Colin R. Nicholl's

The Great Christ Comet

- Academic Folly in High Places -


In this article, we examine the claim of Colin R. Nicholl that he has discovered the “true star of Bethlehem,” in his recent book, The Great Christ Comet: Revealing the True Star of Bethlehem (Wheaton, 2015). We conclude instead that the book, although long in cometary science, is short on fact and Bible, and stands as the latest example of failed attempts to identify what God has deigned should remain undisclosed.

Credentials and Endorsements

Colin Nicholl holds a PhD from the University of Cambridge. He has taught at Cambridge, and was professor of New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. His book, From Hope to Despair in Thessalonica was published by Cambridge University Press; his articles have appeared in publications such as the Journal of Theological Studies (Oxford) and The Times (London). The instant book, “The Great Christ Comet,” boasts an impressive list of endorsements from high-profile scholars with backgrounds in both the Bible and Astronomy, including:

Many of the endorsements claim that Nicholl’s book is the “definitive treatment” and the “most important book ever published” regarding the star of the Magi. A book which “all future studies will have to take…most seriously.” Nicholl’s credentials and the pantheon of scholars endorsing his book represent some of the highest levels of scholarship. Nicholl’s command of cometary science is, indeed, formidable. There is little doubt that his treatment of the topic is the most erudite ever brought to bear on the topic. Large swaths of the book are filled with scientific data of a highly technical nature about the characteristics of comets and other astronomical phenomena. However, we believe the technical nature of this information and its sheer amount (the great majority of which is unnecessary to explain the book’s hypothesis) actually conceal the book’s weaknesses, and serve instead to intimidate readers and prevent them from making a more balanced assessment of the book’s arguments and claims. It is likely that this is at least potentially true as well of many who endorsed the book. Mature reflection will show that, stripped of its scientific jargon and data, the book’s arguments are hardly new or compelling, but are mere variations on approaches men have tried and failed at before. Moreover, there are numerous logical fallacies and contradictions that undermine the book’s premises entirely.

Basic Premises and Arguments

Nicholl believes that the wise men, or Magi, were professional, pagan astronomers and astrologers who would have done horoscopes for clients[1], but came to Jerusalem on the basis of astronomical phenomena they witnessed in the east, probably Babylon, which they interpreted as signifying the Messiah, the king of the Jews, had been born. No divine revelation guided or informed the Magi; their conclusions were based purely upon human deduction from what they had seen in the heavens, assisted perhaps by one or more Jews living in the same country who provided them with knowledge of the Jewish scriptures.[2]

According to Nicholl, the Magi did not merely see the star in the east as the vast majority of English Bibles have it. Rather, according to Nicholl, the Magi saw the star “in its rising.” Nicholl interprets this to mean the star’s heliacal rising – the point at which fixed stars annually, after disappearing from the night sky for a short period, appear again low in the eastern sky just before dawn.[3] All stars, as the earth makes its annual orbit around the sun, appear to migrate across the sky, rising first in the east, moving slowly toward the west, where they disappear below the horizon, only to reappear some time later in what is termed their heliacal rising – the first day when they appear again on the eastern horizon in advance of the sun. Due to their proximity to the sun at their heliacal rising, such stars disappear at sun-rise due to the brightness of the sun. However, as each passing day a star rises earlier and earlier before dawn, eventually the star is seen to be rising at night where it remains visible until it either sets in the west or the sun rises in the east.

According to Nicholl, the heliacal rising of a star would have carried special importance to the Magi.[4] However, more than that, it is what the star did in its supposed rising that convinced the Magi that Christ was born. Specifically, Nicholl argues that the star rose in a zodiacal constellation and thus communicated something in the manner of a horoscope:

Particularly if the Star was within the zodiac, it was natural for the Magi to consider the possibility that it might be communicating something of a natal significance against the backdrop of the heliacally rising constellation.

We suggest therefore that the Magi were convinced that the Messiah’s birth was taking place when they saw the Star at or around the time of its heliacal rising. Evidently, the Magi perceived significance in the Star’s location within the constellations, its form, and/or its behavior, and/or in the time of the heavenly wonder. [5]

Since Matthew is silent about all of this, how can it be known the star heliacally rose within a constellation at all? According to Nicholl, the imagery of Revelation 12:1-5 is the key:

Quite simply, the only plausible explanation of the celestial and portentous nature of the messianic birth scene in Revelation 12:1-5 is that John is consciously recalling the heavenly wonder that attended Jesus’s nativity. In other words, what we read in these verses is an account of the marvel that coincided with the Messiah’s birth and that prompted the Magi to travel to Judea to worship the newborn King of the Jews. This astronomical marvel establishes the narrative framework for the whole chapter of which it is a part. Accordingly, what we find in these verses is the key to unlocking the mystery of the Star of Bethlehem.[6]

According to Nicholl, Rev. 12:1-5 is an exact verbal replication of what the Magi witnessed in Babylon. The woman in Revelation is the constellation Virgo; the great red dragon that stood ready to devour the Christ-child when it was born is the constellation Hydra, the sun with which the woman is clothed is God who impregnates Virgo with the star; the moon beneath her feet is, well, just the moon. The Christ-child is the star, so positioned that it appears as a baby within Virgo’s womb. According to Nicholl, the imagery of Rev. 12:1, 2 allows us to pinpoint the date of the astronomical phenomenon portraying Christ’s conception to September 15, 6 BC:

We conclude that Virgo, with her 12-star crown, clothed with the Sun, and with the Moon under her feet describes an astronomical phenomenon that can be dated to September 15, 6 BC…In light of this, it is natural to interpret the opening scene in the celestial nativity play as a conception scene, with the Sun playing the part of God, the father of Virgo’s baby.[7]

The star is not, in fact, a star, but a comet, which grows in size within Virgo’s womb in the weeks following its helical rising, until it exits the constellation through what would be her birth-canal.

