Was the Star that Guided the Magi a Natural or Supernatural Occurrence?

As we continue our survey of teachings on the birth of our Lord from St. Thomas Aquinas, today we consider the mysterious star that led the Magi to Christ. In recent decades there has been a strong tendency to seek a natural explanation for this phenomenon. Some speculate that it was in fact a comet or the appearance of several planets close together in the night sky. While not necessarily incorrect, these explanations are largely set aside by St. Thomas and most of the Church Fathers on whom he relies (especially St. John Chrysostom). They observe that while the manifestation is called a star, it has qualities that stars do not possess.

Before beginning, however, I would like to state that while I agree with the conclusion of St. Thomas and most of the Church Fathers, the first two of the five points they make (see below) are puzzling to me; they seem unnecessary, if not erroneous. I mean no disrespect to men far greater and holier than I, but I cannot, in my limited sensibility, see how they are accurate observations. Therefore, I will simply share my befuddlement in the commentary.

That said, the three points that follow are clear enough and make a good case that the term “star” was used by St Matthew in a generic rather than scientific sense. It was a star-like object, but one with qualities not possessed by normal stars. The full truth about this star is mysterious. Also mysterious is whether others were able to see the star. I personally think not and would see that as further evidence that the star was not merely a natural occurrence. Rather, certain people were able to see the star and others were not.

Onward, then, to St. Thomas’s teaching on the star that led the Magi to Jesus. The question that forms the basis of today’s post is taken from St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica. St. Thomas’s answers are presented in italics, while my inferior commentary appears in plain, red text.

Whether the star which appeared to the Magi belonged to the heavenly system? (Summa Theologiae, Part Three, Question 36, Article 7).

As Chrysostom says (Hom. vi in Matth.), it is clear, for many reasons, that the star which appeared to the Magi did not belong to the heavenly system. First, because no other star approaches from the same quarter as this star, whose course was from north to south, these being the relative positions of Persia, whence the Magi came, and Judea.

It is not clear to me why this should be so. At its height, Persia had regions to the south (into modern-day Egypt) and even west toward Greece; but it extended even more to the east from Judea and all the more so at the time of Christ’s birth. It seems possible—even likely—that the Magi would have come from the east rather then the south, and that the trajectory of the star would then have followed the usual course of moving from east to west.

Indeed, the Greek text says rather plainly that the magi arrived ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν (from the east). It is not clear to me why Chrysostom (Thomas simply quoted him) presumed that the Magi came up from the south. While it is certainly possible, it is not necessarily so, and if anything seems contraindicated.

Secondly, from the time [at which it was seen]. For it appeared not only at night, but also at midday: and no star can do this, not even the moon.

Here, too, I am somewhat confused. The biblical text does not seem to say clearly that the star also appeared during the day. Perhaps St. John Chrysostom presumed that the Magi could not reasonably have traveled at night and thus needed to be able to see the star by day. Without the bright light of the moon, nighttime travel was certainly difficult if not impossible. Further, the comings and goings of the Magi (visiting Herod and going into the house where Jesus and Mary were) are not things that would typically have been done in the dark of night, but rather during the day. Still, the presumption that the star appeared during the day is not proven.

Thirdly, because it was visible at one time and hidden at another. For when they entered Jerusalem it hid itself: then, when they had left Herod, it showed itself again.

This is a detail that escapes many readers: Namely, that upon the arrival of the Magi in Jerusalem, the star either became invisible or at least gave out ambiguous clues as to its location. This is not the nature of normal stars, which are stably present and visible on a clear night. The star had led the Magi this far with clarity and accuracy and yet suddenly was strangely gone from view, requiring them to ask for directions.

St. John Chrysostom saw in this a pastoral purpose of rousing the Jewish people to faith. He spoke of the star now halting and now rousing up the camp of the Jews, when it was needful (Homily 6 on Matthew). Sadly, the Jewish leaders and scholars whom Herod consulted seemed rather disinterested, despite prophecies being fulfilled before their very eyes: Kings from the East following a star and bearing gifts (see Psalm 72:10, Numbers 24:17, Isaiah 60:6).

The point here is that ordinary stars do not appear and disappear.

Fourthly, because its movement was not continuous, but when the Magi had to continue their journey the star moved on; when they had to stop the star stood still; as happened to the pillar of a cloud in the desert.

The text describes unusual movements that normal stars do not make: the star they had seen … went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.

Fifthly, because it indicated the virginal Birth, not by remaining aloft, but by coming down below. For it is written (Matthew 2:9) that “the star which they had seen in the east went before them, until it came and stood over where the child was.” … But it could not have indicated the house distinctly, unless it were near the earth. And, as he [Chrysostom] observes, this does not seem fitting to a star, but “of some power endowed with reason.”

The need for the star to be lower in the sky than any normal star is explained well here. Even the moon, a relatively closer object, is still too high in the sky to indicate a specific place. If I were to go out and look at the moon, I might perceive it as being directly over my house, but it would also appear to be directly over thousands of other houses for hundreds of miles around. In order to indicate a specific house in Bethlehem, the star must somehow have been lower in the sky or must have pointed to the house with some sort of light ray.

Consequently “it seems that this was some invisible force made visible under the form of a star.”

It seems reasonable to conclude that the star that led the Magi was not a natural star in the usual sense. Rather, the star here had some of the properties of a natural star, yet was something different, and was controlled by a power endowed with reason and a purpose to lead certain men to Christ.

St. Thomas goes on to cite a few other teachings from the Fathers and then includes his own opinion:

Wherefore some say that, as the Holy Ghost, after our Lord’s Baptism, came down on Him under the form of a dove, so did He appear to the Magi under the form of a star. While others say that the angel who, under a human form, appeared to the shepherds, under the form of a star, appeared to the Magi. But it seems more probable that it was a newly created star, not in the heavens, but in the air near the earth, and that its movement varied according to God’s will. Wherefore Pope Leo says in a sermon on the Epiphany (xxxi): “A star of unusual brightness appeared to the three Magi in the east, which, through being more brilliant and more beautiful than the other stars, drew men’s gaze and attention: so that they understood at once that such an unwonted event could not be devoid of purpose.”

Thus we can reasonably conclude that the star was not merely a natural occurrence. While there is no official Church interpretation to which we must adhere, St. Thomas and the ancient Fathers saw the star as a mysterious and miraculous work of God, not simply as a natural phenomenon that He permitted and then used to indicate the whereabouts of Christ.

Tomorrow we will continue this thread and ponder more about the Magi themselves.


13 Replies to “Was the Star that Guided the Magi a Natural or Supernatural Occurrence?”

    1. sorry, i find no way to comment on the article, and not a comment, i am posting here.

      since all things are authored by God, isn’t it a supernatural event even if it is a “natural” occurrence, by definition and the question irrelevant?

  1. We have no evidence for anything beyond a vision for the Magi of a star visible only to themselves. It was not objectively visible to everyone, or records might exist of its appearance, such as the ones found in China The Magi have been incorrectly called astrologers, when it is more likely they were star-gazers, a more ancient practice. They observed the stars for divine revelation, since the stars were then regarded as the homes of angels, or angels themselves.

    According to the Ven. Catherine Emmerich, the star appeared hairy (like a comet) and fulfilled the prophecy of Balaam (Num 24:17).

    Correspondingly, who else besides the shepherds at night saw the heavens opened? This event would also be a vision for the shepherds only, no one else.

  2. While stars don’t disappear and reappear, they do get covered by clouds to where they can’t be seen. Also, if, by following a real star, the arrived in the area of Bethlehem, they could easily have needed directions since they wouldn’t be sure of which house it was over. They were probably familiar with the scriptures, and as such would probably know of the prophecy that the Child was to be born in Bethlehem. If the “star” was actually a bright planet or conjunction of planets, planets do go retrograde. From our perspective, it looks like they are going backwards or staying in one place.

    1. Retrograde motion refers to the motion of a planet against the background of “fixed stars”. This motion is very slow compared with the normal east-to-west apparent motion of everything in the sky, and without a telescope, it would be impossible to see in a single night. More specifically, retrograde motion has to do with the declination and (especially) the right ascension, but when you say, “From our perspective, they seem to be going backwards or staying in one place,” you are apparently referring to the azimuth and altitude.

  3. Monsignor,
    It looks like you have done some research. I have done enough research to know what the star of Bethlehem was. It was Venus, the day star, the bright morning star and the Dayspring. I found the star in the Bible, but needed to study astronomy to understand it. It can rarely be seen during the day near its heliacal rising. it could point to a house and lead because it was alone in the sky. The magi saw ‘his star’, as it rose with the sun. His star marked a golden scepter, a short line of three planets very low in the sky. The rising of His star with the sun in two instances marked a picture telling the gospel story, then proceeded as the daystar to point the direction and in the second instance linger in the west for 24 minutes after sunset low in the west over the ridge. The magi’s movement up the ridge cancelled the downward motion of the star on the horizon making it appear to wait. They arrived on the evening of Passover. Many believe that the star that led to Jesus’ house did things that no star could do, so it was necessary for an angel to guide them. But God designed a very special star, that rarely, but when needed could guide in ways that no other star could guide. I have a condensed version of the story. The real story also reveals Christmas and our current calendar are correct.
    see http://www.scripturescholar.com/StarOfBethlehem.htm This article was condensed from: http://www.scripturescholar.com/VenusStarofBethlehem.htm
    grace and peace,

  4. I have seen Venus in the noonday sky. Venus has to be especially bright and at a wide angle from the sun, and the weather has to be very clear (no clouds at all and little to no humidity), but this happens often enough that unexpected daytime sightings of Venus constitute one class of UFO. The Magi spent a lot more time looking at the sky than most Americans do today. Believe me, they understood the motion of Venus at least as well as you understand the phases of the moon. They would have known where Venus was even on a cloudy day. It would have taken more than something that predictable to spur them on to an expensive and potentially dangerous journey.

  5. I’m 100% in the not-an-astronomical-phenomenon camp, and I find the argument that this was something akin to the pillar of fire entirely convincing. It must have been something more interesting than a humdrum conjunction that persuaded the Magi to travel hundreds of miles with expensive gifts. Having said that, there are a few further facts to consider.

    1. What is now usually called the Beehive Cluster was known in ancient times as the Manger. To borrow from Wikipedia, “Ancient Greeks and Romans saw this object as a manger from which two donkeys, the adjacent stars Asellus Borealis and Asellus Australis, are eating; these are the donkeys that Dionysos and Silenus rode into battle against the Titans.” What if the star did not appear AT the birth of Christ but TO ANNOUNCE THE IMMINENT birth of Christ — first appearing, say, at the Annunciation? That might have given them enough time to have found the Holy Family when the Babe was still in the manger. Could there have been a connection? Could something about the position or motion of the star in relation to the Beehive Cluster have caused the Magi to ask for the baby in the manger when they got to Bethlehem? That would have been sufficiently specific.

    2. According to Gavin White’s book BABYLONIAN STAR LORE, the word/symbol for star was used in Babylonian astrology for anything noteworthy in the sky. This could be a star, a constellation, a planet, a comet, or even a meteorological phenomenon like a ring around the moon (and remember, in the ancient world it was believed that comets were meteorological, since they changed much more obviously than a star or planet).

    3. Babylonian astrologers would not have written down their whole systems. Yes, they wrote down the outlines (sometimes with items deliberately mislabeled), but remember, their livelihoods depended on having exclusive knowledge. A number of ancient “trade secrets” have been lost for that reason. We do not know exactly how Greek fire was made, and we do not know exactly how to make Damascus steel (though we can make something quite similar). It is unlikely that Greco-Roman astrology was identical with the astrology of the Magi. Without knowing their key to interpreting strange things they saw in the sky, it really is pointless to ask what they saw. The odds are that everyone in Jerusalem could see the same thing they saw, only it would hold no meaning for them.

  6. Monsignor,

    Here are my theories and facts for your consideration:

    During the Babylonian Captivity, Daniel passed on the Messianic prophecies to the believing Persian astrologers. They, waiting for the completion of his Seventy Sevens, passed on the knowledge until the time of the biblical Magi. Here, the Messiah’s “star” is proposed to be a conjunction of Venus and Jupiter in Leo, not once, but twice, encompassing a triple-pass of Jupiter across Regulus, the “heart of the lion”.

    The first Venus/Jupiter conjunction in Leo, just before sunrise (only visible in “the east”), as viewed from Persepolis, Iran in August of 3 B.C. (the Stellarium program includes a year “0”, so a date of -2/8/11 is in 3 B.C.)

    At closest conjunction the planets would have been separated by 0.07 degrees, but they would have been lost to view in the sunrise by that time. The closest they probably would have been viewed is at about 0.15 degrees separation.

    Assuming the Magi’s caravan would have traveled by night until early morning, avoiding the hot, daytime temperatures (at least at the end of their journey, regardless of how quickly they traveled/how long it took), Venus would have long disappeared from view as it passed back around the sun. However, Jupiter’s retrograde would have been on display every evening, as it passed back and forth across Regulus, remaining firmly within the lion constellation for the duration of their journey. As they approached Jerusalem, Venus would reappear, this time at sundown, drawing closer and closer to Leo as the constellation set earlier and earlier each day. Considering the travel schedule (June in Jerusalem would be seeing 90 deg F days), the Magi would most likely have approached Herod in the early afternoon/evening, having rested after their arrival in Jerusalem.

    1360 miles (or so)/310 days after the first conjunction, in June of 2 B.C. (-1/6/17 by Stellarium), the second Venus/Jupiter conjunction occurs, again in Leo, now only visible for a few hours after sunset in the west; much closer and brighter conjunction than the first.

    As the Magi arrived at Jerusalem, they would witness precisely (with no sun to obscure it) the moment of greatest conjunction (incredibly close, only 0.008 degrees of separation) with a full moon to help them set up camp (and, perhaps, to help some shepherds run to find a baby) before seeing Herod on the following day. “When Jesus therefore was born in Bethlehem of Judah, in the days of King Herod, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem.”

    Assuming the Magi spoke with Herod after a day of rest, near sunset, the new conjunction would still be clearly visible afterward, in the evening twilight. As the Magi departed, taking the southward road from Jerusalem to Bethlehem (about five miles/under two hours’ walk), they would rejoice to see the “star” still shining brightly in the west. (Sunset: 6:42PM; moon-rise: 7:38PM, 98.7% illuminated; “star”-set: 9:39PM)

    Now, I cannot astronomically identify a mechanism for the star standing over the house where Jesus was, but parting clouds in the east, for instance, could very dramatically have allowed the rising moon to shine upon a specific dwelling directly beneath the “star”.

    (This scenario proposes that the Holy Family could have moved into the inn after some guests checked out in the morning, thereby allowing for the “star” to have accompanied Jesus’ birth in the stable, but still guide the Magi to the “house”. Because Venus and Jupiter were so close at their closest point, if the Magi then visited Herod and made the trip to Bethlehem on the next day, they still would have seen the conjunction over the house, simply at 0.8 degrees separation instead of 0.008 degrees. Also, the only slightly waning moon would be dramatically rising in the east upon their arrival, permitting the revelation of the house as described above.)

    Only four months later (-1/10/12 by Setllarium), Venus’ retrograde creates a third Venus/Jupiter conjunction – individually brighter, but separated a full 2 degrees – at the “shoulder” of Virgo.

    Being 14 months after the star’s first appearance (“the time of the star which appeared to them”), ordering the death of all males two years old and younger would seem an “appropriate” way to eliminate the new King. (If the Magi pointed out the Jupiter/Venus conjunction to Herod and his advisers upon their arrival, this last conjunction could have continued discussion about the “newborn king”, provoking greater outrage in Herod than that from being ignored by the Magi, alone.)

    Whether the star which appeared to the Magi belonged to the heavenly system?

    Firstly, in the above analysis, I chose Persepolis, Iran as the Magi’s origin, because it was a significant cultural center in the Persian Empire, as well as near to where the Babylonian Captivity took place. The latitude of Persepolis is 29°56’08.9″N, that of Jerusalem is 31°46’04.8″N – actually further north than the Magi’s proposed origin. Also, and this point applies to many of Aquinas’ assumptions, the Magi said they saw the star “in the east” or “at its rising”, not that they followed it (that’s “The First Noel”).

    Secondly, my assumption is that the Magi knew the “star” meant it was time to go to Jerusalem, not that it was time to follow-that-star-before-it-gets-away! Desert night travel is not only common but necessary in the hotter regions/seasons. The stars themselves give enough illumination for open terrain (without modern light pollution), and there was enough time between the first two conjunctions which I considered above to allow for the caravan to pause during the new moons if they really wanted/needed the benefit of moonlight.

    Thirdly, when the Magi entered Jerusalem, they entered during the day in order to be able to actually meet the residents when they weren’t in bed. The “star” would not become visible until evening, probably after their audience with Herod. The Magi wouldn’t have come to Herod because the “star” stopped and stood over his palace, but rather because he was the king and they expected the child to be revealed to them upon their arrival in Jerusalem – hence, “Where is He that is born king of the Jews?” and also Herod’s instructions to “diligently inquire after the child” in Bethlehem.

    Fourthly, Aquinas assumed the “star” was, indeed, such a near object as the pillar of cloud/fire, and not an astronomical occurrence that one needed to be an astrologer with the prophecies of Daniel in order to comprehend. If it had been as Aquinas imagined, Herod could have gone with or ahead of the Magi to find Jesus – or else, one must also assume that not only were the Magi the only ones to recognize the sign’s importance, but also the only ones who could physically see it.

    Fifthly, as I stated above, I cannot, astronomically, determine a specific mechanism for the “star” standing over the house. However, if the Magi traveled south to Bethlehem, the “star” would have been on their right, growing brighter and brighter in the west as the twilight darkened. As they entered Bethlehem, the moon rising in the east that night could have been revealed by parting clouds, actually sending down a beam of moonlight on a house to their right (with lit lamps and a crying baby/lullaby), directly beneath the “star” as they perceived it… or any other way that God wanted to reward their search.

    1. A child born at the time of the second conjunction (June 17, 2 BC) would have been 33.8 years old at the time of Passover in 33 AD (April 3; 14th of Nisan – slaughter of the Passover lambs)

      1. The first conjunction could very well have accompanied the Annunciation – August to June yields a ten-month gestation; I, myself, was a ten-month baby, perfectly healthy. Also, the fact that the first conjunction was “hidden” by the sunrise at its closest point is appropriate for the hidden life of Jesus before his birth.

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