The phenomenon of the star of Bethlehem and the mission of the wise men interest millions who would not consider themselves Christians.
Every December you will find them reading magazine articles or listening to current affairs stories purporting to explain the true meaning of the mysterious star. These explanations, however, typically lean heavily on naturalistic interpretations from the field of astronomy, ignoring important details from the narrative provided by Matthew’s Gospel. The net effect is the de-enchantment of the mysterious star. This approach may sit well within the larger cultural zeitgeist of secularism but it does not square with Christian belief.
A solely naturalistic or materialistic interpretation of the star ignores its revelatory nature. This is a serious matter, much more so than the historical inaccuracies commonly depicted in nativity scenes. A careful reading of Matthew 2 with Luke 2, for instance, suggests that the wise men, or magi, were not present at the birth manger. Apparently they arrived many months, if not a year or more, after the birth, and at a house in Bethlehem where Jesus was then staying with Mary and Joseph. Also, there is no biblical reason to limit the magi to three in number, despite their gifts being three. And there is no mention that the magi were kings, as was popularized by the nineteenth century Christmas carol ‘We Three Kings’.
Such historical inaccuracies are small change when compared to accepting purely naturalist or materialist conclusions, which bankrupt the Nativity of its divine otherness. The star of Bethlehem is then robbed of its mystery, the magi are reduced to being clever astrologers, and Christ’s birth loses its revelatory meaning. Here’s how that occurs and why we don’t have Christmas when it does.
The problem with naturalistic explanations of the star
Naturalistic views of the starry visitor at Christ’s birth are many and varied: nova, comet, meteor, supernova, and the sighting of a new star. There is astronomical evidence for some of these, any one of which could have produced a bright phenomenon in the night sky to set the ancient world abuzz. A new nova, for example, was discovered about 125 years before the birth of Christ by the famous Greek astronomer Hipparchus. According to Ptolemy, this nova was visible to the naked eye until decades after Christ’s death. Within naturalism, the shepherds must have mistaken the bright nova for angelic visitation. Daft shepherds. Spending too much time with sheep – stars don’t talk!
Significant non-natural characteristics of the star as it is described in Matthew cannot be explained by the science of astronomy
Another natural phenomenon was the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, the two largest planets of our solar system, around the time most scholars place Christ’s birth (4 BC). There is a consensus among modern astronomers that this planetary conjunction occurred then. It would have been a prominent sight on a clear night in the ancient Middle East. Modern astrologers say that the magi interpreted this planetary conjunction as an astrological sign indicating the birth of such a significant person that it warranted their arduous trip from the East to Jerusalem.
Comets, too, were not unknown in ancient times. The famous Halley’s comet, originally discovered in 240 BC by Chinese astronomers, was also visible in 12-11 BC. Another comet appeared around 4 BC. If the star in Matthew was a comet, as the early church theologian Origen assumed, it would have presented a more dramatic appearance in the night sky than a nova or a planetary conjunction. And its linear movement would more closely approximate the account in Matthew than would the other two phenomenon. Even so, the meaning of star of Bethlehem cannot be reduced to purely naturalistic interpretations; nor can the way the magi followed the star to the Christ child be justified astrologically.
The star has a mind of its own
Significant non-natural characteristics of the star as it is described in Matthew cannot be explained by the science of astronomy. Any scientist worth his or her salt will admit that science cannot explain matters to complete satisfaction. That attitude is not being questioned here. At issue is the naturalism that explains away the divine otherness and meaning of the star of Bethlehem as silly religious nonsense.
Also at issue is the occult method that astrologers claim the magi used as a kind of road map to follow the star from the East to Jerusalem and then on to Bethlehem. Mindful of a potential audience likely to include high numbers of rationalists and spiritual seekers, many Christmastime magazine articles and current affairs segments will include both the naturalism of astronomy and the otherness of astrology in their stories about the star and the magi. Both of these errors can be corrected by a close reading of Matthew 2.
The star of Bethlehem seems to have acted with a kind of life and purpose of its own. According to the text – and as Walter Brueggemann is fond of saying, "Stick with the text" – the star "appeared" at a particular time and it "went ahead of them [the magi]" ... "until it stopped." And it did not stop randomly anywhere; it "stopped over the place where the child was." In other words, the star is governed by a teleology that in some very real sense seems to be personal; it cannot be fully explained by natural laws, whether by those of a nova, a planetary conjunction, or a comet.
If we set aside the bias of 'silly religious nonsense', the text of Matthew 2:1-12 seems to be revealing a presence as supernatural as that of the angels appearance to the shepherds (Luke 2:8-15). The New Testament Greek language of Matthew’s account seems to bear this out. The word translated with our English word ‘appeared’ includes meanings associated with a shining light and is occasionally used to describe the appearance of an angel, such as to Joseph (Matthew 1:20; 2:13, 19). The word is used of Jesus when he ‘appeared’ to his followers after his resurrection (Mark 16:9, 12, 14). It is a term, therefore, that can denote forms of luminous bodies other than literal stars.