The heavenly birth was the climax of the year-plus cometary apparition. It was also the culmination of a pregnancy that had been apparent from the moment that the cometary baby was observed in Virgo’s womb as she heliacally rose, emerging in the eastern pre-dawn sky. The cometary coma would initially have looked small in her belly, but over the following weeks, as the comet approached Earth, the “baby” would have become larger and larger, just like a fetus in its mother’s womb. In due course, it descended within Virgo until it made it seem that she was in labor. Then, when the coma-baby had fully emerged from its mother’s womb, it was “born.”  Revelation implies that this celestial birth coincided with the birth of the Messiah in the terrestrial virgin, Mary.[8]

But if based upon John’s imagery Jesus was conceived September 15, 6 BC, we can date the birth of Jesus to mid-October, 6 BC:

What John writes enables us to narrow down when the celestial events took place…namely in September and October of 6 BC. Moreover, Revelation 12:1-5 enables us to narrow the time of Jesus’s birth to mid-October…6 BC.[9]

At that point, realizing Christ has been born, the Magi depart Babylon and travel 28-37 days to Jerusalem.[10] Having reached Jerusalem, Herod directs the Magi to Bethlehem, where the star appears to go before them until it is seen to stand above the horizon directly over the house where the Magi find Mary and the baby Jesus. Warned in a dream not to return to Herod, the Magi return home another way, and the holy family takes flight from Bethlehem to Egypt.[11]

Such are the general arguments and premises of the book. Let us proceed to examine their plausibility.

The Comet that Never Was – Purely Conjectural Existence

Nicholl is a conservative who takes a high view of scripture, believes that the Bible is divinely inspired and, therefore, implicitly dependable and reliable as the revelation of God. Moreover, Nicholl believes that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin and is the Savior of mankind, having died on the cross for our sins and been raised again from the dead. At a time in history when the world’s great universities are filled with men who deprecate the word of God and believe it is of purely human origin, Nicholl’s simple Christian faith is welcome and refreshing from someone so highly credentialed. It therefore pains us to have to disagree so heartily with his book. A frank assessment of Nicholl’s book will show that it possesses little real originality. The overall approach of divining the date the Jesus’ birth by identifying astronomical phenomena within the imagery of Rev. 12:1-5 has been attempted before, most notably by Earnest L. Martin in his book The Star of Bethlehem: The Star That Astonished the World (Portland, 2nd ed., 1996).[12] The chief difference in Nicholl’s book is that, whereas Martin operates upon the supposition that the Magi travelled to Jerusalem because of a series of conjunctions of planets which can be shown to have actually occurred, Nicholl affirms the star was a comet for which there is no record or evidence whatever. That’s right, Nicholl’s comet is purely conjectural! Based upon various indicia Nicholl believes he sees in Matthew’s account, he is convinced the star of the Magi was in fact a comet. And not just any comet, a comet that was “intrinsically extremely bright”[13] “as bright as the full moon;”[14] the comet was a “historically great one, visible to the naked eye for over a year”[15] whose tail was “a massive celestial scepter that stretched from the eastern to the western horizon;”[16] a “majestic scepter that dominated the sky.”[17] According to Nicholl, it was the greatest comet that ever existed:

In conclusion, the Christ Comet satisfies the criteria for cometary greatness. In fact, all things considered, it is undeniably the single greatest comet in recorded history.[18]

The single greatest comet in recorded history, except for one thing: not a single detail of Nicholl’s comet is recorded in history: zero, zippo, nada. Here we must ask, could a comet whose tail dominated the sky, that stretched from horizon to horizon, that was as bright as the moon, and appeared in the sky for over a year fail to have been seen and noted by all of humanity? Not a single remark anywhere, by any nation or people anywhere? Surely, the complete historical silence must give us pause and reason to question if in fact such a comet ever existed? And not just the comet. Nicholl also argues that the great red dragon of Rev. 12:3, 4 whose tail cast a third of the stars from heaven to earth describes a meteor shower in which tens if not hundreds of thousands of meteors per hour[19] fell to the earth! Nicholl boldly dates this phenomenon to October 19, 6 BC.[20] However, again there is complete historical silence confirming such a meteor shower ever occurred!

The imagery of Revelation is notoriously elastic, capable of being interpreted many ways. Nothing that is based exclusively upon its imagery can be declared to be anything like a “fact,” let alone more than one of several possible explanations. Yet, Nicholl throws all caution to the wind and speaks of his meteor shower and comet as if they were objectively verifiable facts. Some would say, however, that in The Great Christ Comet we have left the realm of science-fact and have entered instead the realm of science-fiction. And they would be correct.

The Magi saw a star, yes, as Matthew affirms. But since no one other than the Magi can be shown to have observed it – not the Jews, not Jerusalem, not Herod, no one – one wonders if the better view isn’t that the star, far from being wondrous bright and large, was not in fact faint and small and largely unnoticeable? Such a star would certainly be more in keeping with the humble circumstances of the nativity by which the Savior chose to come into the world, almost completely unnoticed and unannounced, born to a humble family, in a cave or enclosure used for livestock, with a feeding-trough for a bed. Doesn’t the very notion of a star or comet that is the “greatest in history” run counter to everything we know about Christ’s birth? Yes, indeed it does! A star that was small and faint whose appearing was noticed or, better, divinely revealed only to the Magi is by far the more defensible view and would explain why it went unrecorded in history, seen only by the Magi for whom it alone was apparently intended. But whether great or small, this much is certain: the comet described by Nicholl cannot be shown to have existed anywhere outside of his own imagination.

