Beyond the Mysterious Star of Bethlehem

star in blue skyI forsook casting horoscopes many decades ago when I became a Christian. Never once have I regretted that change of life, which began the day that I was transformed from being a worshiper of the stars to a worshiper of the God who made the stars. As a Christian, however, I took a serious interest in one star, the star of Bethlehem. Astrologers have all sorts of esoteric views about that star. So as a Christian who accepts the authority of the Bible, I made it a point to try to understand from Matthew’s Gospel just what was going on with this star.

Many people, including many Christians, typically seek to understand the star from strictly naturalist theories, which we considered in the previous post. But naturalism, we saw, is not enough. Theories to explain the star of Bethlehem that depend solely on novas, comets, conjunctions of planets, or on any other natural phenomenon, do not and cannot account for the faith to worship Christ the King that explains the experience of the magi.

But something else often niggled me and I could not put my finger on it. Then it occurred to me. From a close reading of Matthew chapter two, it became clear that naturalism cannot explain the ontology of the star itself, which seems almost personal. It seems to have a mind of its own. In other words, any strictly naturalistic explanation is inadequate because it cannot account for certain “unnatural” characteristics of the star.

In Matthew 2:7-9, for example, the star “appeared” at a particular time to the magi while they were in their homeland (probably Persia). Later, while the magi were on the road from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, the star “went ahead” of them “until it stopped.” And it did not stop randomly anywhere, like a car running out of fuel. It “stood over “ (AV) “the place where the child was.” Within the story of the miraculous birth of Jesus, it seems reasonable to conclude that this kind of behavior cannot be attributed to a strictly natural phenomenon. Here is a kind of personal agency, one that sets the star off as something quite “other” than any heavenly phenomenon governed exclusively by natural laws. As described in Matthew, the star seems as supernatural as the angels who appeared to the shepherds at Christ’s birth (Luke 2:8-15).

Personal agency of the star can also be deduced from the original language quoted in the above paragraph. The New Testament Greek word for “appeared” includes meanings associated with a shining light and, occasionally, for the appearance of an angel, such as to Joseph (Matthew 1:20; 2:13, 19). It is a term, therefore, that can be used of forms of luminous bodies other than literal stars. The word is also used of Jesus when he “appeared,” seemingly from nowhere, to his closest followers after his resurrection (Mark 16:9, 12, 14).

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” in a deliberate way. For example, a crowd is leading Jesus into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:9) or Jesus is leading his disciples to Jerusalem (Mark 10:32). And the word “stopped” is used numerous times in the New Testament to describe people who have made a conscious decision to stop whatever they were doing to stand still (Matthew 20:32; 27:11; Mark 10:49). All of this is to say that the idea of personal intention and purpose is implied in the nature of the star.

Just as faith is part of the magi’s experience, so is the personal ontology of the star of Bethlehem. Both are necessary aspects. Both are keys to making sense of the story, from first to last.

The star appears in the East and gets the magi going to Jerusalem. It is probable that these wise men knew, or had access to, the Hebrew scriptures, and upon seeing the unusual star they referenced it to Balaam’s prophecy about the Messiah, recorded in the book of Numbers, 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). Traditionally, this was treated as one of Israel’s messianic prophecies about the divine Ruler to come. (See also Jeremiah 23:5-6.)

Arriving at Jerusalem – the heart of Israel’s religious life – the magi receive further biblical instruction, as their announcement about a new king of the Jews having been born raises havoc throughout the ancient city. Eventually, in King Herod’s presence, the rabbis tell the magi that anyone knows where this king is to be born. Why, what’s the big deal, they ask? Well, we saw his star in the East, they reply, and we’ve come to worship him. But we don’t know where to find him.

Mdina streetSo the rabbis crack the books and point out a prophecy in Micah: “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from old, from ancient times” (5:2). From the Bible they now have the name of the town, which is just several miles south of Jerusalem.

But there’s a huge problem. They don’t have the address. A close reading of the story seems to indicate that Jesus may not have been at the birth-manger by the time of the magi’s arrival. It could have been days or weeks, if not months, or even a year or two, later. There is not scholarly consensus on this. So who knows where Jesus is? The star knows. From a close reading it also seems likely that the star had disappeared for a while and now appeared again to lead the magi to the very place where Jesus was. And there they worshiped him.

Another often overlooked important point is that to get to Jesus the magi are following Scripture, not the stars. They followed Balaam’s prophecy to Jerusalem. They followed Micah’s prophecy to Bethlehem. And then after they find Jesus they take instruction directly from God. Which brings us to a final thought.

Having been warned by God in a dream that they should not go back to Jerusalem to see Herod, they return to their country “another way.” This little phrase – ”another way”– is for me a third key on the ring, with faith and the star’s personal ontology, to the mystery of the message. The message of the magi and the star of Bethlehem is that of “another way” (AV), the way of Christ. To enter that way, faith and divine revelation are required. The wise are no exception.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Images by Riccardo Francesconi & M. Peinado respectively (Permission via Creative Commons)