The Star of Bethlehem

A Supernatural Sign in the Heavens?

In the book of Matthew it is recorded that the birth of Jesus was accompanied by an extraordinary celestial event: a star led the magi (the “wise men”) to Jesus.

Matthew was one of the twelve apostles. He also wrote the first book of the New Testament. In that book, he recorded that the birth of Jesus was accompanied by an extraordinary celestial event: a star led the magi (the “wise men”) to Jesus. This star “went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was” (Matthew 2:9). What was this star? And how did it lead the magi to the Lord? There have been many speculations.

Common Explanations

Explanations for the event include a supernova, a comet, a massing of planets, a triple conjunction of Jupiter and Regulus (a bright star in the constellation Leo), or the astonishing conjunction of Jupiter and Venus on June 17, 2 BC. Although each of these events is truly spectacular and may have been fitting to announce the birth of the King of Kings, none of them seems to fully satisfy the details of the straightforward reading of Matthew 2. None of the above speculations fully explain how the star “went ahead of” the magi nor how it “stood over where the child was.” Indeed no known natural phenomenon would be able to stand over Bethlehem since all “natural” stars continually move due to the rotation of the earth.1 They appear to rise in the east and set in the west, or circle around the celestial poles. However, the Bible does not say that this star was a natural phenomenon.

Natural Law

Of course, God can use natural law to accomplish His will. In fact, a biblical definition of natural law is the way that God normally upholds the universe and accomplishes His will, but God is not bound by the laws He created; He may (and does on occasion) temporarily suspend those laws when He has an important reason to do so.

The Virgin Birth itself was a supernatural event; it cannot be explained within the context of known natural laws. And it should not be surprising that the birth of the Son of God would be accompanied by a supernatural sign in the heavens. The star that led the magi seems to be one of those incredible acts of God—specially designed and created for a unique purpose.2 Let us examine what this star did according to Matthew 2.

Purpose of the Star

First, the star alerted the magi to the birth of Christ, prompting them to make the long trek to Jerusalem. These magi were “from the East” according to verse 1; they are generally thought to be from Persia, which is east of Jerusalem. If so, they may have had some knowledge of the Scriptures since the prophet Daniel had also lived in that region centuries earlier. Perhaps the magi were expecting a new star to announce the birth of Christ from reading Numbers 24:17, which describes a star coming from Jacob and a King (“scepter”)3 from Israel.4

Ethereal or Physical

Curiously, the magi seem to have been the only ones who saw the star—or at least the only ones who understood its meaning. Israel’s King Herod had to ask the magi when the star had appeared (Matthew 2:7). If the magi alone saw the star, this further supports the notion that the star of Bethlehem was a supernatural manifestation from God rather than a common star, which would have been visible to all.

Clearing up Misconceptions

Contrary to what is commonly believed, the magi did not arrive at the manger on the night of Christ’s birth; rather, they found the young Jesus and His parents living in a house (Matthew 2:11). This could have been nearly two years after Christ’s birth, since Herod—afraid that his own position as king was threatened—tried to have Jesus eliminated by killing all male children under the age of two (Matthew 2:16).

It may be that the star first appeared over Bethlehem when the magi were in the East (Persia).5,6 From that distance, they would not have been able to distinguish the exact location but would certainly have known to head west. They went to Israel’s capital city Jerusalem, a likely place to begin their search for the King of the Jews.

It seems that the star may have disappeared by the time the magi reached Jerusalem but then reappeared when they began their (much shorter) journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, approximately 6 miles (10 km) away. This view is supported by the fact that first, the magi had to ask King Herod where the King of the Jews was born, which means the star wasn’t guiding them at that time (Matthew 2:2). And second, they rejoiced exceedingly when they saw the star (again) as they began their journey to Bethlehem (Matthew 2:10).

After the magi had met with Herod, the star went on before them to Bethlehem and stood over the location of Jesus. It seems to have led them to the very house that Jesus was in—not just the city. The magi already knew that Christ was in Bethlehem. This they had learned from Herod, who had learned it from the priests and scribes (Matthew 2:4–5, 8). For a normal star, it would be impossible to determine which house is directly beneath it. The star over Christ may have been relatively near the surface of earth (an “atmospheric” manifestation of God’s power) so that the magi could discern the precise location of the Child.

Whatever the exact mechanism, the fact that the star led the magi to Christ is evidence that the star was uniquely designed, made by God for a very special purpose. God can use extraordinary means for extraordinary purposes. Certainly the birth of our Lord was deserving of honor in the heavens. It is fitting that God used a celestial object to announce the birth of Christ since “the heavens declare the glory of God…” (Psalm 19:1).

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October – December 2006

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  1. The star that moves the least is the North Star because it is almost directly in line with the earth’s North Pole. However, this would not have been the case at the time of Christ’s birth due to a celestial phenomenon called “precession.”
  2. Although this star seems to break all the rules, it is perhaps even more amazing that essentially all the other stars do not. The fact that all the stars in our night sky obey orderly logical laws of nature is consistent with biblical creation. (For more information on the laws of nature, see God & Natural Law.)
  3. This verse makes use of synecdoche—the part represents the whole. In this case, the scepter represents a scepter-bearer, i.e., a king. This is clear from the synonymous parallelism (see the next note).
  4. This verse is written in a poetic way; it uses synonymous parallelism (star and scepter=Israel and Jacob).
  5. The position of the star when the magi first saw it is disputed. It could be that the star was in the eastward heavens when they first saw it, or it could be that the magi were “in the East” (i.e., Persia) when they saw the star. (The latter view is indicated by John Gill in his commentary). If it was the star that was in the East, why did the magi travel west? Recall that the Bible does not say that the star guided the magi to Jerusalem (though it may have); we only know for certain that it went before them to Bethlehem. It is possible that the star initially acted only as a sign, rather than as a guide. The magi may have headed to Jerusalem only because this would have seemed a logical place to begin their search for the King of the Jews.
  6. It is also possible that the star may have appeared in the western sky while the magi were in the East, giving them the direction to travel. Furthermore, the Greek words translated “in the East” can also be translated “at its rising.” So it could be that the magi saw the star at its rising. All ordinary stars rise in the East (due to earth’s rotation), but this was no ordinary star and may have risen in the West over Bethlehem, or Jerusalem (which from the distance of Persia would have been indistinguishable). Such a strange rising would certainly have distinguished this star as unique as it “rose out of Israel,” which fits nicely with Numbers 24:17.


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