Astronomy, Exegesis and the Star of Bethlehem

One part of the Christmas story that has puzzled many is where Matthew states that the star “went before” the wise men. Proper biblical exegesis can help here.

Jacquelin de Montluçon, “The Adoration of the Child,” c. 1496
Jacquelin de Montluçon, “The Adoration of the Child,” c. 1496 (photo: Public Domain)

In my previous two installments on this site I have examined what we can ascertain about the “wise men” or Magi, and what astronomy tells us about conjunctions (planetary alignments, as viewed from the earth) that may have occurred in relation to the birth of Jesus and/or the wise men visiting him.

I also delved into the question of when Herod the Great died, which is the primary historical indicator of when Jesus was born. Now I shall examine some key points of the exegesis of the passages concerning the star of Bethlehem and the wise men: things perhaps not readily apparent to most non-scholarly readers.

Matthew 2:7-10 (RSV) Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star appeared; and he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” 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;

One part of the Christmas story that has puzzled many (and delighted biblical skeptics who make it the grounds of yet more mockery), is where Matthew states that the star “went before” the wise men (Matthew 2:9).

This refers to (in context) to the wise men being in Jerusalem and talking to Herod (Matthew 2:1, 7-9). He “sent them to Bethlehem” (2:8), which is south of Jerusalem, about six miles. (I myself traveled this route in 2014.) Therefore, this is what the Bible (which habitually uses phenomenological language, meaning that it uses the “language of appearance”) means by saying that the star “went before” them.

In other words (according to the astronomical data), it (a very bright Jupiter) would always have been “ahead” or “in front of” or “before” them — visible to the south — as they traveled: much as we say we are “following the sun west” or how American slaves (in folklore, at least, if not in fact) attempting to escape to the north followed the “drinking gourd” (the Big Dipper) north.

Wikipedia (“Follow the Drinkin’ Gourd”) elaborates:

Two of the stars in the Big Dipper line up very closely with and point to Polaris [the North Star]. Polaris is a circumpolar star, and so it is always seen pretty close to the direction of true north. Hence, according to a popular myth, all slaves had to do was look for the Drinking Gourd and follow it to the North Star (Polaris) north to freedom.

Thus, one could say that the Big Dipper or North Star “went before” the slaves, just as we say they “followed” it. The North Star would also lead anyone to the North Pole if they kept following it; that is, by our vantage-point it would “go before” them.

We also refer to the sun “rising” and “setting” as if it is moving. But we know that the appearance of its movement to our eye is due to the earth’s rotation. It’s all phenomenological language, which we use all the time, just as the biblical writers also did. 

In a six-mile journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem Jupiter couldn’t have moved that much, in any event, because the journey didn’t take long (about 75 minutes, at the usual camel’s walking speed of 5 mph).

The other thing in the text that many question or are baffled about, is again in Matthew 2:9, where it was observed that the star of Bethlehem “came to rest over the place where the child was.” 

If the wise men arrived on Dec. 2 BC (a possible scenario, as argued), then we know that Jupiter was in retrograde motion from the 2nd of that month till the 25th. It would have been observed from Jerusalem as moving (when it did at all) horizontally above Bethlehem, whereas Mercury and Venus were observed to travel downward to the horizon. It appeared to come to a rest. Some astronomical researchers assert that during one portion of this period, it remained virtually motionless over Bethlehem for six days.

According to astronomical calculations, at dawn on Dec. 25, Jupiter would have been at an elevation of 68 degrees above the southern horizon (viewing from Jerusalem) — shining down on Bethlehem. It was the brightest “star” in the sky on that day and location.

The biblical text doesn’t specify, however, that the star stood over the exact house (a common misconception). The Benson Commentary adds that “Nothing is said here concerning a ray descending from the star to the top of the house, or concerning the descent of the body of the star.”

It may be that many readers (filled with the endless — sometimes inaccurate — images of Christmas from childhood) confuse this with another Christmas passage:

Luke 2:8-9 And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear.

Note that even in this passage, it is the light from an angel (rather than a star) that “shone around them” and they were not yet visiting Jesus. Thus, Luke 2:15 states: “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened . . .”

They were not in the same place. When I visited Bethlehem in 2014, I saw exactly how far it was — at least according to local tradition. The birth site is quite a ways off by sight, and at a higher elevation.

We mustn’t be led astray by extraneous factors when exegeting Holy Scripture. This is a prime example. I believe the preceding explanation is plausible and in complete harmony with both science and the biblical texts.