The search for the Christmas star

Science | One astrophysicist has a new theory about the sky over Bethlehem when Jesus was born
by Julie Borg
Posted 12/08/16, 09:25 am

According to the Gospel of Matthew, sometime after Jesus was born, wise men, or magi, from the East came to Jerusalem to inquire, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him” (Matthew 2:2). Grant Mathews, a professor of theoretical astrophysics and cosmology at the University of Notre Dame, has spent the past decade analyzing historical, astronomical, and Biblical records to shed light on the celestial phenomenon that announced the birth of Jesus.

“Astronomers, historians, and theologians have pondered the question of the Christmas star for many years,” Mathews said in a statement. “Where and when did it appear? What did it look like? Of the billions of stars out there, which among them shone bright on that day so long ago?”

Mathews’ research has led him to believe the event was not the appearance of a star at all, but an extremely rare planetary alignment occurring in 6 B.C.—an event that is unlikely ever to happen again. The exact date of Jesus’ birth is unknown, but 6 B.C. is within the commonly accepted range.

During the alignment, Mathews said, the sun, moon, Jupiter, and Saturn were all located in the constellation of Aries. In the spring of that year, the sun would have appeared to pass through the constellation during the vernal equinox, the time in the Northern Hemisphere, around March 20, when day and night are of equal length.

To the magi, the presence of Jupiter and the moon could have signified the birth of a ruler with a special destiny. And Saturn and the position of Aries in the vernal equinox could have been interpreted as a life-giving symbol.

The alignment occurred in Aries, often considered a symbol of Palestine—hence the journey to Jerusalem.

“The magi would have seen this in the East and recognized that it symbolized a regal birth in Judea,” Mathews said.

When Mathews ran calculations forward, it appeared such an alignment will not be seen again for 16,000 years. He was unable to find any future time when the alignment would occur in Aries during the vernal equinox.

Other astronomers have proposed theories about the Christmas star, saying it could have been a comet, a conjunction of two planets, a nova, a meteor, or the passing of the moon in front of Jupiter. Many of those theories failed to fully explain the phenomenon and its impression on the magi. For example, comets often were considered a bad sign in Biblical times, more often associated with the death of a king than a birth.

Whatever the star may have been, one thing is certain, it declared a divine act unique in human history, astrophysicist Jason Lisle wrote on the Answers in Genesis blog: “It is fitting that God used a celestial object to announce the birth of Christ since ‘The heavens declare the glory of God’” (Psalm 19:1).

Julie Borg

Julie is a clinical psychologist and writer who lives in Dayton, Ohio. She reports on science and intelligent design for WORLD Magazine and WORLD Digital.

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Comments

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  • MJ
    Posted: Thu, 12/08/2016 12:22 pm

    Hi Julie,

    Fascinating article - thank you!  Are you familiar with Colin Nicholl's work, Great Christ Comet, which concludes that the start must have been a comet?  I heard him interviewed on the Eric Metaxas show.  What research indicates that comets were a bad omen in ancient times?

    John A.

  • Greg Burtnett
    Posted: Thu, 12/08/2016 04:48 pm

    There is nothing wrong with Julie's work on this article; but this may be the single worst article I've read in World Mag.

    This kind of speculation should not appear here: the star was a supernatural event that was one time. Giving space to this kind of reporting leads believers to fall into Blood Moon debates and non-believers to mock us for trying to claw out some explanation that really ought not to even be attempted.

    Thank you World Mag for your excellent reporting on many issues of vital importance: please don't begin to follow all of these harmful speculations: I believe this falls into the area 1 Tim 1:6 addresses regarding vain discussions.

    Greg Burtnett

  • Minivan Man's picture
    Minivan Man
    Posted: Fri, 12/09/2016 12:43 pm

    I respectfully disagree.  There's no reason to shy away from looking for a logical astronomical explanation for the Christmas star.  Likewise for the assumed eclipse of Good Friday, or the sun standing still for Joshua, the plagues in Egypt, the flood of Noah, etc.  Are we expected to assume these are miracles performed by God yet entirely unexplainable, leaving no evidence?  There is no fear in looking at science to corroborate the miracles in the bible.  Quite the opposite, I find confirmation of God's hand in history through science.  It is not crazy to search for scientific evidence for God's miracles.  

    I see Greg's point that folks could misinterpret signs of things yet to come.  This is a good point, but I don't see the correlation between the blood moon discussions and the Christmas star discussion.  This article is looking back at past miracles, not drawing conclusions about future events.  

