The Star of Bethlehem Explored
This article was originally posted in AG News in December 2015.
Few things are more iconic than the Star of Bethlehem — the star Magi from the east followed to ultimately find and worship the Christ Child.
Over the centuries, many have speculated that the Star of Bethlehem was some sort of natural phenomenon that took place, but Dr. Richard Hammar, who teaches astronomy at Evangel University (and is also well known for his standard-setting prowess when it comes to church and law), believes the common explanations simply fall short.
Hammar says he views the Star of Bethlehem as one of the most endearing yet mysterious aspects of the Christmas story as it only appears in one passage in the gospels, and that being in the Gospel of Matthew.
In a presentation to the Springfield (Missouri) Astronomy Club, Hammar examines Matthew 2:1-12 and explains that the passage offers several clues about the Star of Bethlehem that may not be evident at first glance. Hammar explains that the clues are actually "tests" that theories would have to pass in order to make them valid.
Among those clues, Hammar first identifies the wording used: "We saw his star." He explains that in the interlinear Greek New Testament, the term used for star (aster) was singular, so the Magi were referring to one star. The passage also notes that the Magi came from the east, indicating that there was an expectation held not just in Judea, but in regions far beyond that someone would come from Judea to achieve a universal empire (also referenced by Roman biographers Suetonius and Tacitus).
Hammar observes that the Magi could have traveled to Judea by two routes: a highly difficult and treacherous 500-mile desert route where survival was in question or by the highly traveled 1,000-mile route up the Euphrates Basin and through the Fertile Crescent where food, water, and shelter were available. Hammar believes the Magi would have taken the safer, well-traveled route — a trip that would have taken many months to complete.
Other clues include: the Magi seeing the Star while in the east, the Star suddenly appearing, Herod being unaware of the Star, the Star preceding the Magi south to Bethlehem (stars don't move north to south); and the Star stopping over the exact location of the Christ Child.
There are various explanations that attempt to describe what the star of Bethlehem actually was, Hammar says, including a comet, a meteor, a nova or supernova, the theory of planetary conjunction, or wandering stars (planets that move more rapidly than background stars).
Hammar dismisses the first three based on the clues as comets and meteors don't change directions or stop and novas/supernovas wouldn't last long enough for the Magi to arrive and they don't change direction; the theory of planetary conjunction has already been disproven; and the wandering star theory also doesn't meet all the criteria the clues offer.
Instead, Hammar believes the Star of Bethlehem is best explained as a miraculous aberration — the Shekinah Glory of the Lord. "In the Old Testament with Moses you had the Shekinah Glory in the form of a pillar of cloud or fire that moved in front of the people, guiding them," he explains. Hammar also references when Elisha prayed for his servant's eyes to be opened so he could see the mountain full of horses and chariots of fire as well as Saul of Tarsus' conversion experience.
"Visible light is just a tiny sliver of the spectrum of all light. We can see one-quadrillionth of all light. If you look at the stars at night in infrared, it's a completely different picture!" Hammar says. "Could it be that the Star of Bethehem was visible only to those people who God intended it to be seen by?"
To listen to Hammar's fascinating extended teaching on the Star of Bethlehem, see his website, seetheglory.com.