One of the major “characters” in the Christmas story is—perhaps surprisingly—a star, one that some wise men follow from the East all the way to Bethlehem. The star makes a brief appearance in Matthew’s gospel (2:2, 7, 9, 10), before passing off the scene (and into nearly every Christmas carol). Have you ever wondered what it was the Magi saw? After all, I doubt they left on holiday every time they saw something peculiar in the sky. (Otherwise, the adjective “wise” would be rather ill-fitting, wouldn’t it?) Well, as far as I can tell, there are four common explanations. First, some think the wise men saw a supernova that left a trail of light in the sky for several days—long enough, at least, to guide the wise men’s journey. There are Chinese and Korean records that indicate that this sort of thing occurred around the time of Jesus’ birth (5/4 B.C.). Second, some think the wise men followed the blazing tail of a comet. (Whether the tail was as big as a kite, is, of course, another matter altogether.) Scientists note that Halley’s comet was active at this time, though probably appearing a few years too early to be a real contender (12–11 B.C.). Third, some suggest the wise men saw a planetary conjunction, something that occurs when two or more planets approach each other’s orbits. Johannes Kepler (1571–1630) noted that a rare triple conjunction of Jupiter, Saturn and Mars occurred in 7–6 B.C. Other records indicate that a conjunction of Jupiter and Venus occurred in 3 B.C., near the luminous star Regulus, and still others that one between Jupiter and Venus took place in 2 B.C. In fact, the latter conjunction is said to have occurred right over Bethlehem on December 25! Fourth, some suggest the wise men followed something that was, in the final analysis, simply miraculous.
So, which of these did the wise men see and follow? Was it a supernova, a comet, a planetary conjunction or something miraculous? Matthew gives us a hint when he says that the star “went ahead of [the wise men] until it stopped over the place where [Jesus] was” (2:9). In other words, as one author puts it, “The star is not described realistically, i.e., as astronomically plausible.” If Matthew means to tell us what actually happened, then we’re probably looking at a miracle here. If, however, as some suggest, Matthew invented this bit about the star to add significance to Jesus’ birth—perhaps to make sure his audience knew Jesus fulfills Numbers 24:17—then the historicity of the account doesn’t matter quite as much as what it tells us about Jesus. What points away from this is that Matthew probably would not have invented a story about Gentile astrologers (!) identifying and worshipping Israel’s messiah. In short, what the wise men saw and followed was indeed a star of wonder, guiding them—and now us—to the perfect light.