Jupiter isn’t a star. Neither is Saturn. But for one night only, on the winter solstice, they will be.
If we look up at the sky at the right time, we will see the great conjunction of 2020. Low on the horizon for most observers, Jupiter and Saturn have been visibly moving toward each other for days. On the evening of December 21, these two planets will be so close that they will appear to the naked eye as almost one—a bright star in the heavens.
The last time there was a visible great conjunction? 1226. Francis of Assisi had just passed, and the great doctor of the church, Thomas Aquinas, was recently born.
Before that, the most famous great conjunction occurred in 7 B.C.—auspiciously close to the birth of Jesus. Close enough that some believe that the great conjunction is the Star of Bethlehem. Could it be?
Star of wonder, star of night
It seems like every year we’re eager to offer another speculation or theory for this piece of the Christmas story—a detail in a single Gospel account that has come to loom large in our retellings and depictions of Christ’s birth.
Nativity scenes in storybooks and light-up lawn displays are topped with a telltale twinkling star. It’s a sign that from the moment Christ was born, he caught people’s attention and drew them to worship.
Our obsession with the star phenomenon is somewhat unusual since we modern people rarely look up to study the skies, given the glitter that exists today below the horizon. But the movement of stars in the sky attracted attention in the ancient world.
Today, stargazing is a quaint activity of a bygone era, but in the ancient world it was the raw materials for calendars and omens, mythologies and agricultures, dreams and divinations.
The stars had many uses. Stars also had many interpretations. For ancient peoples, stars were the greatest reminder that there was purpose in creation, a purpose that unfolded night after night as they watched the stars trek across the night sky.
Even as the stars fascinated—and sometimes frightened—ancient peoples, from the Babylonians to the Romans, their wise men worked diligently to understand their movements and signs. The same is true of the most famous star from the ancient world, the Christmas star—if it even was a star. To this day, it is a mystery.
There seem to be almost as many theories about the Christmas star as there are descendents of Abraham. It’s a question that has interested theologians, astronomers, and everyday believers for centuries, and judging by the attention toward the latest planetarily aligned “Christmas star,” it still does.
The theories trying to explain the Star of Bethlehem tend to fall into five categories. A bit of a Christmas countdown, then:
5. The star was extraterrestrial.
Although “extraterrestrial” today makes us think of UFOs and little green men, ancient Mediterranean peoples believed in a menagerie of off-world creatures that interacted in the heavens. For example, the Roman leader Cicero, like many Romans, believed that the stars were lesser deities. John Chrysostom, the archbishop of Constantinople, wondered whether the star was actually an angel due to the precision of its movements.
4. The star was symbolic.
Although a staple of Christmas everywhere, the Star of Bethlehem only appears in Matthew’s gospel. Since Matthew views Jesus as a king, a descendent of David, he may use the star as a sign that the Magi use to announce the birth of Jesus. This could be the point of Balaam’s final oracle: “A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel” (Num. 24:15–19).
3. The star was supernatural.
Another belief is that the Christmas star was supernaturally conjured: The Father made a light for his Son. And that’s that, a kind of divine #micdrop within the miraculous Christmas story.
Star with royal beauty bright
2. The star was astrological.
The Magi certainly engaged in astrology, especially since ancient ideas about astrology covered much more area than our modern definition. In the ancient world, astrology saturated the culture of the elites so much that Augustus Caesar defended his right to rule by publishing his horoscope on coins. In the last decade, astronomer Michael Molnar reset the discussion of the meaning of the Christmas star with a chance encounter with ancient coins that depict the zodiac.
For many Christians, this type of theory is a hard one to consider. The Bible condemns divination and astrology (Deut. 4:19; 18:10; Isa. 47:13–14). Early church fathers such as Tertullian charged astrologers with idolatry, and the church at large has always held it to be a fruitless attempt to trump God’s sovereignty. But if God can use foolish Balaam and the casting of lots, can God use astrology?
Astrology and astronomy are the most popular explanations offered for the star throughout history, each with dozens, if not hundreds, of variations. Like the great conjunction of 2020, they require us to look up and ponder the heavens.
1. The star was astronomical.
This group of theories includes everything from comets to supernovae. A natural, astral phenomenon that brings glory to God and upholds the fine-tuning of his creation. This group of theories also includes planetary conjunctions, just like the one we’ll see right after sunset this week in the southwestern sky.
The star-like light shining on the horizon days before Christmas is no mere planetary conjunction, nor even mere great conjunction (“great” being the title given to an aligning of the two largest planets, Jupiter and Saturn, which occurs in a small way every 20 years). It is one of the great conjunctions, those that occur every 400 years—and the one that famed astronomer Johannes Kepler first calculated to 7 B.C. and proposed as the Star of Bethlehem. Kepler even lived through one of the great conjunctions himself in 1623, but sadly one that was probably too low to the horizon for him to see.
Westward leading, still proceeding
Whether trying to spot an astrological phenomenon like the great conjunction or even just reading about the Magi who “saw his star when it rose” (Matt. 2:2), Christmas prompts us to ponder the heavens. We imagine what it was like to live in a world where every night gave an unpolluted view of the stars and wonder what it was that those traveling wise men saw that led them to make the trip.
Theologians and astronomers alike continue to put forward their theories, none conclusive, prompting even more curiosity from us as Christians. Instead of picking one, the answer may be closer to “all of the above.”
According to Matthew, the only people who “saw” the star are the Magi. It is possible they “saw” the star first on their astrological tables, then found it in the night sky—perhaps in a conjunction of planets that would not seem overly significant to the superstitious but less sophisticated Herod and his advisors (Matt. 2:7). It is possible that a real astronomical event such as a great conjunction precipitated the Magi’s astrological search, and their astrological search pointed back to the astronomical event.
For many of Matthew’s readers, an astronomical-astrological sign would likely be evidence of Jesus’ kingship. This is true even if most of his intended readers were Jewish Christians—people who loved God but who lived in a world surrounded by cultural realities such as the zodiac and the casting of lots (Acts 1:26). The life of early unorthodox Christians such as Bardaiṣan of Edessa who struggled with astrology and the mosaic floors of ancient Jewish synagogues that included zodiacs reveals a less than tidy picture.
Matthew also tells us that the Magi describe the star that they see as “his” (Matt 2:2). To the Magi, the star is not simply a random sign, but an enduring symbol of the “King of the Jews.” From the prophecies of Balaam to the words of Jesus to the Christmas carols we sing, the star remains a persistent symbol of the Savior who comes from the heavens into our world.
The fact that God aligns the planets and the people to conjunct in just the right space at just the right time to herald the birth of his Son? Supernatural. And a God who so loved the world that he would even bother to pierce space and time to deliver his only begotten son into the arms of strangers and aliens (Eph. 2:19)? Extraterrestrial!
Guide us to thy perfect light
The world we inhabit today is a wonder. It is a wonder of human thought, human effort, and human glory. The lame can walk, and the blind can see. We can even walk on (virtual) water. It is a slowly escalating Tower of Babel that we just can’t look away from.
But the stars still draw us to a wonder we cannot claim or control any more than the wise men long ago. On Monday night, the show we don’t want to miss is the one that will happen right above us, a byproduct of revelation, and like Matthew describes, on the rise near the horizon.
Douglas Estes is associate professor of New Testament and practical theology at South University. He is the editor of Didaktikos, and his latest books are Braving the Future: Christian Faith in a World of Limitless Tech and The Tree of Life.
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