The Bethlehem Star
People have discussed, pondered and asked for two thousand years what was the Star of Bethlehem talked about in Matthew 2:1-12
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him."
When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea," they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
"‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’"
Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him."
After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
That is the only place in the Bible that tells the story of Magi ("wise men") visiting Bethlehem and the star they followed. As in every case, we must not make a Christian doctrine out of this because we should never make a doctrine out of only one mention in the Bible. Doctrines come from a consistent and persistent Biblical discussion of the matter, such as sin and salvation.
Let’s first discuss what seems to be a few obvious statements about what the star was not.
The star was not a meteor, because meteors appear as a flash for a few seconds and then are gone forever. The Magi were dealing with a phenomenon that they could point to for two years.
The star was not a nova (or supernova) because no such nova was reported by world records, such as in China or Rome, and today’s scientists see no fragments of a nova that would have occurred at that time. But the most telling evidence we have is the Biblical evidence of King Herod being surprised (“disturbed") to hear about a star and inquired of the Magi when it first appeared. If it were a nova, he would not have been surprised nor would he have inquired when it first appeared. If a bright nova had occurred at that time, it would have been talked about by everyone, especially the superstitious Romans who would have seen it as a sign for them, and the religiously minded Jews who would have sought a spiritual explanation of it.
Could it have been a phenomenon that God created for that one time? Given that God is a minded being and has the power and ability to do such a thing, he could have created something like that, in which case we would never know what it was and what happened. However, given the study of God (theology) and our history, it seems evident to us that God does not capriciously do things like that. In everything else, God seems to use existing material in their natural state to work his wonders. We have no direct reason to believe he created a “star" for that one event. And besides, if he did, we still have the question of why didn’t King Herod already know about it? Wouldn’t that have been something to bring before a king?
So we’re left, in my opinion, with one option, that the star was simply a natural phenomenon in heaven (outer space) that the Magi saw and interpreted as being related to the birth of a king in Judah.
Therefore, let’s study the passage again and see what further information we can glean. It seems to me that we can better understand the Star of Bethlehem if we can identify the Magi.
“Magi" is a Persian word, coming from “magus" meaning “magic." In the history of early civilization, science, magic, religion and superstition were mixed. Wise men – counselors to kings – were scientists and magicians. When Pharaoh had a confrontation with Moses and he thought Moses was just another magician, the scripture says this,
“Pharaoh then summoned wise men and sorcerers, and the Egyptian magicians also did the same things by their secret arts." (Exodus 7:11)
Getting back to Persia… Persia had conquered Babylon in the fifth century BC and ruled that area for many years. Prior to that, Babylon had conquered Judah, destroyed it as a nation and imported the Jews into Babylon. Seventy years later, Persia conquered Babylon and allowed the Jews to return to Judah, as a vassal state. But not all Jews returned. Many had made Babylon their home and stayed there. It was like the Jews who decided to remain in the United States after Israel was re-created in 1948. These Jews tend to identify more with their current homeland than with a foreign country to which their ancestors were once part.
Ancient Babylon and ancient Egypt were the scientific capitals of the world. Babylon invented the 60-minute hour, the 360-degree circle, the Zodiac and the horoscope. These people carefully studied the stars and the heavens. They tracked the planets, the sun and the moon, from which they tried to predict the future. The Magi were men from Persia who were scholars, astronomers, “wise men," and counselors to the king. They studied the stars for portents, to alert the king concerning what the gods were about to do.
So, in the study of Magi, we find these were astronomers in the east, in Persia or Babylon. They saw in the stars that a king was to be born in Judea. How did they know it related to Judea and how did they know a star would signal a king? One way they would know is if they were already looking for it and recognized the sign. That is, if they knew a special king was to be born in Judea and if they knew that the stars would do such-and-so to indicate it, then they would be looking for that sign and know immediatly what was its interpretation.
You remember earlier I said that Jews were still living in Babylon, left over from the fifth century BC captivity of Judah. In fact, a community of Jews has lived there right up until today. Unfortunately, that Jewish community is starting to dwindle because of persecution in Iraq. Nevertheless, some Jews are living in Iraq now and that community has been there since he fifth century BC. Could the Magi have been Jews?
The Jewish people in the United States maintain their identity as Jews but they have otherwise integrated into our society. We find them as leaders in the entertainment industry, in banking, in education, and politics. The same was true when the Jews were captured and taken to Babylon. Even today in Iraq they maintain their identity as Jews but are Iraqi citizens.
When Jews were taken to Babylon, a few were allowed to remain behind. Jeremiah the prophet was one of those who remained behind. He wrote to those in captivity and gave them this word of God (Jeremiah 29:4-7):
This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper."
He told them to integrate into their Babylonian society (later to be Persian society), until such time as they were called to come back home to Judah.
These Magi, I believe, were Jews who remained in Babylon and were looking for the Messiah. They knew it was close to the time when Messiah would appear. During the Jewish captivity in Babylon, Daniel the prophet was a Magus (a wise man and counselor to the king). In his book of prophecy, called Daniel in the Bible, he told when the Messiah would appear in Jerusalem.
“Seventy ‘sevens’ are decreed for your people and your holy city to finish transgression, to put an end to sin, to atone for wickedness, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the most holy.
“Know and understand this: From the issuing of the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler, comes, there will be seven ‘sevens,’ and sixty-two ‘sevens.’
