The Star of Bethlehem (Matt. 2:1–12) has long captured the imagination of many even while it has stirred debate. Was it a conjunction of planets? An exploding star (supernova)? An angel? Or could it have been just an ordinary star?
I recently corresponded with Colin Nicholl (PhD, University of Cambridge) about his latest work, The Great Christ Comet: Revealing the True Star of Bethlehem [review]. As the title suggests, Nicholl argues that the Star was actually a comet that led the Magi to baby Jesus.
In this interview we learn how the Bible and science are not in tension, why knowing what the Star of Bethlehem practically matters, whether we should put comets atop our Christmas trees, and more.
Why are you convinced that the Star of Bethlehem was a comet? Could it not have been an ordinary star?
It’s important to rehearse briefly what we know about the Star.
First, it appeared suddenly and remained visible for over a year—that indicates that it wasn’t an ordinary star, a meteor, or a planet like Jupiter, but rather was a supernova or a large comet like Hale-Bopp (1996–1997).
Second, the Star shifted from the eastern morning sky to the southern evening sky within a couple of months. That suggests that it wasn’t a fixed body, but rather a rapidly moving solar system object, more specifically a comet.
Third, the Star had an impressive and surprising “rising”—the risings of ordinary stars and planets were predictable and visually unremarkable. But the rising of a comet making a close pass by the Sun was not predictable and could be very dramatic.
Fourth, the Star “stood over” the house, seeming to pinpoint it—nothing but a comet could have done that. Matthew’s description of the Star of Bethlehem can, in my opinion, only be explained if the Star was a comet, more specifically, a large comet that made a relatively close pass by the Sun.
What’s the main apologetic value of all this? In other words, what’s at stake practically? Why does it matter what the Star of Bethlehem was?
At a time when we are so often told that science and the Bible and religion are irreconcilable enemies, I seek to show that the two may be good friends, engaging in an exciting and powerful way. Science may elucidate and confirm Scripture to an astonishing extent. Many have rejected—and some have even ridiculed—Matthew’s “GPS-like Star” as obviously unhistorical. In the book, however, I seek to show that
(1) Matthew’s description of the Star is uniquely and perfectly compatible with a large comet;
(2) an orbit can be developed for that comet that accommodates all of Matthew’s claims; and
(3) other independent accounts of the celestial wonder attending Jesus’s birth are astronomically consistent with such a cometary Star.
This all constitutes powerful evidence that Matthew was a historically reliable biographer. It also strongly supports the Gospel writer’s claim that Jesus is the Messiah prophesied in the Hebrew Scriptures.
In addition, God’s use of a great comet to celebrate his Son’s birth gives us in the 21st century an amazing glimpse of his sovereign mastery over his cosmos. It demonstrates his complete lordship over the realm of astronomy.
Until now, scholarly debate about the Star of Bethlehem was heavy on astronomy and light on history and theology. How did bringing biblical scholarship into the mix help solve the puzzle?
The Star of Bethlehem debate was, in my view, sinking into a quagmire. Many were running too quickly to astronomy without a clear idea of what they were looking for, and so ending up with theories that weren’t in good accord with Matthew’s account. All too often the elements in Matthew that didn’t fit were simply put down to the Gospel writer’s use of “poetic license” or that kind of thing.
It seemed to me that the quest for the historical Star should be reconstructed on the solid and secure foundation of Matthew’s account. In other words, we needed to start with a careful exegesis of Matthew, paying close attention to the genre, the grammar, word choice, and so on. This is where a biblical scholar’s input is necessary. When we give due time and attention to an analysis of Matthew, we emerge with lots of information that we can take to the astronomical sphere in the search for the historical Star. We can quickly rule out theories that don’t line up with what Matthew records and we can deduce what the Star was.
Why did the Magi believe that the astronomical phenomenon they observed signified the birth of the Messiah?
