This Christmas, the gospel account of the Magi and the star of Bethlehem takes on new meaning as we observe the great “new” comet Kohoutek. It may well be like a cosmic performance of “You Are There: Christmas, 5 B.C.”

The comet was discovered by Lubos Kohoutek of the Hamburg Observatory on March 7 of this year on photographic plates he had taken while observing a minor planet (asteroid) he had discovered in 1971. The comet was then near the orbit of Jupiter, some 350 million miles from the earth, on its way toward the sun. By the end of March, its progress had been plotted well enough to calculate its orbit and to determine that it would become a spectacular object in December and January.

The closer the comet came, the more excitement it generated among astronomers. Some suggested Kohoutek would provide the sky show of the century. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration diverted $10 million for instruments alone to study the comet, and Skylab astronauts scheduled the first of two space walks on Christmas Day to point instruments at Kohoutek. Science magazine dubbed Kohoutek “the Christmas comet.”

The comet will reach perihelion (that point in its orbit closest to the sun) right after Christmas, passing behind the sun from us. Returning from perihelion, it will reappear east of the sun and continue to move eastward as it again approaches the earth’s orbit. It will still be very bright, and this will probably be the best time for viewing. On January 15, 1974, it will be closest to the earth, about 75 million miles away. By the end of January, the comet will have passed over the earth’s orbit and be on its way back to the outer reaches of the solar system. It may still be visible to the eye until the end of February.

Such a spectacular event at this particular time of the year naturally raises the question: Was the star of Bethlehem a comet?

Speculation about the star through the centuries has attributed it to several things: a conjunction of the planets Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars; the planet Venus at its brightest; the sudden appearance of a nova (an exploding star); a comet; and a wholly supernatural event. There are strong objections to the notion that the ancient astronomers would confuse a planetary conjunction with a single star, and the planet Venus was hardly a new star in 5 or 6 B.C., so the majority of commentators seem to incline toward one of two explanations: a nova, or a supernatural event. Curiously, few even mention the possibility of a comet.

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Paul L. Maier notes in his First Christmas, however, that ancient Chinese annals record a comet visible for some seventy days in March and April of 5 B.C., and this must have been seen in the Middle East also. Its orbit was such that each night it appeared farther west, which may have prompted the Magi to make their westward journey. From the remarkable conjunction of Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars in the constellation Pisces a year earlier, they would have been alerted to expect a king (Jupiter) to arise in Palestine (Saturn) who would usher in a new epoch in history (Pisces). The comet of 5 B.C. then announced to them his arrival, and confirmed the location by traveling westward. By the time they had made the necessary preparations and taken their journey to Jerusalem, at least several months had passed. The holy family was by that time living in a house (Matt. 2:11), not a stable. Did a meteor point out the place (Matt. 2:9)?

Comets may also be referred to in several other biblical passages, as noted in George F. Chambers’s classic popularization published in 1909, The Story of the Comets. Chambers’s work was prompted by public interest in the impending return of Halley’s comet.

First Chronicles 21 gives an account (also told in Second Samuel 24) of David’s attempt to take a census of Israel, of God’s displeasure, and of the three-day pestilence that David accepted as the punishment to be visited upon his kingdom. God also sent an angel to destroy Jerusalem, then told the angel to stay his hand. The angel was standing by the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite on Mount Moriah, north of Jerusalem. “Then David lifted up his eyes and saw the angel of the Lord standing between earth and heaven, with his drawn sword in his hand stretched out over Jerusalem” (1 Chron. 21:16, NASV). Commentators often relate this vision of David to the angel Balaam saw blocking his path when he was on his way to curse the Israelites for Balak, king of Moab (Num. 22:21–35). But that angel was apparently man-size. The one seen by David from Jerusalem, one-half mile away, suspended in the sky with his sword stretched out over the town, must have been immense. Was it a comet, with its tail extended far southward like a sword? The Roman naturalist Pliny classified comets according to their apparent shape, and one of his twelve classifications he called Xiphiae or ensiformis (sword-shaped). Josephus observed that in A.D. 66 Halley’s comet, or another at about the same time, stood like a sword in the sky over Jerusalem. The simile may have been suggested to him by First Chronicles 21:16, but the shape of the comet apparently justified it.

