Star of Wonder

by Richard H. Schneider,
(Guidepost Senior Staff Editor, December 1988)

The light that appeared on the night of Christ's birth-what was it?

A Guidepost editor surveys some fascinating theories.

Star of Wonder

"O star of wonder, star of night, Star with royal beauty bright..."

That refrain haunted me as I gazed up into the glittering night while walking home from church with my parents and brothers on a long-ago Christmas Eve. What was it really, that mysterious star of God? I wondered.

So have many others wondered. For of all the biblical records of Christ's birth, it is the star of Bethlehem that has especially piqued our interest, and the imaginations of poets, painters and composers.

Just what was this stellar body that guided "We Three Kings"? Through the years that question has continued to intrigue me. It has sent me to a variety of sources, including the Christmas star show at Chicago's Adler Planetarium, where I watched the projector turn the great dark dome into the sky over Bethlehem as it was seen 2,000 years ago.

As I studied books and theories, I learned that some theologians believe the star was a supernatural event, some consider the story purely symbolic, and others have searched for a natural event in the sky such as a supernova, (exploding star), or flaming comet. A number of scholars have suggested it was a conjunction, or lining up of several planets. The consensus; however, is that we probably may never know.

In recent years, several scholarly studies of the star have been made, and I've read them avidly. One, by the late Dr. Ernest L. Martin, a California Bible-historian, especially fascinated me: The Birth of Christ Recalculated*, which is based on modern discoveries in history, archaeology and astronomy. Of all the theories currently clustering around the Christmas star, I believe Martin's may be the most plausible.

*Dr. Ernest L. Martin wrote a book called, The Star of Bethlehem: The Star that Astonished the World. For more details on this book visit http://ad2004.com/prophecytruths/Articles/Yeshua/yeshuabirth5.html and for a multi-media presentation on these facts visit: http://ad2004.com/prophecytruths/Articles/Yeshua/xmas_star.swf

The story of the star starts with the only people known to have beheld it; Matthew's "wise men from the east" (Matthew 2:1). In the Gospel's original Greek, the word for wise men was magoi, or "magi." These, I learned were probably a group of Zoroastrian priests from Mesopotamia (today's Iraq) in the ancient Parthian Empire, hundreds of miles east of Jerusalem. Skilled astronomers, the magoi carefully studied the heavens from atop great terraced temples or ziggurats.

God warns us against using astrology, and the Jews of that day received His warnings in the Old Testament. However, the Parthian wise men often interpreted celestial events as omens. As religious scholars they would have known the Jewish prophecies of a coming "messiah king." A major Hebrew religious school already existed in their area. In fact, their own religion predicted a "great deliverer" not necessarily of their own faith.

We also know that the magoi were excellent scientists. I was impressed by their skill when I learned that a clay tablet from 7 B.C. found in Mesopotamia forecast accurately the movements of the planets for the following year. To the magoi, incidentally , "star" could mean almost any light in the sky, whether star, planet, comet or nova.

Today's astronomers, by using current data and computers, can depict accurately the position of a star or a planet centuries ago~! Thus, with the help of a planetarium projector, one can actually see what the sky looked like on any night of the year-any year!

Modern astronomers are certain that something remarkable took place in the Middle Easter sky beginning in the summer of 3 B.C. It was a most dramatic display, and the magoi, those expert watchers of the sky, would certainly have seen it.

What made my growing knowledge of "the star" all the more fascinating was learning that experts such as Dr. Martin believe that this unusual celestial event occurred right around the time of Jesus' birth, now generally considered to have been sometime in 3 or 2 B.C.

Just what was this momentous display that so captured the attention of the wise men? With mounting interest I read what they would have seen.

At dawn on August 12, 3 B.C. the magoi stood atop their ziggurats, watching raptly as the two shining planets, Jupiter and Venus rose in conjunction in the eastern sky. Conjunctions (which had a tremendous significance in their eyes) occur when celestial bodies line up so closely that, although they are actually millions of miles apart, they appear to us as single, superbright light. To the wise men, Jupiter signified kingship; Venus, birth and motherhood. In other words, the conjunction meant that somewhere a king was being born. But King of what people? The wise men had an answer: The conjunction occurred in the constellation of Leo-to the magoi the symbol of the Hebrew tribe of Judah.

But there was even more to come, I discovered.

Ten months later, in June of 2 B.C., it happened again. Once more Jupiter and Venus lined up, this time so close they blazed as a single, glorious light. But now they shone in the evening sky, in the west. To the astounded wise men, that was precisely the direction of Jerusalem, capital city of Hebrew kings.

Nor was that all. Between these two dazzling planetary displays, some other unique heavenly events took place. In September of 3 B.C. the excited wise men saw Jupiter rise to met Regulus, the bright star in the constellation Leo, and a symbol of rulership. To their wonder, this occurred twice more in February and May of 2 B.C. To the magoi, these three conjunctions, preceded and followed by the Jupiter/Venus conjunctions, could mean only one thing: the birth of a very powerful Jewish king.

And so they journeyed-over "field and fountain, moor and mountain" -on a months-long westward pilgrimage, anxious to find the new king and pay him homage. On the map, I eagerly followed their caravan's probable route north along the wide Euphrates river, then across to Antioch, down the Mediterranean highlands of Judea.

Finally they arrived at Herod's palace, asking to see the king's new son-"He that is born King of the Jews" (Matthew 2:2). But the surprised king had no son, and in a paranoid frenzy he called together his chief priests and scribes and "demanded of them where Christ should be born" (Matthew 2:4). They replied, "In Bethlehem of Judea" (Matthew 2:5).

So the wise men set out for the little town of Bethlehem, five miles south. As caravans would do, they probably started out at dawn-and were astonished to see the same blazing star that had first called them on their journey! For, as astronomical calculations show, in early September of 2 B.C. Jupiter and Venus again rose in conjunction, glowing brightly in the Bethlehem dawn. In my search, I read where some interpreters point to an appearance of Jupiter over Bethlehem on December 25, 2 B.C. But, I personally feel drawn to the Jupiter and Venus conjunction in September 2 B.C. because it was so strikingly similar to the conjunction that had launched the magoi's quest. Furthermore, Matthew 2:10 tells us that on beholding their old friend, the wise men "rejoiced with exceeding great joy." I could sense their excitement as they urged their camel caravan, clinking and clanking, onward to Bethlehem.

The magoi would probably have had little trouble finding the Holy Family in Bethlehem, for the dramatic events of Jesus' birth-angels appearing, astonished shepherds-would have been common local knowledge. And so the wise men from the east, lured westward by the heavens they were so skilled at observing, finally and triumphantly came to stand before Jesus Christ.

Though these current astronomical explanations of the star of the Magi seem convincing, I realize that we'll never know for sure. Were the extraordinary conjunctions of 3 and 2 B.C. just a coincidence? Or was a divine plan working through them?

This Christmas Eve as I look up through the cold clear night to God's glorious firmament, I know it will probably always be a mystery, this "star of wonder." Yet-although I, as a Christian, do not need material evidence to support my faith-I am sure of one thing, two thousand years ago, something wonderful in the heavens did indeed brighten the night sky over Bethlehem…

"O star of wonder, star of night,

Star with royal beauty bright;

Westward leading, still proceeding,

Guide us to Thy perfect light."

The Foundation for Biblical Research, Pasadena, California, first published this 1980.

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