Each year, as Christmas approaches, articles appear in numerous publications, both secular and religious, "explaining" the famous star whose unspoken testimony led the wise men to Bethlehem when Christ was born. Many theories have been offered, by many learned men, seeking to account for this remarkable event, recorded in Matthew 2:1-12. Although a brief article cannot do justice to all these studies, it may be helpful to give a summary evaluation of them from the viewpoint of Biblical creationism.
The great astronomer, Johann Kepler, suggested in 1605 that a conjunction of Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars, in 7 B.C., was the Star of Bethlehem. This also is the conclusion of a prominent British physicist in an extensive modern review article in the prestigious science journal, Nature. 1 Most planetarium displays at Christmastime each year are based on some version of the conjunction hypothesis.
An alternative version of this idea was developed in an impressive research study 2 by Dr. Ernest Martin, Director of the Biblical Research Foundation and former history professor connected with the Herbert W. Armstrong schools. Dr. Martin argues that a series of very close conjunctions of Jupiter and Venus, as well as the Star Regulus, which he calculated to have occurred in 3 B.C., formed the "Christmas star."
All such conjunction theories, however, face a number of serious problems. How could wise men (Greek, magoi, referring to the scholarly and priestly caste of statesmen-astronomers in Persia, who were thoroughly familiar with all the known stars and planets) call a grouping of two or three stars, "His star?" No two of these stars were ever so close together as to look like a single star. Furthermore, all such planetary conjunctions occur with some significant frequency, which can be calculated from the known planetary orbits, so why would any one, or several such conjunctions be associated as a special "sign" with the promised King of Israel?
THE MOVING LIGHT HYPOTHESIS
Probably most evangelicals, willing to believe in local miracles but reluctant to believe that God the Creator can also manipulate His entire creation when there is reason to do so, have advocated the "local-light theory," which postulates that a special light (perhaps a pillar of fire such as led the children of Israel in the wilderness, or even the Shekinah glory cloud, such as fell upon the temple when it was dedicated), guided the Magi from Persia to Bethlehem. Some have even suggested it was a U.F.O.
But there are also problems with any such moving-light hypothesis. Why would the Magi call it a star (Greek, aster)? They, as well as anyone else, for that matter, would surely know the difference between a stationary star up in the heavens, and a light moving along near the earth. Also, why would God send such a special aerial messenger 600 miles away to Persia, and not to the many who "looked for redemption in Jerusalem" (Luke 2:38)? How could the Magi ever identify such a mysterious light as announcing the King of the Jews? And why would it not have led them directly to Bethlehem, instead of their having first to consult with the Jewish priests and scribes in Jerusalem?
COMETS AND METEORS
Meteors, of course, are far too ephemeral in their passage across the sky to be serious candidates for consideration. A number of writers have suggested a comet, however, for such a phenomenon could well be called a new star, in the standard terminology of ancient astronomy. Halley's comet, the brightest of all, whose approaching 1986 appearance is currently the object of much interest, was clearly seen in 12 B.C., but this date is much too early to correlate with the birth of Christ. Another lesser comet was recorded in 5 B.C., but there seems no reason why it would have been considered prophetically significant.
NOVAS AND SUPERNOVAS
The only significant possibility remaining seems to be that the Bethlehem star was an actual star, as the Bible says! The stars, in fact, were created to be used for signs, as well as "for seasons, and for days, and years" (Genesis 1:14), and if there was ever an appropriate time for a "sign," this was such a time, when God Himself became man, incarnate in human flesh, to redeem man. Although it is still not certain exactly what causes a star to become a nova or a supernova (most astronomers tentatively believe it is some kind of explosion), there is no doubt that these are real stars, created on Day Four of Creation Week. Somehow, what seems to be an ordinary star suddenly increases tremendously in brilliance, continuing so for several months, until it finally fades away.
Novas are fairly common, and often are not any brighter than other bright stars in the sky. A supernova, on the other hand, is very rare, and can be extremely spectacular, blazing so brightly that some could cast shadows at night and even be seen in the daylight. A supernova, shining brilliantly for just a few months, would indeed be "a celestial announcement card above all others worthy the birth of a king." 3 It is significant that the above opinion is expressed by the writer of an article in a secular scientific journal, who also concluded that, indeed, a "supernova seems the most likely explanation for the Christmas star of all those put forth to date." 4
A great Christian astronomer, E.W. Maunder, late Superintendent of the Solar Department of the Royal Greenwich Observatory, and president of the British Astronomical Association, came to a similar conclusion. Although he wrote before such stars were called supernovas (in his day they were called "new" or "temporary" stars), he argued that this was the type of star most nearly satisfying the Biblical specifications. 5
An obvious question associated with this explanation is that there seems to be no known secular record of a supernova near the time of Christ's birth. This is merely an argument from silence, however. The only three visible supernovas that have been reported in our galaxy were the Chinese star, Tycho's star, and Kepler's star, in 1054 A.D., 1572 A.D., and 1604 A.D., respectively. There almost certainly must have been earlier supernovas, however, recorded observations of which if made at all, have not yet been recovered.
