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Saint of the Day: St. Martin
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How Did the Star of Bethlehem Appear? What Science Tells Us and the Saints

Public Domain

Ed Masters - published on 12/24/14

The mystery above the manger

“There’s a star in the east on Christmas morn
Rise up shepherd and follow
It’ll lead to the place where the Savior’s born
Rise up shepherd and follow”

An enigmatic celestial event that has engaged speculation for more than 2000 years, the Star of Bethlehem was an epoch-changing herald of the Messiah’s birth. For centuries saints, scholars and astronomers have wondered about this heavenly body. Was it a comet? A supernova? A conjunction of planets, possibly in constellation? A moon or dwarf planet briefly captured by Earth’s gravity? A free-floating planet or star? Was it a heavenly body that defied the known laws of physics and nature, such as the solar eclipse of the full moon on the first Good Friday? Or did it have divine origin like the shekinah glory that led the children of Israel out of Egypt during the time of Moses?

What the Bible Says

The Star of Bethlehem is mentioned in only one book, the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 2, “When Jesus therefore was born in Bethlehem of Juda, in the days of King Herod, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem. [2] Saying, Where is he that is born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to adore him…” [9] Who having heard the king, went their way; and behold the star which they had seen in the east, went before them, until it came and stood over where the child was. [10] And seeing the star they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.”

This star was foretold in the Old Testament, “A star shall rise out of Jacob and a sceptre shall spring up from Israel: and shall strike the chiefs of Moab, and shall waste all the children of Seth. And he shall possess Idumea: the inheritance of Seir shall come to their enemies, but Israel shall do manfully. Out of Jacob shall he come that shall rule, and shall destroy the remains of the city.” Numbers 24:15-19.

Was it a comet?

Halley’s Comet appears above Earth every 76 years; it appeared in the night skies in the year 12 B.C. or 11 B.C. As Jesus of Nazareth is thought to have been born between the years 7 and 4 B.C, these sightings are several years too early for Halley’s Comet to have been the Star.  Herod the Great is believed by most scholars and historians to have died in March of 4 B.C, which fact alone eliminates Halley’s Comet as a possibility.

But what about other comets? Chinese and Korean astronomers recorded comets in the years 5 and 4 B.C. respectively, in the Constellation Capricorn. These were observed for 70 days and noted that “it did not move.” (The Chinese called it a ‘sui-hsing’ or a star with a sweeping tail. To the ancient Koreans, it was ‘po-hsing’ or a bushy star.)

Giotto di Bondone in his painting Adoration of the Magi depicts a comet as the Star of Bethlehem; Giotto had seen Halley’s Comet in A.D. 1301. Even the early Church Father Origen (who fell into heresy) said, “The star that was seen in the east we consider to have been a new star, unlike any of the other well-known planetary bodies, either those in the firmament above or those among the lower orbs, but partaking of the nature of those celestial bodies which appear at times, such as comets…”

However, in the ancient world, comets were seen as bad omens. In A.D. 66, Halley’s Comet was recorded by Flavius Josephus as “hanging over Jerusalem like a bloody sword”; the first Jewish-Roman war began that year. It is unlikely, therefore that a comet would have been seen by the ancients are an omen of good news – the birth of the Messiah. Certainly the Magi would not have rejoiced "with exceeding great joy" upon seeing a comet, a harbinger of bad things to come.

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