What was the Star of Bethlehem?
THE STAR OF BETHLEHEM
In this past Sunday’s sermon, we were studying Matthew chapter 2 where we encountered the famous Star of Bethlehem. I discussed some of the astronomical work done by scholars who maintain on scientific grounds that this biblical account is backed up by cosmological data. In this post, I wanted to give you some of the science behind this account. I want to put in your hands a scholarly article and some videos that illustrate how scientists and researchers have dealt with the phenomena described in Matthew 2.
As I explained on Sunday, the Star of Bethlehem can be explained in two approaches:
(1) Supernatural phenomenon
(2) Historical astronomical phenomenon
The first option, that is, the supernatural phenomenon approach maintains that either the Star was an angel, guiding them or an actual star God created and guided. Angels are referred to as stars in the Bible. They often appear as guides and even protectors of the Promised Land, so it would make sense. There is an old text called the Gospel of the Infancy written in Arabic which viewed the star as an angel “in the form of that star.” Another possible explanation in this supernatural approach is to say that the star was a supernatural star as opposed to being an angel. The star was a special star God created for this special occasion. An example of this view is expressed by Dr. Vernon McGee who wrote:
“I think they must have traveled a long time without seeing the star. That ought to answer the nonsense one hears today about there being a confluence of certain stars that happened at one particular time. Matthew makes it clear that this star was a very unusual star; in fact, it was a supernatural star. It was miraculous, and we needn’t try to find an explanation for it. Now, it may be, as many astronomers think, that there was quite a movement in the heavens at that time. When He came, heaven and earth both responded to His coming into this world. I think such things did take place, but the wise men saw a supernatural star.” (Vernon McGee, Thru the Bible Commentary, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997), Mt 2:10).
So, some say the star was a special star created by God for this occasion and some say it was an angel or supernatural being that guided the Magi to Jesus and declared His birth in the cosmos.
Let’s now consider the second approach, which is a bit different, that is, the historical astronomical phenomenon approach. This approach is mostly driven by those educated in science or interested in astronomical research, whereas the latter view tends to be held by those educated in biblical disciplines. In this second approach, scientific interpreters have taken Matthew 2 very literally and have looked into the scientific data to find an actual event in the cosmos that matches what Matthew 2 describes.
There are many possible events for this approach. Scientists interested in this text, have found evidence of several key astronomical phenomenon this could be: ranging from comets and supernovas to a conjunction of planets. We can date Jesus’ birth between 12 and 2 BC (That Jesus was born B.C. is due to a calendar miscalculation centuries later), so within that time frame and juggling other historical markers, scientists and researchers have pinpointed some very fascinating discoveries. For example, Halley’s Comet was visible in 12 and 11 b.c. and after that there are several other more likely candidates. I mentioned on Sunday the work of the great astronomer Johannes Kepler who placed it to a particular cosmological conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn in 7BC that would fit the description of the star of Bethlehem. I also cited astronomer David Hughes who arrived at a 7BC date (May 27 to be exact). I shared with you about Mark Thompson, a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society who argues on scientific grounds that the Star of Bethlehem was a historic conjunction in between September 3BC and May 2BC. And I shared about the work of John Mosley (of the Griffith Observatory) and also Colin Humphreys who—I think—best accounts for the star, it’s irregular movements and dating. With that said, my own personal view of all this phenomenon that it is both supernatural and natural. I think there were certain cosmological events that were accompanied by certain supernatural phenomenon like the presence of angels. The imagery in Matthew is reminiscent of the shechinah theophanies in the Old Testament, for example the bright pillar of fire that led Israel out of exile. Similarly, Matthew depicts a bright light guiding the Magi into the promised land, where spiritual exile is ended by the gospel.
Since all of this is very exciting to study, I wanted to pass on some resources for you to enjoy. So here’s that article and those videos I mentioned….
This article is written by Professor Sir Colin John Humphreys who is a British physicist. Dr. Humphreys earned his Master’s degree from Oxford University and his PhD from Cambridge University. He is the former Goldsmiths’ Professor of Materials Science and a current Director of Research at Cambridge University, Professor of Experimental Physics at the Royal Institution in London and a Fellow of Selwyn College, Cambridge. In addition to his scientific work, Dr. Humphreys is interested in researching biblical fields. His work on the Star of Bethlehem is a good example of his interdisciplinary research on science and Scripture.
SEE BELOW FOR AN INTERESTING VIDEO SERIES ON THE STAR OF BETHLEHEM.
This video series offers a similar explanation to the scientific phenomenon of Matthew 2 as the one offered by Dr. Humphreys. The researcher in this video draws some different conclusions, but it is very thoughtful and informative. Keep in mind there are various explanations for the scientific data and this post is just to introduce you to a few options and in my sermon I gave you some more, but for now, I just wanted to share some resources for you to study and enjoy.
THE REAL STAR OF BETHLEHEM (Part 1)
THE REAL STAR OF BETHLEHEM (Part 2)
THE REAL STAR OF BETHLEHEM (Part 3)
THE REAL STAR OF BETHLEHEM (Part 4)
THE REAL STAR OF BETHLEHEM (Part 5)
THE REAL STAR OF BETHLEHEM (Part 6)
THE REAL STAR OF BETHLEHEM (Part 7)
I hope you guys enjoyed these resources and above all please don't lose focus of the main point of the passage in Matthew 2. It's not about astronomy. It's about Christology and soteriology. Jesus is the savior who came to save sinners. There is a tendency for people to get excited about apologetic astronomy, which is cool stuff, but nothing is cooler than the grace of God that saves us! The incarnation is absolutely amazing and so while we enjoy studying other things, we always keep that central in our thinking and in our lives as we joyfully carry the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.