Because it was Epiphany yesterday, there has been some conversation around my house regarding the nature of the Star of Bethlehem and therefore I thought I'd write a post arguing my position on the story of the Magi. I don't hold my position dogmatically, neither do I intend to offend anyone. This is just what I make some historical sense of the story.
1. It's not entirely clear to me (contrary to what some commentaries and textbooks insist) that the Magi were Gentiles. Magi just means Babylonian (regionally, not ethnically) wiseman/astrologer. Why would Babylonians be particularly interested in the birth of the Messiah? That is to say, they wouldn't be, so they were probably Jewish astrologers from Babylon or somewhere in that area. Also, there's some rather significant evidence that Babylon was home at the time of Christ to more Jews than were actually living in Palestine. I've heard as high a number as 6 million, whereas the Palestine is thought to have contained anywhere from 1-4 millions Jews in the first century. Also, Babylon was a major cultural center of the Jews. The Babylonian Talmud has equal weight among Rabbinical scholars to the Palestinian one.
2. I'm pretty convinced that the Star of Bethlehem was a triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn that happened in 7 BC. Saturn was a symbol of the Jews in ancient astrology and Jupiter was a symbol of kingship. If the two planets came together three times, ancient astrologers probably would have taken notice (especially Jewish ones), which explains why the Magi came from the East. Also, it would cohere with the other things we know about the birth of Jesus. It was at a time when there was a census. There appears to have been a census started by Augustus in 9 BC that was moving East and might have come to Palestine in 7-6 BC. Also, we're told that it was at the time that Herod was king of Judea, which was according to Josephus before 4 BC.
3. Now this doesn't mean that I think that we have to come up witih a naturalistic explanation for these things or I don't believe in the power of God to make a supernatural light in the sky or something. I just think that explanation makes more sense for the following reasons.
4. First, people seem to read the text as saying that the Magi followed a wandering star. Read it closely. It says nothing of the kind. What happens? Well, we're told that Magi show up in Jerusalem and ask Herod about the birth of the king of the Jews. Why would they do that if they were following a star? Why wouldn't it just lead them to Bethlehem? Well, because if you read the text closely, they weren't following a star. What they say is "We saw his star in the East." Meaning they saw it when they were in Babylon, but not now. Hence them needing directions.
5. If I'm correct, this makes the story make more sense. They see the triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. They head for Jerusalem, assuming that a child has been born in the court of Herod who is currently king of the Jews. Herod then directs them towards Bethlehem. The alternative is problematic not least becuase one comes to ask the question: Why would God lead them to Herod? So, that he could tell them that there was a Messianic pretender threatening him, so that he could try to kill him with fairly grizzly results? I think not. Again, that's not what the text. It says not that they followed a star to Jerusalem, but merely that they saw it in the east and the showed up at Jerusalem, the most logical place to go.
6. Now the text says that on the way to Bethlehem, the "star" reappears and the leads them directly to the correct house in which Jesus was. This appears to be the only part of the journey directed by the star. Again, this would make perfect sense because although they would have known from the messianic prophecy that Jesus was to be born in Bethlehem, they would not know specifically in what house.
7. This I think makes the most sense as an interpretation of the text, I'd be interested in hearing your response. Again, I don't hold this position dogmatically. I just think that it makes the most sense from the story we're given by Matthew.