What Did The Wise Men Follow?

24 Dec 2017

OSR blog post

Each year at Christmas time millions of people around the world read about the birth of Jesus Christ and the account of the wise men. What was it that they followed to find Jesus? Read on to find out more about the Star of Bethlehem.

Matthew 2:1-9: Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod, the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.”

For thousands of years, Christians from all over the world have read these words and wondered what appeared to the wise men. Was it a planet? A comet? Scientists and astronomers have searched ancient texts and ran computer programs looking for the ‘star in the East’.

A Comet Overhead?

Bright comets do appear in the sky from time to time and have been described as “hanging over” particular cities or lands. Matthew wrote that the Star of Bethlehem stayed over Bethlehem. Halley’s comet was visible in the region in 12 BC. Presumably it would have been bright enough to be described as a star. Scholars put the birth of Jesus around 5 to 7 B.C. At any rate, Matthew would likely have known the difference between a comet and a star. He correctly noted the event as a star. Furthermore, comets were often seen as bad omens. Matthew wanted to mark the occasion as good news.

A Gathering of Planets?

Astronomers believe that the Star of Bethlehem was a conjunction, or gathering of planets in the night sky. In 6 B.C. ancient texts describe a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. Since planets orbit the sun at different speeds and distances, they occasionally seem to approach each other closely. Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) preferred this view. However, multiple planets do not look like a single light source, as described in Scripture. In any case, the star Matthew portrayed caught the attention of the wise men. A planet alignment would not have seemed out of the ordinary. Therefore, whatever they saw led them to Bethlehem.

A Heliacal Rising

Astrology of the time didn’t focus on the stars themselves. Ancient astronomers knew that stars remained fix in the night sky. Instead, astrology focused on astronomical events, such as the last appearance of a particular star before sunrise. In addition, it looked for the conjunctions of stars and planets. One clue is buried in the verse itself, where “in the east” could also be interpreted as “at the rising.” Did Matthew describe a heliacal rising?

“The heliacal rising of a star occurs annually when it first becomes visible above the eastern horizon for a brief moment just before sunrise, after a period of time when it had not been visible.”

For example, the first appearance of Venus as the morning star. The wise men would have known about Venus. Did they see Venus paired with another bright planet such as Jupiter? Would this pairing be significant enough to cause them to drop everything and head to Bethlehem?

A Supernova?

What if they saw a Supernova? These appear in the sky as “new stars” and are sometimes brighter than even Venus or Jupiter in the night sky. This would match the Biblical description, and might have been interpreted as a good omen. Chinese and Korean astronomers noted the appearance of a nova in 5 BC, which would be around the right time frame. On the other hand, this Nova wasn’t noted by astronomers in other regions, so it likely wasn’t particularly bright. A genuinely bright nova or supernova, such as the one observed by Tycho Brahe in 1572, would have created a remnant that we could observe today. It’s possible that there could have been a supernova in the Andromeda galaxy or the Magellanic Clouds, but there is no astronomical record of such an event.

Unless some significant and indisputable archaeological discovery is found to settle the question once and for all, the mystery of what the Christmas Star was will remain in the realm of faith. Science cannot explain it as any known physical object; history offers no clear record; and religion offers only an untestable miraculous apparition. But although there may be no agreement on the nature of the star or even its actual sighting two millenia ago, all sides can agree on the message the Christmas star heralded: “…on earth peace, good will toward men.” (Luke 2:14) (Larry Session, Astronomy Essentials 22 Dec 2017)

Source: Chester, Craig. The Star of Bethlehem. Imprimis. December, 22(12) 1993.