The Star of Bethlehem

Last week saw two important milestones in space exploration. On New Year’s Day, NASA’s New Horizons probe completed a flyby of Ultima Thule, a Kuiper Belt object more than 4 billion miles from the sun, far past the orbit of Pluto. It is the most distant object ever visited by humankind, and the images and other research gathered by New Horizons will help scientists better understand the formation of our solar system and its planets. The next day, China placed a lander and rover on the far side of the moon, also a first (previous moon landings have all been on the near side, which always faces Earth). Chang’e-4, as the mission is known, promises new research on the moon itself as well as possible advances in radio astronomy. Both of these missions represent the latest and best in humankind’s efforts to understand the universe, allowing our natural curiosity to prompt a journey to learn and understand ever more.

This past Sunday, the church remembered a time in our own story when interested observers looked up, saw something that sparked curiosity and reverence, and set out on a trip prompted by what they saw. Epiphany is the day the church recalls the journey of the Magi who visited Jesus, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. It’s always observed on January 6, twelve days after Christmas, which this year happened to fall on a Sunday. For me and others who have a habit of looking up with wonder and a desire to know more, the day of Epiphany invites some speculation about the star that prompted the visit of the Magi.

What Did the Magi See?

The story of the Magi is found only in Matthew (2:1-12); none of the other Gospels contain the story. Matthew tells us that the Magi saw a star “in the East” or “at its rising” (Greek ἐν τῇ ἀνατολῇ), which they associated with a recently born “king of the Jews” and set out to honor him (Matthew 2:2). Biblical scholars, theologians, astronomers, and other scientists have throughout the centuries have asked about the star the Magi saw. When I was a student at the University of North Carolina, I saw a show at Morehead Planetarium about the star of Bethlehem that described some of the likeliest candidates. These include a comet, a supernova, an alignment of planets, or some other unusual coincidence of planetary motion in conjunction with the moon or a particular constellation.

It’s been suggested that the language Matthew uses to describe the star may offer some clues as to what the Magi may have seen. Vanderbilt astronomer David Weintraub calls attention to the case made by fellow astronomer Michael Molnar, who explores this idea in detail. Assuming that whoever they were, the Magi were well versed in astrology, Weintraub asks whether any astrological language shows up in the text of Matthew. Following Molnar, he finds two possible candidates. The Greek ἐν τῇ ἀνατολῇ, meaning “in the east” or “at its rising,” could mean what is now known as a heliacal rising, the first appearance of a planet just before sunrise when previously it had not been visible because it was too close to the sun. Similarly, Matthew’s description of the star “stopping” could refer to a planet’s stationary position in the sky, either at the beginning or the end of its apparent backward motion. (Planets move around the sun in a continuous orbit, but as the Earth moves past them in its own orbit, they appear to move backward for a period of time due to the Earth’s motion.) Weintraub, following Molnar, argues that these two clues in Matthew suggest a particular conjunction of several astronomical events—the heliacal rising of a planet, its subsequent retrograde motion, and all this lining up within the right constellation—which would have occurred between April and December of the year 6 BC.

I’m sympathetic to the case made by Molnar and Weintraub because it takes seriously the language that Matthew uses to describe the star. I’ll leave it to astronomers to investigate other possibilities.

Matthew’s Interpretation of the Star

As a biblical scholar, I’m much more fascinated by the way Matthew used the star to tell us something about the birth of Jesus. To me, this is at least as important as the sign itself that the Magi saw. It’s not just the celestial phenomenon that matters, but the church’s interpretation within the story and community of God’s people. So whatever the star may have been, it’s important to ask what meaning the author of Matthew saw in it and in the Magi who observed it. In other words, what meaning does Matthew wish for his readers to find in them?

For one thing, many people in the ancient world drew meaning from astrology, and it would have been a common expectation for the birth of an important person to be heralded by the stars. At the very least, Matthew would have wished to relate celestial signs that pointed to the birth of Jesus for this reason. Yet a reading of Matthew 1-2, coupled with a knowledge of first-century Messianic expectations, shows that the star means far more than this. In Matthew, the star of Bethlehem fulfills prophecy, substantiates Jesus as a royal descendant of David, and creates a link between the birth of Jesus and the experience of Israel and Moses during the exodus from Egypt. All of these are consistent with Matthew’s goals and themes throughout the Gospel and especially in the first two chapters.

Matthew’s Gospel highlights many instances of Jesus fulfilling the Hebrew Scriptures. The author often does this with the use of explicit statements and direct quotations, such as Matthew 1:22-23, which quotes Isaiah 7:14:

All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the prophet:
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means “God is with us.”

