Re-enchanting the Star of Bethlehem

It’s no surprise to Christians that the star of Bethlehem and the wise men who followed it occupy a prominent place in the Nativity. My childhood memory is typical of many. Our family Christmas tree was topped off every year by a large star. Below it on the carpeted floor near the tree was our nativity scene, peopled by Joseph, Mary, baby Jesus in the manger, shepherds holding their staffs, and several winged angels and tiny white sheep. And of course three colorfully dressed wise men stood at a respectful distance gazing toward the newborn child.

But this might surprise. Around Christmastime every year, the phenomenon of the star of Bethlehem and the mission of the wise men interest millions who would not consider themselves Christian. 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, particularly 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 (gold, frankincense, myrrh). And there is no mention that the magi were kings, as was popularized by the nineteenth century Christmas carol “We Three Kings.”

Such historical conjectures 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
Solely naturalistic or materialistic views of the starry visitor that led the magi are many and varied: nova, comet, meteor, supernova, or the sighting of a new star. There is astronomical evidence for some of these stellar occurrences, 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 Greek astronomer Hipparchus. According to Ptolemy, this nova was visible to the naked eye until decades after Christ’s death. Within naturalism, the shepherds (see Luke’s account, chapter 2:8-15) must have mistaken the bright nova for the angelic visitation that appeared, saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” Daft, lonely shepherds. Spending so much time with sheep – stars don’t talk!

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 astronomers since Kepler that this planetary conjunction occurred around 7–4 BC. It would have been a prominent sight on a clear night in the ancient Middle East. Modern astrologers typically assume 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, its dramatic appearance in the night sky would have quite the attention-getter. And its linear movement across the heavens would more closely approximate the account of the star in Matthew than would the movement of a planetary conjunction. Even so, the meaning of star of Bethlehem cannot be reduced to any 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. Fair enough. Any scientist worth his or her salt will admit that science cannot explain any phenomenon 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 or superstitious belief.

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. As someone who once practiced astrology, I have some sympathy for what astrologers are trying to achieve by this. Like many sensitive people they refuse to allow themselves to be suffocated within the metaphysical box of naturalism, philosophical materialism, or scientific rationalism. Their way out, when it comes to the star of Bethlehem, is to accept astronomical evidence for the conjunction but then to claim the magi among their number by introducing a tincture of occult otherness to the nativity narrative.

Mindful of potential audiences likely to include high numbers of rationalists and spiritual seekers, many Christmastime magazine articles and current affairs segments on radio or television will combine elements astronomy and astrology in their stories about the star and the magi. A close reading of Matthew chapter two, however, tells a different story. Here are the essentials.

The phenomenon that is called the star of Bethlehem seems to have acted with a kind of life and intention 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 not governed only by the laws of nature any more than a human being is. This “star” apparently has some sort of personal intention in its nature. As such, its meaning cannot be reduced to the laws of nature, 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 some sort of presence to the magi that is as supernatural as that of the angels appearance to the shepherds (see Luke’s account). The New Testament Greek language of Matthew’s account lends itself to this view. 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 also 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 heavenly astral phenomena, including 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).

The text does not report that the star spoke to the magi (as the shepherds heard the angels). Pretty convincingly, however, the text does allow for the idea of personal intention and purpose in the nature of the phenomenon called the star of Bethlehem. This cannot be said of inanimate objects (comets, planets) obeying natural laws only.

The magi, their method, the true meaning
This brings us to the magi, to their careers and to the actual way they got their leading to Bethlehem and the child, and to 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).

In the Bible they are first mentioned in Jeremiah 39:3, 13, where one of Nebuchadnezzar’s officers is called “Rabmag” (AV), or “chief of the Magi.” In the Book of Daniel, the Jewish young men Daniel and his three friends were put through an education in Babylon similar to that of the magi before they could enter their careers as the king’s counselors (Daniel, chapter one) . 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, however, do not resort to astrology or to any other esoteric art or method to make the long trip to Bethlehem. Matthew’s Gospel indicates that these magi knew the Hebrew/Jewish scriptures and took their cues for the journey from that source. So, upon seeing the mysterious star in the East, they referenced it to Balaam’s prophecy in the Book of Numbers about the coming Messiah, which was prophesied 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 city’s rabbis. They crack the books and tell Herod 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 are following Scripture not astrology.

But on the outskirts of Bethlehem the magi get stuck. “Where do we go now?” I can hear them saying. “We’ve got the right town but now we need Jesus’ address.” Here, the otherness of the star may again be noticed. It “went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.” Thrilled to bits with this personal guidance from the “star”, the magi, “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 for the arduous trek back to their own land. But earlier 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 wanted to know the address so that he could have Jesus murdered. The magi, unaware of Herod’s plot, are warned by God in a dream to return to their country by “another way.” Which they do.

This little phrase – “another way” – is for me a key to the revelatory nature and meaning of the Nativity. It speaks a phenomenon (the “star”) that cuts across the grain whatever esoteric knowledge and learning the magi may typically have relied on, whether for their personal guidance or their counsel to kings. In this sense, the Matthew narrative of the star carries a message for us that is, in fact, like that of the Genesis 1 narrative, where we learn of God’s creation of all things. In that narrative, God’s creation of the stars is mentioned but, as important as stars are, the text merely states that God “also made the stars.”

In the context of reading the entire detailed account of creation, this brief mention of stars appears almost as an afterthought. There is no mention that stars, or any other part of God’s creation, is to be used as a system of esoteric knowledge and learning. Yet that is precisely how neighboring cultures (of the ancient Hebrews) such as Babylon and Egypt used the stars (the sun and moon, too). And there is a consensus among Bible scholars that the afterthought mention of stars in Genesis 1 is an implicit warning to those ancient cultures, and to any today, not to employ the stars as a means of esoteric or occult knowledge, but to instead rely on God for guidance. Which brings us full circle back to the star of Bethlehem and the message of the magi.

To conclude, conjectures may be made, and many people have made them, about the nature of the astēr (the Greek word translated “star” in Matthew 2), but it is not possible to make a solid conclusion about its nature. If you were standing in my backyard on a clear night, I could point out to you any number of planets or stars by name. “There’s Venus, there’s Mars, there’s Vega, there’s Sirius.” No such solid conclusion can be made about the astēr of Bethlehem.

I don’t doubt that there may have been a conjunction, or a comet, or even a supernova during the period of Jesus’ birth. I just don’t think that the astēr of Bethlehem refers to any of them. Instead, it seems meant to indicate a miraculous star. And the appearance of that, my friends, would certainly have gotten the profound attention of the magi, who were well-skilled in knowing what the appearance of the night sky should look like to them. This astēr was something other than that. And they knew it. This is why I say that it cut across the grain of their esotericism.

Any meaning of the Nativity that leaves the seeker of Christ boxed in by naturalism, philosophical materialism, or scientific rationalism 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 presumes that there was a small but effective electric power-plant in the Ark of the Covenant to strike down any who touched it. Or it many be the god behind the anti-supernatural current affairs stories and magazine articles about the Nativity. But it is not the God of Creation, who by his mighty power can and does use all sorts of natural and supernatural means to reveal Christ the Savior to those who seek him. Just ask Matthew and Luke. Or the magi.

©2018 by Charles Strohmer

(A shorter version of this article appeared at Premier Christianity, 14 December 2018.)

Images: courtesy of Texas Monthly, National Geographic, Dave Morrow photography respectively

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