Nicholl is aware of this weakness and counters that its absence from historical records is not proof it did not exist. This is the classic the argument from silence; it is always the sign of a weak case. It is altogether unsuited to scientific and academic inquiry. Conscious of this, Nicholl seeks to bolster his case by including an appendix reviewing ancient Chinese comet records to show that they are incomplete. If Pliny records a comet in AD 64 that is absent from Chinese records, for example, why may not the so-called Christ comet similarly be missing? Yes, but we know the comet of AD 64 existed because Pliny recorded it; no similar record exists from which to confirm the Christ comet ever occurred. The silence of the Chinese records therefore affords no inference whatever. The only scientifically supportable and academically acceptable conclusion we can reach is that no such comet is known to have existed. Guillermo Gonzolez, assistant professor of astronomy at Ball State University, calls Nicholl’s book “speculative historical reconstruction.”[21]

Absent from history, Nicholl seeks to establish its existence Biblically. Nicholl claims that evidence of a great comet is attested by Isa. 9:1, 2: “the people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; they that dwell in the land and shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.” (Comet, 123, 135, 147, 210.) However, the “darkness” of this passage almost certainly refers to the Assyrian invasions that carried the northern tribes and kingdom into captivity. This is seen by the preceding chapter which specifically mentions the Assyrian invasion (Isa. 8:7) and the grief and darkness that would follow: “And they shall look unto the earth; and behold trouble and darkness, dimness of anguish; and they shall be driven to darkness” (Isa. 8:22). The Assyrians repopulated Galilee with pagan peoples, who were ignorant of the true God (II Kng. 17:24). Hence, to the political darkness that overtook the Jews of the northern kingdom was added the spiritual darkness of a pagan population. Matthew states that the “light” which shined upon Galilee began with the ministry, not birth, of Jesus (Matt. 4:12-16). This was spiritual light brought to those sitting in spiritual ignorance, error, and darkness. But if it was spiritual light that Jesus brought to Galilee, obviously it was not the physical light of a comet Isaiah referred to. Nicholl’s claim that a comet is implied in these passages is a very long reach, at best. In fact, it is completely insupportable.

I do not think it is uncharitable to say that this is not the stuff of science or academic and Biblical scholarship we would expect from a person of Nicholl’s credentials.

Heliacal Rising

The heliacal rising of the star is central to Nicholl’s argument. In fact, his whole thesis hinges upon it. As he repeatedly states, it is what the star did in its rising that caused the Magi to travel to Jerusalem:

It is clear from Matthew that what impressed the Magi and prompted them to travel to Jerusalem related to what the Star did at or around the time of its heliacal rising.[22]

The Magi clearly were convinced that what they had see the Star do in connection with its heliacal rising marked the occasion of the birth.[23]

Although essential to Nicholl’s argument, the case for the Magi witnessing the star’s heliacal rising is based upon a selective reading of the text that is questionable at best. Historical accident has it that the Greek term for “east” (ַανατολη/ανατολων) is “the rising” and for “west” (δυσμη/δυσμων) is “the setting.” However, we do ַnot translate the Greek literally in such cases because it would be bad English to say there came “wise men from the rising,” or “many shall come from the setting,” etc. Instead, we translate these terms according to their common English names. Although the identical term is routinely translated “east” in other places, in Matthew 2:2 it is proposed that ανατολη (anatole) be translated “rising” because some inventive translator with a smattering of astronomy thought maybe the star’s heliacal rising was strangely alluded to. However, a survey of over 50 English translations shows that the preferred rendering is “in the east” better than two-to-one over “in its rising.”[24] Translations opting for the latter are largely newer paraphrastic or dynamic equivalence translations that are less conscientious about reflecting the actual Greek of the inspired New Testament, the majority of which were published in the last ten to twenty years. Older editions such as the Wycliff Bible (1400), the Tyndale (Matthews) Bible (1537), the Great Bible (1540), the Bishop’s Bible (1568), the Geneva Bible (1560), the Authorized (King James) Version (1611), the Rhemes New Testament (1621), the Challoner New Testament (1749), Young’s Literal Translation (1862), the Revised Version (1881), the Douay-Rheims (1899), and the American Standard Version (1901), to name but a few, uniformly render the phrase “in the east.” To these may be added the ancient and venerable Syriac Peshitta (AD 180),[25] and Jerome’s Vulgate (AD 382), and doubtless many, many more. It is therefore clear that historically most scholars have rendered the phrase “in the east.” “In its rising” does not turn up until modern times, and then only in trendy, less reliable translations.

Table of Translations

In the east


Rising in the east


In its rising

1. Wycliff - 1400





2. Tyndale - 1537





3. Great Bible – 1540





4. Bishops – 1568





5. Geneva - 1560





6. AV (KJV) - 1611





7. Rhemes - 1621





8. Challoner - 1749





9. Young’s Literal - 1862





10. Darby - 1890





11. Revised - 1889





12. Douray-Rheims - 1899





13. ASV - 1901





14. RSV - 1946





15. Phillips - 1958





16. Amplified - 1965





17. TLB - 1971





18. NKJV – 1982


1. GNT - 1976



19. NLV - 1986


2. ETRV - 1987


1. NET - 1961

20. NCV - 1987




2. AMPC - 1965

21. ICB - 1991




3. WE - 1969

22. NASV – 1991




4. NIV - 1978

23. MSG - 1993




5. NRSV - 1989

24. NIRV - 1996




6. GW - 1995

25. CJB - 1998




7. NLT - 1996

26. KJ21 - 1998




8.  ESV - 2001

27. JUB - 2000




9. CSB – 2003

28. WEB - 2000




10. Mounce - 2008

29. OJB - 2002




11. LEB - 2010

30. DLNT - 2002




12. NOG - 2011

31. HCSB – 2003




13. NABRE - 2011

32. Voice - 2012




14.  EXB – 2011

33. CEB - 2011




15. EHV 2014

34. MEV - 2014




16. TPT - 2015


So much for English translations, let us look at the Greek. There are two references to the east in Matthew 2:1, 2. The first describes the Magi coming from the east and is plural; the second, refers to the place where the star was seen or viewed and is singular. Here are the relevant phrases in Greek, followed by their English translation, as they appear in Matthew; the words have been numbered to assist those who cannot read Greek. Naturally, in translating to English the word order will sometimes need to be corrected:

