What was the Star of Bethlehem?

At this Advent season, we look forward to celebrating Jesus’ birth. Before He was born in Bethlehem, Israel, a star was seen in the sky that proclaimed this new King’s birth. What was the star? Who were the magi, or wise men that followed it? Who was this new King, Jesus? How can we shine like a star and point the way to Jesus today? And what astronomical signs will accompany Jesus’ Second Coming? Those questions will be answered in this series of blogs.

Matthew 2:1-12 says,

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. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

What was the Star of Bethlehem? There are two explanations: a natural and a supernatural one. The natural explanation for the star is that was some astronomical event in space. Maybe the magi, or wise men, saw a supernova, comet, or conjunction of stars or planets. Supernovas are stars that explode in outer space. Is that what the magi saw? Or perhaps they saw a comet; Halley’s comet, the Hale-Bopp comet and others come near Earth on a regular schedule. Another possibility is the aligning of stars in a conjunction, so that they appear “stacked” or on top of one another, as a colon does when typed (:). An even more fascinating explanation is a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn. Jupiter was known then as “the King’s planet” and Saturn was known as “the Shield of Palestine”. Is this the reason the wise men sought “the King of the Jews?”

On the other hand, there are theologians that believe that the star was not a natural event, but a supernatural act of God. Why do they believe this? Read the Matthew text again, and notice how the star behaves or how it is perceived. It was only seen or understood only by the magi. The text says, “Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared.” Didn’t Herod see it? Or did he see it and not understand the significance of the star? Another strange aspect is that it may have disappeared and then reappeared for the wise men to follow. The text says, “When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.” The star seems to have appeared, disappeared, and then reappeared, much to the delight of these seekers. Finally, the star may have been supernatural because it behaves apart from the ordinary course of stars. The text says it “went ahead” and “stopped” where Jesus was. Normal stars don’t move and then stop.

While I believe the star was a supernatural act of God, the main thing is that it guided the magi to Jesus, their Lord and Savior.  But who were these wise guys? That’s the subject of the next blog.

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