The Christmas Star is associated with the story of the wise men and the birth of Jesus as told in the book of Matthew, and is a prominent symbol around Christmastime. Christ's coming was foretold in Numbers 24:17, "There shall come a Star out of Jacob," and in Revelation 22:16 He is called "the bright and morning star."
The Birth of Jesus
Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, during the rule of King Herod. Wise men traveled to Jerusalem saying, "Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship Him." When Herod heard this he was greatly troubled, as was all of Jerusalem. He gathered all of his priests and scribes together and demanded they find where Christ would be born. And they said to him, "In Bethlehem of Judea."
Then Herod called his wise men and asked them what time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem to search for the child, telling them, "When ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also."
The wise men departed and followed the star in the east, following it to Bethlehem. They traveled until the star stood over the home of the young child, and then "rejoiced with exceeding joy."
They came into the manger and saw the child with Mary, his mother, and fell down and worshiped him. They opened their treasures to him, presenting him with gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And being warned by God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they parted into their own country another way.
When the three wise men had departed, the angle of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream saying, "Arise and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt." Joseph, Mary, and the young child fled to Egypt by night and remained there until the death of King Herod.
An angel again appeared in a dream to Joseph saying, "Arise and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel. For they are dead that sought the young child's life."
Joseph takes his family to Galilee, and settles in the town of Nazareth.
What was the Christmas Star?
Through the centuries there have been many discussions as to what the Christmas Star really was. Some conclude that it is only a myth. Others conclude that it is a verifiable historical event.
The Greek word, generally translated as 'star' (αστερα - astera/astra from which we get 'astronomy') can also mean planet, or could refer to other objects such as a comet.
Roman historian Cassius Dio observed a comet over Rome for several days in 12 BC. Since the actual date of Christ's birth is not known, He may have been born several years earlier than believed. At this date, Halley's Comet was slightly north of two stars, Castor and Pollux, which passed through the zenith over Bethlehem. Therefore, the comet would have been directly over Bethlehem as well.
Johannes Kepler was one of the greatest scientists of the Renaissance, and one of the first to note this phenomenon. His discovery of the laws of planetary motion was one of the foundation stones of the Scientific Revolution. Yet he saw no inconsistency between science and religion, and was eager to use his mathematical genius to determine the correct birth date of Jesus.
In the years 1604-1605, a supernova appeared in the constellation Ophiuchus. This generated considerable discussion in Europe. Kepler kept a detailed record of his observations on the star. In the preceding year, December 17, 1603, he had also witnessed a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn, with Mars moving into the vicinity soon after. This is known as the 'great conjunction' and occurs every 19.86 years. The supernova appeared in the vicinity of these planets.
Peak brightness equivalent to 5 billion Suns.
Source: NASA Hubble Site
Kepler calculated that a similar conjunction had occurred in the year 7 BC. On that occasion it had been a much more rare triple conjunction, one that only occurs every 793 years.
Modern calculations indicate that the planets appeared approximately twice the moon's diameter from each other in the sky, and therefore would not appear as one star. For this reason, Kepler made it quite clear in his writings that the Star of Bethlehem was most likely a new star, a supernova.
A supernova is an exploding star. For someone on Earth, it could have appeared nearly as bright as the moon, all concentrated in one point in the sky. This is bright enough to cast shadows at night, and to be visible in the daytime sky. Peak brightness for this kind of phenomena lasts for 7 to 14 days, with the star remaining visible for months.
The search for a scientific explanation for the star is ongoing. It may have been a supernova, or a miracle of its own. The Star of Bethlehem is something that may never be explained beyond what we are told in the Bible. The star is used to this day around Christmastime as a symbol of Christ's coming into our world.
Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.
Originally published November 29, 2020
Matthew 2, 1–12 by St. Matthew
Stella Nova by Johannes Kepler
The Story of the Comets by George Frederick
The Historical Supernovae by David H. Clark and F. Richard Stephenson
Cambridge University Press
NASA Hubble Site