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After David offered a sacrifice on the threshing floor of Ornan (verse 26), the angel, which “was standing by the threshing floor” (verse 15), at the command of God “put his sword back in its sheath” (verse 27). In other words, perhaps, the cometary apparition lost its tail.

A second possible reference to comets is found in Job 38:31, 32:

Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades,

Or loose the cords of Orion?

Can you lead forth Mazzaroth in its season,

And guide Ayish with her sons?

What are Mazzaroth and Ayish? A wide variety of opinions prevails. Many assume they are constellations, like Kimah (the Pleiades) and Kesil (Orion) in verse 31. But they may be individual stars or other phenomena. The phrase “in its season” suggests that this passage could refer to a short-period comet, like Encke’s comet which returns every 3.3 years, or to a regular meteor shower like the Perseids, which appear every year about August 12. Ayish is thought by most commentators to be a constellation called the Bear, with its tail (sons). Curiously, the Septuagint translates this reference to Ayish “… drag out Hesperos [the evening star] by his hair.” The word comet is derived from the Greek komē, meaning hair.

Another much discussed Old Testament passage is Isaiah’s famous reference (14:12 ff.) to Helal, son of Shahar:

How you have fallen from heaven,

O Helal, son of Shahar!

You have been cut down to the earth,

you who have weakened the nations!

But you said in your heart,

“I will ascend to heaven;

I will raise my throne above the stars of God,

And I will sit on the mount of assembly

In the recesses of the north.

I will ascend above the heights of the clouds;

I will make myself like the Most High.”

Nevertheless you will be thrust down to Sheol,

to the recesses of the pit.

This is usually said to refer to the morning star (Lucifer, the planet Venus), son of the dawn, after the classical Greek myth of Phosphoros, son of Eos. Shahar in Hebrew means dawn, and Helal may mean bright, or shining.

But this interpretation does not explain Isaiah’s portrayal of Helal as trying to dominate the heavens and being cast down. Venus as the morning star may dominate the sky before sunrise, and as the evening star after sunset, but this is no one-time event. It happens regularly. And Venus is not cast down from its position—it simply disappears behind the sun and reappears on the opposite side. Its cycles are as regular as the phases of the moon. If Shahar here means Dawn, and Helal is indeed Venus, then the behavior of Helal as described in Isaiah is inexplicable, unless we accept the theory that Venus once had a highly eccentric orbit and behaved in a very dramatic fashion. (The recent discovery that there are craters, probably of meteoric origin, on Venus may mean that Venus was once struck by a group of meteorites, perhaps associated with a comet, and thereby forced into an eccentric orbit.)

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The fruit’s consumed, the vine is sere

The root moves into stupor

The sun’s slant glance supplies no warmth

The wind strips summer’s cover

Yet in this death and certain chill

A season of remembrance

A time of life and fellowship

A warmth from Heaven’s radiance

For springing from a spotless seed

The True Vine is restored

Its fruit is sweet and quickening

Its promise never flawed

So all who yearn may pick of it

Forgiving nectar savor

And all who do will find in it

Eternal joy and pleasure


In Ugaritic myth, however, Shahar is not the dawn but the morning star itself. If this is Isaiah’s meaning, then Helal, son of Shahar, may be a comet that originally appeared as a companion of Venus. A comet would appear very bright for a time, perhaps brighter than the stars or the moon. It might even challenge the sun by remaining brightly visible in daylight, as comet Kohoutek may do. It would then seem to fall away, perhaps toward the earth, as it passed outward from perihelion and disappeared.

The New Testament, too, contains passages in addition to the story of the Magi that may refer to comets.

The brief letter of Jude lists among the metaphors for those who were stains on the love-feasts of the early church “wandering stars, for whom the black darkness has been reserved forever” (Jude 13). These “wandering stars” could be planets, which appear to wander about the sky, unlike the comparatively fixed stars. The name planēs given them in this passage, which means “wanderer” in Greek, was applied by Greek astronomers to the planets.

