Editor’s note: The science behind the Star of Bethlehem is hotly debated, but here is one biblical scholar’s interpretation of what took place.

1. The Star was historical.

Some have claimed that the Bethlehem Star is nothing more than a myth invented by the early Christians. But the latest scholarship suggests that Matthew’s Gospel is a biography that strives for historical accuracy. The story of the Magi certainly looks authentic—it is very consistent with what the Roman historian Josephus tells us about Herod’s latter years.

2. The Star was an astronomical body.

Some have proposed that the Star was a miraculous object or an angel. But what Matthew writes—in particular, his words “star” and “rising”—strongly favors the conclusion that it was an astronomical body. That the Magi were able to tell Herod when precisely the Star first appeared suggests that they were record-keeping astronomers.

3. The Star was a comet.

Some have claimed that the Star was a planet (or two), a meteor (or two), a fixed star, or a nova (exploding star). But a close study of Matthew’s account reveals that the Star could only have been a comet. The Star, after all, not only appeared suddenly and remained visible for a long time (over a year), but also moved from one part of the sky to a very different one over a relatively short space of time.

Together these facts narrow the options down to one. What the Star did to wow the Magi occurred in connection with a “rising” (i.e. a celestial body’s re-emergence over the eastern horizon after a period when it was too close to the Sun to be visible), and only a comet’s “rising” could be surprising and extraordinary.

The Star also “went before” the Magi as they traveled southwards from Jerusalem to Bethlehem and then “stood over” a house. Comets are described in precisely these terms by ancient historians.

4. The Hebrew Bible looked forward to the coming of a great comet.

The Book of Moses records an oracle by the Mesopotamian prophet Balaam that spoke of the Messiah’s coming in terms of a scepter and star that would rise, implying that a long- and straight-tailed comet would mark his birth.

5. The Star was like Comet Hale-Bopp.

In 1996-97 Comet Hale-Bopp awed observers around the world with its stunning appearance. It was visible to the naked eye for 18 months, by far the longest of any comet in the scientific period. This is because it was large—up to 70 km in diameter (most comets are considerably smaller).

The Star of Bethlehem was also visible for over a year at least—remember that Herod established the upper limit for his slaughter of the babies of Bethlehem based on when it was first spotted. So, like Hale-Bopp, the the Star was large.

6. The Star did something astonishing at the time of its rising.

The Magi were surprised and deeply impressed by what the Star did in connection with its “rising.” The Book of Revelation discloses a key aspect of the wonder in the eastern sky that marked Jesus’s birth. It consisted of a celestial nativity drama starring the Christ Comet.

Based on Revelation’s description we are able to work out a lot about the Comet’s profile and orbit. We discover that at the time of its “rising,” when the Comet was re-emerging over the eastern horizon, it would have been indescribably bright, brighter even than the full Moon.

7. The Star went before the Magi.

Throughout the Magi’s treacherous journey westwards to Judea, the Comet would have seemed to go before them, starting each evening in the southern sky and setting each night in front of them in the west.

As they set out for Bethlehem on the final evening of their long trip, the long-tailed Comet, then in the southern sky, would have appeared to be going ahead of them. As the Comet set, its tail would have been oriented upwards, turning it into a giant pointer that, from the Magi’s perspective, highlighted one particular location within Bethlehem.

8. The Star came scarily close to Earth.

Astronomers today are worried about asteroids and comets that come close to Earth. The large Christ Comet came close enough to make even the bravest astronomer break out in a cold sweat 2,000 years later. Had it hit, it would have extinguished most, if not all, life on Earth.

9. The Star was the greatest comet in history.

To enter into the Comet Hall of Fame a comet must make a close pass by the Sun and/or Earth, and/or become bright, large, and/or long. All things considered, the Star was the greatest comet in recent millennia. The Star is worthy of its fame.

Colin R. Nicholl (Ph.D., University of Cambridge) is the author of “The Great Christ Comet: Revealing the True Star of Bethlehem” (Crossway).

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