When meteoroids light up they are called meteors or, more commonly, “shooting stars” or “falling stars.” Depending on the brightness of especially bright meteors, they are called bolides, superbolides or fireballs.
As a meteor travels through Earth’s atmosphere, layers of the meteor get stripped away as the meteor (which is travelling at high speed) collides with the molecules in the earth’s atmosphere. Consequently, many meteoroids greatly decrease in size and others totally disintegrate before they strike the surface of the earth.
Several thousand meteors pass through Earth’s atmosphere every day, but they typically go undetected for several reasons: 1) They are very small and quickly disintegrate; 2) they enter the atmosphere over one of Earth’s vast, uninhabited oceans, 3) they occur over one of the uninhabited regions of Earth’s continents or 4) they travel through the atmosphere during daylight hours and are too dim to outshine the brightness of the sun.
Meteors that survive the journey through Earth’s atmosphere and impact the earth are called meteorites.
The great majority of meteorites are quite small, but some very large meteorites have been found. For example, the Willamette Meteorite found in Oregon is the largest meteorite discovered in the United States weighing in at about 32,000 pounds (≈ 15,500 kilograms).
The Hoba meteorite discovered in South Africa is the largest meteorite to have even been found on Earth weighing in at about 60 tons (≈ 54,000 kilograms).
The term used by the Apostle Matthew to describe the Christmas “star” was the Greek word “aster” which has a much broader definition than the word “star” does in English. Although the word “star” appears in all English translations of the Bible, the original Greek word “aster” (αστηρ) has a much broader meaning and can refer to any kind of heavenly body, including a meteor. [See, Hugh Ross, “The Christmas Star” (12/02); see also, Barry Setterfield, The Christmas Star, DVD (2008), Joseph Henry Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 81 – 82 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1977) and www.teknia.com/greek-dictionary/aster]
[NOTE: The meteor proposal for the Christmas “star” is not the view held by the most notable scholars. Rather, scholars who propose astronomical candidates for the Christmas “star” (aster) tend toward one of the other proposals including: 1) Jupiter (as part of a series of extraordinary astronomical events occurring in 3 B.C. – 2 B.C) (here>>); 2) A 5 B.C. comet documented in astronomical records of the Chinese (here>>); 3) A recurring nova (here>>)]
Taking the unresolved issues, proposed translations and differing interpretations of the Matthew 2 text into account (more>>), scholars have historically considered seven (7) things in evaluating whether proposed candidates for the Christmas “star” adequately explain and are consistent with the facts disclosed about the “star” in Matthew 2:1-11 (more>>).
This section of the article examines how well the meteor proposal corresponds with, or fails to correspond with, each of the following seven historical considerations:
Consideration No. 1
As noted by Christian astronomer Hugh Ross (a proponent of the recurring nova candidate for the Christmas “star” more), many scholars believe the Magi were ancient astronomers from Babylon or Persian (more). [See, Hugh Ross, “The Christmas Star”, (updated 11/2010)]
Magi from Babylon or Persia may have been anticipating the coming of the Messiah (the Anointed One) based on Daniel’s prophecy concerning the coming Messiah (see, Dan. 9:25). This prophecy was made by Daniel after he was transported from Jerusalem to Babylon following King Nebuchadnezzar’s siege of Jerusalem (more) [See, Hugh Ross, “The Christmas Star”, (updated 11/2010)]
It is further suggested that Magi from Babylon or Persia may have been especially interested in the coming of a Jewish king because they may have been part of the legacy of Jews who had been transported from Jerusalem to Babylon along with Daniel (more>>). [See, Hugh Ross, “The Christmas Star”, (updated 11/2010)]
If the Magi were anticipating the coming of the Messiah as prophesied by the prophet Daniel, the Magi may have interpreted the appearance of a meteor as signifying the birth of a “king of the Jews” especially if the meteor was observed in relation to one or more other celestial objects associated with:
- A king — e.g., 1) Jupiter (the King Planet), 2) Regulus (the King Star) or 3) the Leo Constellation (the Royal Constellation);
- A birth;
- The Jews or the Jewish nation — e.g., 1) Pisces (associated with the nation of Israel), 2) the Leo Constellation (historically associated with the Tribe of Judah) and/or 3) Regulus (the King Star) which is not only located in the Leo Constellation but was considered the heart of Leo. Meteors which appear to radiate form the Leo Constellation are called Leonid meteors.
Because meteors do not travel in recurring cyclical patterns like planets and comets do, the past positions of meteors cannot be computed to determine if the Magi could have associated a citing of a particular meteor with a king, the Jews or a birth. Therefore, any such association can only be speculated.
Consideration No. 2
Could the Magi have seen the meteor rise for the first time when they were in the east; or, as alternatively translated, could a meteor have been seen by the Magi “when it rose” or “at it’s rising” in the east, or could it have been seen “rising in the east” (see, Matt. 2:1-2, 9) [See, Unresolved Issue No. 1]
Many scholars maintain the original Greek text of Matthew 2 indicates the Magi saw a new “star” (aster) or at least a star that hadn’t previously been observed. [See, Colin Humphreys, “The Star of Bethlehem” (1995), asa3.org; Ray Bohlin, “The Star of Bethlehem” (1999)]
Since meteors do not reappear in a cyclical pattern like comets do, if the Christmas “star” was a meteor, it would not have been seen on any prior occasion. Accordingly, a meteor could have been described as a new “star” (aster) which the Magi saw for the first time in the east.
