Generations of Christians have helped ring in the Christmas season by singing John Henry Hopkins Jr.’s 1857 carol, “We Three Kings,” with its evocative chorus:
Star of wonder, star of night Star with royal beauty bright Westward leading, still proceeding Guide us to thy perfect light.
We know, from the Gospel of Matthew, that these kings—or “Magi,” as Matthew calls them—saw something brilliant in the night sky, a celestial body that beckoned them to Jesus’ birthplace in Bethlehem. But what exactly was this mysterious “star of wonder”?
Biblical scholar Colin R. Nicholl is the latest to venture an explanation for this astronomical marvel. Blending Bible research with findings from expert astronomers, Nicholl makes the case that the Star of Bethlehem was actually an extraordinary comet. Greg Cootsona, a writer, teacher, and leader with the Scientists in Congregations program (funded by the Templeton Foundation to integrate science and theology in churches), spoke with Nicholl about his claims in The Great Christ Comet: Revealing the True Star of Bethlehem (Crossway).
As a biblical scholar, what drew you to astronomy?
If figuring out the biblical text requires me to understand history, geography, religion, sociology, or something else, then it’s my responsibility to do the necessary study. It’s obvious from Matthew 2 that the Star of Bethlehem is a real astronomical entity that was faithfully observed by astronomers in the Ancient Near East. The biblical scholar, then, is challenged to search for astronomical information, and that’s what I’ve done.
The challenge is to be as rigorous about studying the relevant science as you are about studying the Bible. It’s difficult, but it’s also rewarding.
Why have biblical scholars shied away from studying the science behind the star?
Because it requires knowledge outside their specialized areas. Some back away simply out of skepticism that the biblical text relays accurate history.
In my experience among scholars, few things draw out more cynicism than the Star of Bethlehem. But we need to remember that nowadays, Matthew’s gospel is widely acknowledged to be an ancient biography. When an ancient biography is written in the same century as its subject, it is generally characterized by a concern with historical accuracy. Books like Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses bear this out.
As for Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth, Luke and other historical accounts corroborate key elements. For example, what Matthew records about Herod matches up with what first-century historian Josephus tells us. It is perfectly legitimate, then, to look at Matthew as a source of historical information, and to ask whether astronomy supports his claims. As a biblical scholar, I’m not so quick to disregard Matthew’s historical claims. I want to take him seriously. I’m willing to hang in with him even when I don’t initially understand what he’s saying.
Who were the Magi?
We often call them “wise men,” but that’s not a helpful designation. Nor is it helpful to think of them as philosophers. The Magi, straightforwardly, were scholars engaged in astronomy and astrology. They made regular observations of stars, planets, comets, and other phenomena.
The Magi were probably from Babylon. We know that was the main center of astronomy in the Ancient Near East, and that the Babylonian astronomers had studied the stars dating back at least to the eighth century B.C. They kept an eye on celestial developments and kept detailed records.
What evidence is there that the star was a comet?
The star appeared suddenly and was visible for over a year, something that makes sense only if it were a supernova or a great comet. That the star surprised the Magi with its impressive “rising” points strongly to it being a comet: Of all the celestial bodies, only comets behave in this manner. (Rising refers to the period when a celestial body re-emerges on the horizon after being hidden by the Sun.)
Then you take into account the star’s movement, in the space of a couple of months, from the eastern morning sky to the southern evening sky, where they see it when they’re traveling from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. That kind of movement is only possible for an object in the inner solar system, meaning that the star had to be a comet.
At the end of the Magi’s journey, the star stands over the place of Jesus’ birth, pinpointing a particular location. As New Testament scholar Craig Keener has pointed out, that’s something only a comet can do. Josephus mentions a comet that “stood over” Jerusalem in the run-up to the Judean War. Another Roman historian, Cassius Dio, mentions that another comet did something similar over Rome in 12 B.C. This is all very powerful evidence, and there is much more in the book.
I should emphasize that I didn’t set out with an agenda. I didn’t have a clue what the Star of Bethlehem would be. I was just following the evidence wherever it went. When I did my analysis and looked at the star’s profile and orbit, and then compared the data with the great comets of history, I was astonished to discover that this Christ-comet really did turn out to be the greatest.
If the Star of Bethlehem is actually a comet, should we start calling it the “Comet of Bethlehem”?
