Ruining Christmas


Full disclosure: the research in this chapter on the identity of the wise men’s star was carried out by Rick Larson. Watch his excellent presentation entitled “The Star of Bethlehem” or go to his website for much more detail and analysis than can be provided here. Seriously: the depth of scholarship that went into this is awesome, and there are lots of cool things I’ve left out!

This is a question that has puzzled Christians throughout history: what, exactly, was the famous Star of Bethlehem? Was it a miraculous, dazzling light placed in the sky by God, similar to what we see in pictures of the nativity on Christmas cards everywhere? Or was it some other astronomical phenomenon? A comet, a shooting star, a supernova, a conjunction of planets? Aliens? (Yes; according to the History Channel’s “Ancient Aliens” show, the answer is always “aliens”). Various explanations have been proposed over the years, but most fail a basic test: do they fit the clues and description of the star given in Matthew 2?

Track with me for a couple pages as we use Rick Larson’s astronomical research to settle on what I think is a pretty compelling argument for the Star of Bethlehem’s true identity. Yes, it’s going to ruin all your Christmas decorations, cards, and carols, but in the end we’ll see something pretty amazing about the divine plan behind the incarnation.

First, let’s examine the text itself to see seven clues as to the star’s identity. Just like any good scientific hypothesis, our guesses as to what the star is—if we’re on the right track—should try to line up with all seven clues.

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose in the east and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:

“And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.”

Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose in the east went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.

 The first clue about the star’s identity is the magi’s identity. As we saw in the previous chapter, the magi were astrologers from the eastern school of magi, which itself had been founded by Jewish exiles. This explains why the magi were interested in a Jewish king in the first place, but will also help guide our questions about the star. These men studied the skies for a living and interpreted their meaning. Something they saw there led them to Jerusalem. But what was it?

The second clue comes in what the magi said about the purpose of their visit. “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star.” Something about this star signified birth, kingship, and the Jewish nation. Think about that for a second; that’s an awful lot of information to discern from a twinkly star. It would have been quite a logical leap to see a bright, heavenly light in the sky and deduce, “There must be a new king born 500 miles away in Jerusalem!” And yet something about this celestial phenomenon gave them all that information, and caused them to pack their bags and make an arduous trip to see this newborn Jewish king.

The third clue lies in what the magi said about the star. “We saw his star when it rose in the east.” This star rose in the east just like most things in the night sky (due to the earth’s rotation). So that would seem to indicate that this star fit in to the natural order of things in the night sky. And if you know the geography of the Middle East, you might notice something else odd: they saw the star rise in the east, and then travelled west to Jerusalem. At this point, they weren’t yet following the star; they had just discerned what it meant and headed in the right direction.

The fourth clue is important and overlooked. When they arrived in Jerusalem and announced that they were here because a star signified the birth of a Jewish king, the whole city was surprised. Apparently, the meaning of this star was not obvious to everyone. The ordinary people in Jerusalem, when they heard about the wise men’s claim, were shocked. That means we can cross at least one potential explanation off our list: the star was not a flashing neon billboard saying, “The Messiah Has Been Born.”

The fifth clue is similar but even more important. Herod didn’t know when the star had first appeared. Did you notice that detail? He secretly summoned the wise men “and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared.” He didn’t know when this celestial phenomenon had begun. That’s an extremely important detail, because it discounts several of the more dramatic possibilities of the star’s identity. Think about it: if a dazzling heavenly light had appeared in the night sky one night, wouldn’t people have noticed? Especially in a time before artificial light and light pollution, when many people slept in the open air on their roofs, any spectacular light in the night sky would have been the talk of the town. But neither Herod nor the people in Jerusalem knew when the star had appeared. So as we assess our list of possible identities of the star, we can probably (with some sadness) cross off “star of wonder, star of night, star with royal beauty bright.” Such a magical Christmas star would not have gone unnoticed.

The sixth clue is a simple observation: whatever this star was, it endured over time. The magi saw it in Babylon, and months later when they arrived in Jerusalem, it was still there. So cross off “shooting stars” from our list.

The seventh clue is where this star gets weird. We’re told that when they left Jerusalem, the star “went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was.” The star that had risen in the east when they were in Babylon was now in the sky south of Jerusalem (Bethlehem is six miles south of Jerusalem), and then appeared to stop in the sky directly over the little town of Bethlehem. What in the world could do something like that— move across the sky, first in the east, then in the south, then stopping in the sky? (Maybe our “aliens hypothesis” is starting to look plausible).

So, to summarize, this is what we know about this star: it signified birth and kingship, and had a connection with the Jewish nation. It rose in the east like other stars. It appeared at a precise time, but Herod didn’t know when. It endured over time. It was ahead of the magi as they went south from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, and it stopped over Bethlehem. So, it seems that something in the night sky—something that perhaps appeared “normal” and went unnoticed until explained—pointed to the birth of a Jewish King and also moved through the sky. Based on these clues, we can rule out things like miraculous lights and comets—their appearance would have been obvious to everyone—and things like meteors or shooting stars, since they wouldn’t have lasted long enough. And none of those possibilities explain how this celestial event signified birth, kingship, and the Jewish nation. Is there anything in the night sky that could do this?

