Modern Astronomical Evidence for the Star of Bethlehem

from Biblica.

Matthew 2:1-2       The Magi Visit the Messiah

1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem     2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

In Matthew’s account of the story of the magi, the ‘guidance’ of a star is mentioned four times (Matthew2:2, 7, 9, 10). Its purpose in terms of the narrative is clear–to guide the wise men to the newborn King. But what scientific validity is there for such a phenomenon?

Given that the magi were almost certainly astrologers, the kind of phenomena familiar to them would have included comets, supernova (though not the term) and a conjunction of  planets, all of which are consistent with modern scientific observation. While open to modern refinement, the definition of a comet  given by the Roman poet Virgil in the Aenid is still valid; „a star leading a meteor flew with much light”. Likewise, records of the conjuction of planets were carefully kept; there was a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 7 B.C. and of Jupiter and Venus in 6 B.C.

The modern term supernova, a star that suddenly increases in size and brilliance then fades away, may not occur in ancient documentation, but this does not mean the phenomenon was unknown.

Where modern science would differ is in the interpretation held among the ancients. What was important to the astrologer was not only to notice the phenomena, but to search for their meaning. They would have concurred with the statement of Tacitus in his Annals that „the general belief is that a comet means a change of emperor” and that the conjunction of planets is associated with the birth of a king. In fact, a common role for such wise men was to discern the rise of a new king.

If we accept some element of historicity in Matthew’s account, then any number of combinations is possible and consistent with modern astronomical understanding. The star first sighted by the wise men (Matthew 2:2) could be explained as a supernova. Then the „star that  they had seen at its rising” might be a comet that „stopped over the place where the child was”. (Matthew 2:9) Alternately, it could have been a reflection from a planetary conjunction; two of which occurred in 7 B.C. and 6 B.C.– the most likely years of Jesus’ birth.

The occurrence of these phenomena is plausible in terms of modern astronomy, and their coincidence of time and place is not impossible. At some point, it comes down to a belief that it was God who guided the wise men by utilizing the ordinary processes of creation. The event, therefore, is not a violation of nature, nor a contradiction of modern science, but the way in which nature allows for such coincidences to occur. Ultimately, their importance for the Gospel is that God uses them to witness to the truth of Jesus’ identity on behalf of the gentile world.

Reclame

Poem – We Three Kings by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Star of Bethlehem, Magi - wise men or wise kin...

Star of Bethlehem, Magi – wise men or wise kings travel on camels with entourage across the deserts to find the savior, moon, desert, Holy Bible, Etching, 1885 (Photo credit: Wonderlane)

Three Kings came riding from far away,
Melchior and Gaspar and Baltasar;
Three Wise Men out of the East were they,
And they travelled by night and they slept by day,
For their guide was a beautiful, wonderful star.

The star was so beautiful, large and clear,
That all the other stars of the sky
Became a white mist in the atmosphere,
And by this they knew that the coming was near
Of the Prince foretold in the prophecy.

Three caskets they bore on their saddle-bows,
Three caskets of gold with golden keys;
Their robes were of crimson silk with rows
Of bells and pomegranates and furbelows,
Their turbans like blossoming almond-trees.

And so the Three Kings rode into the West,
Through the dusk of the night, over hill and dell,
And sometimes they nodded with beard on breast,
And sometimes talked, as they paused to rest,
With the people they met at some wayside well.

„Of the child that is born,” said Baltasar,
„Good people, I pray you, tell us the news;
For we in the East have seen his star,
And have ridden fast, and have ridden far,
To find and worship the King of the Jews.”

And the people answered, „You ask in vain;
We know of no King but Herod the Great!”
They thought the Wise Men were men insane,
As they spurred their horses across the plain,
Like riders in haste, who cannot wait.

And when they came to Jerusalem,
Herod the Great, who had heard this thing,
Sent for the Wise Men and questioned them;
And said, „Go down unto Bethlehem,
And bring me tidings of this new king.”

So they rode away; and the star stood still,
The only one in the grey of morn;
Yes, it stopped –it stood still of its own free will,
Right over Bethlehem on the hill,
The city of David, where Christ was born.

And the Three Kings rode through the gate and the guard,
Through the silent street, till their horses turned
And neighed as they entered the great inn-yard;
But the windows were closed, and the doors were barred,
And only a light in the stable burned.

And cradled there in the scented hay,
In the air made sweet by the breath of kine,
The little child in the manger lay,
The child, that would be king one day
Of a kingdom not human, but divine.

His mother Mary of Nazareth
Sat watching beside his place of rest,
Watching the even flow of his breath,
For the joy of life and the terror of death
Were mingled together in her breast.

They laid their offerings at his feet:
The gold was their tribute to a King,
The frankincense, with its odor sweet,
Was for the Priest, the Paraclete,
The myrrh for the body’s burying.

And the mother wondered and bowed her head,
And sat as still as a statue of stone,
Her heart was troubled yet comforted,
Remembering what the Angel had said
Of an endless reign and of David’s throne.

Then the Kings rode out of the city gate,
With a clatter of hoofs in proud array;
But they went not back to Herod the Great,
For they knew his malice and feared his hate,
And returned to their homes by another way.

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