The Star of Bethlehem
An ingredient which has, for centuries, caused no small stir among Christian and non-Christian alike is the miraculous appearance of a star that directed the three wise men to the Christ child. Of all the factors in this hallowed story, the star would probably be considered as the foremost factor outstanding. The record of Matthew gives the report of what the wise men saw when they inquired of the Christ child’s whereabouts. “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east, and have come to worship Him.” (Matt 2:2, NAS) From the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia we learn that in the year 1572 a new star appeared in the constellation Cassiopeia. At its brightest it outshone Venus and was visible in the daylight, and though it gradually declined in splendor it was not lost to sight until after 16 months. There have been other instances of outbursts of short-lived bright stars, and in the annals of the years 1265 and 952 some brief notices have been found which may have referred to objects of this class, but more probably described comets. The guess was then hazarded that these three events might all refer to the same object; that the star in Cassiopeia might be a “variable” star, bursting into brilliancy about every 350 years or so.
After a studied argument the conclusion is that there is no reason to suppose that the star of 1572 had ever appeared before that date or will ever appear again. The study brings its writers to be perfectly sure that it could not have been the star of Bethlehem, for Cassiopeia is a northern constellation, and the wise men in their journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem had Cassiopeia and all her stars behind their back.
The appearance of an unexpected star was recorded by Roman scholars as an omen of a remarkable event. They record the appearances of stars and comets in relationship to the birth or death of a number of important historical characters. Some argue that the Magi of the Christmas story believed the Christmas star to be the sign of the birth of a long-expected Prince. Barnes informs us that it is possible that they had been led to this belief by the prophecy of Balaam (Num. 24:17), “There shall come a star out of Jacob.”
There is no direct evidence of scripture as to what this star exactly was. Barnes also believes that the phenomenon was the same “glory of the Lord” that “shone round about” the shepherds in Lk 2:9. He purports that the light might have been visible from afar, and might have been seen by the wise men in the East.
A matter of some interest, which has been respectfully held throughout the centuries, is a legend reportedly still current in Palestine. It is of an actual star which was believed to have been observed by the Magi. The well in the legend is shown to tourists today as the well in which the wise men saw the star the second time in the form of a reflection.
It is said that when they had reached Bethlehem, apparently nearly at mid-day, one of them went to the well of the inn in order to draw water. Looking down into the well he saw the star reflected from the surface of the water and knew that it must be directly overhead. Its re-observation under such unusual circumstances would be a sufficient assurance to the Magi that they had reached the right place, and inquiry in the inn would soon inform them of the visit of the shepherds, and of the angelic message which had told them where to find the babe.
If we may accept this legend we may take the star as having been what astronomers know as a “new” or “temporary” star, like that of 1572. When the Magi first saw it, and in consequence set out upon their journey, it may have been an evening star and thus, being seen only in the west shortly after sunset, it would appear, evening after evening, to point them their way to Judaea. As they journeyed in that direction it probably faded as temporary stars in general quickly do. At the same time it would have drawn nearer and nearer to the sun, until it was lost in its rays by the time they reached Jerusalem, when they would seem to have lost sight of it altogether. Having thus lost it, they would naturally not expect to see it again until it had drawn away from the sun on the other side, and been detected as a morning star in the east before sunrise; they would not expect to discover it in the daytime. (Information taken from ISBE)
It would have been nice if just one more scripture could have been included which would have solved all our conjectures about the much debated star. As some have noted, that scripture was probably not included in the scriptural narrative so that the importance of the star would not exceed its intention. The star was not given as the great focal point of the story but rather it was given as a guide in helping to find Him who is THE Focal Point. One has commented that the Scriptures were not written to instruct us in astronomy, or in any of the physical sciences, but that we might have life eternal through Christ our Lord (Jn 17:3).
(This is the second of four excerpts from Marty’s article “Wisemen, A Star and Somebody’s Daughter“ which was published in SEEC Magazine [Marty and Kathy’s ministry magazine].)