What Nature and Scripture Tell us About the Bethlehem Star

BioLogos President Deb Haarsma reflects on what nature and Scripture tell us about the Bethlehem star. What did it mean then? What does it mean for us today?

  • "Historicity" seems to be the word in fashion now-a-days and a synonym for reliable, if not perfectly true. So Dr. Harsmaa’s “inspired reflection” is, IMO, a contribution to the historicity of a bit of “the Gospel of Matthew”, although my “astronomy” skills are woefully insufficient and leave me dazed trying to visualize the necessary motions to keep pace with Dr. Haarsma’s discussion. Nonetheless, I really liked the article. After all, I’m a big fan of historicity. [An added plus is that it doesn’t involve radiocarbon dating. :smile:]
  • However, … exploring the Magi’s visit to Herod’s court, I came across the off-topic issue disputed in some circles today: For example, see: Was the slaughter of the innocents a tale, myth, folk-lore, or legend? Or was it a historical event?.
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A favorite.

The film with Molnar is a great watch, though at an hour and twenty minutes it’s long enough I recommend drinks and munchies.

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Very much appreciated Dr Haarsma’s reflection on the story of the star of Bethlehem, and her discussion of the Magi reminded me of the Nativity Story movie from 2006. I have to say, that when I saw that movie one of my first reactions was that I’d never thought of the Magi as the “comic relief” (which, to an extent they were in the movie). Having seen that movie numerous times, though, I think the movie even more profoundly strikes a good balance of showing them as sincerely bright and sincerely curious… much more so than Herod, et al.


Welcome, bcayley Or William, Bill, Will, Dub, Ed, Eddie, or Edward. I go by my middle name, so it gets confusing. Anyway. Good have you here.


Oh my!
Thanks… generally go by “Bill”, most definitely NOT “Mr Bill” (too close to the SNL character), but as a physician sometimes kids call me “Dr Bill”… !
Thanks, and happy almost Advent

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Ha! Some of my friends (and my pastor) call me Dr. Phil. It is a little cringy for obvious reasons, but I just smile and go on. (Retired family doc)

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Family doc here too…
Not sure if Mr Bill or Dr Phil is more cringe-worthy…
Interestingly the (in)famous Dr Phil was a couple of years ahead of my mother in high school


Given the rather brief description in Luke, and the limits of our knowledge of details of contemporary astrology, things will be relatively speculative. I’ve wondered whether the star indicating the house might be an alignment when it’s setting or rising, as that would appear to have a precise location on the ground from a particular viewpoint. Directly overhead for anything in space is not going to give enough precision to specify more than a general region of the globe.


He got his psychology doctorate at North Texas when I was an undergrad, of course no one knew he was going to be Dr. Phil at the time…

Back to the article, the whole antegrade movement of Jupiter and such was new information to me, and makes sense as the wise men were probably astrologers. As I recall, the same word is used for the ones in Babylon in Daniel’s time.


You should watch the movie I linked to. I’ve watched it three times and am still picking up things that went right by me before.

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I have a few complaints about the article in this thread…

  1. There is no reason to attempt to mesh the miracle of the incarnation with any kind of scientific explanation. One either accepts that “God humbled Himself taking on the form of a man” or one does not…period. All of this nonsense about trying to find scientific evidence of that star is ridiculous. Again i put forward the Christian position on this, God is not bound by science…He doesnt have to use science to achieve any of His goals…God is almighty, allpowerful, omnipotent, and allknowing. None of those things are bound to science.

  2. Matthew tells us the magi didnt see the baby Jesus in the stable…it was in a house

Matthew 211On coming to the house, they saw the Child with His mother Mary, and they fell down and worshiped Him. Then they opened their treasures and presented Him with gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh.

Matthew 2:16 implies that Herod learned from the wise men that up to two years had passed since the birth, which is why all male children two years or younger were slaughtered. Wikipedia

  1. I do not agree that the Magi were not learned men. That is inconsistent with not only the biblical narrative, but also with ancient scholars who wrote about them. Lets example just a couple of reasons why…

    a. the article makes a claim without considering the extreme wealth required in order to present gifts of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh.
    b. The Magi clearly got their knowledge of the prophecy of the coming of Christ from ancient writings. It is absurd to ignore this fact given, if this was not the case, how the heck did they possess sufficient knowledge and wealth in that age to both cross the syrian desert and also know that they should go to King Herod…they could have ended up anywhere? We must remind ourselves…these guys travelled from Persia to King Herod…there is a massive desert to navigate to make such a journey!

