A Mystery of the ages
One of the most evocative elements in gospel accounts of our Lord’s birth is the reference to a “star in the east” that led mysterious Magi to travel westward bearing gifts to honor the newborn King. It has inspired glorious music and artwork – and no end of speculation concerning what it might have been or looked like.
In recent decades new theories have emerged alongside older and more traditional interpretations. Some have been widely circulated in the Christian community, while others remain less well known.
It’s a fascinating topic, and even if no final answer is forthcoming, digging into some of these hypotheses can teach us much about the cultural milieu at the time of Jesus’s birth.
Some of the various proposals are more persuasive than others, but nobody can claim the matter is settled. In this article, I’d like to provide an overview of the current competing theories and a few of their pros and cons. It is especially intriguing how much the newest hypotheses share in common.
Let’s begin with some of the older interpretations.
It was a miracle
That the Star of Bethlehem was a particular miraculous event is popular among religious conservatives, but not without its drawbacks. For one, it is a dead-end that cuts off any further consideration and is highly unsatisfying to anyone remotely curious about the matter. It also raises more questions than it answers. Who were the Magi, and if no one else saw it, why them in particular? Why did they embark on their journey? Now, one can postulate answers to these questions, but the more hypotheses that must be invoked, the more it seems like a “just so” explanation that explains nothing.
It was a comet
Several astronomical phenomena could cause an unusually bright light in the sky, including planetary conjunctions, supernovae, or comets. We can know for sure there were planetary conjunctions during the time in question. There are many historical records of supernovae, but not from the time period in consideration.
The possibility of a comet has been in play for centuries; indeed, many ancient portrayals in art portray a comet. In 1991, Colin Humphreys proposed a particular comet mentioned in old Chinese astronomical records from 5 BC. More recently, Colin Nicholl, in “The Great Christ Comet,” lays out a case that if there were a comet in 6 BC that followed a particular orbital trajectory, it would appear in the right places to explain the apparent motion of the star recorded by Matthew.
It was an astrological event
Most Christians reflexively cringe at the suggestion anything good may come from astrology, but this is too simplistic when applied to ancient times. First, astronomy and astrology were not separate disciplines but a single package. Second, there is a profound difference between allowing that the skies may broadcast information versus actually controlling fate. Indeed, God declared in Genesis 1:14, “let them serve as signs,” and that motif recurs throughout scripture. Rick Larsen (below) does an excellent job of explaining and defending that approach (on his website, here).
The Gospel of Matthew tells of “Magi” who came from the east. Even in New Testament times, “magus” (plural magi) covered a wide range of meanings. It could refer to a practitioner of black magic, as in Simon the Magus. The same word also applied to astronomers/astrologers in general. It actually originated from an ancient Iranian (Persian) term for Zoroastrian priests, who would have been thoroughly schooled in astronomy/astrology.
Adding to the astrology problem, Christians often are suspicious that anyone outside of ancient Judaism may have worshipped the one true God, but this is neither historically nor biblically correct. God has imparted knowledge of Himself to all, so in the Old Testament we witness many instances of non-Israelites worshipping Him in truth (for example, Melchizedek, the humbled Nebuchadnezzar, the Ninevites after their repentance).
C. S. Lewis wisely noted that elements of truth not only could be but should be expected in other faith traditions. This is rooted in Biblical principles of natural law and general revelation. Historically, we know that the ancient Jews were resident in Persia under the reign of Cyrus and were well-treated. There’s a wide range of opinions on when Zoroaster, the author of Zoroastrian holy books, lived, but some versions place him in Persia precisely when the Jews were present. While many liberal scholars claim that Judaism borrowed from Zoroastrianism, it’s equally possible that Zoroastrianism emerged as a homegrown version of Judaism. The parallels between the two are sometimes striking. They could have been even more similar in the remote past because there’s a large span of time between the origination of Zoroastrianism and the earliest surviving texts.
So, it’s historically plausible that there were devout non-Jews remaining in the East who were both acquainted with Jewish Messianic prophecies and meticulous observers of the celestial sphere.
When we review the leading popular explanations for the Star of Bethlehem, one striking similarity is that all three assume ancient far-eastern astrologers who were looking for the birth of a great King or Messiah.
Let’s consider each in turn.
The Bethlehem Star – Rick Larsen
DVD: The Star of Bethlehem 2012
Rick Larsen is an attorney who developed a fascination with the subject and spent years studying it. This led to a series of international speaking engagements, and ultimately a very professionally produced DVD, though the presentation is available for free on YouTube.
Larson considers the primary astronomical event to be a triple conjunction of Jupiter (the kingly planet) with Regulus (the kingly star) during the years of 3 and 2 BC. He also discusses the significance of Revelation 12:1-5, describing the heavenly portents concerning the birth of a King. This could readily be interpreted as the Sun rising in the constellation Virgo (the Virgin) coinciding with a crescent moon and would have occurred in September of 3 BC.
The most significant drawback to Larsen’s position is that it requires dating the death of King Herod much later than the commonly accepted date of 4 BC. We shouldn’t claim it’s settled – there is some disagreement among scholars – but Larsen makes light of the problem, and his explanation of how it was caused by a copying error is simply wrong. The video was reviewed by Jeff Zweerink, an astronomer with Reasons to Believe, here and here.
The Star of Bethlehem: Michael Molnar
The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi by Michael R. Molnar, Rutgers University Press, 1999.
