The Christmas Star of the Magi: What Was It?

The Christmas star, or Star of Bethlehem, that drew the Magi, or Wise Men, to the birthplace of Jesus has long been debated. Was the star created just for that event? Was it a natural celestial occurrence? Did it really even happen? Recent advances in knowledge of the stars and planets have given us a new outlook on this topic. Here’s what modern astronomers are saying about this elusive star.

Unfortunately, songs, poems, paintings, and other sources of tradition have almost made a mockery of many truths of the Bible. Traditions have often embellished or even replaced the Holy Scriptures. Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in the story of the three wise men who followed a star to Jerusalem and ultimately to Bethlehem to find the newborn Jesus. I italicized those three words, because they are likely untrue and certainly are not in the Bible. Although the song says, “We three kings…,” The Bible simply uses a plural noun which only means there were more than one, but there could have been a a caravan of many. And, they were not likely kings, but rather magi, or astronomers/astrologers. Some translations call them wise men. They didn’t likely “follow” a star, but rather set out on their journey after observing a celestial phenomenon, probably a conjugation of the planets Venus and Jupiter. Finally, Jesus was not likely a “newborn,” but rather a toddler by the time they reached his birthplace. Therefore, those Christmas cards showing the baby Jesus in a barn under a star surrounded by shepherds, wise men, and animals are all messed up. Let’s look specifically at the star.

Most historians and biblical scholars believe these magi were from a legendary line of students and interpreters of the stars and planets. They lived in ancient Chaldea of which Babylon was the dominant city. This is now the general region of Iraq. The pre-first-century Magi would have been familiar with the prophesied Messiah being anticipated by the Jews. Many Jews remained in and around Babylon after Babylonia conquered Judah and took the entire nation captive 400 years prior. Also, Daniel of the Bible, a Jew, was appointed leader of the Babylonian Magi during the Jewish exile and, no doubt, taught them about the future Messiah and even the approximate time and location of His coming. So, the Magi also anticipated the Messiah, a king, knew his birth was imminent, and that He would be born in Judea.

The Magi would have been familiar with the fact that the planets Venus and Jupiter appeared to almost align with each other every year or so. These were and are the brightest objects in the night sky besides the moon and commanded major interest. In that day, Jupiter was known as the king of planets, and Venus was called the mother of planets. Astronomy software can now track the movement of planets infinitely back in time. Joe Rao, astronomer at the New York Hayden Planetarium, wrote that on August 12 of 3 BC, a Venus-Jupiter conjugation was prominent in the eastern sky of the Chaldea region. This brought each of the two planets virtually in line with each other to form the brightest light in the night sky. They were probably never more closely aligned than this particular year in history. It would have gotten the Magi’s attention. The Magi likely assumed this uniting of the “king” planet and the “mother” planet signaled the birth of the Messiah king. They didn’t need to “follow” the heavenly sign, knowing they would find the child in Judea. They journeyed to the Judea capital of Jerusalem.

Think about this. For this closest alignment in history of these two planets to have happened at precisely this time by natural movement of the planets, God had to have set up the exact movement sequence during the creation of the universe!

Once the Magi were in Jerusalem, Herod, king of Judea, heard they were looking for the future king of the Jews. Herod’s religious leaders shared that the Messiah was prophesied to be born in Bethlehem. When the magi headed to Bethlehem, the planet Jupiter was moving south in the night sky. According to computer analysis, this was about a year after the first sign. Jupiter moved into the constellation, Leo, which was considered a symbol of power. Planets occasionally appear to stop moving temporarily in what is termed “retrograde” as they seem to reverse course from earth’s perspective. This probably happened with Jupiter which is referenced in the Book of Matthew as having “stood over the place where the child was.” According to historical analyses of people and events during that time, most historians believe this visit by the Magi was a year or more after the actual birth of Jesus.

Of course, this is all theory, albeit highly researched theory and very plausible. All we know for absolutely certain is that prominent men from far away were alerted about Jesus’ birth by a star-like body in the sky. It prodded them to pay homage to the child that would usher in the greatest change in the history of mankind. He would have the most powerful impact on human destiny of anyone before or after His life on earth. He deserves at least the same level of attention from us that He got from the Magi. But, thankfully, you don’t have to travel for hundreds of miles and for weeks over desert and mountains to find Him. He is as near as your humble prayer, and the Bible is your Christmas star. How could God make it any easier to respond to Him?

By the way, the next conjugation of Venus and Jupiter will be visible in America on January 22, 2019, just a few weeks away. But, it won’t be as closely aligned as it was 2021 years ago.

I urge you to read Matthew, chapter two, and Luke, chapter two, this Christmas season. Do this not while following a sermon at church or on TV, but in private just between you and the Lord. Let Him speak to you through the magnificent story of His arrival that we celebrate this week. Merry Christmas!

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