Yes. Remember, the magi studied astrology—the movement of planets and stars and constellations, and attributed significance to these heavenly signs. Different stars and planets and constellations had meanings. To magi studying the night sky, a particular constellation or planetary alignment could have profound significance. Thus, a particular assemblage of planets or constellations could have had a message that magi would discern but ordinary people wouldn’t—perhaps a message like, “A Jewish king has been born.” In addition, planets travel across the sky differently than stars; because of their own orbit around the sun, planets can appear to move forward, backward, up, and down, and even stop in one place. (In fact, our word “planet” comes from the Greek word planetes, meaning “wanderer;” they were called “wandering stars”). Therefore, a planet or series of planets could very well have satisfied all the clues in the story.

Keep tracking with me, because we’re not done yet. You may be disappointed to think that the magical Christmas star could have been nothing more than a planet doing its thing, but stick with me. This is where this theory starts getting cool, because thanks to modern astronomical science, and the fact that the solar system works like an elaborate, predictable clock, we can know exactly what the night skies on any given date in the past looked like. So we can actually test our theory. So let’s ask the question: did anything happen in the skies of the Middle East in 2 or 3 BC that we could look back and identify? As it turns out, yes.

In fact, there were a series of remarkable planetary alignments that began in September of 3 BC. Magi viewing the sky from Babylon at the beginning of the Jewish New Year would have seen Jupiter, the king planet, appearing to collide with Regulus, the king star. To astrologers, the king planet intersecting with the king star would herald the coming of a king. But this happens every twelve years (although this one in 3 BC was particularly impressive), so this conjunction alone wouldn’t have been enough to send the magi to Jerusalem.

But in the weeks that followed Jupiter’s pass by Regulus, the magi would have been astounded at what happened next. Jupiter, which as a planet follows its own unpredictable course through the night sky, appeared to reverse course and went back to intersect with Regulus a second time. Then, it changed direction again, and intersected with Regulus a third time. A triple conjunction of the king planet and the king star—this was something no magi had ever seen before. Truly, a great king must be coming.

But there’s more. This triple conjunction of the king planet and the king star took place in the constellation of Leo, the Lion. The Lion is a symbol associated with the Jewish nation, and the tribe of Judah in particular (see Genesis 49:9-10). Particularly if these magi were interested in all things Jewish, the triple kingly conjunction in the constellation Leo would have shouted to them, “Jewish king!”

But there’s even more. As Jupiter was beginning its conjunction with Regulus, another constellation rose alongside Leo: Vigo, the virgin. As the star and planet made their first pass by each other in the constellation of the Lion and the Virgin, a new moon was in front of them, and the sun began to rise.

Now consider a mysterious vision of John in Revelation 12, describing great signs in the heavens that, in his prophecy, corresponded to the birth of Christ: “And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” This is exactly the sight that the magi saw in the skies above Babylon in September of 3 BC, an incredible clustering of symbolism unlike anything they had ever seen. Could it be that John’s vision in Revelation is a reference to the symbolism in the night sky heralding the coming King?

And there’s even more. What if these signs appeared in the skies, not at the time of Jesus’ birth, but at the time of his conception? Was anything else visible in the skies nine months later? Yes. Nine months later, Jupiter had finished its third pass over Regulus and was heading through the constellation Virgo towards an even greater conjunction. Nine months after its first encounter with the King Star, the King Planet intersected with Venus, the brightest planet, for the most spectacular conjunction that anyone alive had ever seen. The combined brightness of Jupiter and Venus would have been the brightest star anyone had ever witnessed. And this conjunction occurred as Jupiter and Venus were setting in the west, towards Jerusalem. At this sight, the wise men, who had probably been anticipating a royal birth ever since the conjunctions nine months previous, probably immediately packed their bags and set out for Jerusalem.

And it continues to get even better. Several months later, when they arrived in Jerusalem and were told the king would be born in Bethlehem, the Magi tracking Jupiter’s motions through the sky would have been flabbergasted to look to the south toward Bethlehem and see Jupiter there, stopped in its tracks and just starting to shift backwards into what astronomers call “retrograde motion”… directly over the town of Bethlehem. After everything these astrologers had seen over the past year, after hearing ancient prophecies and seeing how they lined up exactly with Jupiter’s motions, no wonder the text says that the wise men “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.”

So what does this all mean for us? Well, for one, we can have great confidence in the Bible’s telling of the story. Incredibly, every single detail has been confirmed by astronomy, down to the dates of Jesus’ conception and birth (sorry, he wasn’t born on December 25th; both the evidence of the star and other details like the shepherds’ presence in the fields indicates late springtime).

But consider something else incredible that this starry dance of planets and constellations tells us. The solar system, orbit of planets, and celestial march of constellations and stars is ordered like clockwork. Planets orbit the sun at such precise velocities that we can predict exactly what the starry sky will look like tomorrow, or a thousand years from now… or two thousand years ago when Jesus was born. The constellations and conjunctions that the magi saw weren’t something placed in the sky at the time of Jesus’ birth; they had been there since the very beginning when God wound up the universe like a clock, flung out the stars, and set the solar system spinning. And that means that from the very moment when God set up the universe, he had this date planned. From the moment he created them, he knew these signs would line up in the skies on this specific date. The announcement of the incarnation was built into the clockwork of the solar system itself; Christmas was planned before Adam ever fell. The Savior’s rescue mission was planned down the date from the very construction of the universe.

It brings new meaning to the words of Galatians 4:4—“When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law.” The fullness of time, written in the stars, planned from eternity, Christmas set into motion at creation itself.