By Dr. Hugh Ross
The star that appeared to the Magi, indicating the promised Messiah’s arrival and prompting a pilgrimage to Judea, has sparked much speculation.1 The Magi saw the same star reappear one to two years after its first appearance while on their short journey between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, following a consultation with King Herod and his court. This stellar event is recorded nowhere else in ancient literature—so it must have been just dramatic enough to catch the attention of the watchful Magi, but too subtle to warrant the notice of other astronomers and astrologers of that time.
The question is, what kind of celestial event or object fits the timing and description provided in Matthew?
As I noted in a previous article, it is best to hold explanations for the star of Bethlehem tentatively. Matthew 2 gives us few, albeit interesting, details. To complicate matters, the Greek word translated as “star” (aster) can indicate a number of different astronomical bodies, including a star,
planet, comet, asteroid, or meteor.2 Fortunately, recent discoveries published in Astronomy and Astrophysics and the Astrophysical Journal have shed new light on the possible explanations for the Christmas star.
Narrowing Down the Possibilities
Most Christmas star explanations claim the phenomenon was some kind of conjunction in which two celestial objects—two bright planets or a bright planet and the Moon or a bright planet and a bright star—appear close together in the sky. The problem is that the objects in a conjunction typically remain distinguishable as two distinct bodies, but, in Matthew 2, aster appears in the singular form. Of all the conjunctions that occurred within a five-year window of 5 BC (the date most favored by scholars for Christ’s birth), only in the conjunction of Venus and Jupiter (June 17, 2 BC) did the two objects draw close enough together to appear as a single object. However, this blending of the two into one lasted just an hour and was visible as a blended object only in the Americas and in southern and western Africa.3 Furthermore, this conjunction took place following the death of King Herod, which places it too late for the account of the Magi…
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