The Star of Bethlehem
No narrative of Holy Scripture is more familiar to us than that of the visit of the wise men from the East to see Him that was born King of the Jews. It was towards the end of the reign of Herod the Great that they arrived at Jerusalem, and threw Herod the king and all the city into great excitement by their question—
"Where is He that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the east, and are come to worship Him."
Herod at once gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, and demanded of them where the Messiah should be born. Their reply was distinct and unhesitating—
"In Bethlehem of Judæa: for thus it is written by the Prophet, And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule My people Israel. Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, inquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young Child; and when ye have found Him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship Him also. When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy."
So much, and no more are we told of the star of Bethlehem, and the story is as significant in its omissions as in that which it tells us.
What sort of a star it was that led the wise men; how they learnt from it that the King of the Jews was born; how it went before them; how it stood over where the young Child was, we do not know. Nor is it of the least importance that we should know. One verse more, and that a short one, would have answered these inquiries; it would have told us whether it was some conjunction of the planets; whether perchance it was a comet, or a "new" or "temporary" star; or whether it was a supernatural light, like the pillar of fire that guided the children of Israel in the wilderness. But that verse has not been given. The twelve or twenty additional words, which could have cleared up the matter, have been withheld, and there can be no doubt as to the reason. The "star," whatever its physical nature, was of no importance, except as a guide to the birthplace of the infant Jesus. Information about it would have drawn attention from the object of the narrative; it would have given to a mere sign-post the importance which belonged only to "the Word made flesh."
We are often told that the Bible should be studied precisely as any other book is studied. Yet before we can criticize any book, we must first ascertain what was the purpose that the author had in writing it. The history of England, for instance, has been written by many persons and from many points of view. One man has traced the succession of the dynasties, the relationships of the successive royal families, and the effect of the administrations of the various kings. Another has chiefly considered the development of representative government and of parliamentary institutions. A third has concerned himself more with the different races that, by their fusion, have formed the nation as it is to-day. A fourth has dealt with the social condition of the people, the increase of comfort and luxury. To a fifth the true history of England is the story of its expansion, the foundation and growth of its colonial empire. While to a sixth, its religious history is the one that claims most attention, and the struggles with Rome, the rise and decay of Puritanism, and the development of modern thought will fill his pages. Each of these six will select just those facts, and those facts only, that are relevant to his subject. The introduction of irrelevant facts would be felt to mark the ignorant or unskilful workman. The master of his craft will keep in the background the details that have no bearing on his main purpose, and to those which have but a slight bearing he will give only such notice as their importance in this connection warrants.
The purpose of the Bible is to reveal God to us, and to teach us of our relationship to Him. It was not intended to gratify that natural and laudable curiosity which has been the foundation of the physical sciences. Our own efforts, our own intelligence can help us here, and the Scriptures have not been given us in order to save us the trouble of exerting them.
There is no reason for surprise, then, that the information given us concerning the star is, astronomically, so imperfect. We are, indeed, told but two facts concerning it. First that its appearance, in some way or other, informed the wise men, not of the birth of a king of the Jews, but of the King of the Jews, for Whose coming not Israel only, but more or less consciously the whole civilized world, was waiting. Next, having come to Judæa in consequence of this information, the "star" pointed out to them the actual spot where the new-born King was to be found. "It went before them till it came and stood over where the young Child was." It may also be inferred from Matt. ii. 10 that in some way or other the wise men had for a time lost sight of the star, so that the two facts mentioned of it relate to two separate appearances. The first appearance induced them to leave the East, and set out for Judæa; the second pointed out to them the place at Bethlehem where the object of their search was to be found. Nothing is told us respecting the star except its work as a guide.
Some three centuries ago the ingenious and devout Kepler supposed that he could identify the Star with a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn, in the constellation Pisces. This conjunction took place in the month of May, b.c. 7, not very long before the birth of our Lord is supposed to have taken place.
But the late Prof. C. Pritchard has shown, first, that a similar and closer conjunction occurred 59 years earlier, and should therefore have brought a Magian deputation to Judæa then. Next, that the two planets never approached each other nearer than twice the apparent diameter of the moon, so that they would have appeared, not as one star, but as two. And thirdly, if the planets had seemed to stand over Bethlehem as the wise men left Jerusalem, they most assuredly would not have appeared to do so when they arrived at the little city. Ingenious as the suggestion was, it may be dismissed as unworthy of serious consideration.
