Jimmy was born in Texas, grew up nominally Protestant, but at age 20 experienced a profound conversion to Christ. Planning on becoming a Protestant pastor or seminary professor, he started an intensive study of the Bible. But the more he immersed himself in Scripture the more he found to support the Catholic faith. Eventually, he entered the Catholic Church. His conversion story, “A Triumph and a Tragedy,” is published in Surprised by Truth. Besides being an author, Jimmy is the Senior Apologist at Catholic Answers, a contributing editor to Catholic Answers Magazine, and a weekly guest on “Catholic Answers Live.”
The Star of Bethlehem is endlessly fascinating. All kinds of theories about what it was have been proposed.
Based on the way Matthew describes it, some have thought it was a supernatural manifestation that led the magi around.
Some have even suggested it was a flying saucer.
Some have said it was a myth and never really existed.
All of these views are based on the idea that the star didn’t move the way a normal star would.
Is this correct?
Here are 8 things to know and share . . .
1) Why would people think the star’s motion was unusual?
There is a popular impression that the magi began following the star in their eastern homeland and that it led them to Jerusalem. This is taken to mean that the star moved from east to west.
From Jerusalem, they go to Bethlehem, which is south of Jerusalem.
Then, according to this impression, the star stops and hovers over the house where Jesus was residing.
The star is thus taken to move from east to west, turn south, and then hover.
That makes it sound like a light in the sky that can't be a star.
However, this account is mistaken.
2) Why is it mistaken?
This view goes wrong because of the assumption that the magi were following the star.
That’s not what Matthew says.
Let’s look at what he does say:
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him” [Matthew 2:1-2].
The phrase “in the East” is ambiguous. It might mean that they were in the East when they saw it (they were from the East, after all), or it may mean that they saw it when it rose over the eastern horizon.
Except for the stars that never set, stars rise over the eastern horizon and set below the western horizon, just like the sun does.
Either way, this does not tell us much, because the event occurred between one and two years earlier, based on the time they tell Herod (Matthew 2:16).
The apparent position of the star would have changed radically over that time, as almost all stars do as the earth orbits the sun.
In any event, Matthew does not say that the magi were following the star. He does not say that it led them to Jerusalem.
Instead, he says something that suggests something else.
3) What does he say that suggests they weren’t just following the star?
It’s the fact that they ask where the King of the Jews has been born.
If the star were leading them around by the nose, as it were, then they wouldn’t have had to ask this question. They would have just waited until nightfall and then continued following the star until it led them to the newborn king.
Thus, we have no indication that they followed the star from their homeland in the East to Jerusalem.
Instead, they saw the star from their homeland, realized that it implied the birth of a new king for the Jews, and then went to the royal palace in Jerusalem, where you might expect to find the newborn king.
After a consultation, Herod tells them that the Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem, and they set out again.
But even here, Matthew does not say they were following the star.
4) What does he say?
When they had heard the king they went their way; and lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy [Matthew 2:9-10].
So after they leave King Herod, they see the star again. Matthew introduces this by saying “lo” (i.e., “behold!”), indicating something surprising or remarkable.
The fact that they “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” also suggests that they weren’t following the star. It was a remarkable and joyous (and providential) coincidence that the star was in front of them when this happened.
So it wasn’t that they were following the star. They had stopped to ask where they should go, they were told Bethlehem, and then as they were going to Bethlehem they were surprised and joyous to see the same star in front of them.
This was a providential coincidence, but they would have gone to Bethlehem even if they had not seen the star in front of them.
5) Does the fact that the star “went before them” indicate unusual motion on the star’s part?
No. It simply means that the star remained in front of them during the short trip to Bethlehem.
Bethlehem is only six miles from Jerusalem, and since the star was in front of them when they began the six mile walk (or ride), it remained in the same general part of the sky during the short trip.
6) Does the fact that the star “came to rest over the place where the child was” indicate unusual motion?
No, but the English translation here (the RSV) is a misleading one.
Saying that it “came to rest” suggests that it stopped moving and started resting. That could suggest unusual motion for a star.
But what the Greek says would be better translated “until it came and stood” or “until it came to stand” over the place.
This just means that, when they drew near at the house, the magi observed that this star appeared to be above the house in the sky—as numerous other stars would have been as well.
This does not mean that this star or the others above the house froze in their motions, only that this was where they were as the magi approached.
It’s another providential coincidence, but it does not indicate unusual motion (or lack of motion) on the part of the star.
7) So we don’t have an indication that the star moved in an abnormal manner?
No. The magi were not following it as it zigged and zagged in the sky. In fact, it did not zig and zag in the sky.
So far as we know, the star moved in the entirely normal way that stars do.
It was simply a providential coincidence that, as the magi were on their way to Bethlehem they saw the star in front of them, that it stayed generally in front of them as they journeyed the six miles, and—when they neared the house—was in the part of the sky that was over the house where Jesus was.
8) After noting that it was before them when they began their journey, and that it continued to remain before them as they went, could they have used the star to indicate which house in Bethlehem they should check?
This is possible, but they also could have asked if any local families of the line of David had a child of the right age and then noted, upon going to that house, that the star was above it.
If you like the information I've presented here, you should join my Secret Information Club.
If you're not familiar with it, the Secret Information Club is a free service that I operate by email.
I send out information on a variety of fascinating topics connected with the Catholic faith.
In fact, the very first thing you’ll get if you sign up is information about what Pope Benedict said about the book of Revelation.
He had a lot of interesting things to say!
If you’d like to find out what they are, just sign up at www.SecretInfoClub.com or use this handy sign-up form:
Just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any difficulty.
In the meantime, what do you think?