. But after several days or weeks of such prominence, they gradually fade back into obscurity.

       Even more spectacular, but much more rare, are supernovae stars that suddenly blow themselves completely apart, briefly producing an incredible energy output equivalent to the combined light of an entire galaxy of stars. At the height of its outburst, a supernova can shine with such brilliance that it can be seen in broad daylight.  In our Milky Way galaxy, over the past thousand years, there have been four brilliant supernovae, in AD 1006, 1054, 1572 and 1604.

        Although a nova or supernova may appear to be a reasonable explanation for the Bethlehem Star, there is a serious problem with it. There doesn’t seem to be any definitive record of a bright nova appearing in the sky during the time that Biblical historians believe the Magi made their journey. One nova apparently did appear, bordering the constellations Capricorn and Aquarius during the spring of 5BC. Chinese records, which describe this object, imply that it was not very conspicuous at all and since the Chinese didn’t distinguish between a nova and a comet, we can’t be sure what they saw.

        While the explosion of a super nova would catch the attention of astronomers/astrologers such as the Magi, Matthew writes that the star the Magi initially saw in the East, they saw again standing over where the child was.   Novas don’t reappear and re-explode.  This fact pretty well explodes (pun intended) the exploding star idea as identifying the "star of Bethlehem."       

Was the star a planet?

      Could the star the Magi saw have been a planet?  The Greek word translated star in Matthew can designate heavenly bodies other than stars.  The movements and groupings of planets in the night sky were of great interest to ancient astronomers and were closely tracked around the world. Historical records and modern-day computer simulations indicate that there was a rare series of planetary groupings, also known as conjunctions, during the years 7BC  and 2BC.  Conjunctions occur when two heavenly bodies move so close to each other that they appear from earth to be a single entity.  Researchers have identified several conjunctions that occurred during the general period surrounding the birth of Christ.  Back in 1991, Dr. Ernest Martin, published a book entitled “The Star of Bethlehem: The Star that Astonished the World.”  Much of the following astronomical discussion is taken from Dr. Martin's book.

       Before we get into Dr. Martin's work, it should be noted that the heavenly body's move along precise routes through space in relationship to the earth and have done so throughout history.  Therefore, it is possible to look back in time and pinpoint the exact positions of the heavenly body's on any particular day or night and time of day or night in the historical past. This is how astronomers can put together planetarium shows showing what the heavens looked like thousands of years ago. Now let's take a summery look at the work of Dr. Martin. 

         In 7BC there was a triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. All three meetings of these two planets occurred in the constellation Pisces.  As already discussed, constellations are groups of stars visible from earth that form a distinctive pattern and have a name linked to their shape.  This particular conjunction occurs once every approximately 900 years. It is interesting to note that the constellation Pisces is said to be associated with the Hebrew nation.

        With the triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 7BC, the first conjunction occurred in late May, the second in September, and the third in early December. Although the two planets never came closer together than about two diameters of our moon, and therefore could hardly have been seen as a single star, these events would have had great significance to the trained astronomers of the time. Jupiter was known as the “planet of Kings” and Saturn as the “Protector of the Jews.” In February of 6BC, a massing of three planets occurred again in the constellation Pisces when Jupiter, Mars and Saturn came within 8 degrees of each other. This event occurs only once approximately every 800 years. This would have had great significance to the astronomers of the time. 

        Also in 6BC, there was a conjunction of Jupiter and the moon in the constellation Aries which a Roman astrologer believed heralded the birth of a divine, immortal, and omnipotent person. However, the foregoing astronomical events, exciting as they were, pale in significance when compared to the events of an 18 month period during 3-2BC. This was one of the most remarkable periods in terms of celestial events in the last 3000 years.

        It all started on the morning of June 12 in 3BC, when Venus could be sighted very close to Saturn in the eastern sky. Then there was a spectacular pairing of Venus and Jupiter on August 12 in the constellation Leo.  Ancient astrologers associated Leo with the destiny of the Jews, and some associated it with the Lion of Judah (the tribe of Judah).  The constellation Leo was considered the “head” or “chief” sign of the Zodiac. It was thought to be ruled by the sun, the “chief” star of the heavens. It was considered the “Royal Constellation”, dominated by the star Regulus. Leo was considered the beginning Zodiacal sign for the astrological year and was thought to denote royalty and power for any of the planets found within it.  

