Every year around Advent, Catholics are reminded of the story of the Nativity of Our Lord.
Actually, for those keeping score, there are two stories of this in the Bible, which are often amalgamated in the Christian imagination. The Gospel of Luke presents the notion that the birth of Jesus itself took place in a stable, as he was “laid in a manger” (2:7), or what we would call today an animal feedbox. Matthew’s presentation climaxes in a house, probably sometime after the birth of Christ. Besides the Holy Family itself, the most famous part of Matthew’s account is the Magi, these mysterious three men who journey from the “east,” probably Persia, in search of a young boy born King of the Jews. The Magi have greatly outdistanced Luke’s poor shepherds in the popular imagination.
One question that keeps arising is what was the “star” that not only revealed the fact of the Savior’s birth but led the Magi on an over 1,000-mile quest to the exact place of the baby in Bethlehem?
The most popular solutions today usually involve various and sundry astronomical phenomena — most commonly a comet, a planetary conjunction, a supernova or (rarely) a meteor. Those who promote these theories run the gamut, ranging from the merely curious, to fundamentalist Christians always eager to use science to “prove” the veracity of biblical stories, to serious historians looking to use known times of past astronomic events to more precisely date the birth of Jesus Christ.
But we don’t need to be experts in astronomy to note the fundamental problems with such readings. Stars, planets, comets and so forth are very distant from earth. While they do indeed move (or at least appear to move from our vantage point), they do not naturally move in ways that can lead people to exact locales on the earth’s surface, let alone to come to rest over a young boy in a house. For a star to do this, it would need not only to shine day and night to guide the Magi on their journey but also to drop out of the firmament and come much closer to earth. Evidently what we are dealing with is a one-off “star” that was behaving in supernatural or preternatural ways. And this means that modern astronomy, which like all science limits itself to purely natural occurrences, is of no use to us at all in telling us what it was.
Ancient interpreters of Matthew didn’t know modern astronomy. They were unaware that stars and comets are massive burning objects that would engulf our happy planet in a seething inferno were they ever to approach sufficiently close to the earth’s surface to lead Magi to a city, a house or a person. But they did surmise the basic facts: the star that Matthew describes was not behaving the way stars ordinarily behave. If anything, the Star of Bethlehem was behaving like an angel!
“Under the Form of a Star”
Indeed, in his masterful article, “The Magi’s Angel,” which appears in his book “Studies in Matthew: Interpretation Past and Present,” New Testament scholar Dale Allison not only reminds us that in the ancient world of Matthew stars were not only closely related to angels, but that many famous Christian commentators up to the Enlightenment thought that the star might well have been an angel, or at least a specially created star moved under angelic guidance. Interpreters like John Chrysostom, Ephraem, Augustine, Origen and Theophylact assumed that the star was either specially created and not part of the heavenly system, the Holy Spirit or an angelic being under the guise of a star. St. Thomas Aquinas — well aware of the folly of holding the star a natural occurrence — thought that what Matthew describes was an “invisible force made visible under the form of a star” — something out of the reach of normal astronomy.
It is easy to see how ancient interpreters would so closely relate stars to angels. Like Matthew’s star, angels are bright (see Mt 28:3; Acts 6:15; 2 Cor 11:14), they come down to earth (Dn 8:10; Mk 13:25; Rv 1:20; 9:1-2; 12:3-4), they reveal things to people (too many examples to list here) and they serve as guides. Most famously the pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night that guided Israel in the wilderness was the angel of the Lord (Ex 13:21).
In the Sanctus we invoke the “Lord of hosts.” These “hosts” (Saba’oth in Hebrew) are angelic armies closely related in the Bible to stars (see 1 Kgs 22:19; Is 24:21-23; Jer 19:13; Neh 9:6; Dn 8:10). If we were to look at the Dead Sea Scrolls and extra-biblical literature of both ancient Judaism and Christianity, these examples of the kinship between stars and angels could be multiplied ad nauseam. For these reasons many ancient paintings depict an angel (sometimes also with a star) leading the Magi.
The ancients readily saw stars as living beings, whose patterns could reveal things and tell stories about the world. In Eastern Christianity, this belief was partly carried over from Greek philosophy of Plato popular with many of the Church Fathers, but lingered because it fit in well with cosmology of the Bible. The view of an animate cosmos had currency well into the Middle Ages. Aristotle himself was unsure whether stars had souls. But in Aristotelean cosmology (the most up-to-date available in Aquinas’ day), stars were seen as the prime movers who in turn were moved by the unmoved prime mover, God. But in this way they were part of the chain of motion which could move things upon the earth. It was debated in the Middle Ages to what degree astral movements could actually predict happenings on earth. Aquinas used the terms “astronomy” and “astrology” interchangeably.
Astrology lost credence as the Middle Ages progressed and observers of the night skies developed the ability to make far more precise observations and mathematical computations. Mostly this was a salutary development. Astrology as a matter of fact could never effectively predict events on earth. On the other hand, astronomy could eventually reveal many truths of the universe while launching satellites, rockets, space shuttles and putting a man on the moon.
The separation between astrology and astronomy was much like the gulf that emerged between alchemy and chemistry. Wizards with esoteric “knowledge” have given way to geeks in lab coats. Stars have become the exclusive property of astronomy — gaseous giants that generate enormous quantities of heat, light and gravitational pull. But this was never Matthew’s notion of “stars,” nor that of any of his original interpreters.
The world is mostly the better for the changes. But we should be aware that the de-animation and de-supernaturalization of the universe has had some adverse effects in the way moderns think and read Scripture. It was Enlightenment thinkers, unconsciously reading a rationalistic framework into the Bible, who insisted that everything unusual in the Bible must have some natural explanation. We get annoyed — or should — when someone insists that the miracles of the Bible are really just natural phenomena that were exaggerated or misunderstood by the ancients. Jesus healing the sick and the blind was “really” just “spontaneous natural cures” to which medical literature attests. Jesus walking on water is “really” just him appearing to walk on very shallow water. Jesus quieting the storm was “really” just microbursts of wind that meteorologists affirm can come and go rapidly in the sea of Galilee. The multiplication of loaves was “really” everyone sharing their own lunch.
We don’t take these “explanations” that seriously because they implicitly deny the supernatural power of Jesus. Showing this was the whole motivation of narrating the miracles in the first place. But for some reason many still look to modern science to inform us what the Star of Bethlehem “really” was in terms of the underlying astronomy: the “star” in Matthew “must have been” a planetary alignment or a comet or supernova or planetary conjunction or something of this nature.
Modern biblical scholarship is saturated with just this scientific paradigm. Its conceit is that newer knowledge of the world is always superior to older knowledge. Often, new knowledge really is better, but not always! But the Star of Bethlehem is a classic example of how modern assumptions about the world can lead us seriously astray in interpreting an ancient text whose authors did not share those assumptions. Ignoring the interpretive tradition in this case has made many modern interpreters look very foolish and has misused otherwise valuable astronomical knowledge. Like much else the Bible recounts, the star of the Magi was a special intervention in the world by God, probably carried out with the intermediation of one of his angels. It was a Christmas miracle. And for all that modern astronomy can tell us, it cannot tell us anything about that!
Peter Brown, Ph.D., earned his doctorate in Scripture from The Catholic University of America. He serves as academic dean for the Catholic Distance University.