Was the Bethlehem Star a Comet?
A review of The Great Christ Comet by Colin R. Nicholl
Every year around Christmastime, there is renewed interest in the great star that announced the Messiah’s birth to the Magi, and led them to the house where He was with Mary. There is no shortage of theories as to what this celestial phenomenon must have been.
Nicholl comes to the problem with an advantage—he is a New Testament scholar, not primarily an astronomer. This means he has more experience interpreting the New Testament text. He pays admirable attention to even the slightest details in the text, and indeed uses these details to rule out several competing theories as to the identity of the Bethlehem star. In fact, the book is a good resource for the birth narratives, because Nicholl focuses on far more than just the star, and defends the historical reliability of the accounts.
Nicholl spends many chapters detailing the constellations of the ancient zodiac and how they would have been interpreted—particularly Virgo the Virgin, which is one of the central heavenly actors in the astronomical drama Nicholl claims took place. Drawing from Revelation 12, which he claims is a retelling of the heavenly portents leading up to Jesus’ birth, he claims that a comet appeared in the constellation Virgo and looked like a growing pregnancy, and then the birth of a baby. Then apparently the comet’s tail in conjunction with the head acted like an arrow pointing to the very house. However, the perspective would depend on the location of the Magi. Interested readers can get the book for themselves to hear the rest of the behavior of the comet that Nicholl claims precisely fits the description of what happened in Matthew.
Was the comet a supernatural event?
CMI has favoured an interpretation of the Bethlehem star as a supernatural event, or more specifically, as a manifestation of the Shekinah Glory of God which led the Magi from their homes to Jesus. However, Nicholl claims that this should be a ‘position of last resort’ (pp. 84, 86), and that it is a position “adopted only because the description of the Star in Matthew 2:9 is deemed to go beyond what could realistically be expected of normal astronomical phenomena” (p. 85). We could reply that many of the astronomical interpretations of the Bethlehem’s star are appealed to simply to avoid the need for a supernatural phenomenon, although to be fair, this does not seem at all to be the Nicholl’s motivation. While it seems like he too quickly dismisses the possibility of a supernatural phenomenon, especially in the context of an event filled with supernatural phenomena, he does not seem to have an anti-miraculous agenda unlike many others.
Rather, Nicholl seems to believe a comet actually fits the descriptions in Scripture best. However, he must create a comet that is recorded nowhere else in ancient astronomical data. Since we have not seen it since, it must have been a long-period comet. As Nicholl maintains, the records of such events are not exhaustive, and it is possible that there was a great comet that acted as Nicholl claims the Great Christ Comet acted. But there is still no evidence of that comet outside of Scripture (if Scripture’s evidence does indeed point to a comet!). So while it is not invalid to look for astronomical phenomena that fit the activity of the star, per se, Nicholl’s comet seems to fall short because it’s something he created to fit the description in Scripture.
Note that Nicholls rightly discounts Halley’s comet, because its perihelion would have been too early (12 BC). But as we know, comets lose mass every time they pass the sun—a strong young-age indicator. So Halley’s comet would have been very spectacular, and Nicholls postulates an even more spectacular comet. However, because we have plenty of historical records of Halley, the non-record of Nicholl’s Comet is not an invalid argument from silence but a valid argument from conspicuous absence.
Jews and the Horoscope
Nicholl’s interpretation centers around phenomena happening in and around Virgo the Virgin and Hydra. We know that Hellenized Jews would have been familiar with and maybe even have accepted the horoscope (there are horoscopes depicted in some synagogues, even). However, it is unlikely that the biblical authors would have accepted this, and Nicholl himself suggests in his criticism of one of the other astronomical theories that “the fact that Matthew is so favorable in his treatment of the Magi and the Star strongly suggests that his estimation of the Star’s significance could not have been entirely dependent on astrological presuppositions” (p. 75).
Also, the Magi would have been able to read the portent of astronomical events because they were astrologers trained to look at the night sky in that way. However, none of the New Testament writers would have been trained that way, certainly not Matthew and John, the authors of the two passages that Nicholl draws upon the most.
An interesting speculation
It is interesting to speculate what events in the heavens could have prompted the Magi to leave their homes and take the over-1300-km journey to Bethlehem to see the baby Messiah. However, Nicholl’s comet theory is just that—speculation.
However, the book is useful along several fronts. It contains an interesting discussion of the other theories, a lot of information about ancient comets and the constellations, and has a fair analysis of what an astronomical phenomenon would have to do to fit Matthew’s description. For that reason, I can recommend The Great Christ Comet to interested readers, even while disagreeing with its conclusions.