Another suggestion shows upon what slight foundations a well-rounded legend may be built. In the year 1572 a wonderful "new star" appeared in the constellation Cassiopeia. At its brightest it outshone Venus, and, though it gradually declined in splendour, it remained visible for some sixteen months. There have been other instances of outbursts of bright short-lived stars; and brief notices, in the annals of the years 1265 and 952 may have referred to such objects, but more probably these were comets. The guess was hazarded that these objects might be one and the same; that the star in Cassiopeia might be a "variable" star, bursting into brilliancy about every 315 or 316 years; that it was the star that announced the birth of our Lord, and that it would reappear towards the end of the nineteenth century to announce His second coming.
One thing more was lacking to make the legend complete, and this was supplied by the planet Venus, which shines with extraordinary brilliance when in particular parts of her orbit. On one of these occasions, when she was seen as a morning star in the east, some hazy recollection of the legend just noticed caused a number of people to hail her as none other than the star of Bethlehem at its predicted return.
There is no reason to suppose that the star of 1572 had ever appeared before that date, or will ever appear again. But in any case we are perfectly sure that it could not have been the star of Bethlehem. For Cassiopeia is a northern constellation, and the wise men, when they set out from Jerusalem to Bethlehem must have had Cassiopeia and all her stars behind them.
The fact that the "star" went before them and stood over where the young Child lay, gives the impression that it was some light, like the Shekinah glory resting on the Ark in the tabernacle, or the pillar of fire which led the children of Israel through the wilderness. But this view raises the questions as to the form in which it first appeared to the wise men when they were still in the East, and how they came to call it a star, when they must have recognized how very unstarlike it was. Whilst, if what they saw when in the East was really a star, it seems most difficult to understand how it can have appeared to go before them and to stand over the place where the young Child lay.
I have somewhere come across a legend which may possibly afford the clue, but I have not been able to find that the legend rests upon any authority. It is that the star had been lost in the daylight by the time that the wise men reached Jerusalem. It was therefore an evening star during their journey thither. But it is said that when they reached Bethlehem, apparently nearly at midday, one of them went to the well of the inn, in order to draw water. Looking down into the well, he saw the star, reflected from the surface of the water. This would of course be an intimation to them that the star was directly overhead, and its re-observation, under such unusual circumstances, would be a sufficient assurance that they had reached the right spot. Inquiry in the inn would lead to a knowledge of the visit of the shepherds, and of the angelic message which had told them where to find the Babe born in the city of David, "a Saviour, Which is Christ the Lord."
If this story be true, the "Star of Bethlehem" was probably a "new star," like that of 1572. Its first appearance would then have caused the Magi to set out on their journey, though it does not appear how they knew what it signified, unless we suppose that they were informed of it in a dream, just as they were afterwards warned of God not to return to Herod. Whilst they were travelling the course of the year would bring the star, which shone straight before them in the west after sunset every evening, nearer and nearer to the sun. We may suppose that, like other new stars, it gradually faded, so that by the time the wise men had reached Jerusalem they had lost sight of it altogether. Having thus lost it, they would probably not think of looking for it by daylight, for it is no easy thing to detect by daylight even Venus at her greatest brilliancy, unless one knows exactly where to look. The difficulty does not lie in any want of brightness, but in picking up and holding steadily so minute a point of light in the broad expanse of the gleaming sky. This difficulty would be overcome for them, according to this story, by the well, which acted like a tube to direct them exactly to the star, and like a telescope, to lessen the sky glare. It would be also necessary to suppose that the star was flashing out again with renewed brilliancy. Such a brief recovery of light has not been unknown in the case of some of our "new" or "temporary" stars.
I give the above story for what it is worth, but I attach no importance to it myself. Some, however, may feel that it removes what they had felt as a difficulty in the narrative,—namely, to understand how the star could "stand over where the young Child lay." It would also explain, what seems to be implied in the narrative, how it happened that the Magi alone, and not the Jews in general, perceived the star at its second appearance.
For myself, the narrative appears to me astronomically too incomplete for any astronomical conclusions to be drawn from it. The reticence of the narrative on all points, except those directly relating to our Lord Himself, is an illustration of the truth that the Scriptures were not written to instruct us in astronomy, or in any of the physical sciences, but that we might have eternal life.
Posted by Professorburton
at 2:37 AM CST
Updated: Thursday, 24 December 2009 2:41 AM CST