Aquinas: Is the Star of the Magi a Star?

As Chrysostom says (Hom. vi in Matth.), it is clear, for many reasons, that the star which appeared to the Magi did not belong to the heavenly system:[1]

  1. Because no other star approaches from the same quarter as this star, whose course was from north to south, these being the relative positions of Persia, whence the Magi came, and Judea.
  2. From the time [at which it was seen]. For it appeared not only at night, but also at midday[2]: and no star can do this, not even the moon.
  3. Because it was visible at one time and hidden at another[3]. For when they entered Jerusalem it hid itself: then, when they had left Herod, it showed itself again.
  4. Because its movement was not continuous[4], but when the Magi had to continue their journey the star moved on; when they had to stop the star stood still; as happened to the pillar of a cloud in the desert.
  5. Because it indicated the virginal Birth, not by remaining aloft, but by coming down below. For it is written (Mat. 2:9) that “the star which they had seen in the east went before them, until it came and stood over where the child was.” Whence it is evident that the words of the Magi, “We have seen His star in the east,” are to be taken as meaning, not that when they were in the east the star appeared over the country of Judea, but that when they saw the star it was in the east, and that it preceded them into Judea (although this is considered doubtful by some). But it could not have indicated the house distinctly, unless it were near the earth. And, as he [Chrysostom] observes, this does not seem fitting to a star, but “of some power endowed with reason.” Consequently “it seems that this was some invisible force made visible under the form of a star.”

Wherefore some say that, as the Holy Ghost, after our Lord’s Baptism, came down on Him under the form of a dove, so did He appear to the Magi under the form of a star. While others say that the angel who, under a human form, appeared to the shepherds, under the form of a star, appeared to the Magi. But it seems more probable that it was a newly created star, not in the heavens, but in the air near the earth, and that its movement varied according to God’s will. Wherefore Pope Leo says in a sermon on the Epiphany (xxxi): “A star of unusual brightness appeared to the three Magi in the east, which, through being more brilliant and more beautiful than the other stars, drew men’s gaze and attention: so that they understood at once that such an unwonted event could not be devoid of purpose.”

References:

[1]  Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, part III, question 36, Art. 7.   13 Dec 2008 <http://www.ccel.org/ccel/aquinas/summa.TP_Q36_A7.html?highlight=star,magi#highlight>

[2] The supernova SN 1006 was also claimed to be visible during daylight hours. See “SN 1006,” Wikepedia. 13 Dec 2008 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SN_1006>

[3] Perhaps a type of eclipsing binary star system with a period of a few days and with large drops in steller magnitudes during eclipses. c.f. <http://csep10.phys.utk.edu/astr162/lect/binaries/eclipsing.html>

[4] This is the most difficult to explain, if we assume that the star is in the heavens.

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About Quirino M. Sugon Jr
Theoretical Physicist in Manila Observatory

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