        To the early Israelites, Leo was a constellation of great astrological significance and considered a sacred part of the sky. A very close conjunction of Venus and Jupiter would have been visible as a bright star in the eastern dawn sky of the Middle East from about 3:45 to 5:20 a.m. on August 12, 3BC.

        Venus ultimately vanished into the glare of the Sun, but Jupiter and Leo remained in the night sky during the next ten months. Between September of 3BC and June of 2BC, Jupiter passed by the star Regulus in the constellation of Leo. Jupiter then reversed itself and passed Regulus again. Jupiter then turned back and passed the star a third time. This was a rather remarkable series of events, since astrologers considered Jupiter the kingly planet and regarded Regulus as the “king star.” Plus, this was all taking place in the Royal Constellation of Leo.  Also, the sun was in the constellation Virgo during this time.  Virgo is considered the Virgin constellation.

        So what we have here is the royal planet Jupiter in conjunction with the royal star Regulus in the royal constellation of Leo while the sun is in Virgin. 

        Then, during June of 2BC, as Jupiter and the stars of Leo began to sink into the western evening twilight, Venus again returned to this same region of the sky for an even more spectacular encore. On the evening of June 17, 2BC, Jupiter and Venus appeared even closer together than they did in the dawn skies of the previous August. As the planets slowly descended toward the horizon they got closer and closer together. Viewing them from earth, they would have looked like one brilliant star. 

        Then Jupiter, due to retrograde motion, appeared to “stop” in the sky. Viewing Jupiter from Jerusalem, it would appear to be directly over Bethlehem.  Bethlehem is about six miles south of Jerusalem.  It came to its normal stationary position at dawn on December 25th, 2BC. Not only that, but the planet came to a stop in the constellation Virgo, the Virgin. It remained there for nearly six days.

        So what do we have here?  We have the planet Jupiter appearing in conjunction with Venus in the constellation of Leo in the eastern sky in August of 3BC.  We then see Jupiter, still in the constellation of Leo passing the star Regulus three times during the next ten months.  Remember, Jupiter was considered the kingly planet, the star Regulus the King Star and Leo the Royal Constellation.  Then in June of 2BC, some ten months after the first conjunction of Jupiter and Venus which caused them to appear as one bright star on the eastern horizon, these two stars appear a second time in even closer conjunction, only this time brighter yet and now in the Western sky.  Then we find Jupiter appearing to stand still for a period of six days due to its retrograde action.

       Let's return to Matthew's account;

        Matthew 2:1-2: 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 and have come to worship him.'

        Matthew 2:9-10: After they had heard the king, 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.

        The Scriptural account of this event tells us the Magi initially saw the star in the East. A more accurate translation of the Greek is, “we saw his star when it came up in the east.” These Magi had already experienced the triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 7BC.  These meetings of the two planets occurred in the constellation Pisces which had long been associated with the Hebrew nation. In 6BC they had seen the conjunction of Jupiter, Mars and Saturn in Pisces.  Also in 6BC, they would have seen a conjunction of Jupiter and the moon which was believed by some to herald the birth of a divine, immortal, and omnipotent person.  Then in August of 3BC they see the conjunction of Jupiter and Venus in the constellation Leo appearing on the eastern horizon.  This conjunction would have appeared as a single bright star. Then in June of 2BC, some ten months after the first conjunction of Jupiter and Venus, these two stars appear a second time in even closer conjunction, only this time brighter yet, appearing as one bright star and now in the Western sky. 

        Since both Pisces and Leo were associated with the Jewish nation and Jupiter and Leo represented the birth of royalty, it is certainly conceivable that what the Magi saw convinced them that the time was at hand for the promised king of the Jews to be born.  They would have been familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures and the writings of Daniel which pinpointed the coming of the Messiah to the time they were living in. 

