Yesterday, the stars aligned in an interesting way. It was the last day of classes before break and I wanted to spend some time reading the Christmas story in class. It was also, as you well know, the opening night for Star Wars: The Force Awakens (which I saw, no comment). I had also been reading Colin Nicholl’s The Great Christ Comet: Revealing The True Star of Bethlehem. As is my custom, I was at Starbucks before the break of dawn with a cold brew and my iPad. I did my initial Bible reading and then switched to Kindle to read chapter 7 in Nicholl’s book.
Up to this point, Nicholl had surveyed what people have made of the Bethlehem star (chapter 1). Then he examined Matthew’s historical account (chapters 2-3), the main hypothesis about the star (chapter 4) before offering his own case that it was a comet (chapter 5-6). Chapter 7 then tackles the question, “why did the Magi interpret the comet the way they did?” In other words, what could the Magi have seen in the night sky that lead them to not only infer a special birth, but then know where to go to see the child?
Nicholl looks briefly at what Matthew says the Magi say. They allude to Numbers 24:17, a text they would have had access to, if in fact they were from Babylon (which is most likely). He then suggests that the astronomical phenomena they witnessed involved a conjugation of constellations with the comet. Then, surprisingly, he suggests that it is described in Revelation 12:1-5. He defends this in much more detail, but here is his conclusion:
In summary, Revelation 12:1-5 reveals the multifaceted celestial wonder that coincided with the birth of Jesus— the very sight that the Magi had seen in the eastern sky and that had prompted them to make a long journey west to Judea to worship the Messiah. In this astonishing celestial nativity drama, Virgo was playing the part of Israel/ Mary, and the comet’s coma was playing the role of the messianic baby. After rising heliacally in Virgo’s womb, looking like a baby, the cometary coma remained there for many days, growing in size in the manner of a normal human baby in its mother’s womb. While the comet rose in altitude, each passing day would have meant that it was observable earlier and in darker skies. Then, after descending within Virgo’s belly, the coma would have moved down out of it, making it seem that the baby was being born. Eventually, the baby appeared to have completely vacated Virgo’s womb and at this point it was regarded as having been born. At that moment the comet as a whole apparently formed an immense scepter that stretched from the eastern horizon all the way to the western horizon. Those attuned to what was happening and interpreting it messianically would have had no question but that the Messiah was born at that very time. Finally, the cometary baby speedily disappeared into the Sun’s light (i.e., heliacally set), bringing an end to the wonder in the eastern sky.
We infer from Revelation 12:1-5 that the comet’s coma became extraordinarily large, equivalent in size to a large full-term baby at the point of birth; that the comet as a whole took the form of a long iron scepter at the point of the child’s birth; and that it must have been very bright. Further, Revelation suggests that, on the eve of the birth, there was a meteor storm radiating from the tail of Hydra.
What John writes enables us to narrow down when the celestial events took place— during the months of Ululu and Tishratu (Babylon) or Tishri and Heshvan (Judea), namely in September and October of 6 BC. Moreover, Revelation 12:1-5 enables us to narrow down the time of Jesus’s birth to mid-October (early Tishratu in Babylon and early Heshvan in Judea) 96 of 6 BC. This is a plausible time of year for Jesus’s birth— it was when the Romans tended to have their censuses and when shepherds would certainly have been out in the fields (Luke 2:1-18). The cometary baby would have heliacally risen on September 29 or 30 and remained in her belly for about two weeks before slowly descending out of it to be born.
Essentially, the wonder that marked Jesus’s birth was an incredible full celestial nativity drama focused on Virgo and a great comet that seemed to bring her to life (Kindle Loc., 4603-4625)
Nicholl then takes this interpretation and connects it back to Matthew 1:18-2:12:
We suggest, then, based on our study of Revelation 12:1-5 and our fresh analysis of Matthew 1:18-2:12, that while the Virgin Mary was giving birth to Jesus in Bethlehem, the zodiacal constellation figure Virgo was giving birth to a cometary baby.
What we have preserved in Revelation 12:1-5 is a series of astronomical observations from 6 BC.
The heavenly birth was the climax of the year-plus cometary apparition. It was also the culmination of a pregnancy that had been apparent from the moment that a cometary baby was observed in Virgo’s womb as she heliacally rose, emerging in the eastern predawn sky. The cometary coma would initially have looked small in her belly, but over the following weeks, as the comet approached Earth, the “baby” would have become larger and larger, just like a fetus in its mother’s womb. In due course, it descended within Virgo until it made it seem that she was in labor. Then, when the coma-baby had fully emerged from its mother’s womb, it was “born.” Revelation implies that this celestial birth coincided with the birth of the Messiah to the terrestrial virgin, Mary. At that time the comet as a whole may well also have formed a massive celestial scepter that stretched from the eastern to the western horizon and seemed to rest on Israel in the west.
According to the New Testament, after the comet completed its time in the eastern sky and crossed to the west, it proceeded to guide the Magi to the place where the terrestrial virgin mother and her child were located. While the Messiah’s Star at its rising had revealed to the Magi the fact, time, and manner of his birth, it subsequently turned into a massive celestial pointer, disclosing to them precisely where the baby Messiah was located. The comet that had played the part of Virgo’s messianic baby in the celestial play eventually led the Magi right to the virgin and her special baby!
The Biblical account suggests that, as the Magi entered the house in Bethlehem, they finally saw on the earth what they had seen in the heavens less than 1 ½ months beforehand: the virgin with her newborn child. Their divine mission was now complete. Heaven and earth were united. (Kindle Loc., 4838-4859)
Ultimately Nicholl then concludes:
From what they saw in the eastern sky the Magi could have deduced certain things about the newborn baby, Virgo’s child par excellence: (1) His mother had conceived him through divine intervention without losing her virginity. (2) He had been born at the point when the cometary coma had in its entirety descended below Virgo’s groin. (3) He was the son of God. (4) He was glorious. (5) He was divine. (6) He had a powerful enemy who was eager to kill him. (7) He was destined to reign over the whole world. However, the celestial wonders by themselves cannot explain why the pagan astrologers came to the conclusion that the one born to a virgin was the Messiah, the King of the Jews. It was the Hebrew Scriptures, mediated through one or more Jews in Babylon, that furnished them with the all-important messianic paradigm (Kindle Loc., 4902-4908)
I still have to finish the book, but I found his explanation pretty convincing and used in class yesterday as we talked through the Christmas story. In a real sense, Christmas was the original “star wars.” The sign of Christ’s birth was signaled long long ago (2021 years to be exact), not in a galaxy far far away, but in our very own corner of the vast universe. While you can read too much into the night sky, it does play a fairly prominent role in the biblical story, and based on Nicholl’s careful study, is something we should perhaps examine more closely.
Especially if you happen to teach at a school whose mascot is the Comets!