(This essay by Charles Strohmer was originally published in Religion Unplugged, December 14, 2020)
Stargazing into the western sky this December has captured the interest of millions, as news stories of every kind highlight the appearance of a rare conjunction appearance together of our two largest planets, Jupiter and Saturn. Amateur astronomers are manning their expensive telescopes taking once-in-a-lifetime photos. Astrologers are counseling clients to use to their advantage the energies of what they call “the great conjunction.” Social media outlets have millions imagining that this is the return of the Star of Bethlehem in the story of the Magi. But is it?
Most of the buzz has arisen from the fact that this is an exceptionally rare extra-close conjunction of the two giants, pulsing in the night sky with enough combined light to impress even the most uninterested. That the two planets will be at their closest and brightest on Dec. 21, the winter solstice, has only added to the mystery. The two giants may also be seen nearing their closest proximity night after night in the weeks leading up to it, and then moving away from it for many days afterward. The last time these two planets shone so brightly to the naked eye was 800 years ago, in 1226.
If I were still an astrologer, you can be certain I would be advising my clients to take advantage of the good vibrations. After turning to Christ and becoming a Christian, I lost interest in astrology, but since becoming a minister I still get asked about the nature and meaning of the Star and the Magi who followed it. But even after two millennia of scholarly research, questions remain.
Were the Magi astrologers, astronomers or some combination of the two? What starry indications, if any, motivated them to allocate time, money and effort to travel hundreds of miles from the East by desert caravan to Jerusalem to search for the Christ child? Were they following the stars, as many presume? Or some other natural phenomenon? Perhaps it was a supernatural sign seen only by the Magi? And what is the religious meaning of the Star made famous by the Gospel of Matthew and still the subject of speculation today?
Religious scholars generally agree that the history of the Magi can be traced back to an elite priestly class in the royal courts of the Medes and Persians, centuries before the time of Christ, and that their religion included belief in the advent of a savior. Their counterparts in neighboring Babylonia likely were persons such as the sage Daniel who, although Jewish, rose to become a diplomat and trusted counselor to successive Babylonian kings.
The biblical book Daniel details what their exceptional education entailed. The entrance exam alone would exclude many of us. Prospective students had to be “young men without any physical defect,” as well as “handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king’s palace.” Once admitted, they were taught “the language and the literature of the Babylonians” and received “a daily amount of food and wine from the king’s table.” After three years, “they were to enter the king’s service” (Daniel chapters 1–3). Religious historians also agree that the Magi (wise men) were learned in religion, diplomacy, literature, divination, esoteric wisdom, magical practices and the zodiac.
As for the nature of the Star of Bethlehem, views abound, from the purely natural to the mystical. Astronomers have calculated that Jupiter and Saturn were in conjunction around the time of Christ’s birth, but they also have reasons to understand that the starry visitor may have been a nova, or a comet, or a meteor, or perhaps a supernova. Others think that it may have been a completely new star, a tremendously bright yet inexplicable light in the heavens created as a token of the Savior’s birth, a light that shone on the shepherds, which they took for angels and which the Magi saw as a star. Or perhaps it was not an external light, only a vision given to the shepherds and the Magi. Some think that it was a supernatural phenomenon. None of these views has ever been established to the exclusion of the others.
For the birth narrative in Matthew’s Gospel, as understood in the Christian tradition, a purely naturalistic view fails to account for the religious meaning of the Star of Bethlehem. The narrative does not deny that a natural phenomenon and the laws guiding it may have played a part in announcing Christ’s birth, but only a part. For it records the Star as having “appeared” at a particular time, and that it “went ahead of” the Magi “until it stopped over the place where the child was.” This seems to hint at some kind of personal rather purely natural guidance behind the phenomenon. The likelihood of that is supported by linguistic studies of the original Greek language of the New Testament, where many times the same words translated as “appeared,” “went ahead,” and “stopped” (to describe the movements of Star) also describe deliberately taken actions of people (Matthew 2:1–12).
Another possible clue that something more personal is taking place than anything purely natural may be found after the road weary Magi arrive in Jerusalem with their large desert caravan. Their persistent questions about a king of the Jews cause such a public and religious stir in the ancient city that it arouses the interest of King Herod, who invites prominent rabbis to the palace to get to the bottom of the disturbance. The rabbis point Herod to a prophecy in the Bible: “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” (Micah 5:2).
Herod, now fearful about the birth of a rival king, secretly plots to have the child put to death, and he enlists the Magi as unwitting pawns. Summoning them to a private meeting, he sends them to Bethlehem to search for the child there, but he also directs them to return to Jerusalem to give him the child’s address, saying that he, too, wants to go to worship him. The Magi depart for Bethlehem, just several miles south of Jerusalem. But there’s a problem. They now know what town to go to but they don’t have an address.
It is clear from Matthew’s Gospel that the Christ child was no longer at the place of his birth, the manger, with Mary and Joseph. Months, if not a year or more, have passed since Christ’s birth when the Magi finally arrive where the family are living. And it is the Star that reveals the address. The Star “went ahead of” the Magi “until it stopped over the place where the child was.” This would be pretty unlikely behavior from a mere natural phenomenon. The Magi reach their goal, worship the child, and present him with their precious gifts of gold, incense, and myrrh. Unaware that Herod is using them as pawns on his political chessboard to have the child murdered, the Magi are warned in a dream not return to Herod, and “they returned to their country by another way.”
In the Christian faith, the little phrase “another way” opens up the religious meaning of the Star of Bethlehem via some strange alchemy left to us by the witness of these Magi long dead. How so? It is commonly presumed that the Magi were astrologers who merely followed stars to Christ’s birth. Nothing in Matthew’s Gospel precludes the Magi as being astrologers, but even if they were, the record in Matthew does not show them relying on astrology but on Scripture to interpret the religious meaning of Christ’s birth.
The Magi leave Jerusalem for Bethlehem by following the rabbi’s interpretation of their scriptures, and it is likely that they left their homeland in the East by following the Bible. Magi of the Ancient Near East were, among their many other skills, sages learned in the religious literature of neighboring cultures. In their diplomatic roles as shuttle diplomats, this would have been a necessity. Ancient Israel being part of the neighborhood, the Magi of Matthew’s Gospel must have had among them some collective awareness of a prophecy in the Hebrew Bible, that a “star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel” (Numbers 24:17). This was usually treated as one of Israel’s messianic prophecies about the divine Ruler to come. It may have been enough to motivate the Magi to head for Jerusalem, the heart of Israel’s religious life, to receive further their understanding after the appearance of the unusual and prominent Star.
In the Christian faith, more is going on with the Star of Bethlehem and the Magi than meets the eye. They represent the divine help that even the currently remarkably rare and bright conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn cannot provide to those soul searching for the Savior. Although some may need to suspend disbelief to imagine the possibilities, it is “another way” indeed.
Image via Creative Commons: Texas Monthly (stars); George Thomas (surprised look)..
©2020 by Charles Strohmer