        The conjunction of Jupiter and Venus in the Western sky may have led the Magi to travel to Jerusalem where they would have expected the Messiah to be born.  When they arrived in Jerusalem they inquired where the child was. When they were told it was Bethlehem, they headed toward Bethlehem and expressed joy at seeing the star.  The implication is that the star had disappeared from view but now had reappeared.  This would harmonize well with the fact that Jupiter, due to retrograde motion, appeared to “stop” in the sky over Bethlehem as viewed from Jerusalem, which is about six miles north of Bethlehem. Matthew 2:9 indicates the star reappeared to the Magi.  The Scriptural account of this event does not show the star moving across the sky from the East leading the Magi to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem as is often believed and depicted as such in Christmas songs. The Scriptural account shows the star appearing to the Magi in the East and then reappearing over Bethlehem.

So has the star been identified?

        Associating all this extraordinary celestial activity with the birth of Christ is based on the belief that King Herod died sometime in 1BC.  Most scholars, however, believe Herod died in 4BC. This belief is based on the writings of the first century historian Josephus who wrote that Herod died not long after an eclipse of the moon and before the Passover. There was an eclipse in March of 4BC followed by the Passover 29 days later. Josephus indicates that all events associated with the burial of Herod were accomplished before the Passover.   Some historians, in looking at the scope of events that transpired before the Passover, have concluded that it would have been impossible for all this to have been accomplished in 29 days.  Therefore, they believe Josephus was referring to the eclipse that took place in January of 1 BC with the Passover occurring a little over three months later. The lunar eclipse of 4BC was only a partial eclipse and barely visible while the eclipse of 1BC was a total eclipse and would have been widely observed.

        In his book, Dr. Martin provides strong evidence for a 1BC death of Herod and concludes, based on the astronomical and astrological evidence, that the star the Magi saw and followed was the planet Jupiter.  This same conclusion has been reached by other scholars and astronomers. After publication of his 1991 book, many planetariums around the world constructed their Christmas programs to reflect the celestial events that occurred during 3 and 2 BC where formally they centered their programs on celestial events of 7 to 4 BC.   

Summary:

        If the rather unique celestial events discussed above did indeed signal the birth of Christ, it would appear that the timing of the birth of Jesus was purposely coordinated with specific celestial activity that had known associations with the nation of Israel and the appearance of a king. It is also noteworthy that Jupiter is identified as being over Bethlehem on December 25th in 2BC. This would pinpoint the visit of the Magi to the day the birth of Jesus is commonly celebrated if indeed the Magi visited the Christ child at the time Jupiter was seen in the Bethlehem sky. It is apparent, however, that the actual birth of Jesus occurred a year or more before the visit of the Magi. For a variety of reasons, various scholars believe the actual birth occurred in September or October.  As already noted, Martin's conclusions are based on a 1BC death of Herod. This date for Herod's death is not accepted by many scholars who instead believe Herod died in 4BC. For interesting discussion of the date of Herod's death go to the following websites: http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/people-cultures-in-the-bible/jesus-historical-jesus/herods-death-jesus-birth-and-a-lunar-eclipse/. https://pursiful.com/2006/12/14/when-was-jesus-born-herods-death/

Was the star a comet?

       Some feel it may have been a comet. Comets can remain visible to the unaided eye for weeks and even months either in the predawn sky or at dusk. A comet is a heavenly body made up of dust and ice having a head called a coma and a tail. The coma always points toward the earth while the tail points toward the sun. Because of the way a comet behaves and appears in the sky, some believe that a comet is the only heavenly body that could have pinpointed the house where the Christ child was living in Bethlehem as Matthew reports.  The famous Halley’s Comet, last seen in early 1986, also flared in the sky during August and September in the year 12BC. This, however, would have been to early a date for the birth of Christ as His birth is seen to be somewhere between 7 and 1BC.  The Chinese report a comet in 5BC but this comet doesn't appear to have been seen as very significant.

       It should also be noted that comets were generally viewed as omens of evil, such as floods and famine as well as the death of kings and monarchs. The Romans, in marking the death of the Roman General Agrippa, used the 12BC appearance of Halley’s Comet as a signal of his death. In view of this, it would appear unlikely that a comet would have signaled the birth of the Son of God. However, there is historical evidence that some comets were seen as omens of good. 

