In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:'And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;for from you shall come a rulerwho is to shepherd my people Israel.'"Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage." When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road (Matthew 2:1-12; NRSV).
Now it is tempting to dive deeply into the details of this passage as to the identity of the wise men, (Magi in Greek), and their geography, and the life of King Herod and why he acted toward the child Jesus the way he did. It is also tempting to ask how Matthew's account of the nativity compares and contrasts to Luke's; but we must stay focused on the singular question of this post: What was the Christmas star?
Several options are possible. Spaces does not permit and in-depth discussion, so only a general overview is possible.
1) Sacred Fiction: One option is that what Matthew is giving to us is not the report of an actual event, but rather is offering an apologetic reading of Jesus' birth as a dramatic way to point out that Jesus is the fulfillment of Scripture. A portion of Numbers 24:17 reads: "a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel." This text came to be understood as having messianic implications. Moreover, people of the ancient Near East believed that astronomical phenomena signaled important events. The Magi were ancient Persian astronomers/astrologers who would not have distinguished between the two. The sign of a new star or the movements of planetary bodies into a conjunction could signal the rising or falling of rulers. Matthew's story then serves the dual purpose of demonstrating that Jesus was Israel's Messiah because he fulfills the Scripture; and he is a king as indicated by the heavenly sign.
The dilemma with this interpretation is that one can hardly claim that Jesus is the fulfillment of this Scripture if it in actuality did not happen. Jesus fulfills the prophecy by a story that didn't actually take place. Is that a credible conclusion?