K is for Kochab
Kochab is the brightest star in the constellation we call the Little Dipper. Perhaps it was Kochab that guided the wise men on their journey to Bethlehem. Not because it was The Star, but because, at the time of Christ’s birth, Kochab was closer to true north than Polaris. (For more explanation of why that was so, click here.)
Speaking of The Star, what was it those wise men saw?
All Matthew tells us is that after Jesus was born: Magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.”
This brief mention does not specify that this was a “new” star, or that the star somehow “led” them all the way to Israel. It does imply that the magi, who were known to be skilled astrologers, saw something in the night sky that foretold a king of the Jews had been born. Whatever they saw was impressive enough that they undertook a months’ long journey from their homelands in order to pay homage to the king. Note also that they did not head to Bethlehem, but instead went to Jerusalem, no doubt assuming that any King of the Jews would be known there.
Imagine their surprise when they discovered that no one among the ruling class or the scholars had any inkling that a king had been born. And, apparently, the magi had no inkling of Herod’s true motives when he provided them with the information they needed and sent them to seek out the child.
It is at this point that Matthew adds: … they went their way; and the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was.
This is likely where we get the idea that they “followed” the star, but the passage could just as easily mean that the star which they had seen back east in Parthia was now visible again. Considering the possible time lapse of up to two years between when they first saw the star and when they arrived, (remember Herod killed all boys two and under) it makes sense that the star might have become invisible for some period of time. (Like you can see Orion in the winter and Cygnus in the summertime.)
Further, the phrase “came and stood over the place” can be understood to mean the star reached its zenith (highest position in the rotation across the sky) directly over Bethlehem. In other words, the passage might mean: That night they saw the star rise and travel across the sky until it reached its zenith right over Bethlehem.
Over the years astronomers and theologians have attempted to determine exactly what is was the magi saw that compelled them to take such a long, expensive journey to honor a foreign king. Obviously, we can’t ever know for sure what they saw, but here are four possible explanations:
- A supernatural light source, such as an angel. This theory explains how the star was able to “lead” the Magi to Bethlehem, if indeed they were led. But why Matthew would call it a star if it was, in fact, an angel? As Creator, God is certainly capable of using an actual star for his purposes.
- A convergence of two or more planets, or the convergence between a planet and a bright star. Such convergences, particularly those that happened within one of the twelve constellations of the Zodiac, were often taken as indicators of future events. The major drawback to this idea is that experienced astrologers like the Magi would not be likely to describe such a convergence as a “star”.
- A comet. Comets are often taken as harbingers of big events, and they travel across the sky, which might be taken as “leading” the Magi. However, the Magi would have seen comets before and known they were different from stars. If they saw a comet, why wouldn’t they say so?
- A supernova. This would appear to observers as a new star suddenly appearing where one had not been before. It would be unexpected, and since supernovas are rare, the Magi would likely never have seen such a thing before, although they may have had records of such a thing occurring in the past. Supernovas are much, much rarer than comets or convergences, but they do happen.
I don’t know what is was those magi saw, but I do know our Creator God is capable of putting a star in the sky in such a way that these men would see it and correctly understand that a great king had been born.
This Christmas, may we be as observant to God’s messages, and as willing to go out of our way to honor our king.