       The most recent book discussing the issue of the Bethlehem star is "The Great Christ Comet," written by Colin R Nicholl and published in 2015. Mr. Nicholl is convinced the star the Magi saw was a comet that arose in the eastern sky in the constellation of Virgo around 6BC.  Mr.Nicholl believes Revelation 12:1-5 is key to understanding what the Magi experienced.

        Revelation 12:1-5: A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head.  She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads.  His tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that he might devour her child the moment it was born.  She gave birth to a son, a male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter. And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne.

       It is generally understood that the woman in this scene represents Mary the mother of Jesus and the male child is Jesus.  The red dragon is associated with Satan. Nicholl believes what the Magi saw was a great comet appearing out of the constellation Virgo. Virgo is historically seen as rising in the east in September and October of 6BC. Virgo is viewed as having the sign of the virgin as this constellation has the shape of a young woman.  It is believed the Magi would have had knowledge of Isaiah's prophecy in Isaiah 7 about a virgin conceiving and they would have associated this prophecy with the birth of the Messiah. (See my discussion of Isaiah 7 at Old Testament Prophecies and Jesus).  Nicholl also believes that Isaiah's references in Isaiah 9:2 to the people seeing a great light is both a literal and a metaphorical reference to the birth of Jesus. Nicholl sees a literal fulfillment of 9:2 as a large bright comet that appeared in the first century to announce the birth of Christ and this same comet reappearing over Bethlehem when the Magi visited the Christ child.

       Isaiah 9:1-2:  Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the Gentiles, by the way of the sea, along the Jordan--The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.      

       Is Isaiah speaking of a literal light such as a comet?  We see Christ figuratively referred to as light a number of times in the NT Scripture but nowhere is the Isaiah passage seen to be associated with a literal star such as seen by the Magi.  The Gospel of John often refers to Jesus as light in a metaphoric sense.  Matthew directly associates Jesus with the light passage of Isaiah 9:2 showing it to be a metaphorical association. 

       John 8:12: When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life."      

       John 9:5: While I am in the world, I am the light of the world."

       John 12:46: I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness.

       Matthew 4:13-16:  Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali-- to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah:  "Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way to the sea, along the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles--  the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned."

       Nicholl sees Virgo as representing Mary and a comet appearing to come out of Virgo is seen as representing the Christ child. The red dragon is associated with a constellation called Hydra.  While this constellation is not part of the Zodiac, it neighbors Virgo and is anciently identified as a serpent/dragon because its starry configuration is shaped like a snake with a long tail.  Nicholl believes Hydra represents Herod's attempt to kill the Christ child and that this constellation produced a meteor storm which is seen in the Revelation as stars falling from the sky. However, there are no astronomical records that verify such meteor storm occurring in 6AD.

       Nicholl believes the Magi, being the astronomers/astrologers they were, would have been sufficiently impressed with seeing the celestial events described above.  When seen in conjunction with their assumed knowledge of OT prophecies in Isaiah 7 and 9 about the birth of the Messiah, it is believed they would have concluded the Messiah had been born and that they should seek Him out. 

       Nicholl contends that the Magi first saw the comet in 8 or 7BC and then experienced the rising of the constellation Virgo in September/October of 6BC out of which a comet appeared signifying and representing the birth of Christ.  He provides no astronomical record of a comet appearing in 8/7BC or in 6BC.  While he provides an enormous amount of circumstantial data to support his contention that a comet appeared out of the constellation Virgo in 6BC, there is no recorded evidence in Chinese, Greek or Roman astronomical records of that time period that such appearance of a bright comet occurred in 6BC.  It must be noted that Matthew records that the Magi saw "his star in the east and have come to worship him."  There is nothing in Matthew's account suggesting the Magi saw the star at two different times separated by a number of months before embarking on their journey to Judea.  

       Nicholl contends that the comet the Magi saw in 6AD was in its heliacal rising. In astronomical  terminology, this is a reference to a predawn emergence of a star over the eastern horizon before it is obscured by the raising sun.  While such star can appear nightly in the sky, it only appears once a year in its heliacal rising. Therefore, a heliacal rising star is seen as a star having astronomical significance over and above stars that are seen on a regular nightly basis.  While what the Magi saw could have been a heliacal rising, this cannot be conclusively demonstrated as Matthew doesn't elaborate on the nature or circumstances of the star the Magi saw.

