Thursday, January 7, 2010

Epiphany Stuff: My take on the Star of Bethlehem.

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.


  1. Newby to this site. Hi everybody! Thought I'd chime in.

    #1- absolutely! I've argued for years that (the testimony of numerous church fathers withstanding) the magi were probably Jewish... or at the very least, Gentile converts to Judaism. It's difficult to make sense of the story otherwise. The alternative is to say that astrology can lead one to Christ? Hmmm...

    #4- being a Word-centric LCMS Lutheran, I love the notion that the star did not lead them to Bethlehem... instead, the magi go to the center of Judaism (Jerusalem) where the Word of God from Micah 5 directs them to the prophesied location of Messiah's birthplace.

  2. Jack,

    First, I'm thankful to Pr. Weedon for pointing me to your blog - great stuff here! Keep it coming.

    As for your take on the Magi and the star, I appreciate your interpretation, but hold a more traditional interpretation myself.

    I think the Magi were Gentiles for a few reasons: 1) It seems odd that St. Matthew would leave out their Jewish ethnicity were they Jews; 2) I see the coming of the Magi from the East as a fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy in 60:1-6 (esp. v. 6), the thrust of which is meant to foretell the inclusion of all people, Jew and Gentile alike, in the salvation won by Christ; 3)The nearly unanimous interpretation of the Church through the centuries is that the Magi were Gentiles.

    As for the star, I simply cannot fathom how a triple conjunction or any other natural explanation can account for what this star does. It doesn't just appear to them in the East. After their visit with Herod, it "went before them and it came to rest over the place where the Child was." I've read what Paul Maier, and others, including yourself here, have to say on this, but I'm not even a little convinced. And, I'm really struggling with how you can make what you say in #6 above jive with your interpretation of the star as a natural phenomenon.

    Anyway, that's my $.02. You asked for responses, so there you go. :)

    As I said above, I'm really enjoying your blog and look forward to more thought-provoking posts.

    In Christ,
    Pr. Messer

  3. You heretic, you! Tryin to explain away the Word with your rationalist ways and scientific theories! ;)

    I'm just kidding, of course. Some of the explanation does make sense. But, as you said, it can't be made into dogma. Thus, speculations are quite open on the issue. It'll be interesting to see other responses.

  4. Pr. Messer,

    I appreciate your concerns. I will concede that I think that you have a strong point regarding Gentile identity of the Magi. It might very well be that Matthew intends a fulfillment of Isaiah on this point. Also, I think Matthew probably intends that that this stand as a fulfillment to Balaam's prophecy in Numbers about a star coming out of Jacob- he probably also sees it as a parallel event of Gentiles recognizing the coming of the Messiah. With regard to Isaiah, your point is especially strong because part of Matthew's use of the OT is based on his understanding of Jesus as the true Israel. As I pointed out in the lost chapter of my dissertation, Jesus' ministry in Matthew recapitulates perfectly the history of Israel. Nevertheless, I think that even if they are Gentiles, you have admit that they are followers of Judaism in some sense. I cannot figure out why the birth of the Messiah would be interesting to them otherwise.

    Also, my question to you regarding the Star would be, what does it mean "we have seen his Star in the east." If it wasn't the triple conjunction, what would be particularly Jewish or messianic about the star they saw in the east? Obviously, the triple conjunction isn't being referred in the second part of the story when they go to Bethlehem- since planet don't wander. But of course neither do stars as a rule. The term star therefore I think simply means light in the sky, so, what I think Matthew is conveying is that the same sort of light appeared in the sky and they followed that to the specific house in Bethlehem.

    Anyways, thanks for your post and I look forward to your comments in the future. Thanks for reading!

  5. Jack,

    Yes, I think these Magi were Yahwists, having been brought to faith by the Word shared with them by the Jews living among them. The Holy Spirit led them to understand the prophecy in Numbers and to see its fulfillment in the star that appeared. I can't explain what kind of star it was that appeared to them, but neither do I desire to do so, since I believe it is beyond explanation. I simply believe that the Lord placed this special star in the sky, revealed to the Magi in the East what it meant, and led them to their Messiah. In the Lord's infinite wisdom, beyond our knowing, He leads them by this star to Jerusalem (yeah, the text doesn't say this explicitly, but I think it can be implied) and to Herod. Why not just lead them right to the Christ-Child in Bethlehem? Well, there are prophecies to be fulfilled and their visit with Herod is necessary to set those prophecies on course to their fulfillment. The Lord's ways and thoughts are not ours, so we would be wise not to search too deeply for a reasonable explanation; it is enough that we know that this took place so that prophecy would be fulfilled. After they depart from the darkness of Herod, that special star appears to them again and leads them to the exact location of Christ.

    To posit a natural phenomenon for the first part of the story seems awkwardly forced, since all who do so will have to admit that no natural phenomenon could account for the star leading them to the house. Further, it also seems forced to entertain the idea that there were two different kinds of stars or lights leading these Magi. The simplest explanation is that this star was special (supernatural) and served the specific purpose of leading these Magi to Christ. And, given the fact that our Lord has a history of doing the impossible, it seems a little out of place for us to search for explanations here that will satisfy our human reason.

    Pr. Messer