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We know from the biblical text that the magi claimed a star had guided them to Bethlehem. We must confess from the very start that scholars do not understand the nature of the star. There are numerous suggestions. But the unlikeliest depiction is probably also the most popular. Christmas cards often depict a star hovering over the home of Mary and Joseph, with a beam of light shining down upon the family. It’s not clear how a giant spotlight from heaven would work (not to mention being troublesome for neighbors and extremely inconvenient for the Holy Family when trying to evade Herod’s assassins. And don’t even get started on the fictional “little drummer boy” violating the local noise ordinances).

Suggestions as to the nature of the star include a comet, a supernova, or a conjunction of two planets. Some have suggested that the star seen by the magi was a planet, which they followed until it began to move in retrograde motion (giving the appearance of going backward due to the different distances of the planets from the sun and their varying speeds in orbit).

A comet is probably the least likely explanation. A more likely candidate would be a supernova, one of which occurred in February of 4 BC. One of the best explanations is a conjunction that occurred between Jupiter and Venus near Regulus—one of the brightest stars in the night sky—in June of 2 BC, with another conjunction of the same planets in August of 3 BC. If Herod died in 1 BC as some scholars believe, the timing of these events fits the details of Matthew’s account very well.

While we do not know the exact nature of the star seen by the magi, we find some tantalizing historical connections in the work of ancient historians. It seems that the legend of a ruler like a star based on Balaam’s prophecy (Numbers 24:17) circulated the eastern Mediterranean. Josephus reports this belief, as do the Roman historians Suetonius and Tacitus. Whatever the nature of this star, various writers from different cultures knew something about it.

Some of the depictions of this star in art and literature are impossible. However, Matthew records that the wise men saw something visible and real. He uses language that seems to assume that his original audience knew what he meant. Given the fact that the Gospel accounts are historical documents, we can rule out fanciful explanations that we might expect from ancient mythology.

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