Saturday, January 09, 2016

What was the Bethlehem star?

Tomorrow, we're celebrating Epiphany at Living Water Lutheran Church.

Of course, Epiphany Day, the twelfth day of Christmas, actually falls on January 6. But since it didn't fall on a Sunday, I wanted to focus tomorrow on the events of the first Epiphany, when magi (also sometimes called wise men or even kings) from "the east" (literally, in the Greek in which the Gospel of Matthew tells us about the events, the anatolai, which can also mean rising, certainly a word not used casually by Matthew) followed a star and brought gifts to the newborn King Jesus.

But what exactly was the star?

Lots of theories have been advanced. In a new book, informed by paying close attention to astronomy, New Testament scholar Colin R. Nichol suggests that the star that guided the magi to Jesus was actually a comet.

In an interview with Christianity Today, Nichol asserts:
The star appeared suddenly and was visible for over a year, something that makes sense only if it were a supernova or a great comet. That the star surprised the Magi with its impressive “rising” points strongly to it being a comet: Of all the celestial bodies, only comets behave in this manner.

Then you take into account the star’s movement, in the space of a couple of months, from the eastern morning sky to the southern evening sky, where they see it when they’re traveling from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. That kind of movement is only possible for an object in the inner solar system, meaning that the star had to be a comet. 
At the end of the Magi’s journey, the star stands over the place of Jesus’ birth, pinpointing a particular location. As New Testament scholar Craig Keener has pointed out, that’s something only a comet can do. Josephus mentions a comet that “stood over” Jerusalem in the run-up to the Judean War. Another Roman historian, Cassius Dio, mentions that another comet did something similar over Rome in 12 B.C. This is all very powerful evidence, and there is much more in the book.
When asked if his theory didn't suggest that we should talk about "the Bethlehem comet" instead of "the Bethlehem star," Nichol replies:
No. In the ancient world, many astronomical entities—meteors, for instance—could be regarded as “stars.” In fact, we still describe meteors as “shooting stars.” Comets were commonly called “stars.” This was true in the Greco-Roman world, in the writings of philosophers like Pliny and Seneca. It was also true in Babylon.  
In Numbers 24:17, there’s a prophecy by Balaam about a “scepter” and a “star” (“. . . a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel”). Ancient rabbis could refer to comets as “scepter stars.” The “star” in Numbers is almost certainly a comet.
It's an interesting and plausible theory that Nichol presents. It might even be true.

But the key take-away from Matthew's account of the first Epiphany is that the God of Israel found a way to get the attention of Gentiles, non-Jews, to announce the birth of the Messiah. When the magi found Jesus, they worshiped. They believed. The star then, was one of the most dramatic tools God has ever used to make disciples.

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