Now that Christmas is over, I feel a little more comfortable playing the Grinch. I can safely inform you of the facts without fear of spoiling your Christmas.
Recently, the world got excited about the close conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. Granted, the conjunction was an amazing sight to behold, but it was falsely billed as the “Christmas star.”
In my experience, when it comes to evaluating the miracles and signs of the Bible, scientists are overly committed to naturalistic explanations and not committed enough to letting Scripture to speak for itself. Furthermore, theologians and Bible scholars are often too naively trusting of the claims of scientists to be able to evaluate them properly. As a result, Christians frequently settle for less-than-adequate interpretations of passages.
A great example of a miracle with naturalistic elements is the plague described in Judges 6. The description of the plague bears remarkable similarities to a couple of known diseases, like the bubonic plague. However, the timing and localization of the plague were too convenient to be a coincidence. Those aspects of the plague must have been miraculous. These conclusions can be easily drawn from the text without having to be forced onto the text.
On the other hand, some miracles defy naturalistic explanation of any kind. The resurrection of Jesus is the prime example of this. Jesus was decidedly dead. A short while later he was very much alive, and his body had been transformed into something greater. There is simply no naturalistic element to his resurrection. To impose any naturalistic element would do injury to Scripture.
So, when looking at the star of Matthew 2, we should be seeking to draw out an explanation of the star from the text. If that explanation yields some naturalistic elements, then so be it. We are not trying to search for a known astronomical phenomenon that we can shoehorn into the text.
To understand the star, we first need some idea of the magi. Matt. 2:1 says they are magi from the east. I have seen several different theories for who these magi might be. Perhaps they were people from the area of Persia or Babylon. These civilizations had a history of accomplished astrologers.
From the account, we would assume that they were familiar with the stars. Here our chronological snobbery can blind us. We have a tendency to think that our ancestors were stupid and ignorant. However, in previous generations, the average person was probably far more familiar with the stars in the heavens than the average person today.
A habitual stargazer like one of the magi would know the patterns of the stars, the way they travel nightly across the sky, the way they change throughout the seasons, and the way the planets would weave their way through the constellations.
Now the magi tell Herod that they have seen a “star.” Note that it is a singular star. Of course, we probably do not have the full text of their conversation with Herod, and the conversation has been recorded by the Gospel writer, who may not have been as knowledgeable about astronomy. However, we cannot really make arguments from silence either. All we have is the text itself. The text says “star.”
I am certain the ancients probably used the word “star” to refer to a whole variety of astronomical phenomena, just as we today still call meteors “shooting stars.” We should not apply our contemporary categories anachronistically to the magi. So the magi have seen some kind of glowing light in the sky, whatever the exact nature of the source of the light.
Notice they call the star “his star.” It is the star of the king of the Jews. This would seem to imply that the star is a unique phenomenon – something the magi had not seen before. It is doubtful it was simply a familiar planet in an interesting position in the sky.
A final thought from v. 2 is the oddity of the aorist tense of the verb “saw.” It is difficult to draw conclusions from the aorist tense in Greek, but it is very possible that the star is no longer visible in the night sky by the time that the magi visit Herod.
Just the above data makes a conjunction very unlikely. The magi would have seen a conjunction coming for weeks. In fact, they may have been able to predict it well ahead of time. They would have known it was more than one heavenly body. They would not have considered it to be a unique phenomenon. Furthermore, once they had determined the meaning of the phenomenon, they might have had plenty of time to make it to Jerusalem while it was still in the sky.
Another interesting implication of the text is that the Jerusalem court does not seem to be aware of the existence of the star. It is possible they were aware, but it does not appear to be so. There are a couple of possible explanations for this. One possibility is that the phenomenon was not visible in Jerusalem. If the magi lived some distance away, they would be looking at slightly different stars. I think a more likely explanation is that the star was visible, but not as prominent in the night sky as a planet or comet. In other words, the casual observer might not have noticed it, but the trained observer would.
The second set of data concerning the star comes from Matt. 2:9. Here we see that the star appears again. The experienced star-gazing magi identify this object as the same object they have seen before. It had previously gone away, but now it has once again appeared.
Then comes the really weird part. The star appeared to lead the magi to Bethlehem, and particularly leading them to the house where Jesus was.
The problem is this description defies comparison to any known celestial phenomenon. This has to do with the fact that the night sky rotates slowly from east to west over the course of a night. Bethlehem is roughly due south from Jerusalem. Any normal heavenly body would appear to lead the magi westward, not southward.
Furthermore, the star appears to stop above the very house inhabited by Jesus and his family. In other words, if the magi moved past the house, the star would appear to be behind them. No celestial object is like this at all. The distance between earth and any object in space is far too vast for a few minutes’ walk to make much difference in its apparent position in the sky. Every child knows this from the days of watching the moon “follow” them out the window of the car.
Therefore, when we collect all of the data from the account in Matthew 2, it is rather evident that the Christmas star does not correspond to any known celestial phenomenon. That leaves us with three options: (1) either we have to accept the text as is and acknowledge that the star is either a complete miracle or an unknown phenomenon miraculously timed and positioned, or (2) we have to say that the author and perhaps even the magi were stupid, ignorant buffoons who neither knew how to identify celestial phenomenon nor how to describe them accurately, or (3) the entire tale is a fabricated legend.
I personally cannot accept the second or third options, so I firmly hold to the first option. The true star of the king of the Jews was like nothing we have ever seen or identified. It is nothing like anything seen by astronomers or other scientists. As far as we know, it was a completely unique phenomenon appearing only upon the occasions described in Matthew 2. Perhaps one day we will discover something analogous. However, I think it unlikely. I think it is far more likely that this was a miraculous phenomenon.