What was the star that guided the wise men to the infant Jesus?
By Don Ruhl
Was the Star of Jesus an Astronomical Event? On December 21, 2007, the Daily Courier (Grants Pass, Oregon, page 9B), carried an article, “Star of Bethlehem finally explained?” The subtitle said, “Astrophysicist thinks heavenly sign was unusual alignment of planets, sun and moon.”
Tom Coyne of the Associated Press wrote that Grant Mathews, a Notre Dame astrophysicist and cosmologist, has tried to explain the “Star of Bethlehem” by a combination of astronomical and historical research.
The article explained, “He began by posing three questions he would ask when trying to find the answer to any astronomical event: When did it occur? What were its characteristics? Did anyone else see it?”
Mathews believes, according to the Associated Press article, that, “The heavenly sign around the time of the birth of Jesus Christ was likely an unusual alignment of planets, the sun and the moon.”
What I find interesting is that, “Astronomers, theologians and historians for hundreds of years have been trying to determine exactly which star might have inspired the biblical writing.”
My question is: Why did the star have to be an astronomical event located millions of light years away in space? Could it have been something else, simply a point of light just over the ground? The Gospel According to Matthew gives clues that point to something other than a distant star or other astronomical event.
The Star of the King of the Jews
Matthew alone wrote of this extraordinary event,
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 have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. So they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet:
But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
Are not the least among the rulers of Judah;
For out of you shall come a Ruler
Who will shepherd My people Israel.”
Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also.” When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way (Matt 2.1–12).
Where did the wise men see the star? The wise men were in the East, and it seems that the star only appeared in the East. It was in the East, but for these men it was in a westerly direction. If it had been an astronomical event, people all over the Northern Hemisphere would have seen it. Yet, the star seemed designed to get the attention of these men. Right away we begin to conclude that this was a special star.
What did they believe it indicated? The star signified the birth of the King of the Jews. Heaven notified them through this star that the King had been born. They knew Him to be more than a regular human king, for they arrived to worship Him. Why would anyone from the East travel all the way to Jerusalem to welcome a new king, unless there was something different about this King?
Was there a prophecy that the King of the Jews would have a star, announcing His birth? From what I know of the Hebrew Scriptures, no prophecies made such a prediction. However, is it possible that God revealed prophecies to the people of the East mentioning this star, signifying the birth of His Son, but that those prophecies have not been recorded in the Bible? I believe it is possible and this passage surely points in that direction. We know that Bible writers wrote things that are not included in Scripture. One passage will suffice to make this point. In Colossians 4, Paul made reference to a letter from Laodicea, “Now when this epistle is read among you, see that it is read also in the church of the Laodiceans, and that you likewise read the epistle from Laodicea” (Col 4.16). It sounds as though Paul wrote the Laodicean letter, although it is not necessarily the case, but there was a letter written to the Laodiceans, which has not been preserved in Scripture.
Some believe Numbers 24.17 prophesied of this star,
“I see Him, but not now;
I behold Him, but not near;
A Star shall come out of Jacob;
A Scepter shall rise out of Israel,
And batter the brow of Moab,
And destroy all the sons of tumult.”
Jack P. Lewis commenting on Matthew 2.2, said this on whether Numbers 24.17 prophesied of the star,
It has also often been suspected that Balaam’s statement about the star to arise in Jacob (Num. 24:17), thought to be messianic, influenced this story. It was used by the Dead Sea community…by the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs…possibly is echoed in 2 Peter 1:19 and Revelation 22:16, and was later influential in the militant messianic revolt of Bar Kokhba (“son of a star”) in a.d. 132–135. It is significant, however, that though Matthew cited many Old Testament passages to support Gospel history, he did not cite this passage from Numbers. In his account the star is not the Messiah, but the herald of the coming of the Messiah (The Living Word Commentary: The Gospel According to Matthew, Part 1, pp. 44, 45).
The references in Second Peter and Revelation state that Jesus is the Morning Star, that is, He is like Venus, representing the beginning of a new day. Those passages do not refer to another star, signifying the birth of Christ.
They saw His star in the East, but it somehow pointed them to the land of Judea. How could an astronomical event do something like that? If you saw a star, the moon, or some other astronomical phenomenon, and it looked like it rested on one of our local mountains, what would happen if you went to the top of that mountain? The star will have “moved.” If you kept following it, what would happen? Same thing. If the star is light years away, it will never stand over a particular land, especially over a particular house, and freeze there for you to catch up to it.
Have you not as a child, or even as an adult, looked out the side window of a moving car at the night sky and noticed how the moon and the stars kept pace with your car? What happened when you looked out the windshield? The stars kept moving away from you.
According to Matthew 2.7, what did Herod determine from the wise men? He determined from them the time that the star appeared. If this had been a once-in-history glorious astronomical event, would not Herod have known the time that such happened? Would not all Jerusalem know of such a thing?
Also, this star appeared anywhere from a couple of months to two years prior to Jesus’ birth and it would have continued until the time Herod met with the wise men. It would take a couple of months for the men to travel to Jerusalem, depending upon from where they came. Some think they came from Persia, because of the Greek word used to refer to them, magoi, referring to a part of the Persian court, but they could have been from even further east, such as India, China, or some other nation.
Also, since Herod later killed all the males two years old and younger, that would indicate that much time had passed since the birth of Christ and the time the wise men showed up. Verse 11 shows that Jesus and His family had moved to a house by then, so He would no longer be in a manger. In other words, some time had passed, possibly as much as two years.
What happened in verse 9? When they departed from King Herod, they saw the same star again that they had seen in the East. The star went before them, because it moved and they were able to follow it. The star had evidently disappeared, otherwise, the wise men would not have asked Herod where the King of the Jews was. After consulting with him, the star reappeared.
Do you get the impression that the star shined night and day? For the wise men to make their journey from a far country and know that they were heading in the right direction and go to the very house where Jesus was, it would seem that the star would have appeared during the day also. However, it is possible to navigate from the stars of heaven, which shine only at night and using a compass continue in the right direction until the stars shine again the next night, just as ships do at sea.
After they left Herod, what did the star do? It continued to move, leading the wise men and then the star stood over where Jesus was. How can an astronomical event stand over a particular house? If it was an event light years away, the men could have walked over to the next house and it would look as though the star was over that house also.
Finally, verse 10 shows that when the men saw the star, they rejoiced mightily.
What does all this tell us about the star? It was not an astronomical event. It could not have been an alignment of more than one celestial body, because Matthew pictured it as a star, not stars.
It was not a natural phenomenon.
It was a special star that the Lord prepared for this event, even as He prepared a great fish that could swallow Jonah and prepared a plant that grew large enough in one day to give Jonah shade.
How high off the ground would a point of light have to be to identify a single house? Not light years away. Not even miles away. The distance had to be measured in feet! Think about it, and picture it in your mind! There could be a point of light, that looked like a star in its size and brightness, but which the wise men could tell was close by, different from all the stars of the heavens.