The Star of Bethlehem: One Theory

What do we make of the story of the wise men following a magical star from the East to the newborn king in Bethlehem?  Sound a bit far-fetched and fairytale-ish?  I used to think so as well.

Many deny the possibility of a supernatural explanation to begin with. This is unnecessary.  If God can bring the universe into being with divine decree and raise the dead at will, then I see no reason why he could not have also sent a bright star that first Christmas.

However, must we rule out all naturalistic explanations?  A little historical and cultural background of this story also reveals some very plausible scientific theories as to what this astronomical/astrological phenomenon might have been.  Perhaps under God’s wise sovereignty and foresight, that “star” that led the magi to Bethlehem was a combination of natural astral activity in concert with God’s supernatural sending of his son “when the fullness of time had come” (Gal 4:4).  Let’s take a look.

First, these were not “three kings” as the song goes.  They were “magi” from the East — most likely superstitious astrologists perhaps from the royal court of the Babylonian empire. It does not specify how many. The ancients assigned great significance to the art of reading and interpreting the movements of the skies.  They kept careful records of the notable celestial activity, and with computer technology today we can calculate exactly where each star and planets were in the sky accurately all the way back 2,000 years and beyond.

Second, the scientific records indicate some pretty interesting astral activity occurring around the time of Jesus’ birth. In the year 7 B.C. there was a unique convergence of the planets Jupiter and Saturn under the sign of Pisces on the zodiac. The last of these convergences included Mars as well.  The significance of these convergences according to the astrological meanings assigned to these planets makes for a pretty strong case for why some oriental astrologers of the Babylonian or Persian royal court might be interested in going to see if the stars have really said what they thought they said — namely, that a new and mighty King of the Jews has been born in Israel.

What does such a convergence signify to the ancient mind?  Below is a chart displaying the meaning of each planet (chart from Woodland Hills Church sermon archives):


Third, the magi would not only be experts in interpreting the movements of the sky, but also curious collectors of ancient religious prophecies of significance. Ancient kings hired such scholars to be on the look out for threats to their kingdom and to appease the wrath of the gods. It is not far fetched to guess that the Babylonian magi might have in their possession a copy of the Hebrew scriptures with the famous “messianic prophecies” indicating a future king likened to a star to be born in Bethlehem:

I see Him, but not now;I behold Him, but not near;A Star shall come out of Jacob;A Scepter shall rise out of Israel,And batter the brow of Moab,And destroy all the sons of tumult. (Num 24:17).
“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” (Micah 5:2)

Fourth, there is a shocking missional edge to the Magi traveling from afar to worship Jesus the Messiah.  As Scot McKnight puts it: “Their witness, as “magi” (probably astrologers) who are notoriously pejorative in Jewish literature, contrasts with the witness of those who should have known better: Herod’s court. What to learn? God raises up witnesses from all over the place, and not always from folks we’d prefer. Their witness reveals that the Messiah is not just Savior of his people (Israel; 1:21) but also king of the Jews who will rule also Gentiles.”

In sum, is it not possible that natural astronomical phenomena happening around the time of Jesus birth with astrological meaning might lead some Babylonian astrologers to conclude a great Jewish King will be born in Israel?  Might their suspicions be further confirmed and solidified when these astrological signs are combined with specific ancient prophecies that indicate the exact location of a royal birth in Bethlehem?  Might they set out toward the house of Israel in search of this new born royal figure?  Even a skeptic must accept that it’s not an unreasonable possibility.

For a fascinating sermon describing this in much more detail LISTEN to Gregory Boyd’s “The Star of Bethlehem” from December 24, 2003.

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  1. #1 by pbaudhuin on December 15, 2011 - 1:08 am

    As one who grew up outside of the Church and had his epiphany gazing at the stars, the story of the magi has always fascinated me. My journey started in the Mexican desert and led me to north woods of MN where I found the new born king born in me, and, as did the magi, upon seeing him, bowed down and worshipped him. While the science of it is fascinating and important, it is the mystery of it that I love. What I’ve always wondered is this: the magi were students of the stars. Isn’t it possible that it wouldn’t have taken something phenomenal to draw to their attention? Might they have been drawn to a subtle abnormality that the novice would miss (as they did)? Might a more subtle abnormality coupled with the leadings of the Spirit been all it took? Great stuff. Thanks for throwing this out there.

  1. The Star of Bethlehem in the Blogosphere | Fleeing Nergal, Seeking Stars

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