Was the Bethlehem Star a Comet?

book

A review of The Great Christ Comet by Colin R. Nicholl
Crossway, 2015.

reviewed by 

Published: 24 December 2015 (GMT+10)

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.

Helpful Resources

Readers’ comments

Arthur G.
This is not a new debate. It has been going on almost as long as Christianity itself. Origen thought is was a comet (Origen, Contra Celsum, Book I, Chapter LIX), but John Chrysostom thought it was not a star at all, but some invisible power in the appearance of a star (John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of Matthew, Homily VI). As Chrysostom goes on to say, its behavior is too complicated to be an astronomical object, and must have a supernatural explanation. Many attempts have been made to link some kind of astronomical and astrological event to the birth of Christ. All fail on strained biblical exegesis and lack of convincing astronomical data.
The simplest explanation, and one that explains its appearance to selected groups of people and not to everyone, is that it is God acting once again into human history. In the OT, the Shekinah Glory was the presence of God in the Tabernacle, dwelling with Man. The Glory left when Israel became too wicked (Ezek 10). Now God is returning in a different form (Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us) and the Shekinah Glory is again there to show the continuity from Old to New Testaments. At the end of Matthew's account, the star is above the place where Jesus was. The account stops there. It is not mentioned again, because the Glory of God remains in Jesus. After the Resurrection, Jesus left from the mount of Olives, just as the Shekinah Glory in Ezekiel.
There are further examples of the Shekinah Glory throughout the NT, eg: the Transfiguration, Paul on the Damascus road, etc. At the end of the NT, it says "...the Tabernacle of God will be with men and He will dwell with them...and be their God." (Rev 21:3).
The Star can only be the supernatural Shekinah Glory, pointing to Jesus and our ultimate destiny.
Seathrun M.
Dear Sir, Whatever the Star of Bethlehem may have been, any possible solution to the question must take into consideration the finer details of the Greek text of St. Matthew's account. May I suggest, therefore, that you consider whether professional astronomer David Hughes could be correct about one clue: he claims that the Greek text actually employs two technical terms of Greek astronomy. According to him, the Magi did not say "We have seen his star in the east", but "We have seen the sunset rising of his star" i.e. the star was rising in the east at the very moment when the sun was setting in the west - what astronomers call the "acronychal rising" of a star or other heavenly body. This shocked King Herod alright, but did not give him all the facts he wanted if he intended to prevent the threat to his throne. So he summoned the magi secretly and asked them exactly when the star rose at dawn, i.e. that it rose in the east only for it to be blotted out almost immediately by the greater light of the sun. Astronomers call this a star's "heliacal rising" which, however, they do not consider very important. For professional astrologers, on the other hand, the heliacal rising of a heavenly body is extremely important in connection with the birthdate of a very important person. Since the Magi were astrologers, David Hughes spotting of this clue - if true - could give "food for thought"! God bless your work, R. Seathrún Mac Éin
Will B.
Very interesting review. Thanks.
Chuck J.
Actually I had been wondering about the true nature of the star myself for the last few months and finally came to the conclusion that it must have been supernatural in nature as I know of no scientifically described event or thing that it could have been. I then had the idea to check what CMI thought and searched your archives and found that it seems CMI also thinks that it must have been supernatural. As I believe in the literal translation of the Bible where it is intended to be literal, I think it must have been a literal star but one that is either unique in its physical properties or its behavior or both. The birth of our Savior certainly warrants a special event such as this!
Garry S.
Lita, I too believe that the Bethlehem Star was created especially for Jesus' birth. Too many people look for other answers because they can not accept God's awesome creative power. Similarly I believe that Jonah's fish was created especially for the job. After all, if my God can create so much in six days, a comet or fish is something He could do over morning coffee!
D. S.
I am inclined to think that the Bethlehem star was a supernatural event. The like of which has never been repeated in history. A good Windows program for historic stargazing is Celestia. I have not personally tried rolling it back to Jesus' birth, but I heard it is actually quite accurate in it's simulations. Another good resource to look at is the book/movie "Story in the Stars" by Joe Amaral (First Century Foundations). He is very good at explaining this sort of thing, and is very fun to listen to :) Just some thoughts! Very good article, and I hope everyone at CMI has a Merry Christmas! God Bless!
Kenneth L.
Matthew 2:9 should leave no doubt that the 'star' was not an object or event outside of Earth's atmosphere, but rather a Divine sign within the atmosphere. Here is what the verse says: "When they (i.e. the three maji from the east - KL) had heard the king (i.e. Herod - KL), they departed (i.e. from Jerusalem - KL); and lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was." Matthew then goes on to say that the maji rejoiced and went into the house where Joseph, Mary and Jesus were, so it must have been sometime after Jesus' birth, when the little family had moved from the stable where Jesus was born, to a house in Bethlehem. The fact that the 'star' moved, "went before them", and positioned itself right above that exact house in the town of Bethlehem, such that the maji could identify the house by it, means that at that point it must have been hovering just above the house, i.e. only meters above the ground, and could not have been a celestial object or event above Earth's atmosphere. I see no way around this conclusion, from what this verse of Scripture tells us. I think YEC's should realize this, stand firm on the account given in Scripture, and put the controversy over the 'star' of Bethlehem to rest, once and for all, based on the information that Scripture gives us. Merry Christmas to CMI staff and readers!
Steve B.
Have you seen the DVD "The Star of Bethlehem," if not you should. It shows how God knows the exact timing of His creation to bring His Son into the world and use the heavens to announce it. The Magi didn't have to follow a comet never seen before, but a event that was possible for them to understand.