All four Gospels show Jesus fulfilling prophecy, but Matthew is unique in the frequency and directness with which he does so. Moreover, the author of Matthew clusters these direct quotations toward the beginning of his Gospel; they appear more frequently in chapters 1-4 than through the rest of the book. That’s no accident—these quotations early in the Gospel set the tone for the rest of the work, giving the reader the expectation that much of Jesus’ life and ministry would fulfill in some way the Hebrew Scriptures.

Though the author of Matthew doesn’t use a direct quotation in reference to the star the Magi saw, it’s likely he did regard this as a fulfillment of prophecy. Numbers 24:15-19 contains an oracle from the non-Israelite prophet Balaam, one of four oracles the prophet pronounced over Israel before they entered the Promised Land after forty years in the wilderness. In this fourth and final oracle, Balaam says:

I see him, but not now;
I behold him, but not near—
a star shall come out of Jacob,
and a scepter shall rise out of Israel (Numbers 24:17a).

This brief text was regarded by many first-century Jews as a prophecy of the Messiah. It appears in this context in the War Scroll and other ancient documents, and the leader of the second-century Jewish revolt against Rome was dubbed bar Kokhba (“son of the star”) in reference to this prophecy. It’s difficult to know how widespread this view of Numbers 24:17 was, but given Matthew’s interest in showing how Jesus fulfilled prophecy, it seems very likely that he would have been aware of it and intended his audience to recognize in the star seen by the Magi a fulfillment of the words of Balaam.

It’s been suggested that Balaam’s oracle originally pointed to the reign of King David, in part because of the mention of Moab and Edom later in the oracle (Numbers 24:17b-18), both of which David conquered during his reign. This probably bolstered the identification of Numbers 24:17 as a messianic prophecy, since the Messiah would have been a descendant of David. That was surely also in view for Matthew, who is especially concerned with portraying Jesus as a descendant of David. Matthew begins with a genealogy that traces Jesus’ ancestry back through David all the way to Abraham, describing Jesus as “the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1-16). Matthew claims that there were 14 generations from Abraham to David, another 14 generations from David to the Babylonian exile, and another 14 generations from the Babylonian exile to the birth of the Messiah (Matthew 1:17). This identification of 14 generations points to David, because the numerical value of David’s name in Hebrew is 14. Matthew exhibits a clear concern to portray Jesus as a descendant of David, which the story of the Magi and the star helps accomplish.

Finally, it’s important to note the function that the star plays in the narrative of Matthew chapter 2. The star is what prompts the Magi to journey to see Jesus, which leads to their meeting with Herod, which eventually leads to Herod’s plan to kill Jesus, the murder of the children of Bethlehem, and Joseph’s flight to Egypt with Mary and Jesus (Matthew 2:13-18). These events draw a connection between Jesus and the exodus from Egypt, which Matthew highlights directly by a quotation from the prophet Hosea: “Out of Egypt I have called my son” (Matthew 2:15). Because of the events set in motion by the star, Jesus will spend some time in Egypt, just as the Israelite people did many centuries earlier. Similarly, the birth of Jesus will be accompanied by the cruel murder of young children, as was Moses’ birth, with Herod playing the role of the new Pharaoh (see Exodus 1-2).

The author of Matthew clearly regarded the star observed the Magi as important. Not only does it show the fulfillment in Jesus of a prophecy about the Messiah, its earlier connection to the reign of David would have strengthened the identification of Jesus as David’s descendant. And on top of this, the star functions as a plot device that helps shape the narrative of Jesus’ birth in a way that recalls the birth of Moses and the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt.

What’s striking about Matthew’s use of the star is that he does not regard it just as a sign in the heavens, though that in itself would have been remarkable and worthy of inclusion in a story about Jesus’ birth. To be sure, the star does invite us to consider how the heavens bear witness to the birth of God’s Son, and how this sign was recognized by those who were paying attention to the night sky. But what Matthew teaches us is that the signs of the heavens must be interpreted in light of the story of God’s people as revealed in Scripture, if their true significance is to be grasped. The star was not just a portent in the sky; it was a fulfillment of prophecy, a recollection of the time of David, a key event in a story that becomes a new exodus.

Assuming that there were Magi and that they saw something remarkable, the story in Matthew chapter 2 is an instance of the community of faith in Jesus interpreting their observations and knowledge in light of the larger biblical story. Among other things, this gives us an example of how to engage with the scientific observations and conclusions in our own day. It’s our task not to oppose this knowledge, nor should we welcome it uncritically. It’s our calling to narrate these observations in a framework and story of faith in Jesus Christ, to help ourselves and the world understand how they point to God the Son who has come to be with us. That’s what the early Christian author of Matthew did in composing his Gospel. It’s what the church continues to do today as we remember the story of the Magi each year on Epiphany.

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