Summery:

      Nicholl is to be commended for trying to establish why the Magi reacted in the manner they did to seeing the star and to offering a more logical reason for the star acting the way it did in pinpointing the exact house where the Christ child was located in Bethlehem.  The idea of a celestial body pinpointing a specific house is often viewed as being unrealistic. A comet presents the most probable of possibilities of a star behaving in this manner. The appearance of the constellation Virgo (virgin) during the general time frame of Christ's birth presents some circumstantial evidence as to why the Magi reacted the way they did to what they saw.  

        Unfortunately, much of what Nicholl offers is based on circumstantial evidence and he often comes across as assuming the thing to be proved.  His frequent use of phrases such as "may have been," possibly been," and other such phrases, shows the speculative nature of his presentation. This being said, it is an attractive proposition that Revelation 12:1-5 may reflect on Virgo (the virgin) rising in the east as indicative of the virgin birth of Jesus.  Finding astronomical records showing the presence of a comet within the constellation Virgo in 6AD would be very helpful in giving credence to Nicholl's thesis. 

Was the star an angel?  

       Some believe the star that appeared to the Magi was an angel.  This perspective is largely based on the belief that a material star or planet would not act in the manner described in Matthew’s account of the star's activity subsequent to the Magi leaving Jerusalem.

       In Matthew 2:9, it is recorded that “the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.”  It is believed no normal star would act this way.  It is pointed out that stars move from east to west according to prescribed patterns. Bethlehem is south to southwest of Jerusalem. It is believed a normal star would not be moving from north to south.  The same would apply if it was to Nazareth the Magi traveled as Nazareth is due north of Jerusalem and would necessitate a material star moving south to north which stars don't do.  The perspective that the Magi traveled from Jerusalem to Nazareth will be addressed in Part Two of this series.

       Scriptural justification is given for seeing the star as an angel by pointing to passages that show stars are used to represent angels in the book of Revelation and a few other places in Scripture. Let's begin our examination of the Bethlehem star being an angel by looking at how the word star is used in Scripture.

       The words star or stars appear multiple times in the Biblical Scriptures and by context can be seen in most cases to be referring to the bright lights we see in the night sky. Where a star or stars are clearly seen as representing angels in Scripture, such representation is clearly identified as such. We see this In Revelation 1:20.

       Revelation 1:20: The mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand and of the seven golden lampstands is this: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.

       Here in Revelation, stars are clearly identified as representing angels. In Matthew there is no such identification. Matthew doesn't say anything to suggest he is using the word star to represent an angel as seen in Revelation. 

       It must be noted that Matthew speaks of angels as angels in his general nativity narrative and not as stars. In Matthew 1:20, 2:13 and 2:19, he uses the Greek word for angel when speaking of an angel appearing to Joseph and directing him to do certain things relative to the Christ child. This being the case, it appears unlikely Matthew would switch gears and substitute the word star for angel in his nativity narrative when describing what the Magi encountered if indeed what the Magi encountered was an angel. You would think he would have used the Greek word for angel and not the Greek word for star to be consistent with his use of the word angel in describing the appearances to Joseph.

       Other than in the nativity narrative, Matthew uses the Greek word for star only one other time in his Gospel and that is in 24:29 were material stars are clearly in focus and not angels.  Matthew uses the Greek word for angel 17 other times in his Gospel and by context can be seen to always refer to angels as angels and not as stars.

Did the star lead the Magi to Jerusalem?

        In Matthew 2:2, the Magi are seen as having traveled to Jerusalem from somewhere in the east to seek out “one who has been born king of the Jews.”  They said “we saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”  Nothing is said here about the star they saw leading them to Jerusalem.  They simply say that they had seen his star in the east.  The NET bible states it as, “For we saw his star when it rose." There are footnotes to this verse in the NET Bible that state: “in its rising,” referring to the astronomical significance of a star in a particular portion of the sky.” 

