“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.” Matt. 2:2.
For centuries men have wondered about the star of Bethlehem, and as we approach this Yuletide Season we, too, are intrigued by this heavenly phenomenon, which took place at the time of Christ’s birth.
Are you aware of the fact that the account of this amazing wonder star is found in only one chapter of Scripture, namely: Matthew 2? Before you continue reading this article, it would be advisable to carefully peruse the account of this story in the first eleven verses. Thus, you will discover that the wise men visited Jesus in a house, not in a manger as is frequently pictured. The number of wise men is not stated, although, traditionally it is three magi who come from the Orient. Often we see shepherds portrayed with the luminous star, but we have no record that they were aware of such an unusual heavenly body: rather, they had direct information from the heavenly throng of angels.
Through the ages men have suggested various explanations for this Star of Bethlehem. Was this star, perhaps, a brilliant meteor or fireball? If we watch the heavens at night, especially during the month of August, we may see several small meteors or shooting stars. These are fragments of a star, which produce a streak of light as they travel earthward. Occasionally one will be observed of exceptional brilliance which will surpass the moon in size. However this star or His Star could not have been a streak of light, for it “went before them”, thus suggesting that it had a definite path and was of some duration. Let us read the verses carefully. Many of us believe that the Star led the wisemen the entire journey from the East to Jerusalem, and it might be well at this time to point out the fact that Scripture doesn’t state this. Rather, it mentions seeing the Star in the east, and then, in verse 9 we read, after they had reached Jerusalem, “and lo, the star which they saw in the east went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.” Thus, they recognized this same star in Jerusalem as the one they had seen in the East.
Could it have been a comet? Those of the older generation possibly recall the magnificent display of Halley’s Comet in 1910. This appears every 77 years. It is a heavenly body which travels around the sun in an eclipse. When it appears between the earth and the sun it is visible for a week or more and rises and sets as the sun, gradually changing position. According to history, and astronomical calculations Halley’s Comet appeared in 11 B.C., which was too early. Another comet appeared in 4 B.C., but according to calculations this was too late. Furthermore, a comet would be visible to all and would be of considerable account; whereas Holy Writ reveals that Herod and his wisemen had not seen the star.
Was it possibly a “nova” or “new star”? A star may suddenly explode its outer layer and increase in brilliance several thousand times only to fade away again in a few weeks. Such was the case in 1604 and suggested an explanation of the Star of Bethlehem to the famed astronomer—Kepler. The nova he observed lasted 17 months. Certainly Herod and his wisemen would have seen or heard about it if it had been a nova.
According to the Bible the Star of stars was no brilliant light in the heavens as a nova, a comet, or a meteor, for certainly then King Herod and his court would have been aware of any sensational events taking place in the heavens. Matt. 2:3 informs us that “when King Herod heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” Also he “inquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. His ignorance and that of his people was obvious and also their concern when men—not ordinary men—but magi or astrologers from the East (Persia or Babylonia) confronted them with this startling question, “Where is He that is born King of the Jews?” Since only the wisemen came with the question concerning the significance of the star, we must not look for the spectacular which was visible to all, but rather for some phenomena observed by these students of the sky—the astrologers.
Who were these wise men? They were learned men of the east who were priests of Zoroaster and students in astrology. Astrology is the study of the heavenly bodies with the purpose of determining future events in human affairs. In Babylonia, astrology was considered to be an essential part of their religion. The astrologers divided the sky into various regions each of which represented a certain nation, race or part of the human body. They foretold the future chiefly on the basis of the arrangement of seven ancient planets—Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Sun and Moon. (Only the first five are considered planets today). Any peculiar arrangement of these planets was interpreted to portend an unusual advent in the nation or race represented by that particular segment of the sky.
According to Kepler, a brilliant and devout astronomer, an unusual event occurred in 1604. While studying the stars, he observed Jupiter passing Saturn, and shortly after Mars passed both of them. By careful calculation he discovered that this remarkable conjunction (passing) of the three planets occurs once every 800 years. While he was observing this conjunction of a millennium a brilliant nova appeared which suggested to him an explanation for the Star of Bethlehem. By figuring back he discovered that this significant event of a conjunction took place about 6 B.C. Then it took place in the region of the sky called Pisces (the Fishes) which the ancient astrologers had assigned to the area of Palestine and called it “the House of the Hebrews.’’ Thus, the wise men would have the clue as to the location of a wonderful happening. In addition the astrologers believed that the planet Saturn ruled over the destinies of the Jews. Evidently the wisemen had some knowledge of Jewish prophecy from exiled Jews and their great expectation of the Messianic King. Considering all these facts, then—the rare event once in 805 years of the planetary conjunction—in the sector of Pisces (the House of the Hebrews)—Jupiter. Mars and Saturn (the latter the planet that determined Jewish destiny) wouldn’t it seem natural for the magi to hasten to Jerusalem—the capital of Jewry?
Actually the passing of these planets was not the usual passing of Jupiter and Saturn which occurs every twenty years but it was a triple conjunction (passing) in which Jupiter passed Saturn three times. This took place in “the House of the Hebrews’’ and it happens only once in 125 years. The second significant sign which the magi saw was the conjunction of three planets—Jupiter, Saturn and Mars, which is the phenomena of a millennium since it occurs only once in 805 years. It took place in the early part of 6 B.C. This, it is conjectured, drove home the importance of the event which was taking place in the “House of the Hebrews’’; namely, the birth of the King.
Now note, “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.”
A third conjunction of the planets—Jupiter, Saturn and a new one Venus took place. The above theory would explain that this is what they again saw as they left Herod and followed “the star” to Bethlehem. The wisemen knew “the star”.
We, who believe in God’s counsel, maintain that Christ came in God’s own time. Dark, indeed! Mary was the last of the House of David. It was providence rather than coincidence that the Roman Emperor called all people to their respective birthplaces—hence, the manger in Bethlehem. The Hebrews had no place for Him but the heavens spoke from afar and called the Gentile Magi to come to worship Him. If we do maintain this theory of Kepler do we in any way deprive God of miraculous power? Isn’t it just as astounding to believe that the very planets in their orbits were attuned to this great event of history?
However, whether it was a special star for this special event as we are want to believe, or a series of conjunctions of planets, it showed that the very heavens were in harmony with the advent of the Messiah.
Schaffer’s “Bible Dictionary” has this thought: “That the heavens should be laid under contribution and one of the heavenly bodies be the appointed, the silent leader of the magi whose coming prophesied the ingathering. . . .of the Gentiles, was in itself a probable event. The earth felt the tread of His blessed feet; why should not the sky lend one of its jewels to light the path of His seekers.”