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Was the Star of Bethlehem a Real Event?
It would be safe to surmise that a great many in our secular culture think that the Star in the infancy narrative of Jesus is more or less a fictional literary device to develop a plot. Theissen and Merz’s The Historical Jesus summarizes this idea: “In Matt. 2 we have a miraculous traveling star, a phenomenon which cannot be described in astronomical categories . . . many exegetes think it absurd to look for a historical nucleus behind Matt. 2.” However, elements of the story are not far-fetched given what is commonly known of “learned” men being interested in astronomical occurrences in the sky. Paul L. Maier points this out, writing, “The ancient historians of the Near East, Greece, and Rome were fond of describing astronomical phenomena and the profound effect these had on the daily lives of the people.”
A planetary conjunction appears to be the most likely historical theory in regards to the Star of Bethlehem. Some theories have considered a comet, but Haley’s comet comes too early – around 12 B.C. And others consider that the Star could have been a super nova, but Comet 53 that could have become a supernova came after Herod’s death. The comet is a popular theory for the historicity of the Star of Bethlehem. There are records of a long-lasting comet event from Chinese astronomers, noticed in March of 5 B.C. and April of 4 B.C. The fact that these dates are near the date of Herod the Great’s death in 4 B.C. make it a possibility for the Gospel of Matthew’s record of the Star of Bethlehem.
Royal Astronomer Johannes Kepler’s classic theory of a planetary conjunction appears to be the most likely of the historic scenarios. Kepler noticed an alignment of planets in 1603, which he recalled having read about from a Jewish writer by the name of Abarnel, who wrote of the same conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in the constellation of Pisces. Kepler’s calculations put forth an alignment around the year 7 B.C. and his theory was later confirmed by the German scholar Schnabel in 1925.
It appears that many modern theologians have attempted to move the discussion of the role of the star into the sphere of the purely theological. Ruldoph Pesch’s view is that the event has nothing to do with astronomy, a position supported by early Church Fathers such as St. Augustine and St. John Chrysostom, who the latter wrote in a homily on the topic. Chrysostom writes, “That this star was not of the common sort, or rather not a star at all. As it seems to at least to me, but some invisible power transformed into this appearance, is in the first place evident from its very course. For there is…not any star that moves by this way.”
What is interesting is that secular skeptics like physicist Aaron Adair have recently developed theories on the evidence for the Star of Bethlehem that agree with these Church Fathers on the issue of the star not being a typically fixed star. Adair’s research on the Star of Bethlehem is a good rendering of the historiography on the topic. Adair explains that David Friedrich Strauss’s examination of the literary figure of the Star in Matthew’s Gospel has similarities to Virgil’s Aeneid. Adair says that the consequences of Strauss’s work cost Strauss his job though few academics argued for an actual star in the Gospel of Matthew. What is interesting about Adair’s work on the Star of Bethlehem is his use of Christian theologians like St. Augustine, who agree with this view of the Star of Bethlehem, one shared by St. John Chrysostom. Adair explains, “Once a Christian (Augustine), he became a defender of the faith and led attacks upon stellar determinism. In his reply to another Manichean, Augustine repudiated not only fatalistic astrology but any connection it had with the Star at Jesus’s birth (Reply to Faustus the Manichean 2.6f). Augustine’s argument concerned the unnatural behavior of the Star, demonstrating it had been a miracle.”
The Star of Bethlehem in the description given in Matthew 2:9 is a Star that is not fixed in one location but rather moves to lead the Magi to Bethlehem. There are many cultures and religions like the Zoroastrians and Manichaeans where Astrology was studied to find signs of the future, and it is possible that Matthew could have used a literary device for his narrative. There are, however, too many variables for us to be able to pinpoint an actual source for Matthew’s description, whether it be from literary influence or actual event.
It is my opinion, currently, the best explanation for Christians to lean into on the topic of the Star of Bethlehem stems from the critics of an actual Star event. It could certainly be true that the Star is a literary device to make a theological point by Matthew, but the difficulty I find with such an assessment of a literary analysis is the historicism factor. It begs the question would an ancient Palestinian writer use such a device? Is the Aeneid example a true comparison or a false equivalent? I’m also not convinced with the various theories that depend on the constellations and planets alignments mostly because there is a lot of competing theories throughout the study of the Star. In fact, simply googling the Star of Bethlehem will produce articles from Newsweek and CNN that you may be able to see the same event this year!
It is St. Augustine’s view that the Star of Bethlehem was a miraculous event that seems to be the clearest answer for the Christian reader of Matthew’s Gospel. The view is one that rejects reliance on astrology more akin to Ancient Near East neighbors that Augustine rejected himself. The Miracle Star Theory focuses on the supernatural power of God which flies in the face of a secular world that is far too concerned with materialism, which may be more in-tuned with a worldview of the author of Matthew.
 Theissen and Marz, The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide, 155.
 Paul Maier, In the Fullness of Time, 51.
 Ibid, 58.
 Theissen and Marz, 155.
 Werner Keller, The Bible as History, 361.
 Pope Benedict XVI, The Infancy Narrative, 97.
 Aaron Adair, “The Star of Christ in the Light of Astronomy” Zygon, (2012) 47: 7-29.