Dr. Hugh Ross earned a BS in physics from the University of British Columbia
and an MS and PhD in astronomy from the University of Toronto.? For several
years he continued his research on quasars and galaxies as a post-doctoral fellow
at the California Institute of Technology
For centuries scholars and laymen alike have speculated on the nature of the
star that led the wisemen from the east to seek out the Messiah that had come
to the Jews. The only reliable account of this event is found in Matthew 2 of
the Bible. Three controversial questions arise out of a study of this text:
Were the wisemen led by astrology?
Some people have used the story of the advent of Jesus Christ, specifically
the Matthew 2 portion, to suggest that astrology might be okay, at least sometimes,
since it led the wisemen to the Christ child. Or did it? Let us take a look
at the passage.
In some English translations, notably the New English, the Living, and the Phillips,
the Greek word MAGOS is rendered "astrologers." While MAGOS can mean astrologer,
a study of Thayer’s Greek lexicon (similar to a dictionary) shows that the word
derives from Babylonian origin and means "oriental scientist, wiseman, astrologer,
or seer." That Babylonian word would have been used to describe Daniel and his
friends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who served as wisemen/advisors in the
royal court of Babylon, with Daniel in charge of them all (Daniel 2:48). Daniel retained
that position of authority even after the Persian conquest.
Consider this: there is one passage, and only one, in the whole of the Bible
that foretells the time of the Messiah’s coming (his first coming, that is).
The passage is Daniel 9:24-26. Daniel received and recorded this prophetic revelation
while serving in the Persian court. Given Daniel’s boldness to speak about his
God, we can safely guess that the sages of Persia heard about it. Notice, however,
that Daniel received no other details on the subject. This fact fits the picture
we see in Matthew 2: "Magi from the east came to Jerusalem" knowing the identity
of the one whom they sought, and the time of his arrival, but not much about
the place. And God used a spectacular stellar event to get their attention and
to get them moving.
Can we conclude that the Magi were astrologers? It seems more likely that they
were part of the legacy of Daniel and his three friends-though trained in all
the "wisdom of the East," responsive and submitted to the one true God.
What was the Christmas star?
The first thing that needs to be said is that the Greek word ASTER in Matthew
2:2-10 is a much more general term than our English word star. It can refer
to any kind of heavenly body?a star, a planet, an asteroid, a comet, or a meteor.
The three most widely accepted explanations for the star of the magi identify it
as 1) a conjunction of planets, 2) a comet, or 3) a supernova. More imaginative
suggestions include flying saucers, Satan (as an angel of light), and the Shekinah
Athough we see ASTER used in Revelation 1 as a symbol for a personal messenger,
there is nothing in the Matthew 2 passage to indicate a symbolic or metaphoric
usage. So, we will assume that ASTER refers to an astronomical object or phenomenon.
The problem with the supernova explanation is that supernovae are so spectacular that
nearly all observers would have noticed such an event and recorded it; yet it
receives no mention anywhere but in the Bible. The Jewish leaders certainly
seemed oblivious to the "star."
Comets, too, are unsuitable candidates, for they are so common as to warrant
no special response from the magi. Further, comets are so well documented through
history that if one did occur, especially an unusual one, at the time of Christ’s
coming, it would show up in the records.
Neither do we find any noteworthy conjunction of planets occurring at that time.
Besides, the Matthew text specifically describes one star, and even in the case
of a close conjunction (none at that time were any closer than the diameter
of the moon) the eye can detect a number of bright objects.
What possibilities are left? One that seems plausible is a phenomenon called
a recurring nova. An easily visible nova (a star that suddenly increases in
brightness and then within a few months or years grows dim) occurs about once
every decade. Novae are sufficiently uncommon to catch the attention of observers
as alert and well trained as the magi must have been. However, many novae are
also sufficiently unspectacular as to escape the attention of others.
Most novae experience only a single explosion. But a tiny fraction have the
capacity to undergo multiple explosions separated by months or years. This repeat
occurrence seems necessary, for the Matthew text indicates that the star appeared,
disappeared, and then reappeared and disappeared sometime later.
Let me emphasize that my suggestion represents a possibility only. Matthew provides
the only record of this star, and what he records does not give us sufficient
information to make a definitive conclusion.
How did the star guide the wisemen to the place where the child was?
The King James translation of the Bible (Matthew 2:9-10) states that upon leaving
Jerusalem the wisemen saw again the star they had seen in the east, and "lo,
the star went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child
was." This wording has led many to conclude that the Christmas star actually
was some kind of beam of light pointing out the pathway to the dwelling where
Jesus and His parents were staying; or, that the star was moving relative to
the route from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to the house of Joseph and Mary. No known
astronomical phenomenon could do either of these. This is one reason for the
suggestion that the Christmas star must be a manifestation of God’s Shekinah
Other Bible translations, like the New International Version, say that the star
"went ahead of them (the wisemen) until it stopped over the place where the
child was." This suggests that the star simply may have become visible again
as the wisemen approached Bethlehem and faded from visibility when they came to the
house where the child Jesus lived.
So, how did the star actually guide the wisemen to Jesus? The literal Greek
reads, "Behold the star, which they saw in the east, went before them until
coming it stood over where was the child." The key word in this phrase is the
Greek word HISTEMI. It means "to cause or make to stand; to appoint, place, put,
or set; to make firm, fix, or establish; to cause something or someone to keep
its place; or to sustain something." Hence, the text is not specific enough
to distinguish between a guiding along a geographical route and a supernaturally
timed reappearance and disappearance. Evidence in favor of the latter, however,
is that the star in its first appearance did not geographically guide the wisemen.
Only one text in the Bible describes the visit of the wisemen to the child Jesus.
The information given here is not sufficiently detailed to unequivocally identify
the wisemen and the nature of the star that led them in their search for the
Messiah. However, the recurring nova hypothesis is perhaps the most reasonable one
for the star and eastern scholars, familiar and submitted to the teachin
Daniel, the most reasonable explanation for the wisemen. Certainly, this interpretation
is consistent with all the facts presented.
What strikes me most about the passage is the hope the magi placed in the coming
Messiah. Consider their sacrifice of time, energy, and treasures in seeking
Him out for the sake of bowing in worship to Him. I pray that my response and
yours would match theirs.