1 μαγοι 2 απο 3 ανατολων - 1 magi 2 from 3 the east (plural)

1 ειδομεν 2 γαρ 3 αυτου 4 τον 5 αστερα 6 εν 7 τη 8 ανατολη - 1 we saw 2 for 3 his 4 the 5 star 6 in 7 the 8 east (singular)

The two terms for “east” in the passage above are anatolwn (plural) and anatole (singular). The first reflects the perspective of those in the west or other region as they view the vast expanse of eastern lands and peoples; hence the plural. “Magi came from the east;” viz., from lands and peoples toward the rising of the sun. Use of the plural in this context is clear and understandable and makes perfect sense. The second appears to reflect the perspective of individuals as they view themselves or an object in or facing a particular place in the east; hence the singular. “We saw his star in the east;” viz., while the Magi were in their homeland. Since, from the Magi’s point of view they are referring to a particular place in the east, use of the singular is quite understandable. A comparable case for speakers of English might be to say in reference to the British Isles, “there came men from the Isles” (plural). But the men explaining why they had come from their particular island would say “we saw his star on the isle and have come hither” (singular). Indeed, although English does not have plural forms for north, south, east, and west, the plural is sometimes implied, as when we speak of the “far east,” which implies a vast area encompassing many nations, or the “west,” referring to the nations of western Europe, etc. Here are several additional examples from the Greek New Testament and Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) to demonstrate the point:


·         1 πολλοι 2 απο 3 ανατολων 4 και 5 δυσμων  – 1 many 2 from 3 the east 4 and 5 the west (Matt. 8:11).

·         1 απο 2 ανατολων 3 και 4 φαινεται 5 εως 6 δυσμων – 1 from 2 the east 3 and 4 shines 5 unto 6 the west (Matt. 24:27)

·         1 βασιλεων 2 των 3 απο 4 ανατολων – 1 kings 2 the 3 from 4 east (Rev. 16:12)


·         1 απ 2 ανατολης 3 πυλωνες 4 τρεις – 1 on 2 the east 3 gates 4 three (Rev. 21:13)

·         1 καὶ 2 τὸ 3 κλίτος 4 τὸ 5 πρὸς 6 ἀνατολὰς – 1 and 2 the 3 side 4 the 5 toward 6 the east (Ex.37:11)

·         1 παρὰ 2 τὸ 3 θυσιαστήριον 4 κατὰ 5 ἀνατολάς – 1 by 2 the 3 altar 4 against 5 the east (Lev. 1:16)

·         1 πρὸς 2 ἀνατολὰς 3 κατέναντι – 1 toward 2 the east 3 facing (II Chron. 4:10)

·         1 τὸ 2 κλῖτος 3 τὸ 4 πρὸς 5 ἀνατολὰς –  1 the 2 side 3 the 4 to 5 the east (II Chron. 29:4)

·         1 τῆς 2 πύλης 3 τῆς 4 ἀνατολῆς – 1 the 2 gate 3 the 4 east (Neh. 3:29)

·         1 πύλην 2 τὴν 3 πρὸς 4 ἀνατολάς. – 1 gate 2 the 3 toward 4 the east (Ezek. 8:5)[26]

These examples show that where the eastern expanse embracing many lands and peoples toward the sunrise is in view, the plural is used. But where a specific location is contemplated, such as the curtains of the tabernacle (Ex. 37:11), or the side of the altar (Lev. 1:16), or the place of the brazen sea (II Chron. 4:10), or a particular gate, the singular occurs. If this is correct, since anatole is singular, the Magi’s statement they had seen the star en te anatole would not mean they saw the star in the vast expanse of eastern sky, for here we would expect the plural. Rather, the Magi saw the star while they themselves were en te anatole; that is, in their own eastern country. In other words, en te anatole describes the origin and location of the Magi, not the star – a result very different than what Nicholl proposes (and a good reason why trendy new translations should always be viewed as highly suspect)!

That this is correct is apparent from the fact that the Magi were explaining why they came to Jerusalem from the east. The Magi saw a star in the east but have travelled west. Why? Their explanation only makes sense if they were in effect saying, “we, being in the east, saw his star here in the west, and therefore have come hither.” That they saw the star in the west again when they departed from Herod tends to confirm that this is so and that the star was never in the eastern sky at all. Note also, that had it been Matthew’s purpose to indicate the Magi saw the star helically rising, there were ways he could have unambiguously conveyed this idea. For example, Mark 16:2 mentions the “rising of the sun” (ανατειλαντος του ηλιου). If Mark can say “rising of the sun,” certainly Matthew can say “rising of the star” in language that is comparably unambiguous. Similarly, John says “And I saw another angel ascending from the east” (αναβαντα απο ανατολης ηλιου) - literally, “having ascended from the rising of the sun” (Rev. 7:2). If John can say he saw an angel ascending from the rising of the sun, Matthew is capable of saying the Magi saw a star rising from the sun. This latter example is particularly appropriate for the heliacal rising of a star, for it specifically mentions the angel ascending from the rising sun. If Matthew intended to indicate the Magi witnessed the “heliacal rising of the star,” we would expect him to use a phrase comparable to Mark or John, not one whose validity is so very doubtful when translated as Nicholl suggests.

