The Star of Bethlehem
Posted by foryourfaith on May 19, 2010
Is there a natural explanation for the Star of Bethlehem, which was tracked by the wise men, or Magi, to find the Christ child? According to the Gospel of Matthew, a traveling star from the east ‘came to rest over the place where the child was.’ Matthew provides few details, but later Christians described the Magi as three kings named Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar bearing gifts with symbolic significance – gold (royalty), frankincense (holiness) and myrrh (predestined death). But why did they follow the star?
Many Jews in the last first century BC were awaiting the imminent arrival of the Messiah, one sign of which would be the appearance of his star two years before his coming. Evidence from fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls suggests that astrologers in early times were indeed watching the skies for signs of a Messiah. Cardinal Danielou, the Jesuit authority, has interpreted the biblical statement ‘we have seen his star in the east’ as meaning that the Magi consulted an ancient horoscope to locate the birthplace of the Messiah. The Magi were probably not kings, but rather priests of ancient Persia’s Zoroastrian religion, who were skilled in science. The word ‘magi’ originally described men who led an ascetic existence, studying dreams and astrology.
The star itself has been interpreted in various ways. In 11 BC Halley’s Comet appeared at its brightest at the latitude of Bethlehem (31.5 degrees north), but this was five years before the generally accepted date of Christ’s birth (6 BC). Chinese astronomers recorded a nova, or exploding star, in the year 5 BC. Or perhaps the ‘star’ was a meteor or even a meteor shower, although this would be inconsistent with its brightness or a sustained period. Another theory was offered by the German astronomer Johann Kepler (1571-1630), who calculated that a remarkable conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, reinforced by Mars, in the constellation of Pisces in 6 BC would have produced the illusion of a brilliant star.
Whatever it was, the Bethlehem Star foretold the birth of the founder of the Christian faith. A miraculous footnote to its story is that King Herod, intending to murder the newborn Messiah, had asked the Magi to report to him the whereabouts of the child. But, warned in a dream, they returned to the east without revealing their discovery.