No. In the ancient world, many astronomical entities—meteors, for instance—could be regarded as “stars.” In fact, we still describe meteors as “shooting stars.” Comets were commonly called “stars.” This was true in the Greco-Roman world, in the writings of philosophers like Pliny and Seneca. It was also true in Babylon.
In Numbers 24:17, there’s a prophecy by Balaam about a “scepter” and a “star” (“. . . a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel”). Ancient rabbis could refer to comets as “scepter stars.” The “star” in Numbers is almost certainly a comet.
How did the Magi determine that the one whose birth was announced in the heavens was the Messiah?
There are various indications in Matthew that the Magi were impacted most by what they saw in the star’s rising. Whatever it did at that time revealed that the Messiah had been born, motivating them to make their journey to find and worship him.
The Magi seem to have concluded that Balaam’s oracle in Numbers, about the rising scepter-star, was the key to interpreting the comet’s behavior. I also believe that the opening verses of Revelation 12 paint a picture of the heavenly sign the Magi witnessed. (Rev. 12:1–2 reads, “A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of 12 stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth.”) The Magi saw a nativity drama unfolding in the heavens, in which the constellation figure “The Virgin” played the role of a pregnant mother giving birth to a baby, whose part was played by a great comet. This celestial drama was strongly suggestive of Isaiah’s oracles about a virgin becoming pregnant and giving birth to a son (7:14), and about a great light shining in the darkness to signal the Messiah’s coming (9:2–7).
What’s really exciting is that, based on detailed information from Revelation 12, we can produce an approximate orbit for the comet. This means we can re-create what the comet did and where it was at various points. What’s more, when you plug the orbit into planetarium software, you discover a pattern that lines up perfectly with what Matthew 2 records. Now that really is amazing!
What the Magi did wasn’t irrational. This is not some kind of weird, mystical story. This was a rugged, down-to-earth event. If we had been alongside the Magi and witnessed what they witnessed, we too would have gone to Judea. What the comet did would have drawn you in. It revealed Jesus for who he is. It compelled the Magi to become part of the story. It is interesting that later sources suggest the Magi abandoned astrology in favor of following Christ. After entering into their experience, you can understand why they would have done so.
How can your book help us appreciate the significance of Christ’s birth?
First, the book authenticates Matthew’s account of the Nativity as historically reliable. Second, it authenticates Jesus as the prophesied Jewish Messiah. It is important to realize that no ancient source could have invented a comet so unique; they simply didn’t know enough to pull that off.
So the book has implications for us as Christians and for the whole world, because every human being has to confront the claim of Christ and his divine confirmation as Messiah. The claim of Christ during his ministry is a lofty one—to be the Messiah, to be the light prophesied by Isaiah. Remarkably, this comet made precisely the same pronouncement. There’s a glorious coming together of the claim of Jesus himself and heaven’s pronouncement about him.
In addition, the comet’s intense brightness anticipated the glorious light of Jesus’ person and ministry. It speaks to our generation, assuring us that the one whose birth it announced will fully establish his kingdom on earth.
The Star of Bethlehem underscores God’s mastery over the cosmos. For this great heavenly display to happen at the birth of Jesus, it had to have been tailor-made for the occasion. That included its size, shape, orbit, and chemical composition. And to think that this plan had been in motion from the birth of the solar system—it really is amazing. From our 21st-century perspective, we can appreciate that God is claiming lordship over astronomy and over the entire universe.
How can the real story behind the Star of Bethlehem change the way we worship during Christmas?
When you walk in the sandals of the Magi, you feel the power of the story. At the end of the journey, it’s you on your face before the Messiah. The story draws you into recognizing who Christ is and how great he is. And yet all this magnificence is displayed in the beautiful simplicity of a baby—this is the awesomeness of the Incarnation.
The glorious celestial wonder simultaneously reveals and hides. Not everyone looking into the sky understands. For example, Herod, the rabbis, and the people of Judea—there it is, right before their eyes, but they don’t get it. It’s the mystery and beauty of the plan of salvation and the marvel of what God has done in Christ.
To think of the Star of Bethlehem as a great comet is transforming. It takes away the sentimentality of Christmas and brings back the meaning, the power, the authenticity, and the ruggedness of the story. Suddenly, we realize that this is history. This is something that actually occurred. And the Magi on this journey were real people, overwhelmed by what they witnessed.
We too should be overwhelmed, even more than the Magi, because we are now able to recognize what God had to do to perform the great heavenly sign marking Jesus’ birth. We can’t be the same again.
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