Article by Colin Nicholl, (original source here) who taught at the University of Cambridge and was a professor of New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary before devoting himself to biblical research. He is author of From Hope to Despair in Thessalonica and The Great Christ Comet.
Who doesn’t feel awe upon gazing upwards on a starry night? Which of us isn’t curious to discover what Pluto looks like or what it’s like on the surface of a comet? Who hasn’t marveled at a beautiful meteor streaking across the sky? Is there anyone who doesn’t feel a thrill when glaring at a gloriously bright and large supermoon? Maybe you’ve downloaded a star app to your cell phone to work out which stars and constellations are present in the dome of sky above and around you. Many of us love to watch Louie Giglio’s inspirational introductions to the indescribably magnificent sights of the universe, TV documentaries on the wonders of the cosmos, and YouTube videos from the International Space Station about the oddity of watching Earth from a ‘tin can’ in space. Astronomy is the ‘wow’ science.
As fascinating as the latest missions by NASA and the European Space Agency are, to the average person nothing in astronomy is more captivating than the Star of Bethlehem. Quite simply, the whole world is engrossed by the Star. It is central to cherished Christmas traditions from Bethlehem on the West Bank to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, from Mexico to the Ukraine, and from Poland to the Philippines. Millions flock to planetariums for special presentations in the weeks before Christmas to reflect on the Star, the greatest astronomical mystery of all. The Star features prominently in our Christmas celebrations—we sing carols to and about it; we perch it atop our Christmas trees; and we send Christmas cards embossed with it.
However, when it comes our perceptions of the Star, it is as though we view it through a deep and dark mist. Our thinking, heavily shaped by movie representations, television documentaries, planetarium presentations, Christmas decorations, and Yuletide carols, is inconsistent and confused. Have a look at recent Nativity movies or religiously themed Christmas cards in your local card shop and you’ll appreciate the truth of what I’m saying.
One factor that vies to influence our thoughts about the Star is the beloved Christmas carols that we sing so gustily. But can we trust what they say? Was the Star a new celestial body, ‘a stranger midst the orbs of light?’, that prompted the Magi to ask ‘What star is this?’ Is it true that the Star shone in the eastern sky with ‘beams so bright’ and ‘to the earth…gave great light’? Were ‘all the stars above…paling, all their luster slowly fading’ because of the Star’s ‘royal beauty bright’? Did its ‘light’ guide the Magi ‘from country far, …to follow the star wherever it went’, even as it was ‘westward leading, still proceeding’? And when the travellers arrived in Bethlehem, did the Star ‘both stop and stay right over the place where Jesus lay’?
Our most important source about the Star of Bethlehem is Matthew’s Gospel. There, in his Nativity account, we discover that the Star was first observed by the Magi over a year before Herod’s slaughter of Bethlehem’s infants. Many months after this first appearance, the Star had a ‘rising’ in the eastern sky that deeply impacted the Magi, revealing to them that someone special had been born, a king, indeed the Jewish Messiah, and commissioning them to travel hundreds of miles to honour him and present him with extravagant gifts. Then, within a couple of months of the Star’s rising (the duration of the Magi’s journey), the Star was in southern sky to usher the eastern astrologers to Bethlehem before standing over one particular house there, pinpointing it as the place where the Messiah was.
The early church father Ignatius, writing a few decades after Matthew, probably citing a first-century hymn, describes the Star: ‘A star shone in heaven with a brightness beyond all the stars; its light was indescribable, and its newness caused astonishment. And all the rest of the stars, together with the Sun and the Moon, formed a chorus to the star, yet its light far exceeded them all. And there was perplexity regarding from where this new entity came, so unlike anything else [in the heavens] was it.’
The quest for the historical Star
Wouldn’t it be amazing to know what the Star was? If we could identify the Star and discover what the Magi saw, it would enable us to get into their sandals, to feel their awe, and to think their thoughts after them. The discovery would surely fill us with joy, reinvigorate our worship, and transform our celebration of Christmas. Matthew would be vindicated against his critics. Jesus would be seen to have been authenticated as Messiah by God. The Bible’s claim that God created the heavens and is Lord over them would be even more compelling. It would have the potential to be an astonishing boost to Christian witness in this increasingly hostile, atheistic world. Can you imagine what moviemakers would be able to do with the revelation of the mystery of the Star of Bethlehem!? So exhilarating is this vision that you might have thought that Christian benefactors would be pouring their money into sponsorship of cutting-edge research to identify the Star decisively once and for all. Continue reading