Given that “in its rising” is historically and linguistically questionable, normal academic caution would argue against constructing a thesis upon this basis. However, Nicholl has chosen otherwise. The heliacal rising of the star being an essential part of his argument, Nicholl has built his edifice upon very uncertain ground. The reader is cautioned against following him there.

Bethlehem Star

As the book’s title suggests, Nicholl believes the star led the Magi to Bethlehem. In fact, “the Bethlehem Star” are the first three words in the book,[27] and the phrase occurs nineteen times in the first chapter alone.  According to Nicholl, as soon as the Magi were convinced Jesus was born, they undertook a journey of 28-37 days to Jerusalem.[28] They were then directed by Herod to Bethlehem. Leaving toward nightfall, the star went south before them,[29] where the star eventually came to stand above the horizon directly over the very house where they found Mary and the Christ-child.[30] Nichol assumes the Magi remained in Bethlehem 3-5 days, during which time the holy family presented the Christ-child at the Jerusalem temple forty days after his birth where they made the customary offerings on behalf of Mary and Jesus (Luke 2:22-24). Nicholl then has the holy family return to Bethlehem, at which point the Magi received warning from God in a dream not to return to Herod. Joseph, also being warned in a dream that Herod would seek to destroy the Christ-child, fled by night to Egypt where the holy family remained until Herod’s death.[31] However, Nicholl’s version of this scenario sets up several conflicts and contradictions.

First, it is widely assumed the Magi went to Bethlehem merely because that is where Herod sent them. However, Matthew nowhere states the Magi actually entered Bethlehem, nor will this conclusion withstand close scrutiny. Bethlehem was less than ten miles from Jerusalem. Moreover, since Herod had sent them there in any event, it was hardly necessary for the star to lead the Magi to Bethlehem. Nicholl admits this redundancy and comments several times about it, urging instead the star’s purpose was to lead the Magi to the house the holy family was staying in.[32] However, Bethlehem was a small village, probably only consisting of several hundred families. The prophet Micah calls it “little among the thousands of Judah” (Mic. 5:2). This may explain why there was so little accommodation for travelers and why the holy family was forced to seek shelter in a barn: Luke states there was no room for them in the inn (singular). With only one inn, Bethlehem could not accommodate many visitors. Given its small size, it is unlikely it would have been difficult to learn the whereabouts of a newborn child. The humble shepherds had been able to find baby Jesus without divine assistance of a star, so we have to assume the exalted Magi could have found the holy family as well. Therefore, Nicholl’s argument that the star was necessary to lead the Magi to the Christ-child simply does not hold up.

Second, Luke tells us that the holy family returned to Nazareth, not Bethlehem, following the presentment of the Christ-child at the temple (Luke 2:39). This is a major contradiction. Luke states Nazareth, Nicholl says Bethlehem. We have to side with scripture and reject Nicholl. This explains why the star appeared just as the Magi were leaving Jerusalem: the holy family had returned home by the time the Magi arrived and was no longer in Bethlehem. Heaven therefore divinely intervened by causing the star to appear again in order to lead the Magi to the holy family 70 miles north to Nazareth. The house (domos) where the Magi found the Christ-child and Mary (Matt. 2:11) was therefore probably the family home, and explains why they were not at an inn like we would expect had they still been in Bethlehem. This was the view of several early church fathers:


He was born in Bethlehem, circumcised in the cavern, presented in Jerusalem, embraced by Simeon, openly confessed by Anna the prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, and taken away to Nazareth. “De Incarnatione” in Panarion 1.4


Therefore the prophet brought the virgin from Nazareth, in order that she might give birth at Bethlehem to her salvation-bringing child, and brought her back again to Nazareth, in order to make manifest to the world the hope of life. Hence it was that the ark of God removed from the inn at Bethlehem, for there He paid to the law that debt of the forty days, due not to justice but to grace…The holy mother goes up to the temple to exhibit to the law a new and strange wonder, even that child long expected. “Oration Concerning Simeon and Anna” in Ante-Nicene Fathers, eds. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Christian Literature Publishing, 1885), 6:385

Since the shepherds were able to find the Christ-child without a star to guide them and the star was not needed to lead the Magi to Bethlehem, the village being less than ten miles from Jerusalem and Herod having sent them there in any event, moreover, since Luke tells us the holy family returned to Nazareth following the presentment of the Christ-child, the better view is that it was to Nazareth that the star led the Magi, not Bethlehem. Thus, the very title and basic assumptions of Nicholl’s book rest upon an erroneous reconstruction of the Gospels and must be rejected as wide of the mark.

6 BC Nativity

Nicholl argues that Jesus was born sometime in mid-October, 6 BC. This is based exclusively upon the asserted date of Herod’s death in 4 BC. It is difficult to identify when this date was first proposed, but it must have been comparatively late for none of the early church fathers assent to it. Josephus mentions a lunar eclipse shortly before Herod’s death, which Whiston, who translated Josephus in the eighteenth century, dated to March 13, 4 BC.[33] It is probable that this view did not originate with Whiston, so its origin likely dates sometime earlier. In the late 1800’s, this date was put forward again by the German scholar Emile Schurer.[34] Schurer’s view found wide acceptance with scholarship and the 4 BC death of Herod has been practically canonical for the last hundred years. However, the date has been revisited in recent decades and has been shown to be only superficially tenable, unable to withstand serious scrutiny.[35] It is true that coins date the reigns of Herod’s sons to 4 BC, but this is no certain evidence of Herod’s death since it was common to associate sons in the government. When at Herod’s death the government of Palestine was divided among his sons by Augustus Caesar, his sons likely treated their governments as a continuation of whatever authority they previously held and dated coins minted by them accordingly. We find examples of this in the Bible with David’s sons who were princes and rulers in Israel (II Sam. 8:18), and Solomon who was made king while his father David was still alive (I Kng. 1, 2). This also explains the conflicting dates of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar who is said to have carried the Jews into captivity in the 18th and 23rd years of his reign, but states it was the second year of his reign when the prophet Daniel stood before him (Jer. 52:29, 20; Dan. 2:1). The difference is almost certainly attributable to his coregency with his father Nebapolosar over against his sole regency following his father’s death. Thus, coins do not provide any certain testimony of the date of Herod’s death.

