There are many mysteries about the miracles that form the basis of Jesus Christ’s claim of divinity. Jesus is claimed to have healed the sick and raised the dead of the Roman province of Palestine during his short ministry. These miracles made him famous and inspired disciples to follow him but from a modern perspective, they are impossible to verify. The witnesses to these miracles are long dead. Even Lazarus and the others that Jesus restored to life eventually returned to the grave. However, there is one miracle associated with the life of Jesus that should be easy to verify because it was apparently visible from around the world.
The miracle of the Christmas star occurred at the time of Jesus’ birth and according to the Biblical account was visible to learned travelers from a distant land. Matthew tells us that the Magi saw a star that they recognized as symbolizing the birth of the king of the Jews and traveled to Jerusalem “after Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea” (Matt. 2:1). The star apparently appeared at the time of Jesus’ birth (2:7) and lasted months until the Magi could make their journey from a distant land. The problem for Christian believers is that other observers of the time don’t report significant astronomical events around the time of Jesus’ birth. The lack of reports would seem to rule out stars as well as nebulas and comets.
Beyond the lack of extrabiblical support for a stunning celestial display, there is another problem with the story of the Christmas star. There is a paradox in the Bible’s claim that the Magi could see the star from thousands of miles away while King Herod seemed ignorant of it only five miles away in Jerusalem. Any obviously bright star would be easily visible to anyone who looked up at night, yet Herod and his court were unaware of it.
Further, consider that stars typically seem to move when viewed from the earth’s surface. The location of stars is fixed in space, but the earth’s rotation makes them appear to move. A star that rises in the east would set in the west a few hours later yet the Bible says that the star “stopped over the place where the child was” (2:9). The typical depiction of the Christmas star as an immense, blindingly bright star hovering above the Bethlehem stable seems more and more unlikely.
The problems with identifying the star of Bethlehem seem insurmountable. The star was allegedly seen clearly from a great distance away but unobserved in and around Bethlehem. The meaning of the star was so obvious that the Magi left on an international trip yet other astronomers around the world missed it entirely. Stars normally move but this one was reportedly stationary. The problems are so difficult that many consider the Christmas star to be nothing more than a myth.
A clue to the answer can be found in the original Greek text of the New Testament. In his fascinating look at the historical foundations of the Bible, “The Bible As History,” Werner Keller pointed out that in verse two, the Greek word translated as “star” for thousands of years is actually plural rather than singular.
Keller offers a theory as to the identity of Matthew’s Christmas stars. For hundreds of years prior to the time of Christ, Jewish exiles had lived in Babylon. Babylon, located to the east of Palestine in present-day Iraq, was also the home of an advanced school of astronomy. Clay tablets discovered by archaeologists that date back to more than 400 years before the time of Christ detail calculations by which the Babylonians could predict the paths of the planets, which of course look like stars when viewed without a telescope.
Two planets in particular may have been of interest to the Magi. Jupiter, the king of the planets, was considered to be a royal star and was also associated with luck. The second largest planet, Saturn, was associated with Israel according to ancient Jewish traditions described by Tacitus, a famous Roman historian.
Keller describes how Jupiter and Saturn came together not once but twice in 7 BC. The first conjunction occurred on May 29 and was followed by a second on October 3. He writes that the journey from Babylon to Jerusalem would have taken about six weeks by camel caravan in Biblical times. It would have been unwise to undertake such a journey across Middle Eastern deserts at the beginning of summer but an October departure would have placed the Magi in Jerusalem in late November. This would place the birth of Jesus prior to the onset of winter in Palestine when shepherds would have still had their flocks in the fields (Luke 2:8).
Frederick Larson of BethlehemStar.com has a similar theory but arrived at a different date for the star’s appearance. Larson looked at the movements of the heavens and found an interesting occurrence over a period of months in the years 3 and 2 BC. At that time, Jupiter and Regulus, a star the Romans considered royal, entered a triple conjunction that would certainly have attracted the attention of Babylonian astrologers.
Larson also provides an answer for how the star could have stopped above the stable in Bethlehem. If the Magi were observing Jupiter from Jerusalem as it entered retrograde, the planet would have appeared to stop over the town of Bethlehem, five miles to their south. One of the dates that this could have occurred was December 25, 2 BC.
Regardless of which celestial event is the particular one observed by the Magi, the theory that the eastern travelers observed astrological signs that pointed them to the newborn Messiah is an idea that can overcome the difficulties inherent in a traditional reading of the Christmas story. The astrological event would have been visible to trained observers but would not have been apparent to King Herod or the people of Judea. The meaning of the signs would have been lost on other astronomers who were not aware of the association of various planets and stars with Israel and Judaism.
The search for the Christmas star has lessons for those who are seeking God. At the outset, it seemed that it was impossible that the account of the star could be more than a myth. The very idea seemed to make no sense and the problems presented by skeptics seemed insurmountable.
Upon closer inspection, however, when the original writings and understanding of the Bible’s writers were taken into account, it turns out that there is a rational explanation that can back up the story of Matthew’s Magi. As it was with the ancient Jews, who thought the Messiah would be a military leader who would overthrow the hated Romans, our problem with the Christmas star lies in our lack of understanding of what the Bible’s writers were trying to convey. When we put aside our preconceived ideas about what the star must have been, we find the answer was there all along.
The lesson of the Christmas star is that God answers those who seek him. While not all of the answers and explanations to Biblical questions are readily apparent, we do have enough answers to know that Christian faith can be based on verifiable facts and does not have to be a blind faith. The Bible’s accuracy is a launching point for the relationship with Christ that offers our only hope for conquering death.
That is the true meaning of Christmas.