     

  • Greg Burtnett
    Posted: Mon, 12/12/2016 11:11 am

    God forbid that I would allow fear make me shy away from using data to understand what the Bible tells us. The Flood would be an excellent example of needing the data we find the world over to help us understand why the world is as it is. But the 'why' of the flood will never be found in a field of fossilized bones. 

    The Christmas star is something altogether different. Whatever alignment of planets we can determine using our astronomical charts might point to a time when maji began a journey: but the fact that this 'star' "went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was" tells me that whatever it was the reality can never be found in a chart. And to think that we should look to charts will not help us understand the 'why' nor will it lead to wisdom. To search for a naturalistic cause for something so obviously miraculous (again like the parting of the Red Sea being caused by some naturalistic wind process) leads away from the purpose of the original miracle and from the purpose of Matthew (or Moses) reporting it. 

    I am not anti science: I am anti the Church seeking to look 'respectable' in areas were we will never be respectable no matter how we color them. Furthermore, we aren't to look to the world for respectability. My argument is not to go against reason and data: my point is to protect us from siliness that inevitably comes from vain discussions about things that will never benefit the Church. 

    Respectfully,

    Greg Burtnett

  • Matthew Miles
    Posted: Fri, 12/09/2016 09:07 am

    I would encourage anyone interested to read Colin Nicholl's book The Great Christ Comet. Like John A., I first heard him discuss this on the Eric Metaxas show and then purchased the book. It is an extremely well-researched and scholarly work that provides convincing argument that the star was, in fact, a comet. Nicholl addresses many other proposed explanations, including the alignment of planetary bodies referenced by Grant Mathews in this WORLD article. Far from leading to inappropriate and mystical speculations as suggested by Greg Burtnett, I found this study led me to a renewed sense of awe in the wonder and majesty of God's perfect design in announcing the birth of his son. The celestial symbolism present in Nicholl's proposed comet, why this would have been compelling to the Magi (leading them to travel > 3 weeks' journey from home across open desert!) and simultaneously inscrutable to the Jewish astronomers (who eschewed Hellenestic and Roman astrological signs) is a profound insight.

    We will certainly never know the truth about this heavenly body in this life. I found this study led me to worship our mighty God anew, and we can all agree that the special way in which he arranged the arrival of his son as the God-man is worthy of praise!

  • Morgen
    Posted: Fri, 12/09/2016 08:33 pm

    The best explanation of the Christmas star that I have heard so far was given by Rick Larson in his video "The Star of Bethlehem."  It was played in our church several years ago, and I immediately bought my own copy and now watch it at least once every Christmas.  DVDs are available on line, or you can watch it on YouTube to evaluate it for yourself at https://youtu.be/oGUlWa2r-bk.  This is the first detailed explanation that satisfied my intellect, my spirit, and my understanding of Scripture.  I encourage you to watch it.

    Morgen

  •  jrmbasso's picture
    jrmbasso
    Posted: Mon, 12/12/2016 05:21 pm

    Thank you Julie Borg. Interesting idea. It could be that the word 'signs' in Genesis 1:14 does refer to groupings of stars/constellations which would be used to know months and seasons. The maji from the east likely would have watched the stars constantly along with the planets and recognized the significance of the alignment of the sun, moon, Jupiter, and Saturn in the Aires constellation. They could have deduced that the correspondence meant a new ruler for Israel and journeyed to Jerusalem the capital. However, the Greek word corresponding to the Hebrew word for signs from the Septuagint is not the word for star in Matthew 2. As they went from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, Matthew 2:9 records that "the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was." It seems unlikely that a constellation would have identified the exact location where Jesus was. There would have been no 'ray of light' pointing to the place. The Matthew description is of a light from a supernatural source. In Exodus 40:38 we have, "For throughout all their journeys, the cloud of the LORD was on the tabernacle by day, and there was fire in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel." This supernatural light which indicated that God was present in the tabernacle guided Israel through the wilderness. Perhaps the presence of Jesus who is God Himself provided the supernatural light that guided the magi, the first gentile worshippers of Jesus, to the place where He lay.

  • infohighwy
    Posted: Wed, 12/06/2017 10:07 pm

    Thanks for the article. I enjoyed reading it very much. I was encouraged and uplifted by it. If we Christians are silent when our beliefs are devalued by the world, then some day only godless evolution will be taught to students in school. Oh, wait!

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