During this Advent season, our church has been preaching through Jesus’ birth narratives in Matthew’s Gospel. And in Matthew 2:1–12 we find the incredible story of the Magi. Sunday, one of our other elders preached on that passage, which freed me to study more broadly about the nature of the Star of Bethlehem itself. Spurred on by Colin Nicholl’s fascinating book, The Great Christ Comet (book review and interview), I’ve been intrigued by this question: What in the heavens would lead the Magi to travel 550 miles to find king Jesus?
The biblical answer relates to the Old Testament prophecies in Numbers 24:17; Psalm 72:8–11; Isaiah 9:2; and Isaiah 60:6. But what about the astronomical answer? What was the sign of his Star?
This is where Nicholl’s book shines. He examines the biblical data, the various cosmic hypotheses, and then makes his case for the Great Christ Comet. I’m still working my way through the book, but for now let me share a summary of his biblical conclusions that help us think through the story of the Magi and the biblical testimony about the Star of Bethlehem. From this biblical foundation, he (and anyone interested in the topic) moves to consider the astronomical phenomena that might have led the Magi.
The Star of Bethlehem in Fifteen Points
Starting with the biblical data, Colin Nicholl makes twenty-two summary statements about Matthew 2 and the Star of Bethlehem (pp. 66–68). I’ve summarized his points below, showing his original numbers in parentheses. Except for Scripture quotations, all quotations are from The Great Christ Comet.
- The biblical record of the Star (Matthew 2:1–12). “Matthew’s Gospel is a theological biography” that presents history as factually accurate. Therefore, the story of the Star is not presented as myth but an historical event superintended by the God of creation. The fact that the Magi arrived and gave gifts is testimony to the reality of this event. (#1, #19, #20)
- The observers of the Star: Babylonian Magi. “The Magi were professional astronomers and astrologers, their astronomical observation being in the service of astrology. Moreover, “the Magi were probably from Babylon, an important center of astronomy and astrology and a city with a sizable Jewish population. It was about 550 miles from Jerusalem.” In Matthew, there presence fulfills Scripture (see Psalm 72:8–11; Isaiah 60:6), and confirms the identity of Christ as king and the worship of God by the gentile nations. Both are strong themes in Matthew’s Gospel. (#2)
- Matthew’s positive approach to the Star. While Magi may have provided horoscopes and participated in pagan astrology, Matthew’s report gives no hint of this behavior (in these Magi). Rather, “Matthew’s favorable treatment of the Star and of the Magi’s pilgrimage strongly suggests that what the Star did to announce the Messiah’s birth was something that demanded more than merely a pagan astrological interpretation.” (#3, #12).
- The meaning of “the Star.” “The Magi saw a ‘star.’ The Greek word used here (astēr) can refer to any astronomical body, including a fixed star, a planet, a comet, or a meteor.” This permits the interpreter to explore (scientifically) what astronomical phenomena best fits the evidence. Colin Nicholl surveys the options in ch. 4 and makes the case for the star being a comet. (#4)
- The physical reality of the Star. “The Star was an objective rather than a subjective phenomenon,” meaning it was not simply a supernatural experience of the Magi. The historical account of the Magi’s journey coupled with the experience of “trouble” in Jerusalem speak of an objective phenomenon in the heavens. (#5, #15)
- The viewing of the Star. “The Star first appeared more than one luni-solar year, that is twelve or thirteen lunar months . . . before Herod gave the order to slaughter the infants of Bethlehem.” Remember, “the Magi took careful note of the date of the Star’s first appearance.” The age of the infants slaughtered by Herod, therefore, does not correspond to the length of their journey, but the time of the ‘star’s’ rising (cf. Matthew 2:2, 16). Likewise, the timing of the travel probably lasted 28–37 days, based on typical speed for a camel caravan. (#6, #13)
- The movement of the Star. There is a difference between the first appearance of the star and what it did in the heavens. That is, “some months after the Star’s first appearance, it rose heliacally (note the word rising [anatolē] in Matthew 2:2, 9).” Therefore, the significance was not just in the Star’s presence, but its action. “After the Star’s appearance in the eastern sky, the celestial entity more than likely remained observable to the Magi as they traveled westward from the homeland to Jerusalem. . . . Each night, it may have seemed by the location of its setting in the west to be guiding the Magi to Judea.” This action will also require examination to the constellation map in the heavens; i.e., the star’s significance relates to the constellations in the heavens. (#7, #14)
