The "Star" of Bethlehem

(Revised February 2002)

Christmas has been hi-jacked by the commercial world and even in Christian circles the "Family" emphasis overshadows the real event so that, even in a so called "Christian" country, a great majority of people have no idea of what or Who the event really commemorates. I believe this malaise is a result of the lack of the ring of "authenticity" to our traditions and that the Event is made dubious by our less than intelligent "interpretations" that have become "theological baggage", casting doubt on the Biblical record.

To anyone pausing to think for a moment, the idea of wise men being led considerable distances by a "star" to a precise spot on earth, must raise an eyebrow.  It is more the stuff of fairy tales than Divine fact.  Nevertheless, sincere men of science, with an earnest desire not to question their faith, have striven to find astronomical phenomenon to explain the event. However, that line of research breaks down as we carefully examine the Biblical record and we are left still wondering, some doubting.  So, it would be in a good cause to re-examine what in fact did happen.

We find that the "star" moved and was followed "... for we saw His star in the East ... it went on before them". Matthew 2:9-11. Many eastern peoples were astrologers and it was natural to expect a sign in the heavens to be a signal of special significance heralding an event of great importance.  The Scripture forbids such "divining", although in Genesis we are told the stars were intended for "signs".

We must ask in this case, is the sort of motion reported usual or possible for any of the types of 'heavenly bodies' we generally call 'stars'?  Strictly, "stars" are great burning spheres of gas of which our sun is a modest example.  All such stars, except our sun are at such vast distances that any form of movement described by Matthew would be impossible to detect with the naked eye.

Other planets in our solar system, large or near enough to reflect light visible on earth can usually only be seen at night and are loosely referred to as stars because they appear to us as spots of light.  These bodies move on precise orbits and although at times can be seen in close proximity or conjunction and appear especially bright for a time, their movement is continuous as ordained from The Beginning. Other forms of heavenly bodies that can be seen from earth and move in more random orbits relative to our solar system, are comets and meteorites. Comets may often be seen in the sky for long periods of time while meteorites are only seen for a few seconds as they are usually destroyed in the earth’s atmosphere - some big ones have landed leaving quite a dent..

However, none of these heavenly bodies move in such a way as to satisfy the Biblical account surrounding the birth of the Saviour.

Although it would be possible to navigate by known stars, for celestial navigation has been the art of the mariner from time immemorial.  However, more than one known reference point is essential to achieve any sort of accuracy and it is doubtful if an area as small as a stable could be arrived at by celestial observation.

To further complicate this account, the "star" we are concerned with seems to have waited for the wise men, while they consulted with king Herod for what may have been a considerable time, then the star "went before them, until ... it stood over where the Child was", giving a positive "pin-point" location of a small insignificant building in a busy town.

Matthew 2:9,10 tells us that "after they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed." The Bethlehem star is reported to have moved and stopped and moved again finally stopping so close to it's target as to give a pin-point location. This type of "navigation" we know from experience, can only be provided by a low flying object similar to a helicopter or airship or a modern Global Positioning System.

Before we go on, let me assure you that our only purpose is to find what the Scripture did report rather than try and defend a childish tradition, however picturesque.  Neither are we of the "chariots of the gods" genre, seeking to explain the Creator as the creation.

We believe, the Bible is the Divine revelation of God's will and purpose for us. It is also a record of His love and grace manifest to us that we need to properly understand if we are to become possessors of the fullness of the treasure contained therein.  As our "Life" depends on our understanding the Way of Salvation and as God will judge us on our obedience I suspect that contrary to what some of the theological establishment would have us believe, God's "Message" is in fact eminently reasonable.  If God is just he would not wrap in mystery or cast reasonable doubt upon the most important, life saving message to mankind.  Nor would He then hold us responsible to make eternal judgements based on our confused understanding of that message.

The Old Covenant Scriptures refer to Divine visitations that appear to involve physical "vehicles" of various sorts described in the language of the day, (pillar of cloud/fire, Elijah’s chariot, etc.). So it is surely not unreasonable to suppose that here too we may have some form of an "angelic scout ship". We must remember that even the inspired record is described in the language and with figures understood by those at the time of recording the events. (What was a "chariot of fire"?) Is it not possible that the object seen to look like a star was an heavenly scout or observer, sent to watch over - even protect - this tremendous event.  Maybe it had been in the neighbourhood before the angel appeared to Zacharias and later to Mary. It may also have carried the angelic delegation that announced to the shepherds, the coming of the Messiah and His peace to all men.

We learn that the following of the star involve a considerable passage of time from the fact that Herod’s murderous scheme reached back 2 years, "in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi". Matthew 2:16

The idea that the "Star" was, in fact, a special object and much closer to the event than any planet, seems far more likely and consistent with the other records we have of God's dealings and visitations with this planet and it's inhabitants. (E.g. Elijah and Ezekiel, also maybe in Moses’ time and even way back in Enoch's era).

I am aware that this sort of speculation is of concern to some dear and sincere folk who have been taught to veil such matters with 'spiritual' explanations.  Unfortunately, all the explanations end up as a matter of "private interpretation" and violate the common reasoning of those to whom the event was revealed.

Unfortunately it is this desire to "spiritualise" God's word that has led us up the theological creek on more than one occasion and the writer believes has placed barriers and stumbling blocks in the way of many seeking a "real" faith. It is by God's grace and the gracious wooing of the Holy Spirit that millions have found their Salvation in spite of the confusing trappings of man's tradition.

While the nativity has become shrouded in many beautiful and time hallowed traditions, it will in no way lessen the wonder or the purposes of God to find that the Creator can and does function within the natural structure of His creation. We too may glorify Him in the marvel of the human mind, which he created and by which we have learned to look into the wonders of the cosmos and reach out to the stars.

As never before, we should not need to resort to fairy story type "interpretations" to better understand and appreciate this most momentous event in human history. I sometimes wonder if in fact our human pride has difficulty allowing for the possibility that God may draw close to us in our material universe.  Therefore we would rather shroud these events in mystical or illogical interpretations.

Stephen Hawking in his book, "A Brief History of Time" suggests that some scientific theories are based on the personal persuasion or prejudice of their authors rather than scientific principle. (Regrettably these theories are all too often taught in our educational institutions as facts). In our search, I feel sure we may also find some of our "orthodox" theology and practice has its roots outside of fact and the Word of God.

Perhaps, God has become remote to many, not only by sin but by the church's 'mystifying' of His nature and substance.  Maybe we try and hide behind our theological bushes when, like Adam, we "hear the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden..."  God entering or being a part of our physical reality is scary, even to the most devout.  There is no doubt, however, that this Event was the Event above all others when God moved to unite Himself with His creation to bring about the fulfilment of His promise in Eden that "the seed of the woman" would crush the serpent's head.

May the "Star" always remind us of, not only an happening in past history but a present and personal reality of the God-Man Saviour who obtained our redemption and brought all who believe and walk in His commandments, back into a relationship with God. A relationship shared by Adam before he sinned and felt the need to hide when "God walked in the garden in the cool of the day".  We should remember, "the way is simple that a fool may not err therein" and God's revelation is not "of private interpretation".

Victor Keith Relf 1993 - 1996

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