How many wise men were there? What was the star in Bethlehem? When was Jesus born?
These recurring questions plague us at Christmas time along with inquires about the reality of Santa Clause and other legends. Frankly I see more truth to the story of the Grinch than I do jolly St. Nicolaus. However, even though Rudolph, Blitzen, and the fat guy with a white beard are not real, there may be truth behind Comet.
What was the star in Bethlehem?
According to detailed work by Colin J. Humphreys, the star over Bethlehem was most likely a comet. In history, many cultures saw comets and eclipses as signs of special events such as kings being born. In 7 BC three heavenly bodies came together three times. These planets signaled something big was coming, but these most likely were not the “star” recorded in scripture. In 6 BC a comet was seen by stargazers, but this would not have been precise enough to point to any certain location.
In the spring of 5 BC, however, a comet with a tail entered our solar system. This appearance was recorded by observers in the east. The tail would have been upward from the horizon and visible in the early morning would have made a pointer arrow toward the land of Israel if you were looking on from the east.
The magi left their home land and traveled to Palestine. The comet was visible for 70 days. The previous two years had provided signs in the heavens for the magi to take note that something big was coming. This specific indicator moved them into action.
It would have taken 60 days for them to journey to Jerusalem. They may have stopped to inquire about the new-born king because the comet disappeared into the sun as it moved south on earth’s horizon. Once they spent a couple days in Israel’s capital, they again saw the star and followed it south to where it pointed over Bethlehem.
When was Jesus Born?
Humphreys makes a strong case for Jesus having been born on the day of Passover in 5 BC, most likely Sunday night, April 14th. Since this is the time of the comet, the ultimate Sacrifice came at the same time and arrived in the same place other sacrifices were born. Shepherds, watching over their flocks by night during this lambing season, got to worship the Lamb of God first.
After Jesus’ birth, Mary and Joseph would have taken Him to the temple. On their return to Bethlehem, they secured better accommodations so that when the magi arrived, they saw Him in a house (Matthew 2:11).
Some people think the magi showed up at the manger in Bethlehem and that is possible. Others say they did not show up for two years, which is also possible. However, it seems odd that God would lead them to the site two years late after the birth. The argument for the magi seeing a two-year-old Jesus comes from Herod’s orders to kill all boys two and under.
King Herod inquired of the magi when they had begun to see signs in the heavens (Matthew 2:7, 16). Since stellar irregularities began in 7 BC they would have told him signs had been appearing for two years. So, to be safe, he killed any boy in this age group. Joseph and Mary were already gone, however, as God had warned him in a dream to leave town. They stayed out of Israel until King Herod died in the spring of 4 BC. Then they returned to Nazareth.
How many wise men were there?
There may have be dozens of magi (wise men). Probably not three. It was too dangerous to travel in small companies in those days. Land pirates lurked everywhere. If you were carrying gold, I am sure you would want a large posse to protect your valuables. After the prophecy about Bethlehem and the woman giving birth, Micah 5:5 mentions seven shepherds and eight princely men. This may or may not be a reference to those who came to worship Christ.
Isaiah 60:6 tells us of a multitude of camels swarming the land when the light shone in the land. This could be a prophecy about this large group of magi bringing the “wealth of the Gentiles” (60:5) from the east, including “gold and incense” (60:6).
The magi or astrologers may not have just been primitive pagans, either. Daniel was a wise man (Daniel 2:13) and since the wise men came from the east, there is great likelihood he taught these Babylonian star gazers about the coming Messiah. There may have been more depth to their faith than we often give them credit for. The religion of Zoroastrianism lasted for many centuries probably as a lingering influence of the prophet Daniel and his One True God.
Wise men still seek Him
More important than the details then, we need to kneel before Him now. Have you laid down your greatest treasures at His feet? Have you presented yourself before Him? Or are you distracted, staring off into space, missing the messages He is trying to send you? Don’t let the story of His birth eclipse your own new birth into Him. Turn to Him with all your heart, take on His name in baptism, and let the Holy Spirit overshadow you, too (John 3:5; Acts 2:38).
 Colin J. Humphreys, “The Star of Bethlehem, a comet in 5 BC and the date of Christ’s birth,” May 1 1992 Tyndale Bulletin, EBSCO ATLA religion databases, accessed Dec 24 2011.