It may well have been the case, in fact, that the only people watching for such a star were the Magi themselves. These were the priests and chief statesmen of the great Persian empire, which had never been subjugated by Rome and was, at the time of Christ's birth, considered a serious threat by the Roman surrogates (like King Herod) in the border state of Palestine. Of all religions in the ancient world, that of the ancient Persians was most like that of the Jews. The influence of Daniel the prophet, in the courts of Darius and Cyrus, had been profound and lasting, as had that of Esther and Mordecai, under Artaxerxes. Zoroastrianism, which was basically a creationist religion, had its origin among the Magi class. It is even possible that some of the Jews in Persia had become members of the Magi.
In any case, the Magi were familiar both with the Jewish Scriptures and also with the primeval promises of a coming Savior, who, though He would be the Jewish Messiah, would also become the Redeemer of all people. They surely knew the prophecy of Balaam: "There shall come a star out of Jacob" (Numbers 24:17), and probably also that of Isaiah 60:3, "The Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising." They undoubtedly were familiar with Daniel's prophecy of the seventy weeks (Daniel 9:24-27), which indicated that the time for Messiah's coming was drawing near.
But how did the sudden "rising" in brightness of the star that became a supernova (if that is what happened) persuade them that this was the promised star of Jacob?
Many writers, of course, have argued the case for an original evangelical meaning of the constellation "signs," especially the twelve signs of the Zodiac and their thirty-six "decans"--a meaning which, over the several millennia since this "gospel in the stars" was first "written," has been corrupted into the pagan system of astrology. The astronomer Maunder believed that many of these signs did, indeed, reflect God's primeval promises, and so did many other 19th-century Christian students of antiquities.
Thus, one possible scenario would be to assume that a brilliant supernova appeared in one of the heavenly "signs" (possibly, say, that of the Virgin) which the Magi could identify with the primeval promise of the coming "seed of the woman" (Genesis 3:15). Seeing this star while they were still "in the east" (Matthew 2:2), they would assume the Biblical prophecies were now to be fulfilled, then make all arrangements to set out to Jerusalem in a great entourage to do homage to the newborn King. In view of the sensitive political situation, and the large military escort which undoubtedly accompanied them, their questions about this new "King of the Jews" caused King Herod to be "troubled, and all Jerusalem with him" (Matthew 2:3).
This whole project would have taken several months, and, in the process, the star, which had first appeared in the evening sky, had been lost in the hours of high daylight, as the sun moved along its ecliptic path through the stars. But then, suddenly, as they looked toward Bethlehem from Jerusalem, they saw the star once again, this time in the early morning sky, appearing vertically over Bethlehem, "where the young child was" (Matthew 2:9), and they rejoiced greatly at this confirmation of their faith. The star had indeed been "going before them" all this time, even though, in the meantime, while they could not see it, they had been simply journeying by faith in God's Word.
The above scenario is obviously hypothetical, but it does seem at least as plausible as any other, pending further light. It would surely be appropriate for the most important event since the creation--namely, the Incarnation of its Creator--to be signalled by the mightiest spectacle of physical power ever set off in all of God's great creation.
Whatever may have been the exact nature of this Star of the Incarnation, it did give its perfect witness to its Creator. Therefore, these key representatives of the world's great Gentile nations came to fall down and worship the King of the Jews, knowing that one day, every knee shall bow and every tongue "confess that Jesus Christ is Lord" (Philippians 2:10,11).
- David W. Hughes, "The Star of Bethlehem," Nature (Vol. 264: December 9, 1976), pp. 513-517.
- The Birth of Christ Recalculated (Pasadena, California: Foundation for Biblical Research, 1980), 188 pp.
- James Mullaney, "The Star of Bethlehem," Science Digest (Vol. 80: December 1976), pp. 61-65.
- "Star of the Magi," Article in International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1946), pp. 2848, 2849. Maunder also devoted a whole chapter to this subject in his book, Astronomy and the Bible.
* Dr. Henry M. Morris (1918-2006) was founder of the Institute for Creation Research.
Cite this article: Morris, H. M. 1985. Star Witness. Acts & Facts. 14 (12).