Explaining the Christmas star

Published 11:00 pm Friday, December 21, 2012

By O. Kermit Hobbs Jr.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve seen articles attempting to explain the star the wise men followed to find the infant Jesus, as related in the second chapter of Matthew’s gospel. Some suggest the star was actually a comet, or perhaps a convergence of two stars, or even a supernova, an exploding star.

I could accept a theory that the event was not supernatural. As long as God caused it to happen, that’s good enough for me. The problem is that none of those explanations adequately explain what happened. I have a new idea that works for me.

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First, it’s important to understand the wise men and why they were interested in the star. In some versions of the Bible, they are called magi, the plural form of a Persian word that we commonly translate as “wise men.” They were astrologers who attempted to discern the influence of the stars upon human events.

But at that time in history, there was no difference between astrology and astronomy, the study of all celestial bodies. Furthermore, their interest was not limited to the study of the sky, but they sought to learn all they could about other sciences. Indeed, the discovery of trigonometry was developed as a result of ancient celestial observations.

I like to think that the magi were seekers of the truth, whatever it was and wherever they found it. The superstition and mysticism that surrounded their study were just normal parts of their primitive civilization.

Now let’s look back at the second chapter of Luke’s gospel. This is the familiar story of Mary and Joseph, their journey to Bethlehem, and the birth of Mary’s son, Jesus, in the stable in Bethlehem.

The story continues in the fields around Bethlehem, where shepherds were guarding their flocks at night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them… (Luke 2:9).

This “glory of the Lord” was the same shekinah glory — the same light — that had guided the Israelites in their wilderness wanderings and had appeared several other times in the Old Testament.

I believe that at that moment, when the light shone upon the shepherds, it was also seen by observers several hundred miles to the east, the magi.

Seeing such a phenomenon would have had a profound effect upon those seekers of the truth, and they would have left no stone unturned in their search to find its meaning. Their research would have eventually led them to study the Jewish law. After all, Israel was in their west, the direction where they had seen the brilliant light — the star.

Through a careful study of the those writings, they came upon the words, there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth… (Numbers 24-17). From these words, they correctly judged that this star announced the coming of a new king of Israel.

It took some time for them to reach this conclusion and even more time to organize an expedition to Israel to determine the truth of their hypothesis. It was two years later that they traveled to Jerusalem and approached King Herod to ask for more information about this new king.

King Herod, hardly a Jewish scholar, called upon his scribes to answer the question as to where the child had been born. They reported correctly, quoting from scripture, that the child was to have been born in Bethlehem, just a few miles away.

The magi left the king’s palace and went to search for the child. When they went outside, the star, God’s shekinah glory, appeared to them once again. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. (Matthew 2:10).

I believe it was the first time they had seen the star since the night of Jesus’ birth. This time the star led them directly to the child Jesus, something no celestial star could possibly do.

The magi fell down and worshiped the child Jesus. Their mission was fulfilled: The seekers of the truth had found the new King of Israel. They had been led by the light of God’s glory, a “star” that was unlike any other.

O. Kermit Hobbs Jr. is an accomplished amateur historian in Suffolk. Email him at khobbs5@aol.com.