A star! A star, dancing in the night,
With a tail as big as a kite;
With a tail as big as a kite.
You’ve probably heard that song many times. It might even be stuck in your head now that I’ve brought it up; but was it? What did those Magi see? Why did they think—or how did they know—that thing in the sky was connected to the Savior’s birth?
These are great questions for which we can only provide partial answers because, in the end, God didn’t tell us precisely what it was. Over the centuries, people have postulated some pretty interesting ideas.
Here are some of them:
Probably what the song is referring to because comets have tails. In fact, comets with big tails are depicted in most of the oldest “Bethlehem Star” images.
Difficulty: Comets orbit the Sun in precise predicable patterns (Halley’s). Thus far, no comet has returned that would have been in the sky at the time of Christ’s birth.
Author Michael Molnar, in his book The Star of Bethlehem—The Legacy of the Magi, theorizes that the Magi were reading horoscopes and were able to foresee that Christ would be born. Molnar has them traveling to Israel in anticipation of His birth.
Difficulty: God expressly forbids the practice of astrology among His people. It seems inconsistent to announce the Savior’s arrival in a way He has declared to be sinful.
Constellation & Conjunction
On the fourth day of creation, God made things in space to “be for signs and seasons and days and years” (Genesis 1:14). Constellations are “dot-to-dots” in the sky with stories associated with those pictures. A conjunction is when, from earth’s perspective, one planet is lined up in front of or very near another planet or star, their separate lights merging to form one greater light. The constellation & conjunction theory is conjunction occurred inside of a significant constellation.
Difficulty: Constellations are unique to cultures. We’ve been taught to see a big dipper, the Greeks saw a female bear, the Iroquois saw four different animals and a cooking pot in the same group of stars. This theory seems to necessitate that Persian and Jewish constellations be identical.
A nova, or supernova, is a star that is exploding, emitting incredibly bright light.
Difficulty: Neither Greek nor Chinese astronomers recorded a new nova in the sky anytime that could coincide with Christ’s birth. Both groups are renowned for the meticulous records they kept.
This is a fascinating theory put forward by our synod’s own Bill Overn, a member at Heritage Lutheran Church, Apple Valley, MN. Let me try to break this down into digestable points:
- First, Bill mentions a nova that appeared in the sky more than 100 years before Christ was born. Where most novae burn themselves out in days or weeks, this nova remained in the sky more than 100 years after Jesus’ birth. Noted in the records of both the Greek and Chinese astronomers, it was bright enough to be seen during the day and even became colloquially known as “The Day Star.”
- This nova appeared within a constellation which Middle Eastern cultures called “The Desire of Nations.” This constellation was a woman holding a baby boy in her arms.
- Because of the Babylonian captivity, Persian astronomers had ready access to the Old Testament. Among other verses, the following may have influenced the Magi:
- Balaam’s oracle concerning the Israelites. “I see Him, but not now; I behold Him, but not near: a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel” (Numbers 24:17 ESV).
- Isaiah’s prophecy concerning a virgin birth. “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14 ESV).
- Haggai’s prophecy. “For thus says the Lord of hosts: Yet once more, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land. And I will shake all nations, so that the treasures of all nations shall come in, and I will fill this house with glory, says the Lord of hosts” (Haggai 2:6–7 ESV). While the ESV gives us the translation “treasures,” the Hebrew word is singular: “treasure/desire/something dearly wanted.”
- With the “Day Star” in the “Desire of Nations” and with access to these Old Testament verses, the Magi may have believed it was time to go when, in 7 B.C., the planets Jupiter and Saturn passed in conjunction three times. This same conjunction occurred in 1526 B.C. and in 576 B.C. The historian Josephus says that the 1526 B.C. conjunction is partially why Pharaoh commanded all baby boys be killed, the time of Moses’ birth. King Cyrus of Persia was born in 576 B.C. It is certainly interesting that in both cases when this conjunction occurred, a son was born who freed the Hebrew people!
And of course, it could have been something completely unique to the sky, something that can’t be researched or explained because God made it specifically for that purpose.
Even though most of this article has spent its time on what the Star of Bethlehem might have been, what’s more important is Who those magi found when they finally did arrive in the city of David.
- Indeed this was the treasure of humanity, the desire of all nations.
- This was a child of a virgin woman, Emmanuel, in Him God had come to dwell with us in our flesh.
- But lest His humble appearance deceive you, know also that this is the promised King of Israel.
If these wise men had access to the verses above, then they also had access to Isaiah 53 and its verses about Him being laden with their sins and dying in their place. They could have read about the Prince of Peace in Isaiah 9, their names being engraved on His hands in Isaiah 49.
They could have known the entire story—their entire story: where they came from, what’s wrong with this world, and how determined God is that sin not define them and that death not be the final word.
“Could have” and “might have been.” On this side of eternity, we just cannot say exactly what they knew or what they saw. But isn’t it fun to take the truth we know, that God wants all people to be saved through His Son, and to imagine how He might have used comets, exploding stars, or conquering nations to accomplish His will. God bless us this Epiphany as He uses all things in our lives for the good of our salvation.
Reverend Tony Pittenger
Bethany Lutheran Church & School
Port Orchard, WA
For more research on the Bethlehem Star, visit this link from our own Bill Overn: