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It is doubtless one of the best-loved elements of the Christmas tale. To scholar Brown tracing its path in Matthew, however, the star was a puzzle, a celestial body engaged in a maneuver a little like a car attempting a three-point turn. "A star that rose in the east, appeared over Jerusalem, turned south to Bethlehem, and then came to rest over a house," he ruminated, "would have constituted a celestial phenomenon unparalleled in astronomical history. Yet it did not receive notice in the records of the time."
Brown was aware of the star's theological importance to Matthew. For some Jews it probably brought to mind a verse from the Old Testament book Numbers alluding to David's messianic status--"A star shall come out of Jacob and a [king] shall rise out of Israel." By making the star the object of the non-Jewish Magi's curiosity, Matthew showed that if he lacked Luke's detailed pagan background, he at least had some knowledge that stellar displays had meaning to non-Jews as well. In fact, stars were associated with the founding of Rome and the fall of Jerusalem, plus the birth of the usual suspects: Alexander the Great and Julius and Augustus Caesar. Even Herod reportedly had his own.
The blank space that Brown reported in the 1st century astronomical accounts where there should have been notice of Jesus' star has not prevented thousands of enthusiasts from attempting to locate it retroactively. Supernovas, comets and planetary conjunctions have all had their day. No less an eminence weighed in than the astronomer Johannes Kepler, whose laws first accurately plotted the planets' revolutions around the sun. He noted that a triple conjunction of Jupiter, Saturn and Mars, which he observed in 1604, could produce an appropriate extended effect. Moreover, he calculated that it recurs every 805 years, which means that it came around in 6 B.C., the year usually assigned (because of changes in the calendar) to Jesus' birth. More recently, the nova theory has received a boost with the discovery of Han-dynasty Chinese and Korean records of blazing stellar bodies at about the same time. Finally, some analysts have suggested that Matthew was so impressed by Halley's comet in A.D. 66, and by the testimony of very old Christians who had seen it in 12 B.C., that he wrote it into the story.
For those not astronomically inclined, however, the star continues to work just fine as a symbol. With skepticism but not without poetry, A.N. Wilson, author of Jesus: A Life, notes, "Astronomers will never find the real star of Bethlehem because the real star of Bethlehem is a thing of our imagination. It's the light shining over the Christ Child."
"We three kings of Orient are/ Bearing gifts we traverse afar"
--WE THREE KINGS