The Star of Bethlehem and the Magi: Interdisciplinary Perspectives from Experts on the Ancient Near East, the Greco-roman World, and Modern Astronomy, Proceedings of 2015 international symposium.
Probably the most significant contribution of the 20th century came from Michael Molnar, who wrote a series of articles in the ’90s culminating in his 1999 book on the subject. Piqued by his discovery of an ancient Roman coin from Antioch showing a star rising over Aries the Ram, Molnar began to research how the sky may have appeared to ancient eastern astrologers.
Molnar found that in 6 BC, the planet Jupiter passed over the constellation Aries (the Ram) early in the year, then went retrograde passing over Aries a second time, where it “stopped” before resuming its forward motion. This happened during a “heliacal rising” of Jupiter (first appearance at dawn, in the eastern sky) with the Sun and Moon in attendance. Saturn was also in the vicinity. Even more striking, the moon would have passed in front of Jupiter, blocking its appearance (a lunar occultation), which ancient astrologers would have considered highly significant. Bradley Schaefer, an astronomer at LSU, calculated the probability of all these events occurring together as less than once in 20,000 years. To ancient astrologers, this would have heralded the birth of a great King in the land of Judea.
One critical element to Molnar’s hypothesis is that Judea must be connected to Aries. He bases this on explicit references by Ptolemy supporting that association.
Molnar’s hypothesis has the advantage of requiring no modifications to the accepted historical timeline and no additional cosmic events beyond established planetary motions. One common criticism is that much of the action would not have been visible – it would have been whited out by the light of the sun. There’s solid evidence, however, that ancient astronomers were capable of doing the calculations. In fact, they did so in other instances. It could also explain why Herod’s court was caught unaware of what had taken place.
The Great Christ Comet: Colin Nicholl
The Great Christ Comet: Revealing the True Star of Bethlehem, Colin R. Nicholl, Crossway, 2015
The most recent contribution to this field comes from Colin Nicholl, a Cambridge-educated Ph.D. in Biblical Studies. Nicholl hypothesizes that the Star of Bethlehem was a comet, yet not one mentioned in any other historical records. More precisely, it was a “narrowly inclined, retrograde, long-period comet” that was bigger, brighter, and more astounding than any other comet in human history. His 300-page opus incorporates extensive Biblical scholarship, ancient source material, history, and astronomical modeling to suggest that a particular comet appeared over the constellation Virgo and, through its heavenly motions, symbolically enacted the earthly Messiah’s birth, drawing heavily (like Larsen) on the Revelation 5:1-5 passage.
He has developed a very specific, precise model of how such a comet could have communicated the message of Messiah’s birth to the magi, fulfilled Biblical prophecies, and moved through the sky in the directions recounted by Matthew.
The Great Christ Comet received positive reviews by many Christian scholars, including “skeptic turned believer” Guillermo Gonzalez, a Christian astronomer writing for the Gospel Coalition. Nicholl’s hypothesis has garnered support from many eminent scholars, including Walter Kaiser, J. P. Moreland, John Lennox, and even Sir Colin Humphreys (above).
Nicholl infers considerable detail from Biblical sources, often taking the most literal interpretation possible, though taking some liberties to keep the narrative consistent. At times he seems to overreach. Is it really possible, or necessary, to prescribe the orbital trajectory to four significant figures? How plausible is it that a comet would point to a specific house in Bethlehem? Nicholl illustrates a comet hovering over a solitary house on a ridge, but what if it was in the middle of a densely packed village?
So who is correct?
All of these researchers have done fantastic work, and in reading them, I admit I am totally unqualified to pick a winner in this competition. I’m an “Occam’s razor” sort of guy, so I lean toward the Molnar hypothesis because it requires the fewest assumptions and no revision to the historical timeline. Molnar has been at this a while, and it means something that he has survived over 20 years of challenges. His hypothesis would be difficult to falsify. Positive proof could occur if someone found ancient sources directly accounting for the actions of the Magi.
Nicholl’s Christ Comet is an impressive piece of scholarship that seems to perfectly fit all the Biblical references he invokes. But declaring the existence of a comet described nowhere else in ancient literature – especially the most fantastic comet in human history – is quite a stretch. It’s also unfalsifiable. Positive proof could emerge if some direct reference were ever found or if the comet ever actually returned – which would be theoretically possible. (I have yet to find a scholarly critique of Nicholl’s hypothesis, just a few hot takes from the usual torch-and-pitchfork brigade).
Larsen’s conjunction theory is somewhat less developed. Like Molnar, he does not require assuming a celestial body for which there is no other record. He could be falsified if the date of Herod’s death were established beyond any reasonable doubt to be earlier. He could be proved right if extant records emerged concerning the Magi.
It would help if we knew for certain why the court of Herod didn’t get the message. Did they not see it? (Molnar) Did they see but not understand it? (Larsen) Did they see and understand it, but didn’t know or remember when it first appeared? (Nicholl). The text is ambiguous.
What have we learned?
We live in a time of paradox. While the historical and archaeological evidence for the reliability of the New Testament has never been greater, skepticism is also increasing. The story of three wise men from the East bearing gifts to worship a newborn king has been dismissed by many as pure legend.
The scholarship of recent decades by such as Larsen, Molnar, and Nicholl serves to pull the Magi’s story back out of legend. Such a journey by such men as these would be consistent with eastern culture and science at the time of Jesus’s birth, and can be connected with either firmly established or highly plausible astronomical events that the Magi would have recognized.
O Star of wonder, star of night
Star with royal beauty bright
Westward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to thy Perfect Light