It’s still the season of Epiphany (just), so here is my article for the January Crossways newsletter for St Paul’s Church Spennymoor and Whitworth Church.
You might know that I used to be an astronomer. I spent a good few years studying distant galaxies, with the help of some powerful telescopes.
They didn’t have telescopes when the Bible was written, but people still looked at the heavens. (There wasn’t much else to do in those days!)
One of the most famous bits of astronomy in the Bible is the account of the Magi coming to worship Jesus because they ‘saw his star’ (Matthew 2:2). What was this ‘star’? And how did they know it what it meant?
There are lots of different theories about the star of Bethlehem. All of them sound convincing! We have lots of information about the night sky from thousands of years ago, through Chinese and other records. People say it could have been a comet, or a supernova, or a particular arrangement of planets and stars, or a miraculous supernatural event. Even if it was a natural event, there would have been a miracle of timing, as the star would have appeared in the sky just at the time when Jesus was born.
Whatever the star was, there’s good reason to think that it wasn’t something particularly spectacular. When the Magi arrived in Jerusalem, no one else seemed to have known about it, and the people had to ask the Magi when it had appeared. So it must have been something only the experts would have noticed.
One suggestion, from Christian astrophysicist Hugh Ross, is that it might have been a ‘recurrent nova’. This is a bright new star (‘nova’ means ‘new’), but not as bright as a ‘supernova’. It is also a ‘recurrent’ star: one that appears, then disappears, then appears again. This might explain why the Magi saw the star again on their way to Bethlehem (Matthew 5:9).
We often think that the star led the Magi directly to Jesus. But that’s not what happened. The Magi didn’t go to Bethlehem initially. Instead they went to Jerusalem. The star led them to believe that someone had been ‘born king of the Jews’ (Matthew 2:2). And where would you find the king of the Jews? In Jerusalem! It was only after they looked in the Scriptures (Micah) that they knew they should go to Bethlehem.
But how did the Magi know what the star meant in the first place?
Hugh Ross points out that Daniel had been one of the Magi, several hundred years before Jesus was born. Perhaps the Magi at the time of Jesus were familiar with Daniel’s writings? If so, they might have been expecting the birth of the Messiah, the Christ, the ‘Anointed One’ (Daniel 9:25). If the star appeared in the right bit of the sky, that would have told the Magi that the Messiah had been born.
We are never encouraged to look for messages in the stars. God communicated to the Magi through the stars, but only so that he could send them to the Bible! When we have the Bible, there is no need to look elsewhere for messages from God.
The Magi went to great lengths to find out more about Jesus, and to offer their gifts to him in worship. How can we follow their example in 2022?