The verb phrase "went ahead...until it stopped" is another case in point. The word ‘stopped’ is used numerous times in the New Testament to describe people who have chosen to stand still (Matthew 20:32; 27:11; Mark 10:49). The verb "went ahead" is a peculiar construction in the Greek, used only a half dozen times in the New Testament, usually for "to lead" or "precede". So the crowds are leading Jesus into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:9), and Jesus is leading his disciples to Jerusalem (Mark 10:32). Curiously, the construction is used once about prophecies being fulfilled (1 Timothy 1:18).
Of course the text does not report that the star spoke to the magi (as angels did to the shepherds). Pretty convincingly, however, the text does allow for the idea of personal intention and purpose in the nature of the star of Bethlehem. This cannot be said of inanimate objects obeying strictly natural laws.
The magi, their method, the true meaning
This brings us to the careers of the magi, the way they got their leading, and the revelatory message and meaning of the Nativity.
The word ‘magi’ (singular: ‘magus’) originated centuries before the time of Christ to describe a caste of very learned priests and scholars among the ancient Medes and Persians. Like Her Majesty’s Privy Council today, magi were the go-to advisors for kings of the time, for taking decisions domestic and international. They were educated in the literature and languages of surrounding nations and in the equivalent of a world religions curriculum that included studies in divination, esoteric wisdom, magical practices, dream interpretation, and the zodiac (astronomy and astrology for them a single discipline).
They are first mentioned in scripture in Jeremiah 39:3,13, where one of Nebuchadnezzar’s officers is called "Rabmag" (AV), or "chief of the Magi". Daniel and his three friends received a similar education in Babylon before they could enter their careers as the king’s counselors. The Greek word in Matthew 2:1, often rendered "wise men", is magoi (magi), and "Simon the magician" (Acts 8:5-25) is known traditionally as Simon Magus.
The magi of the Nativity do not resort to astrology or to any other esoteric method to find their way to Bethlehem. Matthew’s Gospel indicates that these magi knew the Hebrew scriptures and took their cues from that. Upon seeing the mysterious star in the East, they referenced it to Balaam’s prophecy in Numbers about the coming Messiah, given hundreds of years before Christ’s birth: “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” (24:17). This verse was usually treated as one of Israel’s messianic prophecies about the divine ruler to come. Taking their cue from scripture, the magi head for Jerusalem, the heart of Israel’s religious life, to seek further instruction.
In Jerusalem, the magi’s determination to learn the whereabouts of this new king of the Jews raises havoc throughout the city and enrages King Herod, who interrogates the rabbis. They crack the books and tell him that any fool knows where this ruler will he born: Bethlehem, and they show him a prophecy in Micah: "And you, O Bethlehem of Ephrath, least among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth to rule Israel for Me – one whose origin is from old, from ancient times" (5:1; The Jewish Study Bible). With murder in his heart, Herod secretly questions the magi and sends them off to Bethlehem, several miles south of Jerusalem. Again, the magi follow scripture not astrology.
But on the outskirts of Bethlehem, the magi face a huge problem. Where to go now? They have the right town but not Jesus’ address. Here, the personal teleology of the star may again be noticed. It "went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was." The magi were thrilled to bits with this heavenly GPS and, “On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him" (Matthew 2:9-11).
Finally it’s time to trek back to their own land. But in Jerusalem, Herod had lied to the magi. He had told them to report back to him from Bethlehem so that he, too, could go and worship the child. But he only wanted the address so that he could have Jesus murdered. Unaware of Herod’s plot, God warns the magi in a dream to return to their country by "another way". Which they do.
This little phrase – "another way" – is for me the key to the revelatory meaning of the Nativity. Any meaning that leaves the seeker of Christ boxed in by naturalism ends up with a God whose greatest claim to glory is being able to time historic events, like the birth of Jesus, to coincide with natural phenomena. This may be Immanuel Velikovsky’s god, who cleverly times the Exodus to occur during an earthquake that parted the Red Sea. It may be Curt Vonnegut’s god, who concocts a small but effective electric power-plant in the Ark of the Covenant to strike down any who touch it. Or it many be the god behind the anti-supernatural articles and current affairs stories about the Nativity. But it is not the God of the Bible, who by the power of the Holy Spirit can and does use all sorts of natural means to reveal Christ the Savior to those who seek him. Just ask Matthew and Luke. Or the magi.
Charles Strohmer blogs at wagingwisdom.com. His most recent book, a memoir, is Odd Man Out: My Story of Misplaced Faith in the American Dream and the Age of Aquarius
Enjoyed that? Get more articles covering news, culture, faith and apologetics in every print issue of Premier Christianity magazine. Subscribe now for HALF PRICE (limited offer)