        Was the star an angel as opposed to an actual material star or planet?  The Magi said the star appeared to them in the east.  As already pointed out, there is nothing in Scripture saying it led them in some way in their journey to Jerusalem. Stars are seen as rising in the east and setting in the west every night due to the rotation of the earth relative to the stationary heavenly body's. From their interchange with Herod as discussed below, it is apparent the Magi were traveling many weeks or months in their journey to Jerusalem. This means the star they saw would have risen and set many times during their journey.

       Therefore, it is unlikely they followed a specific star that was moving ahead of them in the night sky. The fact they had to stop in Jerusalem to inquire where the child was to be born shows a star was not leading them to the child's location. The star appears to simply be the sign whereby the Magi became aware of the birth of the King of the Jews. 

       It must be remembered that the Magi were astronomers/astrologers and were trained in making associations between celestial events and events on earth. They were able to associate seeing this star rising in the east with the birth of someone born King of the Jews.  It's apparent the star doesn’t appear to them again until they leave Jerusalem and travel to where the Christ child is located. 

Did the star lead the Magi from Jerusalem to Bethlehem or Nazareth?

        Matthew writes that the star “went before” the Magi after they left Jerusalem (Matthew 2:9 KJV, NKJV, ASV, RSV). The NIV renders this as "went ahead." This passage is sometimes seen to teach that the star appeared to the Magi as they were leaving Jerusalem and actually led them to the exact location where the Christ child was. As already pointed out, stars don't travel north to south or south to north. So does this mean the star had to be an angel who could obviously travel any direction? 

        The conclusion that the star had to be an angel is based on the belief that the star actually led the Magi from Jerusalem to where the Christ Child was and since this being done my a material star appears improbable, it must have been an angel that led the Magi. Let's examine this issue very carefully.

       The Greek word rendered "went before" is proago.  The Greek Lexicons define this word as to lead forward, go before and in front of (See Thayer's and Arndt/Gingrich Greek Lexicons). This word is used by New Testament writers in several ways and can be seen to mean something or someone leading others or something or someone having gone somewhere ahead of others and being there when others arrive.

       In Acts 16:30 it's recorded that the jailer brought (Greek proago) Paul and Silas out from the jail. In Mark 10:32 we see Jesus leading (Greek proago) the way to Jerusalem. These are examples of proago being used to show someone visibly leading others from point A to Point B.

       In Matthew 14:22 and Mark 6:45 we see Jesus directing His disciples to get into a boat and go ahead (Greek proago) of Him to Bethsaida where he would meet up with them later. This is an example of proago being used to show someone going ahead to a location where they will be later seen by someone else.  In Matthew 26:32 and Mark 14:28, Jesus instructs His disciples that after He is raised from the dead He will go ahead (Greek proago) of them to Galilee. In this case he is not in front of them physically leading them but telling them this is where He is going to be (Matthew 28:10). The Greek proage is being used  to show Jesus having gone ahead to a location where His disciples would see Him.

       As can be seen, proago can be used to show someone leading others or how someone or something can go ahead to a location in advance of others arriving at such location. In view of this, it may be unwarranted to conclude in any absolute sense that an angel or a physical star was in some way out in front of the Magi leading them and they simply followed the angel or star to where the Christ child was staying. 

       While viewing the star as out in front leading the magi is certainly in line with how proago is used in Scripture, it is also in line with how proago is used to show the angel or star arriving at the location of the Christ child in advance of the Magi arriving at this location. It could be that when the Magi arrived in the vicinity of where the Christ child was that they at that point saw the star. Matthew 2:9-10 can certainly be read from such perspective.

       Matthew 2:9-10: After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead (Greek proago) of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.

        In view of the manner in which proago can be used to show someone or something going ahead to a location and being there when others arrive, Matthew 2:9-10 could easily be interpreted to mean the star established itself in a position over where Jesus was and when the Magi saw the star, they knew they had found the Christ child and were overjoyed because of this.  This is certainly as reasonable of an interpretation as seeing the star being followed as it leads the Magi from Jerusalem to where the Christ Child was.  

