The apostle Matthew records that the birth of Jesus was accompanied by an extraordinary celestial event: a star that led the magi1 (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.
The star mentioned in Matthew is not necessarily what we normally think of as a star. That is, it was not necessarily an enormous mass of hydrogen and helium gas powered by nuclear fusion. The Greek word translated star is aster (αστηρ), which is where we get the word astronomy. In the biblical conception of the word, a star is any luminous point of light in our night sky. This would certainly include our modern definition of a star, but it would also include the planets, supernovae, comets, or anything else that resembles a point of light. But which of these explanations best describes the Christmas star?
A supernova (an exploding star) fits the popular Christmas card conception of the star. When a star in our galaxy explodes, it shines very brightly for several months. These beautiful events are quite rare and outshine all the other stars in the galaxy. It seems fitting that such a spectacular event would announce the birth of the King of kings—the God-man who would outshine all others. However, a supernova does not fit the biblical text. The Christmas star must not have been so obvious, for it went unnoticed by Israel’s King Herod (Matthew 2:7). He had to ask the magi when the star had appeared, but everyone would have seen a bright supernova.
Nor could the Christmas star have been a bright comet. Like a supernova, everyone would have noticed a comet. Comets were often considered to be omens of change in the ancient world. Herod would not have needed to ask the magi when a comet had appeared. Moreover, neither a comet nor a supernova moves in such a way as to come and stand over a location on earth as the Christmas star did (Matthew 2:9). Perhaps the Christmas star was something more subtle: a sign that would amaze the magi but would not be noticed by Herod.
This leads us to the theory that the Christmas star was a conjunction of planets. A conjunction is when a planet passes closely by a star or by another planet. Such an event would have been very meaningful to the magi, who were knowledgeable of ancient astronomy, but would likely have gone unnoticed by others. There were several interesting conjunctions around the time of Christ’s birth. Two of these were triple conjunctions; this is when a planet passes a star (or another planet), then backs up, passes it again, then reverses direction and passes the star/planet a third time. Such events are quite rare.
Nonetheless, there was a triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn beginning in the year 7 B.C. Also, there was a triple conjunction of Jupiter and the bright star Regulus beginning in the year 3 B.C. Of course, we do not know the exact year of Christ’s birth, but both of these events are close to the estimated time. Advocates of such conjunction theories point out that the planets and stars involved had important religious significance in the ancient world. Jupiter was often considered the king of the gods, and Regulus was considered the “king star.” Did such a conjunction announce the birth of the King of kings? However, the Bible describes the Christmas star as a single star—not a conjunction of two or more stars. Neither of the above conjunctions was close enough to appear as a single star.
No known natural phenomenon would be able to stand over Bethlehem since all natural stars continually move due to the rotation of the earth.
But there was one (and only one) extraordinary conjunction around the time of Christ’s birth that could be called a “star.” In the year 2 B.C., Jupiter and Venus moved so close to each other that they briefly appeared to merge into a single bright star. Such an event is extremely rare and may have been perceived as highly significant to the magi. Although this event would have been really spectacular, it does not fully match the description of the Christmas star. A careful reading of the biblical text indicates that the magi saw the star on at least two occasions: when they arrived at Jerusalem (Matthew 2:2) and after meeting with Herod (Matthew 2:9). But the merging of Jupiter and Venus happened only once—on the evening of June 17.
Although each of the above 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.2 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.
Of course, God can use natural law to accomplish His will. In fact, the laws of nature are really just descriptions of the way that God normally upholds the universe and accomplishes His will. But God is not bound by natural law; He is free to act in other ways if He so chooses. The Bible records a number of occasions where God has acted in a seemingly unusual way to accomplish an extraordinary purpose.
The Virgin Birth itself was a supernatural event; it cannot be explained within the context of known natural laws. For that matter, God has previously used apparently supernatural signs in the heavens as a guide. In Exodus 13:21, we find that God guided the Israelites by a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. It should not be surprising that a supernatural sign in the heavens would accompany the birth of the Son of God. The star that led the magi seems to be one of those incredible acts of God—specially designed and created for a unique purpose.3 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”)4 from Israel.5
Curiously, the magi seem to have been the only ones who saw the star—or at least the only ones who understood its meaning. Recall that 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 Christmas star was a supernatural manifestation from God rather than a common star, which would have been visible to all. The fact that the magi referred to it as “His star” further supports the unique nature of the star.6
The position of the star when the magi first saw it is disputed. The Bible says that they “saw His star in the east” (Matthew 2:2). Does this mean that the star was in the eastward heavens when they first saw it, or does it mean that the magi were “in the East” (i.e., Persia) when they saw the star?7 If the star 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 on the journey from Jerusalem to the house of Christ. 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.
But there is another interesting possibility. The Greek phrase translated in the East (εν ανατολη) can also be translated at its rising. The expression can be used to refer to the east since all normal stars rise in the east (due to earth’s rotation). But the Christmas star may have been a supernatural exception—rising in the west over Bethlehem (which from the distance of Persia would have been indistinguishable from Jerusalem). The wise men would have recognized such a unique rising. Perhaps they took it as a sign that the prophecy of Numbers 24:17 was fulfilled since the star quite literally rose from Israel.
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 mother 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 seems that the star was not visible at the time the magi reached Jerusalem but then reappeared when they began their (much shorter) journey from Jerusalem to the Bethlehem region, 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 the Bethlehem region8 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 the Bethlehem region. 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 God uniquely designed the star 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).