But planets are not sent into “outer darkness.” They orbit the sun regularly, and shine continually by its light. Comets, on the other hand, spend most of their orbital careers in space beyond the planets. Most of them may come from a comet cloud (called the Oort cloud after the astronomer who has developed the hypothesis) forming a ring far out beyond Pluto—in outer darkness indeed! Interestingly, the pseudepigraphal book of Enoch speaks of a group of seven stars confined to a remote region of space for some offense against God until God releases them after 10,000 years. By coincidence, the orbital period (the time required to make one complete orbit) of comet Kohoutek is estimated to be 10,000 years.

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By far the most dramatic portrait of a comet-like apparition in the Bible is that of the dragon in Revelation 12. It is pictured as a great red dragon with seven heads, whose tail swept one-third of the stars. Mention of the tail immediately suggests a comet. The tail of a large comet often covers much of the sky, as did that of the comet of 1843. The great comet of 1744 had several tails. The tail of comet Kohoutek may extend as much as 30° across the sky.

Several comets have been notably reddish. Virgil and Pliny both refer to comets as bloody. Homer likens the helmet and crest of Achilles to a red star (comet) “that from his flaming hair/Shakes down diseases, pestilence, and war” (Pope’s translation).

The seven heads seem at first more difficult to explain. But the head of Biela’s comet (1845–46) divided into two parts, the great comet of 1882 had several nuclei, plus a satellite comet, and comet Ikeya-Seki (1965) had a double nucleus. As early as Aristotle, observers noted also that on occasion more than one comet has been visible at a time.

Biblical and Ugaritic literature contain several references to Leviathan, a monster with seven heads, generally depicted in the Old Testament as a sea dweller. (See Job 41; Psalm 74:14, and Isaiah 27:1.) Earlier than these sources is a Sumerian seal that depicts a seven-headed monster being attacked by two heroes (Oriental Institute, University of Chicago). The monster has not only seven heads on long necks but also six plumes of smoke, or tails, issuing from its body. Quite possibly this scene represents the mythological memory of the appearance of a multi-headed comet, or a group of comets, in early antiquity. John, in his vision, may have been reminded of that ancient event.

The plagues John saw earlier in his vision lend support to the idea that the great red dragon was a comet. In Revelation 8 and 9 we read that the tribulations brought by the seven angels with trumpets included first hail and fire thrown upon the earth (8:7), then a mountain on fire falling into the sea (8:8), then a star falling (8:10), and later another star, or the same one, opening an abyss when it fell and releasing a swarm of locust-like creatures (9:1–3). These events plainly resemble first a meteorite shower and then individual large meteorite falls. (See also 6:13.)

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Now, it is well known that meteoric debris is often distributed in regular orbits around the sun, so that the earth experiences annual meteor showers. (The Perseids, on or around August 12, are usually the most spectacular.) It is also clear that meteoric debris is distributed in and around the orbits of comets, including comets that have disappeared. It is thought to be largely the debris left by the gradual disintegration of the comets. Significantly, some of this debris is often gathered in clouds that not only follow but also precede comets in their orbits, causing meteor showers both before and after the comets appear. For example, Biela’s comet was preceded by the Andromedid meteor showers in 1798, 1830, and 1838, and since its disappearance these showers have continued.

Thus John has clearly pictured for us a catastrophic bombardment of the earth by meteorites, followed after an interval by the appearance of a great red multi-headed comet. If he wrote some time after A.D. 66, as most commentators believe, perhaps the appearance of Halley’s comet influenced his portrayal.

The return of Christ, too, may be heralded by something like a comet. Matthew says (24:30): “And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory.”

All this is not meant to say that these biblical events were merely natural phenomena, and just happened to appear at the right time to be significant in Bible history. To insist on so many astounding coincidences in the life of God’s people is ridiculous. God is master of his creation and can guide it according to his will, and all in accordance with what we call “natural law.” Natural law, after all, is only a rule derived from observation.

The Great Comet of 1973 is a remarkable demonstration of the power of God in the universe, and a reminder of the part that these and other members of the solar system have played in the history of God’s people. It should do much to help us keep Christ in Christmas this year. And it renews our faith for the years to come by reminding us: “The King is coming!”

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