Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, "Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east, and have come to worship Him." (Matt. 2:1-1)
The above is the New Testament account of the appearance of the "star of Bethlehem" - one of the enduring symbols of the Christmas season. But its true nature has has also been the focus of controversy and debate.
Was the star of Bethlehem a paranormal event - a miracle - proclaiming the birth of the Messiah? Or was it a natural, if spectacular, celestial event that happened to take place at the same time that some historians reckon that Jesus was born?
THE BIBLICAL ACCOUNT
The Gospel According to Matthew is the only book of the New Testament that mentions the mysterious star. According to Matthew's account of the story, the "star" did behave in a supernatural manner:
And having heard the king, they [the Magi] went their way; and lo, the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them, until it came and stood over where the Child was. And when they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. (Matt. 2:9-10)
The star - or whatever it was - moved. Stars, in their apparent relation to other stars in the night sky, don't appear to move. They appear to move only in their progression - from east to west - across the night sky as the Earth rotates. They also appear to progress across the sky, again from east to west, over weeks and months as the Earth orbits the sun.
The magi saw the star in the east and followed it, presumably as it moved toward the west. Now this is all well and good if we are to say they followed its progression across the sky over a number of days or weeks... but then this celestial object did something unusual - it stopped and "stood over where the Child was." So whatever this object was, stopped in its progression in the sky, according to Matthew, so the magi would know where this child was to be found. No mention is made of all the stars stopping. Just this one.
So what was this "star"? Other than the observation that it stopped, Matthew gives it no other special attributes. The account does not say that it was extraordinarily bright, colorful, twinkly, or anything else unusual. Tradition paints it as an unusually bright star because it somehow got the attention of the Magi. But some research indicates that the Magi were astrologers from Persia. So this star - which could have been quite ordinary in appearance - held some astrological significance for them. But that still does not explain how it was able to stop in the sky.
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