Every year around Christmastime, there is renewed interest in the great star that announced the Messiah’s birth to the Magi, and led them to the house where He was with Mary. There is no shortage of theories as to what this celestial phenomenon must have been.
Nicholl comes to the problem with an advantage—he is a New Testament scholar, not primarily an astronomer. This means he has more experience interpreting the New Testament text. He pays admirable attention to even the slightest details in the text, and indeed uses these details to rule out several competing theories as to the identity of the Bethlehem star. In fact, the book is a good resource for the birth narratives, because Nicholl focuses on far more than just the star, and defends the historical reliability of the accounts.
Nicholl spends many chapters detailing the constellations of the ancient zodiac and how they would have been interpreted—particularly Virgo the Virgin, which is one of the central heavenly actors in the astronomical drama Nicholl claims took place. Drawing from Revelation 12, which he claims is a retelling of the heavenly portents leading up to Jesus’ birth, he claims that a comet appeared in the constellation Virgo and looked like a growing pregnancy, and then the birth of a baby. Then apparently the comet’s tail in conjunction with the head acted like an arrow pointing to the very house. However, the perspective would depend on the location of the Magi. Interested readers can get the book for themselves to hear the rest of the behavior of the comet that Nicholl claims precisely fits the description of what happened in Matthew.
Was the comet a supernatural event?
CMI has favoured an interpretation of the Bethlehem star as a supernatural event, or more specifically, as a manifestation of the Shekinah Glory of God which led the Magi from their homes to Jesus. However, Nicholl claims that this should be a ‘position of last resort’ (pp. 84, 86), and that it is a position “adopted only because the description of the Star in Matthew 2:9 is deemed to go beyond what could realistically be expected of normal astronomical phenomena” (p. 85). We could reply that many of the astronomical interpretations of the Bethlehem’s star are appealed to simply to avoid the need for a supernatural phenomenon, although to be fair, this does not seem at all to be the Nicholl’s motivation. While it seems like he too quickly dismisses the possibility of a supernatural phenomenon, especially in the context of an event filled with supernatural phenomena, he does not seem to have an anti-miraculous agenda unlike many others.
Rather, Nicholl seems to believe a comet actually fits the descriptions in Scripture best. However, he must create a comet that is recorded nowhere else in ancient astronomical data. Since we have not seen it since, it must have been a long-period comet. As Nicholl maintains, the records of such events are not exhaustive, and it is possible that there was a great comet that acted as Nicholl claims the Great Christ Comet acted. But there is still no evidence of that comet outside of Scripture (if Scripture’s evidence does indeed point to a comet!). So while it is not invalid to look for astronomical phenomena that fit the activity of the star, per se, Nicholl’s comet seems to fall short because it’s something he created to fit the description in Scripture.
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