The better view is that the eclipse mentioned by Josephus occurred January 10, 1 BC, Herod himself dying shortly before Passover several months later. Josephus states that Herod was seventy years old at the time of his death.[36] We also learn from Josephus that Herod was twenty-five years old when his father, Antipater, committed to him the government of Galilee. Antipater had come to Caesar’s aid in his Alexandrian War (47 BC) against Cleopatra’s brother, Ptolomey XII Auletes, and had shown great energy and valor. The following spring (46 BC), Caesar rewarded Antipater by committing the government of Palestine to him; Antipater, in turn, committed the government of Galilee to Herod at the age of twenty-five. If Herod was twenty-five in 46 BC, he would have been born in 71 BC. Thus, Herod would have been seventy in 1 BC at the time of his death as stated by Josephus. Jesus’ birth would have occurred the preceding winter, 2 BC. This is verified by Luke, who says Jesus was on the threshold of his 30th birthday when baptized in the autumn of AD 29, the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar: [37]

Now in the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judaea…Jesus himself began to be about thirty years of age. Luke 3:1, 23

A person born in 2 BC will turn 30 before Dec. 31st, AD 29. Since Luke tells us Jesus turned 30 in AD 29, it is clear he was born in 2 BC. However, according to Nicholl, Jesus would have been 34 years old at his baptism. But this no way comports with Luke’s phrase “began to be about,” which clearly signifies that Jesus was just turning 30 at his fall baptism. Indeed, the reason Luke mentions Jesus’ age is because his baptism and wilderness temptation were undertaken in preparation for beginning his public ministry, which Jewish men began at 30 years old. So Irenaeus:

For how could he have had disciples, if He did not teach? And how could He have taught, unless He had reached the age of a Master?  For when He came to be baptized, He had not yet completed thirty years of age (for thus Luke, who has mentioned His years, has expressed it: "Now Jesus was, as it were, beginning to be thirty years old," when He came to be baptized).[38]

That Jesus should have delayed four years to begin his life’s work as urged by Nicholl makes no sense whatever. A survey of the early fathers shows almost complete unanimity placing Jesus’ birth 3/2 BC. 6 BC is nowhere to be found:

Dates of the Birth of Christ in Early Christian Sources[39]


4 BC


3/2 BC

Clement Alexandria

3/2 BC


3/2 BC


3/2 BC

Hippolytus of Rome

3/2 BC


3/2 BC


3/2 BC


3/2 BC


3 BC


2 BC

Dionysius Exiguus

1 BC

Chronongrapher of the year 54

1 AD


The near unanimity of the church fathers placing the birth of Christ in 3/2 BC argues forcefully against the 4 BC death of Herod. Add to this the direct testimony of Josephus that Herod was twenty-five in 46 BC placing his birth in 71 BC, which correlates with his death at age 70 in 1 BC, and the testimony of Luke that Jesus was on threshold of his 30th birthday in AD 29, placing his birth in 2 BC, and we are compelled to reject Nicholl’s dating the birth of Christ to 6 BC.

Imagery of Revelation Twelve

According to Nicholl, the imagery of Rev. 12:1-5 is a snapshot of the astronomical phenomena witnessed by the Magi leading up to the birth of Christ. By properly interpreting John’s imagery, Nicholl believes the date of Christ’s birth can be identified.

Quite simply, the only plausible explanation of the celestial and portentous nature of the messianic birth scene in Revelation 12;1-5 is that John is consciously recalling the heavenly wonder that attended Jesus’s nativity. In other words, what we read in these verses is an account of the marvel that coincided with the Messiah’s birth and that prompted the Magi to travel to Judea to worship the newborn King of the Jews[40]

As already noted, this approach is neither new nor original, but has been attempted without success before, most notably by Earnest L. Martin in his book The Star of Bethlehem: The Star That Astonished the World. Nicholl simply adopts Martin’s approach, with some modifications. Before we discuss Nicholl’s basic arguments, it will be helpful to survey the relevant verses:

And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars. And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered.

And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads. And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born.

And she brought forth a man child who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child ws caught up unto God, and to his throne. Rev. 12:1-5

The marginal reading for the phrase “great wonder” is “great sign,” which Nicholl (following Martin) interprets to mean a constellation. Specifically, Nicholl argues that the woman is the constellation Virgo and the dragon is the constellation Hydra (Martin claimed it was Draco). Therefore, by correlating John’s imagery with the annual progression of the zodiac, the time of Jesus’ birth can purportedly be identified. However, that John intends the Greek term semeion to signify a constellation is certainly open to debate. Historically, the translators of most English versions have rendered the term “wonder,” consciously avoiding the suggestion that a constellation is intended. And with good reason: the same term occurs at Rev. 15:1:

And I saw another sign in heaven, great and marvelous, seven angels having the seven last plagues; for in them is filled up the wrath of God.

Here we find the identical terminology of a great sign in heaven, but who would contend that a constellation is in view? If the identical language does not signify a constellation here, what basis is there for concluding constellations are intended in chapter twelve? Indeed, even the most cursory examination of the constellations shows that Virgo and Hydra in no way conform to John’s imagery.

