Discover the ancient meaning of the star of wonder.
The Star of Bethlehem is one of the most recognizable elements of the Christmas story and yet its true nature and meaning are shrouded in mystery. This celestial sign captured the attention of the Magi and frightened a king and yet its ancient significance is often lost on modern readers. Furthermore, the astronomical identity of the Star of Bethlehem has captivated and confounded for millennia.
In Star of Bethlehem, Michael Pettem combines a modern scientific understanding of stellar phenomena with a fascinating account of ancient astronomy and history to illuminate this key biblical event. He identifies what the Star of Bethlehem may have been and how various ancient cultures would have interpreted its appearance. Then, drawing on the Gospel of Matthew as his guide, he explores the Star’s theological significance, helping us understand how early Christians would have understood this important symbol.
“The appearance of a comet in the first century bc would have led Hellenistic astrologers or laymen to expect the death of a king rather than the birth of a king.” (source)
“The host of heaven,’ which will be discussed shortly, is one of the most common terms for stars” (source)
“In the sixth century, the monk Dionysius Exeguus worked on the traditional Christian task of setting the dates for the celebration of Easter. He became increasingly uncomfortable about using the official dating system of his day. He therefore set about to calculate the date of the conception of Jesus, for him the appropriate reference point for dating the celebration of Easter. His system caught on quickly in Italy, but Charlemagne (742 or 743 to 814) is said to have been the first major ruler to follow this calendar.” (source)
“Clark and Stephenson argue that to be considered as a possible supernova, the new light should last at least forty days. The 5 bc appearance lasted more than seventy days. And unlike comets, supernovas do not move against the background of the fixed stars. The annals do not record any movement of the new light of 5 bc. Thus, according to the research of Clark and Stephenson published in 1977, the new light of 5 bc might be considered as a possible supernova.” (source)
“But if Herod thought it necessary to kill children born over a two-year period in order to find a very young child, he must have known that the Magi’s star did not give the exact date of the child’s birth. In other words, unlike many modern interpreters, Herod understood that the Magi were not talking about a Hellenistic horoscope.” (source)
Michael Pettem (PhD, McGill University) is Clerk of the Presbytery of Montreal, Presbyterian Church in Canada. He has had a long-standing interest in astronomy and science. Before receiving his doctorate in Religious Studies, he studied physics at the Univeristy of Toronto.