Because of the direction of Earth’s rotation (counterclockwise), many astronomical objects, including stars, novae, comets and planets appear to earthbound observers to rise in the east. Accordingly, those who propose Jupiter, a comet or a nova as the Christmas “star” (aster) can explain how those objects could have been observed rising in the east as Matthew describes the Christmas “star” (aster) doing in Matthew 2:1-2, 9.
In the following YouTube animation by Ross Mitchell (more>>), Jupiter, Venus, Mars and Mercury are seen as small dots of light “rising in the east” over the Sydney Harbour Bridge and proceeding in a westerly direction (right to left) at a rate 250 times faster than actually occurred in real time:
Although meteor showers can last for weeks, individual meteors do not last very long — most meteors descend toward earth very rapidly and disintegrate in a matter of seconds or minutes, and therefore, are not observed rising in the east as planets, comets, stars and novae are observed doing.
Consequently, those who propose the Christmas “star” could have been a meteor, have difficulty correlating the appearance of a meteor with Matthew’s description of the Christmas “star” (aster) as having risen in the east (see, Matt. 2:1-2, 9). See, also Unresolved Issue No. 1.
Consideration No. 3
Although it is possible that an especially spectacular meteor was observed during this time period, no such sighting is referenced in historical astronomical records.
Further, because meteors either burn up in the atmosphere or land on the surface of the earth never to reappear in the heavens again, computer programs cannot be used to reconstruct their past appearance in the same way scientist can reconstruct the past positions of planets, stars and comets which follow regularly occurring patterns governed by laws of physics and motion.
Because no especially spectacular meteor was referenced in astronomical records of 7 B.C. – 2 B.C. and because the past positions of meteors cannot be reconstructed, the appearance of a meteor between 7 B.C. – 2 B.C. can only be speculated.
Consideration No. 4
It seems that any meteor spectacular enough to impress the Magi would also have made an impression on Herod the Great; however, Herod didn’t seem to be aware of the “star” (aster) since he had to ask the Magi when it appeared (Matt. 2:7).
In response it can be argued that the proposed meteor may have been visible to the Magi in the east, but not visible to those living in Judea. This is because most meteoroids light up to become meteors when they are about 50 – 75 miles (80 – 120 km) above the surface of the earth which is not high enough to be seen over vast distances.
Alternatively, it can be argued that although Herod may have been aware of the appearance of the meteor, he may not have realized the significance of the meteor until the Magi explained how the meteor (perhaps in conjunction with other astronomical events) was a sign of the fulfillment of Daniel’s 9:25 prophecy concerning the coming of a Jewish king. It was then that Herod become so troubled (Matt. 2:1-3) that he secretly met with the Magi to determine when the meteor the Magi had seen in the east had first appeared (Matt. 2:7)
Thereafter, when the Magi failed to report back to Herod regarding the whereabouts of the one born king of the Jews as he had requested they do (Matt. 2:8, 12), Herod ordered all the male babies in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or younger be killed in accordance with what he had learned from the Magi (Matt. 2:16). The infanticide of babies in and around Bethlehemwhich ensued is commonly referred to as the “Massacre of the Innocents” more>> .
Consideration No. 5
Would the appearance of a meteor have lasted long enough to have been seen by the Magi in the east (Matt. 2:2) and still be seen (or, alternatively, seen again) when the Magi left Jerusalem for Bethlehem (Matt. 2:9-10)? (more>>) [See, Unresolved Issue No. 2]
As noted by Barry Setterfield (a proponent of the Jupiter proposal for the Christmas “star” here>>), meteors are far too short-lived to be a candidate for the Christmas “star” because the “star” was first observed by the Magi in the East (most probably Babylon or Persia more>>) and still visible after the Magi completed their long journey to Jerusalem and subsequently left Jerusalem for Bethlehem. [See, Barry Setterfield, The Christmas Star (2008); see also, Rick Larson, The Bethlehem Star (2007)]]
Alternatively, as interpreted by some scholars (see, Unresolved Issue No. 2), Matthew’s account of the Christmas “star” (aster) indicates the “star” appeared, disappeared and then reappeared because Matthew 2:2 says the Magi saw the “star” in the east, but then the star isn’t mentioned again until the Magi left Jerusalem for Bethlehem (Matt. 2:8-9).
Under the later interpretation, it can be argued that a brilliant meteor was seen by the Magi in the east and a second, yet similar, brilliant meteor was seen by the Magi when they left Jerusalem for Bethlehem. When the Magi observed the second meteor, they credited it as a reappearance of the same “star” (aster) they had first observed in the east.
However, because no references to any such meteors have been found in ancient astronomical records, the appearance of such meteors can only be speculated.