As early as the 3rd century they were considered to be kings, probably interpreted as the fulfillment of the prophecy in Psalms 72:11 Magi | Definition, Scripture, Names, Traditions, & Importance | Britannica

The names of the Magi are as uncertain as is their number. Among the Latins, from the seventh century, we find slight variants of the names, Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar; the Martyrology mentions St. Gaspar, on the first, St. Melchior, on the sixth, and St. Balthasar, on the eleventh of January (Acta SS., I, 8, 323, 664). The Syrians have Larvandad, Hormisdas, Gushnasaph, etc.; the Armenians, Kagba, Badadilma, etc. (Cf. Acta Sanctorum, May, I, 1780). Passing over the purely legendary notion that they represented the three families which are descended from Noah, it appears they all came from “the east” (Matthew 2:1, 2, 9). East of Palestine, only ancient Media, Persia, Assyria, and Babylonia had a Magian priesthood at the time of the birth of Christ. From some such part of the Parthian Empire the Magi came. They probably crossed the Syrian Desert, lying between the Euphrates and Syria, reached either Haleb (Aleppo) or Tudmor (Palmyra), and journeyed on to Damascus and southward, by what is now the great Mecca route (darb elhaj , “the pilgrim’s way”), keeping the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan to their west till they crossed the ford near Jericho. We have no tradition of the precise land meant by “the east”. It is Babylon, according to St. Maximus (Homil. xviii in Epiphan.); and Theodotus of Ancyra (Homil. de Nativitate, I, x); Persia, according to Clement of Alexandria (Stromata I.15) and St. Cyril of Alexandria (In Is., xlix, 12); Aribia, according to St. Justin (Cont. Tryphon., lxxvii), Tertullian (Adv. Jud., ix), and St. Epiphanius (Expos. fidei, viii).

It is obvious that the Magi had read or at least new quite a great deal about the prophecies in Micah (chapters 2 and 5) and writings about Christ in the book of Isaiah (chapters 7, 9, 11, 40).

note Isaiah 9:6 (which the Magi, who are claimed to have been wise men would have almost certainly been aware of)

6For unto us a child is born,

unto us a son is given,

and the government will be upon His shoulders.

And He will be called

Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

7Of the increase of His government and peace

there will be no end.

He will reign on the throne of David

and over his kingdom,

to establish and sustain it

with justice and righteousness

from that time and forevermore.

Finally, when we go back 400 years earlier, which nations took the Jews into captivity? Did it not start with the Babylonians (in the east) and then Medo Persia (also in the east)? And was it not the Persian ruler, after being told of the prophecy concerning him (Cyrus), who released the Israelites out of their captivity and sent them back to Israel?

Its absurd to make the claim the Magi were not familiar with Jewish religious beliefs. That is almost certainly false given the fact we have historical evidence suggesting they were deeply religious and studied many religions and, we have biblical narrative of the Prophet Daniel as a senior adviser to both Baylonian and Persian kings during Israelite captivity IN THE EAST. BTW lets also not forget Nehemiah…the kings cupbearer!

I strongly believe that when individuals write publications, they would at least do their best to ensure that claims are supported by the correct historical research and that they DO NOT LEAVE OUT significant information before making deficient assumptions on which their theological claims are then founded. Failure to do ones diligent research often leads to errant statements such as “a beam of light shining down into a stable”

A bit of additional thinking…doesnt anyone find it rather illuminating that the Magi, and Abraham all came from a similar region of the world (the far east) and that Biblical knowledge seems to have followed those individuals from that region?

Abraham went to Egypt…who seemed to suddenly gain knowledge that was of Chaldean origins
The Israelites are taken into captivity by the Babylonians, then Persia, and here we have Maggi who are familiar with the prophecies concerning Christs birth…i would suggest because of Daniels affiliation with the wise men of Babylon and Persia.

What is more fascinating for me is that these 3 wise men, these Maggi, were probably of a sect of Babylonian or Persian wise men who could have been either:

  1. descendant of Israelite inbreeding with locals during the captivity, or
  2. a religious sect originally started by the influence of the prophet Daniel, who were followers of Israelite prophecies concerning Christ!

To me all of this supports the historicity of the Bible rather than detracting from it and i find that fascinating.

To finish my post on a more light hearted note…

As long as the Persian empire lasted there was always a distinction between the Persian magi, who were credited with profound and extraordinary religious knowledge, and the Babylonian magi, who were often considered to be outright imposters. Magus | Zoroastrianism, Priests, Rituals | Britannica

What a sad position for evangelism.

Without the science many, many people regard the story as a fantasy tale involving magical stars that behave like isn’t possible. When that block is cleared away, many people will be willing to take another look.

They were learned enough to know the regular movements of the stars, to know where the events in the heavens were pointing, and to get there. They may not have had the scriptures, or at least not the prophets; coming from “the east” they would have had a very good chance to have known Jews who never came back from exile and thus may have been familiar with the Torah.

