In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
`And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'”
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
As we sneak up on Epiphany once again I am reminded, like the magi who followed a star a few thousand years ago, the stars call to me. In Revelation of the Magi (Brent Landau, HarperOne, 2010), a second apocryphal text on the Magi which is stored in the Vatican library the Magi’s story is translated. In what now seems like another life, I trained in the sciences and have a master’s degree in the study of space and today I am reflecting on what that education brings to bear on the Magi’s journey.
Having used stars as navigational tools there is a miraculousness to this story that a GPS and even a map bound generation may not appreciate. By today’s terminology, the “star” would more rightly be termed a geosynchronous satellite, asteroid, or possibly even a drone. 2000 years ago there were not separate words for these things.
Stars only hold their position in the sky if they are located roughly due North of the North Pole, or due South of the South Pole. As the Magi were travelling East-West following the “star” we can effectively rule out an event such as a naturally occurring supernova. A comet would have had a long tail and pointed like an arrow, but as the Earth rotated it would have pointed at different location throughout the journey and not provided a definitive endpoint. Translationally, we might argue that they saw the “star” on only the first day, so we can’t entirely rule out the comet nature. Comets have two tales one of which consistently points away from the sun and the other follows the comet’s path through the sky, so they can appear quite arrow-like. But, while they celestially point consistently, they “go out” (stop glowing) when headed away from the sun and become visible when headed towards the sun. This alone means that navigationally they would not provide consistent directional information on Earth.
A satellite, such as the moon or a gravitationally captured asteroid could hold it’s position in the sky. However the Magi would have known what a Moon looks like and not used the word star. Which brings me to the satellite (asteroid or other) hypothesis. Satellites can hold a geosynchronous position. That means that they stay in place above the Earth as it rotates. This would also give credence to the concept of following a “star” from the East. A geosynchronous satellite to the west of the observer is most easily visible from the ground in the early hours of the day due to the position of the sun which would likely increase the glare on the object. It would then again be a bright sky object just after sunset growing brighter as the observer gets closer. To date we have not seen a naturally occurring phenomenon of this. Because of the moon and the Earth’s gravitational pulls, most objects such as asteroids either fly right by or get caught by one or the other and crash either as a meteor to Earth or into the moon. The only stable satellites of Earth are the Moon and the man-made satellites of the last century.
Why seek to explain a supernatural event?
By no means does any of the above mean that some naturally occurring phenomenon confused a bunch of Maji. In fact a thorough understanding of solar system astronomy makes the event of a guiding east-west celestial object decidedly miraculous. A night sky object, visible from Earth for a period of roughly two weeks to two years (depending on the scholarship you prefer to use as a timeline) which provides an East-West navigational point is not something which happens everyday or even every century. In fact in the millennia before and after, until humans became space-faring, it has never been recorded to have happened outside of this event. This “star” was unlike anything else we’ve ever known.
O God, by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son
to the Peoples of the earth: Lead us, who know you now by
faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to
face; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns
with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.