- The uniqueness of the Star. In the minds of the Magi the “astronomical wonder relating to the rising of the Star was clearly extraordinary.” Whatever the phenomena, it prompted a 550 mile journey (see #3). “One can safely presume that the Magi were not in the habit of making such urgent and challenging journeys.” (#8)
- The personal identification of ‘His Star.’ “The celestial marvel in connection with the Rising of the Star was interpreted by the Magi as signifying a special birth, with the Star itself representing the important person being born.” Matthew 2:2 says it was his Star. (#9)
- Old Testament prophecies related to the Star. The astronomical reality was not sufficient in itself. As with all general revelation, it required the Word of God (i.e., special revelation) to interpret. So, “the Magi were evidently aided in their interpretation of the meaning and significance of the astronomical scene by prophetic traditions in the Hebrew Bible, in particular Balaam’s oracle concerning a rising star-scepter in Numbers 24:17 and messianic prophecies in the book of Isaiah.” See more in ch. 8 of Colin Nicholl, The Great Christ Comet. (#10)
- The meaning of the Star. “The heavenly sign seen in the east communicated directly and/or indirectly to the Magi that the one born was divine in nature.” In Matthew’s Gospel this is preceded by the fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14 in Matthew 1:23: the one born is “God with us.” Therefore all worship of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel (2:2, 11) is meant to indicate worship of the God born a man. (#11)
- The threat of the Star (to Herod and Jerusalem). “The appearance of the Star was perceived by Herod to be a serious threat to his royal dynasty.” Therefore, perceiving he could deceive and use the Magi to find this royal threat, he sent the Magi to Bethlehem so he could “come and worship” too (v. 8). At the same time, “in the wake of the Magi’s arrival in Jerusalem, the people of the city came to regard the Star’s appearance as a threat to the status quo, a provocation to Herod, and a herald of bloody regime change. They, too, were therefore “troubled,” as Matthew 2:3 indicates. (#15, #16)
- The final direction of the Star. After meeting with Herod, the teachers of the law pointed to Bethlehem as the place where kings were born (see Micah 5:2). Heading out to Bethlehem, the star appeared (or, reappeared?) and led them to the house of Mary (and presumably Joseph — he’s not mentioned). “The presence of the Star at this point functioned to confirm the Magi in their mission and to endue in them a sense that they were being ushered into the Messiah’s presence, thereby heightening their sense of anticipation.” As Matthew 2:10 says, “when they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.” (#17)
- The final destination of the Star. The reappearance of the Star not only leads them to the village of Bethlehem, but to the very house where the Christ-child laid: “the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was”). “The sight of the Star standing over the structure therefore filled the Magi with extraordinary joy—the Star that had prompted them to make this journey to worship the Messiah was now pin-pointing the very place where he was located.” (#18)
- The ongoing wonder of the Star. In light of all these facts, the question remains: What hypothesis best explains the biblical-historical, physical-astronomical data?
In short, Nicholl’s exegetical work is the necessary starting place for understanding the story of the Bethlehem Star. And from that biblical foundation, we marvel at how God turned the heavens and all that is in them to identify Jesus as the long-expected King. Scripture gives us the sure account of his coming, but it also leads us to consider the way our Creator God set the heavens to reveal his Son.
At present, I’ve only read the first part of Nicholl’s work, but I’m excited to read the rest. As Christian Astronomer, Guillermo Gonzalez has said of The Great Christ Comet: Nicholl’s hypothesis is “a sophisticated one that may be the most plausible offered to date.” Indeed, if it any way increases our understanding of how the God of creation brought forth his Son, then it heightens our praise and brings glory to God. As Proverbs 25:1 says, “It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out.”
May God give us grace to know him more and more through his two books of revelation—Scripture and creation.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds