In the Gospel of Matthew, the Bible describes a mysterious star appearing over the place where Jesus Christ came to Earth in Bethlehem on the first Christmas, and leading wise men (known as the Magi) to find Jesus so they could visit him.
People have debated what the "star" really was over the many years since the Bible's report was written. Some say it was a fable; others say it was a miracle. Here's the story of what the Bible says happened and what many astronomers now believe about this famous celestial event:
The Bible's Report
The Bible records the story in Matthew 2:1-11. Verses 1 and 2 say: "After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, 'Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.'
The story continues by describing how King Herod "called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law" and "asked them where the Messiah was to be born" (verse 4). They replied: "In Bethlehem in Judea," (verse 5) and quote a prophecy about where the Messiah (the world's savior) will be born. Many scholars who knew the ancient prophecies well expected the Messiah to be born in Bethlehem.
Verse 7 and 8 say: "Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, 'Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.'" Herod was lying to the Magi about his intentions; actually, Herod wanted to confirm Jesus' location so he could order soldiers to kill Jesus, because Herod saw Jesus as a threat to his own power.
The story continues in verses 9 and 10: "After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed."
Then the Bible describes the Magi arriving at Jesus' house, visiting him with his mother Mary, worshiping him, and presenting him with their famous gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Finally, verse 12 says of the Magi: "... having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route."
Over the years as people have debated whether or not a real star actually appeared over Jesus' home and led the Magi there, some people have said that the star was nothing more than a literary device -- a symbol for the apostle Matthew to use in his story to convey the light of hope that those who expected the Messiah's arrival felt when Jesus was born.
During the many centuries of debates about the Star of Bethlehem, some people have surmised that the "star" was actually a bright angel in the sky.
Why? Angels are messengers from God and the star was communicating an important message, and angels guide people and the star guided the Magi to Jesus. Also, Bible scholars believe that the Bible refers to angels as "stars" in several other places, such as Job 38:7 ("while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy") and Psalm 147:4 ("He determines the number of stars and calls them each by name")
However, Bible scholars don't believe that the Star of Bethlehem passage in the Bible refers to an angel.
Some people say that the Star of Bethlehem is a miracle -- either a light that God commanded to appear supernaturally, or a natural astronomical phenomenon that God miraculously caused to happen at that time in history. Many Bible scholars believe that the Star of Bethlehem was a miracle in the sense that God arranged parts of his natural creation in space to make an unusual phenomenon occur on the first Christmas. God's purpose for doing so, they believe, was to create a portent -- an omen, or sign, that would direct people's attention to something.
In his book The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi, Michael R. Molnar writes that, "There was indeed a great celestial portent during Herod’s reign, a portent that signified the birth of a great king of Judea and is in excellent agreement with the biblical account."
The unusual appearance and behavior of the star have inspired people to call it miraculous, but if it's a miracle, it's a miracle that can be explained naturally, some believe. Molnar later writes: "If the theory that the Star of Bethlehem is an unexplainable miracle is put aside, there are several intriguing theories that relate the star to a specific celestial event. And often these theories strongly inclined toward advocating astronomical phenomena; that is, visible movement or positioning of celestial bodies, as portents."
In The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Geoffrey W. Bromiley writes about the Star of Bethlehem event: "The God of the Bible is the creator of all celestial objects and they bear witness to Him. He can certainly intervene and change their natural course."
Astronomers have debated over the years if the Star of Bethlehem was actually a star, or if it was a comet, a planet, or several planets coming together to create an especially bright light.
Now that technology has progressed to the point where astronomers can scientifically analyze past events in space, many astronomers believe that they've identified what happened around the time that historians place Jesus’ birth: during the spring of the year 5 B.C.
A Nova Star
The answer, they say, is that the Star of Bethlehem really was truly a star -- an extraordinarily bright one, called a nova.
In his book The Star of Bethlehem: An Astronomer's View, Mark R. Kidger writes that the Star of Bethlehem was "almost certainly a nova" that appeared in mid-March 5 B.C. "somewhere between the modern constellations of Capricornus and Aquila".
"The Star of Bethlehem is a star," writes Frank J. Tipler in his book The Physics of Christianity. "It is not a planet, or a comet, or a conjunction between two or more planets, or an occultation of Jupiter by the moon. ... if this account in Matthew’s Gospel is taken literally, then the Star of Bethlehem must have been a Type 1a supernova or a Type 1c hypernova, located either in the Andromeda Galaxy, or, if Type 1a, in a globular cluster of this galaxy."
Tipler adds that Matthew’s report of the star staying for a while over where Jesus was meant that the star "passed through the zenith at Bethlehem" at a latitude of 31 by 43 degrees north.
The Light of the World
Why would God send a star to lead people to Jesus on the first Christmas? It could have been because the star's bright light symbolized what the Bible later records Jesus saying about his mission on Earth: "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life." (John 8:12).
Ultimately, writes Bromiley in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, the question that matters most isn't what the Star of Bethlehem was, but to whom it lead people. "One must realize that the narrative does not give a detailed description because the star itself was not important. It was mentioned only because it was a guide to the Christ child and a sign of His birth."