As many scholars of Matthew have correctly deduced, the Magi were most likely exposed to key Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah through Jewish neighbors. Through such messianic prophecies they came to interpret the astronomical body as revealing that the Messiah’s birth had taken place. What the Magi say in Matthew 2:2 seems to allude to the oracle of Balaam that spoke of the Messiah’s coming in terms of a “scepter” and “star,” implying that a scepter-like comet would announce his birth (Num. 24:17). The Magi appear to have come to the firm conclusion that the Star had fulfilled Balaam’s oracle on a literal level. Their choice of gold, frankincense, and myrrh as gifts (Matt. 2:11) suggests that they were also influenced by oracles in Isaiah (especially Isaiah 53 and 60). I argue that the Magi interpreted what the Star did through the lens of Isaiah 7–9 (esp. 7:14 and 9:2).
How is Revelation 12:1–5 the key to the story of the Star of Bethlehem?
I argue that Revelation 12:1–5 sheds light on the mystery of what the Magi saw the Star do in the eastern sky that prompted them to travel to Judea in search of the Messiah. It portrays an astronomical scene in which a woman becomes pregnant and goes into labor and gives birth to a child, the Jewish Messiah. Many scholars have appreciated that the woman in Revelation 12 is Israel and that the child is Jesus. But no satisfying explanation of the strikingly astronomical nature of this nativity “sign” in verses 1–5 has ever been offered.
I propose that the only compelling explanation of this enigma is that John (the author of Revelation) is recalling the celestial drama that attended Jesus’s birth. In essence, God broadcasted in heaven, more specifically in the constellation of the Virgin, what was happening secretly in Bethlehem down below. As to how this celestial nativity drama occurred, only the head of a large comet moving in perfect sync with Earth could have brought the heavens to life in this way, so that the cometary baby appeared to grow in the virgin’s womb and be born.
Astonishingly, the profile of a comet doing such a thing is precisely the same as that of Matthew’s comet. And, incredibly, the cometary orbit extrapolated from John’s description is impeccably compatible with everything that Matthew writes about the Star.
What did the Star “standing over” the place where Jesus lay look like?
Matthew says that the Star “went before” the Magi as they traveled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem and then finally “stood over” the place where Jesus was. Similarly, historian Diodorus Siculus records that a torch-like comet “went before and led” Timoleon from Corinth to Sicily. And Josephus reveals that a great cometary star that looked like a sword “stood over” Jerusalem in the run-up to its destruction. Josephus and Matthew both seem to be referring to comets that appeared to stand near-vertically over the horizon as they set.
When comets do this, they may readily be perceived to be pinpointing a particular location along the visible horizon, as the standing Star was evidently regarded as doing. At the time this occurred the Magi, then in Bethlehem, must have been located the other side of the house from where the comet was. Rejoicing, they entered the house and, as they’d suspected, discovered there the baby Messiah.
You conclude that the Great Christ Comet could only be “an intrinsically bright, very large, narrowly inclined, retrograde, long-period comet.” Can you help us non-astronomers understand exactly what that means?
Most comets are small, but some, like Comet Hale-Bopp and the Christ Comet, are large.
Large comets are generally brighter comets. That means that if you were to put all comets the same distance from both the Sun and Earth, these comets would be seen to be among the brightest. That’s why they became visible so early and remained observable to the naked eye for so long.
“Narrowly inclined” means that, like the planets, the Christ Comet’s orbit around the Sun is somewhat flat compared to Earth’s and the comet is mostly seen in the zodiacal constellations.
“Retrograde” indicates that it travels around the Sun in the opposite direction to Earth.
“Long period” means that it takes a long time to complete one revolution around the Sun. With the exception of Halley’s Comet, the greatest comets are all long-period comets.
Just curious: do you have a comet decoration atop your Christmas tree?
Oh dear, you have almost figured me out! I do love comets and have canvases of the magnificent comets of 1680 and 1843 displayed around my home. And I did recently purchase a comet rope light display for the front of the house. But my favorite Christmas decoration this year is a stunning German wooden backlit comet in which the natal scene is portrayed in the comet head, and the Magi, approaching with their gifts, in the comet tail.
As regards the Christmas tree topper, alas, I’m a victim of the market—I have yet to find a decent comet one. So our topper is a bog-standard, five-pointed, glittery star. Maybe I could start a new line of comet toppers!
Anyway, I hope lots of your readers not only have the Star of Bethlehem on top of their Christmas tree this year, but below it too (if you get my meaning!).