       So to insist that the star must have been an angel in order to act the way it did may be unwarranted. If the star was not in front leading the Magi but simply appeared over the location of the Christ child, the behavior of the star as a material heavenly body as oppoaed to being an angel is certainly a possibility.

        Matthew reports the star stopped over the place where the child was (Matthew 2:9). This is often interpreted to mean the star stopped over the exact house where Jesus was. However, Matthew doesn't say this.  He simply reports the star stopped over the place where Jesus was.  He could be referring to the general area where Jesus was located and not necessarily the exact house. The word "place" has broad application in the Scriptures and is used sometimes to pinpoint a very specific location and at other times to indicate a general location.   

       Bethlehem is only around six miles south of Jerusalem.  If the star was an actual heavenly body such as the planet Jupiter, it could possibly be seen as standing over a particular area.  Dr. Martin writes that the planet Jupiter, due to retrograde motion, appeared to “stop” in the sky over Bethlehem as viewed from Jerusalem. Martin writes that Jupiter came to its normal stationary position at dawn on December 25th, 2BC. and the planet came to a stop in the constellation Virgo, the Virgin where it remained for nearly six days.

       A comet with a head pointing toward the earth, may be even more probable as it would be a smaller heavenly body that actually points in a certain direction. It is possible the Magi saw such heavenly body appearing over the region of Bethlehem as soon as they left Jerusalem and began to travel toward Bethlehem. If this is what took place, the star could be said to have led them to Bethlehem in so much that it stood over the city where the Child was thus confirming to the Magi that this is where the Christ child was located. This may be the reason for their expression of great joy.  Once they arrived in Bethlehem, they would of had to inquire as to the exact location of His residence. 

       This being said, to conclude an object as large as a star or planet could move into position to appear to be over the area where the child was living may still seen problematical. How could a star be seen to position itself over a specific location on planet earth?  This is a reasonable question.  

      The easy answer is that it wasn't a physical star the Magi saw but an angel that directed them to where Jesus was living. However, as already pointed out, the Greek of Matthew 2:2 indicates what the Magi initially saw was a rising star in the east, or as the Greek indicates, "a star in its raising."  This presents an equally reasonable question which is how does an angel appear as rising over the eastern horizon.

        Furthermore, if the star the Magi saw rising in the east was in its heliacal rising as some contend, it would not have been an angel. Such a star would have been a physical heavenly body of some kind rising in the predawn sky over the eastern horizon before it is obscured by the raising sun.  A star in its heliacal rising is a star having astronomical significance over and above other stars and would have impressed the Magi. It must be noted, however, that Matthew does not reveal the star was in its heliacal rising which makes this an unproven theory.    

Summery:

      When all is said and done, the most compelling reason to conclude the Magi were interacting with a material star and not an angel is the fact these men were astronomers/astrologers. When the Magi informed Herod they had seen a star in the east signaling the birth of the king of the Jews, it is unlikely they told Herod that what they saw in the east was an angel. It just doesn't fit the context of the time.  It was material objects called stars that were seen by the ancients as predicting events here on earth, not angels.  This being the case, it would appear much more consistent with who the Magi were to conclude that what they saw was a physical star like object of some sort as opposed to a non-physical entity such as an angel.

       Secondly, there is no Scriptural reason to believe Matthew is using the word star to represent something other than a star. He doesn't in any way associate his use of the word star with an angel as is done in other passages of Scripture were stars are plainly identified as representing angels when such is the case. The conclusion that the star was an angel is based not on any direct Scriptural evidence that it was but on the belief a material star would not act in the manner it is believed Matthew describes so it must have been an angel.  This is assuming the thing to proved.

       The thing to be proved is that what Matthew describes is that the star was out in front visibly leading and directing the Magi from Jerusalem to the exact location where the Christ child was living and that a material star could not act in this way and therefore it must have been an angel.  However, since the Scriptures also allow for the star to have been already over the place to where the Magi were headed, one cannot assume that it is only the first option that Matthew is describing.

       In Part two, we address the issue of to where it was the Magi traveled to visit the Christ child after they left Jerusalem. Was it Bethlehem as most believe, or was it Nazareth as some believe?  As will be seen, this issue also has great bearing on the matter of what the star may have been.

        PART TWO