"...And look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where (Jesus) was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy."
(Matthew 2: 9-10, Common English Bible)
Just about every year at Christmastime, Nick Strobel can count on getting questions about the star that guided the magi.
Strobel is the planetarium director and a physical science professor at Bakersfield College in central California. As an astronomer and lifelong United Methodist, he has a certain affinity with the Bible's most famous stargazers.
"We both have a love of the night sky," said Strobel, a member of Wesley United Methodist Church in Bakersfield. "And, we search for a place or person where heaven and earth meet, and we both found that in the person of Jesus."
The biblical account of the magi does not quite match the typical church Christmas pageant image of three little boys in scratchy beards and lopsided crowns dropping gifts by the baby Jesus' manger.
The story of their visit, found only in the Gospel of Matthew, is typically read in worship not during the Christmas season, but on Epiphany, Jan. 6, or the first Sunday in January.
The second chapter of Matthew — the only Gospel where the wise men appear — does not specify their number or say they were kings. Most likely, they were sages and astrologers who visited the holy family in a house in Bethlehem after Jesus' birth. The number three probably derives from the three gifts they brought to the Christ child.
Star no surprise
On this, the Bible and Christmas tradition do agree: The magi found the newborn king by following a star.
The ancients believed God would make destiny manifest in the stars, said Gregory J. Riley, New Testament professor at United Methodist-related Claremont School of Theology. So, it was no surprise that Jesus' birth was accompanied "by the appearance of his star in the very fabric of the heavens."
The exact nature of that heavenly body has been a source of speculation — for Bible scholars, children's book authors, astronomers and, in recent decades, planetarium audiences. Discussion of the star is part of Bakersfield College's annual December planetarium show, which Strobel hosts.
Since the night sky can vary greatly depending on the year and season, Strobel first needed a good estimate for Jesus' birth year to evaluate these possibilities.
Many biblical scholars and historians now think Jesus most likely was born around 6 to 4 B.C., and Strobel uses those years in his dating. He then points to four natural phenomena that some astronomers think might explain the celestial sighting: a nova, a comet, a planetary conjunction and Jupiter's retrograde motion.
Chinese astronomers, Strobel said, recorded that a new star (or nova) appeared in the constellation Capricorn during March and April of 5 B.C. A nova is actually a dying star that has gathered enough material to build up pressure and explode. It peaks in brightness within a few days and then fades to invisible over a few months.
The nova the Chinese spotted would have first appeared in the east (that much fits with the Gospel of Matthew). However, that nova would not have visibly moved much as the magi headed toward Bethlehem, which is why Strobel sees it as an unlikely candidate for Star of Bethlehem status.
Many ancient cultures regarded comets as heralds of important events. Trouble is, no comet sightings were recorded around 6 to 4 B.C. That is probably good. The ancients typically viewed a comet as a bad sign — not a proclamation of joy to the world.
Planetary conjunctions, where two or more planets appear very close together in the night sky, do not receive the attention that comets do. Still, Strobel thinks such a conjunction is a much likelier prospect for the Nativity's starring role. Astronomically speaking, 7 to 6 B.C. were good years for conjunctions.
In 7 B.C., Jupiter and Saturn moved past each other three times in the constellation Pisces. Such an occurrence happens only once every 900 years. The following February, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn formed a near conjunction in Pisces, which happens once every 800 years.
The combination of Jupiter and Saturn would have seemed especially auspicious to these astrologers in the Near East, Strobel said. Jupiter symbolized royalty, and Saturn represented the Mesopotamian deity who protected Israel. In addition, ancient astrologers associated Pisces with the Jewish people.
"(The wise men) would have been aware of the sky and probably kept records of the sky going back centuries," Strobel said. "They would have known this was a rare occurrence. They'd think, ‘Well, maybe this is telling us that something really interesting is going to be happening there in Israel.’"
Jupiter's retrograde motion
If the wise men needed a further sign in the heavens, they got one in 5 B.C., Strobel said. That year, Jupiter, instead of "wandering" eastward, as planets typically appear to do, seemed to stop and then go backward among the stars in what astronomers call a retrograde motion.
Strobel compared the motion to what happens when a car accelerates past another car. It makes the slower vehicle look as if it is standing still and then receding. In 5 B.C., Earth passed Jupiter, and it appeared to be stationary for about a week — perfect for hovering in place over a momentous birth.
Among the various astronomical possibilities, Strobel thinks the planetary conjunction and stationary Jupiter theories probably get closest to what the magi might have seen.
"They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh." (Matthew 2:11)
The Rev. Ben Witherington III, a New Testament professor at Asbury Theological Seminary, agrees that astronomical phenomena could help explain the magi's guide. But, he points out, the magi like most ancients would have seen stars and other celestial objects as living beings â€” much like "the heavenly host" that visited the shepherds in the Gospel of Luke.
Theories don't affect faith
While it's fun to speculate, Strobel said, the nature of the star does not matter to his faith. In fact, he would not care if Matthew made up the whole story of the magi.
"He was not writing a science textbook or newspaper account," Strobel said, "but rather a book to persuade people that this person called Jesus was the Son of God, one who should be worshipped and one who showed us how to live as God wants us to live." The story of the Nativity contains a deeper truth than can be found in any star chart, he said.
"God, the infinite power of the universe, is just so willing and wanting to have a relationship with us that he became a powerless infant who had to be cared for," he said. "That's pretty amazing that God would be willing to do that."
Heather Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service, which originally published this story in December 2011.
Reprinted in Interpreter Magazine, November–December, 2013.