Steve Blazer
Lita Cosner
I reviewed The Star of Bethlehem DVD a few years ago. While it was enjoyable to watch, I ultimately disagreed with its conclusions.
Parker M.
I don't have a strong opinion, but CMI has another article on Shang Di. The ancient chinese who worshiped God claimed to see a comet around Jesus' birth moving slow and they claimed it was the star guiding to Christ.
Les G.
Thank you for a very interesting discussion, Lita. Just one matter I believe is not quite accurate. Your words regarding CMI's view (with which I agree heartily), where you state it was probably "a manifestation of the Shekinah Glory of God which led the Magi from their homes to Jesus" are not quite accurate. The Magi saw the star, presumably at the time of the Saviour's birth. However, it did not lead them from their homes. This tradition is reflected in such words as "by the light of that same star three wise men came from country far" "and to follow that star wherever it went". But there is nothing in Scripture to support this idea. They travelled to the obvious place to find the King of the Jews - Jerusalem. It was only when redirected to nearby Bethlehem that the star reappeared- Mat. 2:9-10, "And the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy". They clearly had not been following it - had perhaps not seen it for up to two years! The only "guiding" by the star was at most a few kilometres. Their arrival at the house was two years, or almost that, after the birth. Again, we have the "dating" in Mat. 2:7, "Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared" and verse 16: "Herod ... sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time he had ascertained (Gk. here and in verse 6, "ēkribōsen" - "Inquired carefully, strictly") from the wise men." They then presented their gifts to the toddler, Jesus, before heading for home.
Guy W.
In considering the star you may be chasing around the universe for some kind of astronomical answer to the Star of Bethlehem but really look at the over view of Scripture. There are references to stars as being angels both implied and stated. Numbers 24:17 (Messianic) Job 25:5 some of the stars are fallen (sin) they sang in Job 38:7. Isaiah 14:3 Lucifer was talking about exalting himself about angels in authority. Daniel 8:10. Matthew 24:29. Jude 1:13, Revelation 1:20; Revelation 12:4.
The other consideration is that people were following the star from different directions. The shepherds were looking from the North and the wise men from the East. They looked at, and followed the star. Well as a mariner I can tell you that the stars in the heavens rise and fall as the sun does and cannot be followed without navigational instruments and references to each other a defined and fixed objects in the universe. The Star of Bethlehem clearly moved and was followable by ordinary men on the Earth's surface. It then leaves us with the simple conclusion that this star was an angel commissioned to appear to those to whom is was intended.
Don L.
The article states that the Maggi traveled 1,300 K---or about 800 miles. My question is how do we know this distance?
Lita Cosner
I believe the assumption is that the Magi were from Babylon and had access to Daniel's prophecies.
graham P.
In Thong's book "Faith of Our Fathers, God in Ancient China" has some fascinating info, with original Chinese texts included, from the royal Chinese observatory records, which apparently go back way prior to Christ's earthly appearance in Israel.
Thong's material indicates that a comet was recorded , given a name and accorded great meaning, including forgiveness of crimes, by the royal astronomers and the Emperor, around the year 0. The comet's name and origin had to do with sacrificial animals. It's a book worth a read.

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