Question: "What was the star of Bethlehem?"
Answer: The star of Bethlehem is associated with the birth of Christ and the visit of the magi (wise men) as recorded in Matthew 2:1–12. The text implies the star of Bethlehem appeared only to the magi in the East (most likely the area of Persia, or modern-day Iran). There is no biblical record of anyone else observing the star of Bethlehem.
The magi in the East saw something in the heavens—the star of Bethlehem—that alerted them to the fact that the Jewish Messiah was born. The magi do not call the star of Bethlehem by that name; in Matthew 2:2 they refer to it as being “his star,” since it was a sign to them that a king was born. The star prompted the magi to travel to Jerusalem, the capital of Israel. This would be the logical place to start looking for the birth of the King of the Jews for someone who did not know of Micah’s prophecy about Bethlehem.
In Jerusalem, the magi visited King Herod and were told that the new king they were looking for would be born in Bethlehem, not in Jerusalem (Matthew 2:5). The wise men left Herod’s palace, and the star of Bethlehem appeared to them once again. In fact, the star “went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed” (verses 9–10). The star of Bethlehem, apparently mobile, led the magi to the precise place where they could find Jesus.
Modern portrayals of the Christmas nativity scene usually show the wise men visiting Jesus on the night of His birth. That is likely not what truly occurred. King Herod discovered from the magi the “exact time” the star of Bethlehem had first appeared to them (Matthew 2:7), and he later ordered all male children two years old and under in Bethlehem to be killed (verse 16). Herod obviously thought the star of Bethlehem had first appeared when Christ was born; if he was right, then Jesus could have been up to two years old when the star of Bethlehem later guided the magi through the streets of Bethlehem. The Greek word translated “young child” in Matthew 2:9 can mean anything from a newborn infant to a toddler.
So, the magi may have first observed the star of Bethlehem the night of Jesus’ birth, or they may have first seen it up to two years beforehand. Either way, they found Jesus still in Bethlehem when they arrived. Joseph and Mary almost surely stayed in Bethlehem until Mary could travel again. In fact, they probably stayed there for the 40 days necessary to complete Mary’s purification. From Bethlehem, they could easily make the five-mile trip to Jerusalem for the sacrifice for Mary’s purification (Luke 2:22). The fact that the magi came to a “house” (Matthew 2:11) rather than the stable makes sense because Joseph naturally would have moved his family to a more protected place as soon as possible—the morning after Jesus was born, in all probability.
After seeing the star of Bethlehem, the magi traveled to Jerusalem to look for the Messiah. The question arises, how would Persian magi know about the Jewish Messiah? Undoubtedly, they would have been exposed to the writings of the Jewish prophet Daniel, who had been the chief of the court seers in Persia. Daniel 9:24–27 is a prophecy that gives a timeline for the birth of the Messiah. Also, they may have been aware of the words of the pagan prophet Balaam (who was from the town of Pethor on the Euphrates River near Persia) in Numbers 24:17. Balaam’s prophecy specifically mentions “a star” and “a scepter” rising out of Jacob.
What exactly was the star of Bethlehem? The Greek word translated “star” in the text is the word aster, which is the normal word for a star or celestial body. The word is used 24 times in the New Testament, and most of the time it refers to a celestial body. It can be used to denote angels, as in Revelation 12:4, where aster seems to refer to the fallen angels who followed Satan’s rebellion. Basic rules of biblical interpretation state that we should take the normal sense of a word unless there is compelling evidence to suggest otherwise. In that case, the star of Bethlehem should be considered an actual heavenly body. Many Bible scholars suggest a natural explanation for the star of Bethlehem, their theories ranging from a supernova to a comet to an alignment of planets. Something in the heavens provided a brighter-than-normal light in the sky.
However, there is evidence to suggest that the star of Bethlehem was not a natural stellar phenomenon, but something unexplained by science. First, the fact that the star of Bethlehem seemed to appear only to the magi indicates that this was no ordinary star. Also, celestial bodies normally move from east to west due to the earth’s rotation, yet the star of Bethlehem led the magi from Jerusalem south to Bethlehem. Not only that, but it led them directly to the place where Joseph and Mary were staying, stopping overhead. There is no natural stellar phenomenon that can do that.
So, if the normal usage of the word star doesn’t fit the context, what does? The star of Bethlehem in Matthew 2:1–12 was likely an angel or a manifestation of the Shekinah Glory. The Shekinah, which literally means “dwelling of God,” was the visible presence of the Lord. Prior to this, the most notable appearance of the Shekinah was the pillar of cloud that led the Israelites by day and the pillar of fire that led them by night (Exodus 13:21). The Shekinah can obviously lead people to specific locations, and it was seen later in connection with Christ’s ministry (e.g., Matthew 17:5; Acts 1:9). Either an angel or the Shekinah would fit the evidence. It shouldn’t surprise us that God would use a miraculous sign to signal the advent of His Son into the world. Those with eyes to see joyfully beheld His glory.