John states that the dragon has seven heads and ten horns. Yet, the constellation Hydra has only one head and no horns. John says the dragon was poised to devour the woman’s child as soon as it was born. Yet, Hydra looks 180 degrees away from Virgo, completely oblivious to her and any child she might bring forth! John says the woman wears a crown of twelve stars, but the constellation Virgo only rarely has donned a crown and never with twelve stars. Nicholl is able only to produce a single example of Virgo depicted with a crown, in a pagan temple in Egypt.[41] What Jewish depictions we have of Virgo do not include one.[42] How does Nicholl remedy this? He adds stars to the constellation to help it better conform to John’s description.[43] John says that the dragon’s tail cast down a third of the stars of heaven. Nicholl proposes that this describes a meteor shower for which there is no historical evidence. Later in the chapter, John informs us that the dragon is defeated and cast down to earth and persecutes the woman, who flees into the wilderness where she is sustained by God 3 ½ years. Nicholl is very clear that John’s imagery recreates actual astronomical events. However, he is silent about what astronomical phenomena the defeat of the dragon and flight of the woman answers to. Does John’s imagery recreate the actual skies regarding the time of Christ’s birth, then abandon it for the rest of the chapter only to speak in symbols? If the dragon’s casting down a third of the stars is to be understood literally as a meteor shower, why is not the dragon’s being cast down? If the woman’s flight from the dragon does not reflect actual astronomical events, why should her giving birth? And why is the asserted date of Christ’s birth in mid-October historical, but the asserted conception Sept. 15th one month earlier not historical? The comet was allegedly visible for a year and several months. Wouldn’t it make better sense for Virgo’s pregnancy to last nine months instead of only one? Would the Magi really conclude the Messiah was born after an astral pregnancy of only one month? These incongruities argue forcefully against Nicholl’s interpretation.


Hydra has only one head



Hydra faces 180 degrees away from Virgo


We agree that the birth of Christ is portrayed in Revelation chapter twelve, but deny the imagery is intended to identify the time of the nativity, let alone any astronomical phenomena attending it. Instead, the imagery is intended to reflect the great spiritual battle being waged in the world between the servants of righteousness and the servants of sin and disobedience, particularly as this focused upon the appearing of Christ, who would die upon a cross for man’s sin and ascend to heaven where he rules at the right hand of God, guiding history for the advancement of his gospel, kingdom, and people.

What Nicholl fails, perhaps, to appreciate is that John is viewing political and spiritual realities, not astronomical ones. The heavens John views are not the celestial heavens in which are hung the stars and ruling orbs, but a figurative heaven upon which were projected scenes portraying spiritual battles occurring upon earth. This warfare involved God’s covenant people and bride (the woman), opposed and oppressed by “Leviathan,” the world civil power (Rome and her allies). That the woman is clothed with the sun and the moon is beneath her feet, and she wears a crown of twelve stars, identifies her as the Old Testament people and bride. God told Abraham that his seed would be as innumerable as the stars of heaven (Gen. 15:5). The stars thus became symbols of the covenant people, and occurred in Joseph’s dream concerning his father, mother, and brethren who were portrayed as the sun, moon, and stars that bowed down before him (Gen. 37:9, 10). Likewise, when Antiochus Epiphanes defeated the Jewish army and persecuted the nation, desecrating the temple and forbidding them to keep the law of Moses, this was described saying, he “waxed great, even to the host of heaven; and it cast down some of the host and of the stars to the ground, and stamped upon them” (Dan. 8:10). So here, the dragon’s casting down a third of the stars of heaven does not signify a meteor shower, but Rome’s subjugation and oppressive reign over the people of God. The seven heads and ten horns of the dragon represent the political divisions of the Roman Empire: the ten horns are almost certainly the ten senatorial provinces created by Augustus in 27 BC which became a permanent identifying feature of the empire thereafter.[44] The seven heads are identified in chapter seventeen as seven kings out of the empire:

And there are seven kings: five are fallen, and one is, and the other is not yet come; and when he cometh, he must continue a short space. Rev. 17:10

These kings should be understood in reference to the first seven Caesars.

Five had fallen when John wrote:

·         Julius

·         Augustus

·         Tiberius

·         Gaius Caligula

·         Claudius.

One is:

·         Nero.

One was still to come and would reign but a short time:

·         Galba who reigned only seven months.

These heads also double as demographic centers in which the persecution gains a head, first in Palestine where it suffers a mortal wound, only later to heal and revive under Nero. The dragon’s persecution of the woman following the ascension of man-child to God’s throne is the persecution that arose over Stephen, which scattered the church and carried the gospel to the Gentiles. This was past when John wrote. However, the persecution under Nero had not yet occurred and is the great eschatological crisis the book was written to address.[45] The persecuting power of the enemy that was defeated and collapsed in the persecution over Stephen would revive in Nero. The persecution of the church and gospel by Nero and the Jews would be avenged by Christ in the year-of-four-emperors (AD 69) and the destruction of Jerusalem (AD 70).

We would suggest that these are the historical facts the Apocalypse is anchored to and which its symbolism represents. Attempting to make Rev. 12:1-5 an astronomical calendar by which we can divine the date of Christ’s birth is implausible, and requires overlooking numerous obvious discrepancies and departures between John’s imagery and the constellations of Virgo and Hydra.


Although Nicholl’s book is the best credentialed and scientifically most erudite attempt to identify the so-called star of Bethlehem to date, in the end it stands as a piece of literary fiction and fanciful Biblical interpretation that serious students and scholars will be forced to reject.

[1] Colin R. Nicholl, The Great Christ Comet (Wheaton, IL, 2015), 44, 63; hereafter “Comet.”

[2] “The Star seen by the Magi in the east was evidently interpreted by them as heralding his birth.” “This is consistent with their having been aided in the interpretation of the Star by a Jew (or Jews) in Babylon educated in the Hebrew Scriptures.” Comet,40, 63.

[3] Comet, 48, 49.

[4] “Heliacal rising could be perceived to have great astrological significance.” Comet, 50.

[5][5] Comet, 50, cf. 51: “To that extent, what they saw was reminiscent of a horoscope.”

