Comet ISON, dubbed the “comet of the century,” survived its perilous trip around the sun on Thursday. The comet was spotted on a trajectory toward the sun and then seemed to disappear, which prompted the European Space Agency (ESA) to declare the comet dead. It was thought that the large, icy, dusty snowball (which is what a comet is) had been obliterated by the sun. But pronouncing Comet ISON dead proved premature. Shortly afterward, astronomers spotted bright lights which they initially took for the comet’s dust trail that would soon fade away. But that isn’t what happened: The lights appeared to be getting brighter. It seems that a small fraction of the comet’s nucleus had indeed survived. That was Friday. Today, no trace of the comet is to be found.
The “comet of the century that wasn’t” has been in the news at the time of year when Christians turn their attention once more to the story of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, a narrative in which another celestial body, a star, plays an important part. Matthew’s Gospel (and the only one of the four Gospels to do so) relates how wise men from the east, guided by a star, arrived at the court of King Herod in Jerusalem to locate the child who had been born King of the Jews (2:1-12). They had seen the newborn king’s star in the east and had come to worship him (v.2).
The visitors from the east were not kings (despite the lyrics of the familiar carol, “We Three Kings of Orient Are”). Calling them “kings” was a later, medieval embellishment to the story. The Greek biblical text calls them magoi, ‘magi’ in Latin, esteemed wise men from Persia [now Iran], or possibly southern Arabia or Yemen. The Greek historian Herodatus (c 480-c 425 BC) in his Histories describes a similarly-named priestly caste within the Persian Empire. Magi were said to be skilled in the interpretation of omens, in philosophy, medicine, and natural science, with astrology being their special area of expertise. An unusual, hitherto unseen, star would have aroused intense curiosity. Matthew doesn’t tell us how the magi determined that the appearance of this new star signalled the birth of the King of the Jews but, somehow, these Gentile wise men grasped its significance. So convinced were they that they travelled to Jerusalem to meet the new king.
It has been assumed that three wise men arrived in Herod’s court, based on the fact that they gave three gifts to the Christ-child. But the number of the magi is never stated. The Bible translation known as The Message refers to the magi simply as “a band of scholars.” When King Herod learned why the magi were there, he was terrified, not only he but all of Jerusalem along with him (v.3). The reason for his terror: Herod was not the rightful heir to the throne. His father, Antipater, was an Idumean convert to Judaism; his mother, Cypros, a Nabatean. Given his Edomite heritage, Herod was not qualified to be King of the Jews: He lacked the requisite Davidic lineage. He had only gained the throne by ingratiating himself with the Roman emperor, Augustus Caesar. In 40 BC, the Roman senate appointed Herod King of Judea. Rome’s “puppet-king” aligned himself fully with Rome, even to the point of embracing Greco-Roman culture and religion. To learn that the King of the Jews had been born would have been viewed by Herod as a personal threat, undoubtedly. He now sought the Child as well, but for a very different reason (v. 7-8).
After learning from the chief priests and scribes that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, King Herod sent the magi to Bethlehem to search for the new King and report his location back to him. The same star the magi had seen in the east now went before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was (v.9). Going into the house, they met the Child and Mary his mother, the object of their quest. They paid homage to the Child, and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (v.11).
Readers of Matthew’s account of the magi’s visit have long wondered about the “star.” Was it real? Astronomer Colin J. Humphreys believes that it was, and that it was a comet. In 5 BC, the Chinese recorded a major, new, slow-moving comet in the Capricorn region of the sky. The comet was seen for a period of over 70 days, mainly during the months of March and April (which was the likely time of the year when Jesus was born, not December). Most scholars believe that Jesus was born around 6 BC. Herod the Great was on the throne when Jesus was born. Herod died in 4 BC. Time wise, then, a comet that appeared in 5 BC would fit. Humphreys suggests that this comet is the “star” in Matthew chapter two. It’s an intriguing idea.
I’m disappointed that Comet ISON is no more. Watching a comet move across the night sky is an awesome experience. I was privileged to see the Hale-Bopp Comet in 1997. In a few days, hardly any people will recall that there even was a comet called ISON. But that’s not the case with the Bethlehem star–or comet. Whether the star of Matthew chapter two was a real star, or a comet, or something altogether different, Christians have continued to read about it, talk about it, sing about it for more than two millennia now. And Christians (even many non-Christians) will do so again this Christmas Season.