A “seven" is the way they said “week" in those days. That was the name for week. Students of prophecy generally understand this to be a week of years, not of days. Thus, the prophet was saying that 490 years would pass, beginning at a certain event, and then the Messiah would reveal himself in Jerusalem. They used a year as 360 days, not the 365.242199 days that we use today. When you re-adjust for the year difference, we find that Jesus the Messiah revealed himself in Jerusalem for crucifixion during Passover in about the year AD 32 or 33.
The Jewish Magi, having copies of the Jewish Bible, the Tanach, and Daniel’s prophecy which was written in Babylon, would have reason to believe the Messiah would soon appear. But the Messiah would be a man and king in AD 32. Why would they have come to Jerusalem thirty years too soon looking for a king and baby? They were looking for a king because Jeremiah the prophet had said (Jeremiah 23:5-6),
“The days are coming," declares the LORD, “when I will raise up to David a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. This is the name by which he will be called: The LORD Our Righteousness.
And they were looking for a baby because Isaiah the prophet had said (Isaiah 7:14),
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.
And also (Isaiah 9:6-7),
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.
Since the prophecies are clear that the Messiah will be divine and not just a human king, the Magi said to King Herod, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him." People will worship a divine king but not a human king. The Magi would not have worshipped King Herod. Just as Emperor Augustus had declared himself a god-king and therefore expected worship, the baby Messiah would be both divine and king, therefore worthy of worship.
The Greek word, “worship," is proskuneo. It meant, among the Orientals, especially the Persians, to fall upon the knees and touch the ground with the forehead as an expression of profound reverence. In the New Testament, it is by kneeling or prostration to do homage (to one) or make obeisance, whether in order to express respect or to make supplication to: the Jewish high priests, to God, to Christ, to heavenly beings, and to demons (from Strong’s Enhanced Lexicon, #4352)
The Messiah, the divine king, would appear around A.D. 32. This same person, as a baby, would be born years earlier. Thus the Magi were seeking for signs as to when the king would be born.
But why a star? Granted, the Magi were astronomers and looked for all sorts of earthly signs in heavenly bodies. But would the Jews equate a star to the Messiah?
In the Torah, the Jewish Law, which is also the Christian Pentateuch, is the book of Numbers. In it this prophecy is given (Numbers 24:17-19):
“I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel. He will crush the foreheads of Moab, the skulls of all the sons of Sheth. Edom will be conquered; Seir, his enemy, will be conquered, but Israel will grow strong. A ruler will come out of Jacob and destroy the survivors of the city."
That was written around 1400 BC, and thus the prophecy says, “not now… not near." It was referring to an event 1400 years in the future, and it talks about a star, a conqueror, coming out of Jacob (the father of Judah).
Before we go any further, you need to realize that if we had any proof of what that star was, we wouldn’t be asking today, “What Was the Star of Bethlehem?" Suggestions have been a meteor, a nova, an angel, and a conjunction of planets and stars. I think each of them have major flaws. The meteor, for example, would have come and gone within seconds; not hung around for two years. We have no evidence of a nova at that time, neither scientifically nor by world records. An angel, I think, is fanciful and we have no other Biblical reference to an angel appearing as a star… but I will admit that the Bible in prophecy symbolizes angels as stars. People say a conjunction is unlikely because we have a span of two years and conjunctions don’t last that long. Furthermore, it says that the star “went before" them as the Magi were traveling from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. At this point, no one has offered convincing proof as to what that celestial event actually was.
The only thing that appears most likely to me is that it was a normal conjunction or event in space that the Magi interpreted as relating to a king and Israel. Since it was the Babylonians and Persians that created and refined the Zodiac, and predicted the future with it, it makes sense to me that this was in their realm of expertise and authority. And we know that even to this day people use the Zodiac, horoscopes and stars to predict future events.
I think the conjunction of planets is a good explanation because King Herod didn’t know anything about it until wise men showed up. Then he had to ask them what it was and when it appeared. If it were a spectacular stellar event, the king would know what they were referring to even if he didn’t know its meaning.
Another reason I think the conjunction is a good explanation is because the Magi saw the star again when they left Jerusalem. If they had followed the star all the way from Persia, why would they get excited to see the star again the next day? But if a planet, as Jupiter, was in the conjunction and they happened to see Jupiter again two years later during a fortuitous mission, they would rejoice.
Some people point out Matthew 2:9, “the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was." This seems like perfect proof that it was an angel, because stars don’t behave like that. But if that star were an angel, then what was it two years ago in Persia when it rose in the east? An angel? If so, then why didn’t the angel tell them what was going on, just as the angel told the shepherds as recorded in Luke 2:8-9, instead of making them figure it out? And why would an angel from God go to the Magi? What’s the point? To give Matthew a good Christmas story?
But if it wasn’t an angel, then how could a star behave like that? It could have if the writer was only describing what it appeared to be. For example, we say the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. But we know that’s not true; it just appears that way. Actually, the earth rotates on an axis from west to east. So, when the Magi set out from Jerusalem at night, there was the star directly over Bethlehem. The closer they walked to Bethlehem, the more it seemed they were also approaching the star. I don’t know if that is true; I’m just giving a possibility.
There have been plenty of celestial events with planets and stars between the years 12 and 2 B.C. Yet none of them gives definitive proof that it is the event the Magi saw. But one thing is certain: no one knows for sure just what was the Star of Bethlehem.