Interesting gap there.

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Did you even read the article Adam? It wasn’t about a scientific explanation for the Incarnation it was about the scientfic background of the “star of Bethlehem”

The article simply references Christmas cards and popular art, it wasn’t making a contention about historical facts.

Christmas cards often show a beam of light like a search light, shining directly into the stable with Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus."

The article makes no such assertion.

Compared to the Jewish scholars, the Magi knew so little. They weren’t Jews, they weren’t steeped in Hebrew prophecy, and they didn’t know the law of Moses. But they were curious, and God used that curiosity and a sign in the heavens to draw them to himself.

In the context, what they knew so little about was the prophesied Messiah and God’s ways. The very next paragraph calls them “scholars” who “set their scrolls aside.”

The article flat out says “They didn’t see the newborn King as competition; rather, they rejoiced when they found the Christ child. They didn’t travel to gain power or wealth—rather they traveled to offer their worship and their costliest treasures.”

They weren’t looking for “Christ” the Messiah, that was the Jews. They were looking for a Judean king. That’s why they went to Herod. The article says as much.

Please just stop it with the being contrary for no good reason, Adam. Stop creating things in your mind that aren’t even there to argue with.


29 posts were split to a new topic: Was Jesus Literate?

I think we disagree on the genre of the Gospels
and most of the Bible to be honest. A discussion of what the Gospels say on this point will bare little fruit as we talk past one another. I think the argument that Luke’s redactional hand is all over that passage where Jesus reads from Isaiah is correct. I’m sure you think its false and the account as it stands is a 100% factual and verbatim narration of what happened in the past.


  1. Jews were not searching for Christ…unless you have biblical evidence to the contrary and if you do im keen to see it!

  2. Note the title and contents of Matthew 2 below…

The Pilgrimage of the Magi
(Micah 5:1–6)

1After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the One who has been born King of the Jews? We saw His star in the easta and have come to worship Him.”

3When King Herod heard this, he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4And when he had assembled all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he asked them where the Christ was to be born.

5“In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

6‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,

are by no means least among the rulers of Judah,

for out of you will come a ruler

who will be the shepherd of My people Israel.’b

7Then Herod called the Magi secretly and learned from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8And sending them to Bethlehem, he said: “Go and search carefully for the Child, and when you find Him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship Him.”

9After 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 stood over the place where the Child was. 10When they saw the star, they rejoiced with great delight. 11On coming to the house, they saw the Child with His mother Mary, and they fell down and worshiped Him. Then they opened their treasures and presented Him with gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh.

12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they withdrew to their country by another route.

  1. The Magi did not find Christ in a stable. Anyone who reads the narrative in Matthew will know that he was in fact found in a house some time after His birth.
  2. The star clearly appeared miraculously and moved miraculously and on the second occasion it appeared the Magi followed the star to the very house where Christ was.
  3. The Maggi clearly were very well versed in Jewish Religion and given Daniel was an esteemed captive and part of the wise men of Babylon and Persia 4 centuries earlier, that supports the literal historical account of Daniel
  4. The Magi were clearly wealthy and this indicates significant knowledge and insight of these individuals. The fact they brought such gifts as gold, frankincense and myrh across a desert to Judeah is supportive of a dedicated group of individuals who id suggest were probably God fearing and very familiar with Jewish writings.

Christ means “anointed one” and is a reference to the Messiah, whom the Jews were waiting for, as evidenced by how many people asked “Could he be the Messiah?” when Jesus started doing signs and preaching the kingdom. I did not mean “looking for” in the sense that the Magi were “looking for” the baby in Bethlehem, I meant “looking for” as in anticipating and hoping to identify.

All your text shows is that Herod was familiar with the idea that the Jews were waiting for a Messiah. Which makes a lot of sense because the Messiah was conceived to be an oppositional political figure who would overthrow the government, and the Jews were an occupied people. It was definitely something those in power would want to keep an eye on.

Yes, we all know that. It’s the people who paint Christmas card art who do not.

That’s a concordist literal interpretation, but sure, some people take away that meaning. The whole point of this article was to address whether a “miracle” was really what happened or whether the description could have applied to a natural phenomenon.

That their astrologocal studies may have been influenced by Daniel during the Exile is an interesting idea, but simply looking for “The King of the Jews” and believing the child worthy of worship does not entail familiarity with Judaism or Jewish prophesy like you are insisting it does.

Nobody is arguing with this, but how you get the conclusion “therefore they feared God and knew the Scriptures” from the given “they were educated and wealthy” is not via logic.

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Fabulous, thanks.

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