The Christmas Star is one of the holiday season’s most fascinating and enduring stories. Yet even today, astronomers remain uncertain as to the precise nature of the heavenly event that inspired it.
In a series of blog posts, I’ll be reviewing some key pieces of evidence supporting several of the most likely contenders along with some traditional and not so traditional interpretations.
A few days ago, we investigated the messianic biblical prophecy of Balaam (Numbers 24.17) and how it may be connected, through the Magi, to one of the strongest contenders, a triple Saturn/Jupiter conjunction in Pisces in 06/07 BC.
Yet, because such conjunctions are not really all that rare, the question then became whether or not something else might have been going on. Turns out that there was and it had to do with how the Magi, once an amorphous group of wise men, became only three. Not only that, but these three magi brought important gifts to the new born king. They also saved the baby Jesus from the clutches of yet another king, the blood-thirsty Herod.
But just as it was all beginning to fit together nicely, we had to consider a completely different version of the story, as found in the Gospel of Luke. With this, all reference to the magi, their gifts, Herod, and even our Christmas Star have disappeared. Instead, we are presented with shepherds and a harking angel.
What would the early Christian writers make of this muddle and how might it effect our thinking about the Christmas Star?
Until Ignatius of Antioch ( c. 35 or 50 CE – 89-117 CE), there was no Christmas Star, at least not in its current incarnation. It was with his Letter to Ephesians that the star as we now know it first appeared in an early marketing campaign for Christianity. In the view of Ignatius, the ‘star’ in question was a miracle not a predictable planetary configuration, a sign from the heavens that with the birth of Christ, mankind was set free from the historical bonds of magic and (astrologically inspired) fate.
A star shone forth in the heaven about all the stars: and its light was unutterable, and its strangeness caused amazement; and all the rest of the constellations with the sun and moon formed themselves into a chorus about the star…
From that time forward every sorcery and every spell was dissolved, the ignorance of wickedness vanished away…Letter to Ephesians (19:2-3) – Lightfoot Translation
Following the lead of Ignatius, Origen (184 -253 AD), another early Christian writer, introduced the idea that the inspirational heavenly event in question was indeed not planetary in nature but instead a comet.
We consider that the star that was seen ‘at its rising’ was a new star, and not like any of the normal celestial bodies…
We have read in the book called Concerning Comets by Chaeremon the Stoic that at times comets have appeared when good events were about to occur.
Why would it be a great surprise that a star should have appeared at the birth of one who was going to introduce new ideas to the human race and to reveal his teaching not only to Jews, but also to Greeks, and to many barbarian nations in addition?
Now I would point out with respect to comets that there is no prophecy about comets in circulation stating that such and such a comet would appear at the rise of a particular kingdom or at a particular time. However, the star which appeared at Jesus’ birth had been prophesied by Balaam, recorded by Moses, when he said ‘A star shall appear out of Jacob, and a man shall rise up out of Israel.’Contra Celsum 1:58-59
With this, both Balaam and the pericope of Matthew are covered. Even better, in 5BC, well within the required time frame, astronomers in China, had recorded a bright comet constellation of Capricorn in 5BC.
Here’s additional Biblical support for the comet theory:
And a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars: she was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery. And another portent appeared in heaven: behold a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems upon his heads. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven, and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, that he might devour her child when she brought it forth; she brought forth a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne.Revelations 12: 1-5 (RSV)
The argument is that only a comet could appear as herein described. Indeed, Balaam’s mysterious reference to a ‘star’ and ‘scepter’ also fits to the appearance of a comet in the sense that at a key state of its apparition, a comet would look like a scepter.
Yet another biblical passage adds support:
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light: those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.Isaiah 9: 2 (RSV)
Probably no one has done more to promote the comet hypothesis than Giotto di Bondone (1266/17 – 1337), the medieval Italian artist. His fresco entitled ‘the Adoration of the Magi’ in Padua portrayed the Christmas Star as a comet.
But if we are to embrace the comet theory, it appears we must also forgo the pericope in Luke with its shepherds and announcing angel. Indeed, might that not be what Ignatius wanted? And quite how are we to accommodate, the mother of Jesus, giving birth with the moon under her feet as described in Revelations?