[6] Comet, 154.

[7] Comet, 166, 167

[8] Comet, 187.

[9] Comet, 178, 179; cf. 264, 299 where Nicholl places the birth October 20, 6 BC.

[10] Comet, 46, 48, 67.

[11] Comet, 218, 219.

[12] Martin was followed by Fredrick A. Larson who has added a twist or two not presented by Martin, but otherwise appears to simply repackage Martin’s material wholesale: The Star of Bethlehem, DVD, directed by Stephen Vidano (Santa Monica, CA: Mpower Pictures, 2006). For our refutation of Martin’s book, see Simmons’ Refutation of Martin’s Star that Astonished the World.

[13] Comet, 142.

[14] Comet, 152.

[15] Comet, 183.

[16] Comet, 187.

[17] Comet, 215.

[18] Comet, 284.

[19] Comet, 175

[20] Comet, 299

[21][21] Guillermo Gonzalez’ review of The Great Christ Comet, accessed 1/14/2018.

[22] Comet, 51

[23] Comet, 58; cf. 133, 134, 147, 151, et alia.                                       

[24] See, accessed Jan. 7, 2018, for searchable of English translations currently in print. See, accessed Jan. 7, 2018, for historical editions like the Wycliff Bible now out of print.

[25] English translation of the Syriac Peshitta by James Murdock, 1915.

[26] A searchable copy of the Septuagint is available online at; accessed 1/3/2018.

[27] Comet, 23

[28] Comet, 46, 48, 61, 67

[29] Nicholl equivocates here, stating that the star merely seemed to go before them (Comet, 61; cf. 47). However, Matthew is clear that the star went before the Magi (Matt. 2:9). I find no need to accommodate rationalists by affirming the star was a purely natural phenomenon which conformed to the laws governing other celestial bodies.

[30] Comet, 60, 61, 68

[31] Comet, 218, 219

[32] Comet, 39, 59.

[33] Josephus, Ant. 17.6.4, fn.

[34] Emile Schurer, A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ (Edinburh, 1890), 1.400-416.

[35] W. E. Filmer, The Chronology of the Reign of Herod the Great, JTS 17 (1966), 283–298; Earnest L. Martin, The Nativity and Herod’s Death, Chronos, Kairos, Christos: Nativity and Chronological Studies Presented to Jack Finegan (Eisenbrauns, 1989), 85–92; idem, The Star that Astonished the World (2nd ed.; Portland: ASK Publications, 1996), 119–155; Jack Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology, 298-301; Andrew E. Steinmann, When Did Herod the Great Reign?, Novum Testamentum 51 (2009), 1–29.

[36] Josephus, Ant. 17.6.1.

[37]Now as for the date of the fifteenth year of Tiberius in Luke 3:1, we have judged that Luke, as a historian like others in the Roman empire, would count the regnal years from Tiberius’s succession to Augustus; and, since Roman historians of the time (Tacitus, Suetonius) generally date the first regnal year of a ruler from Jan 1 of the year following the date of accession (i.e., follow the accession-year system), we judge that Luke would do likewise. So Tiberius’s…fifteenth regnal year counted as Julian calendar years according to the accession-year system was Jan 1 to Dec 31, A.D. 29.” Jack Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology (Hendrickson, 1998 ed.), 340. Jesus baptism AD 29 is confirmed by Daniel’s vision of 490 prophetic years which specified that there would be 483 years from the commandment to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Messiah (Dan. 9:24-27). Counting from the commandment given in 454 BC by Artaxerxes Longimanus to Nehemiah to the baptism of Christ in AD 29 is 483 years (483-454=29).

[38] Irenaeus, Contra Haeresies, II, 4, 5; Anti-Nicene Fathers, Vol. I, p. 391 

[39] Jack Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology (Hendrickson, 1998 ed.), 291. 3/2 BC reflects years Annum Mundi, which run from the vernal equinox March 25 to March 25.

[40] Comet, 154

[41] Comet, 161, 162.

[42] Comet, 163.

[43] Comet, 161.

[44] “In 27 B.C. the provinces had been divided into two classes, Imperial and Senatorial, ‘provinciae Caesaris,’ and ‘provinciae Senatus’ or ‘populi.” The latter were ten in number, Africa, Asia, Bithynia, Achaea, Illyricum, Macedonia, Crete and Cyrene, Sicily, Sardinia, and Hispania Baetica...The Imperial provinces in 27 B.C. were Gaul, Syria, Cyprus and Cilicia, and Hispania Citerior. The number was increased subsequently by the division of single provinces into two or more, and by the inclusion of all provinces constituted after 27 B.C., e.g. Moesia, Pannonia, and Dalmatia.” Thomas Marris Taylor, A Constitutional and Political History of Rome (Metheun & Co., London, 1889), 464. “Africa, Numidia, Asia, Greece with Epirus, the Dalmatian and Macedonian districts, Crete and the Cyrenaic portion of Libya, Bithynia with Pontus which adjoined it, Sardinia and Baetica were held to belong to the people and the senate; while to Caesar belonged the remainder of Spain,— that is, the district of Tarraco and Lusitania,— and all the Gauls,— that is, Gallia Narbonensis, Gallia Lugdunensis, Aquitania, and Belgica, both the natives themselves and the aliens among them.” Dio Cassius, LIII, xii; Loeb ed. 

[45] The notion that Revelation was written in the time of Domitian is like the error Herod died in 4 BC: both are as widely disseminated as they are late in origin. For the most exhaustive study regarding the dating of Revelation, see Kenneth L. Gentry Jr, Before Jerusalem Fell: Dating the Book of Revelation: An Exegetical and Historical Argument of a Pre-A.D. 70 Composition (Tyler, TX, Institute for Christian Economics, 1989).


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