The Star of Bethlehem and the Message of the Magi

star in blue skyAs the Nativity story gets retold year after year and acted out in manger scenes across the world, the Star of Bethlehem and the Magi who saw it have fascinated adults and children alike for 2,000 years.

Astronomers since the time of Copernicus have offered different theories about the Star. It was, they say, a nova, a comet, a meteor, or a supernova. It was a completely new star or a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation Pisces. The new book Colin Nicholl, The Great Christ Comet, argues that the Star was a great comet.

The physical sciences, however, including astronomy, are notoriously incapable of explaining things that are not seen. And when it comes to the Star of Bethlehem, there is more going on than meets even the eye of the telescope. The Magi knew this.

Take a careful look at the Nativity story, in chapter two of Matthew’s Gospel. Apparently, the Star had a mind of its own. It “appeared” and “went ahead of” the Magi “until it stopped.” And it did not stop randomly anywhere; it “stopped over the place where the child was.” These facts suggest that, whatever it was, it was something other than a phenomenon governed exclusively by physical laws. To the Magi, the Star of Bethlehem must have seemed as supernatural an event as the angelic visitation announcing Jesus’ birth was to the country shepherds.

This clears up another common misunderstanding. Many people, especially astrologers, believe that the Magi were following the stars. But the Magi were not following the stars. They were following the Bible. To know where to go first, Jerusalem, the Magi relied on a prophecy found in the book of Numbers. Given hundreds of years before Christ’s birth, it predicts the advent of “a star,” which in ancient Israel was interpreted as a messianic prophecy about the divine Ruler to come.

After arriving in Jerusalem, the heart of ancient Israel’s religious life, the Magi again follow the Bible. The rabbis read from the prophet Micah to show the Magi that this Ruler Messiah will be born in Bethlehem. Taking their cues again from Scripture, not from astrology, the Magi head south to Bethlehem.

After their long, arduous journey from the East, these guys must have breathed a sigh of relief to find out that they had only six more miles to go! But on the road south, they suddenly face a problem. They have the name of the city but not the address. It’s unlikely that Mary and Joseph would still have been camped out at the manger when the Magi finally arrived, months after Jesus’ birth.

But God knows Jesus’ address. Star of wonder. It “went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.” The Magi are overjoyed. They worship the Savior, leave their expensive gifts with the family, and, being warned by God in a dream, they do not travel home by the way they came, through Jerusalem. They return by “another way.” Their lives had been changed.

Thirty years later, Jesus is walking the roads of Judea and Galilee, healing the sick and preaching the gospel, and still most people don’t know what the Magi knew about the Jesus’ identity. If asked, most give wrong answers. So one day Jesus asks his closest followers, Guys, who do you say that I am? When Peter replies that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the Living God,” Jesus explains that “flesh and blood” has not revealed that to him, “but my Father in heaven” has revealed it. And “blessed are you” because of that, Peter.

Jesus the Messiah, the Savior, has been born. That was the message of Magi to the world 2,000 years ago. It is the message of the Star of Bethlehem to us today. Flesh and blood cannot reveal it, neither can astronomy or astrology. It takes divine revelation. And once it’s yours, dear reader, blessed are you. It will change the course of your life. You will go home by another way.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

(Charles Strohmer is the author of several books, including of America’s Fascination with Astrology: Is It Healthy? This article first appeared in The Mountain Press, December 20, 2015.)

See also The Snow Forgives Us: A True Story.

Image by Riccardo Francesconi, permission via Creative Commons.

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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)