Consideration No. 6
If a second meteor appeared in the heavens as the Magi left Jerusalem for Bethlehem (see, Consideration No. 5 above), the Magi may have believed the new meteor was a reappearance of the same “star” (aster) they had originally seen in the east (Matthew 2:9).
Moreover, if the second appearance of a meteor occurred in the southern skies over the town of Bethlehem, the Magi may have seen the meteor in the sky ahead of them as they travelled south from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.
Consideration No. 7
If a second meteor appeared as the Magi left Jerusalem heading south for Bethlehem (see, Consideration No. 5 above) and the second meteor burned up in the southern horizon over the town of Bethlehem, the Magi may have interpreted it as having “stopped over” Bethlehem the very place the Magi had just learned the “one born king of the Jews” was prophesied to be born (Matt. 2:4-6, Micah 5:2).
Because Bethlehem was a small town (more>>), it wouldn’t have taken the Magi long to learn which house Jesus was living in. Indeed, Luke 2:8-18 reports the night Jesus was born angels announced his birth to shepherds tending flocks in fields near Bethlehem. When the shepherds learned a savior (the promised Messiah) had been born in Bethlehem, they hurried into town and found Mary with Joseph and the baby Jesus lying in the manger. Luke 2: 16-18 says that after seeing Jesus, the shepherds spread the word about what the angels had told them about the child.
So, when the Magi arrived in Bethlehem 1 – 2 years later looking for one “born king of the Jews” (Matt. 2:2), people living in Bethlehemcould have directed them to the house where Jesus was living at that time. (Matt. 2:9-11)
Nevertheless, because no spectacular meteor is referenced in any ancient astronomical records as appearing over Bethlehem around the general time of Jesus’ birth, the appearance of such a meteor can only be speculated.
Because of the limited amount of information contained in Matthew’s account of the Christmas “star” (aster) and because there are areas of disagreement about how certain Greek terms and phrases originally used by Matthew are correctly interpreted and understood (more>>), scholars and theologians have cautioned against forming steadfast opinions about the precise nature of the Christmas “star” (aster).
Others maintain that if God chose an astronomical event to be a sign of the birth of his son (the savior of the world), it would still be miraculous because only an omnipotent and omniscient Creator like the God of the Bible (more>>) could have prearranged for the “star” (aster) to appear at the precise time in cosmic history when Jesus was born.
Christian apologists and scientists holding to the later view have proffered a handful of astronomical explanations for the Christmas “star” (aster). As discussed in this article, one such proposal is that the “star” (aster) may have been a meteor.
However, as noted above, the meteor proposal for the Christmas “star” is not the view held by the most notable scholars. Rather, scholars who propose astronomical candidates for the Christmas “star” (aster) tend toward one of the other proposals including:
- A recurring nova (here>>)
Because legitimate astronomical explanations have been offered which are consistent with the facts recorded about the “star” (aster) in Matthew 2:1-11, Christian apologists maintain it is unfair for skeptics to insist the biblical account of the Christmas “star” be written off as a made-up fiction.
© 2014 by Andrina G. Hanson
Published: November 1, 2014 / Last Updated: January 23, 2015
Paul Maier, The First Christmas: The True and Unfamiliar Story (Kregel Publications, 2001)
Slideshow Photograph: Photograph of a “shooting star” taken by “C m handler” over the Flinders Ranges in the South Australian desert on April 24, 2011. It flared up very brightly before breaking up into about a dozen fragments. The image was downloaded from www.wikimedia.org which states the image is licensed under the Creative CommonsAttribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
A Leonid Meteor: This 2009 photograph of a meteor during a Leonid Meteor Shower was taken by “Navicore.” The image was downloaded from www.wikimedia.org which states the image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.
Willamette Meteorite: This photograph was downloaded from www.wikimedia.org which states the photograph is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1923.
Hoba Meteorite: This photo of the Hoba meteorite was retouched to remove a tourist in the original photo. The Hoba meteorite was found in 1920 by a farmer plowing his fields located near Grootfontein, Namibia. Scientists estimate the meteor hit the earth at a speed of about 716 miles per hour (320 metres per second (1,000 ft/s). The image was taken by “Compl33t” and was downloaded from www.wikimedia.org which states the image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.
Video of Rising Planets: This video was created by Ross Mitchell and downloaded from YouTube which stated the video was licensed under the ***. The author describes the video as follows: “An animation at 250x natural time of the four bright planets (Jupiter, Venus, Mars and Mercury) all rising in the eastern sky on 15th May 2011. A title slide identifies the planets, made with Stellarium and Photoshop CS2. Photo sequence taken every 20 second with an interval timer from Blues Point, just west of Sydney Harbour Bridge (you can see the north pylon). All processing under Ubuntu Linux”
Video of the Chelyabinsk Meteor: This video by Aleksandr Ivanov was taken on February 15, 2013 in the city of Kamensk-Uralsky in Russia. The Chelyabinsk meteoroid entered Earth’s atmosphere at a speed of about 40,000 – 42,000 mph (60,000- 69,000 km/hr.) and quickly developed into superbolide meteor brighter than the sun. The video was downloaded from www.wikimedia.org which states the video is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.