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ChristmaSpirit

The Magi and the Christmas
Star or Star of Bethlehem

Who are the Magi or wisemen? What was the Christmas Star or Star of Bethlehem? Great scholars have studied the Magi and the phenomenon of the Christmas Star for hundreds of years without coming to a definitive answer. The work of God behind the coming of the Magi, the star, and its representation of Christ's birth seems much greater when its mystery is unraveled.

The Historical Record in the Bible

Preface: When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. (Luke 2:21-39)

Matthew 2:1-23, New International Version.

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him."

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people's chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. "In Bethlehem in Judea," they replied, "for this is what the prophet has written: " 'But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.'" Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him."

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. "Get up," he said, "take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him." So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. 
And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: "Out of Egypt I called my son."

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: "A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more."

After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child's life are dead." So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: "He will be called a Nazarene." 

The Magi

While thinking about the Christmas Star we also must think about the Magi. These guys were absolutely remarkable characters whose role in recent years has been relegated to something smaller than they probably were.

Who were the Magi?

The Greek word "Magoi" in Matthew 2:1-12 is transliterated into English as "Magi" or translated as "wise men". We cannot know for certain exactly who these Magoi were. In recent years people have often simply thought of them as coming from a religious sect that emphasized astrology.

However, let's see what else is known about them. Matthew 2:1 says the Magoi came from the east. Most of the world east of Israel all the way to India was controlled by Parthia from 247 B.C. to A.D. 228. This area would be areas now in present-day Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan. At times they even controlled parts of today's Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, and Israel. The people of India and China had regular trade with the Parthians.

To better understand who the Magoi (Magi) were, let's see what we can learn about them from the Bible. We'll go back to when Nebuchadnezzar of the Babylonians had come to Israel and beseiged Jerusalem. The Old Testament book of Daniel begins with Daniel being taken to Babylon. The Magoi appear prominently in the book of Daniel, where Daniel himself is named as Rab-mag, the chief of the Magoi (Daniel 4:9, 5:11). Daniel 2:48 says that Daniel, as chief of the Magoi, was ruler of the entire province of Babylon. These Magoi obviously were powerful men in the very powerful Babylonian and Persian empires. We can see one instance of a power struggle taking place between some of the Magoi in Daniel chapter 6, where God supernaturally steps in to rescue Daniel from the lions' den. Later this same land area came to be ruled by the Parthians.

The Magoi were still influential in Parthia. The Parthian empire was ruled by kings. But there was also a governing body, the Megistanes, which means "the great ones" or "lords". The Megistanes consisted of the Sophoi and the Magoi (or Sophi and Magi). It is very interesting to note that the Magoi were responsible for choosing the kings of the great Parthian empire. They had an unusual amount of power and control for an eastern monarchy in which they were not the absolute kings. In fact, there is a sense they were like kings or lords in terms of power. Little wonder that some of the words or songs written about them over the centuries has referred to them as "kings". Their power was in fact only exceeded by the absolute kings themselves.

Hey wait a minute now! The Magoi are not sounding like three guys on camels that ride quietly into Bethlehem like the story is told in American churches. Notice in the passage in Matthew that there is no mention of the number of Magoi that come to worship Jesus. There are only three kinds of gifts mentioned.

What is known of the Magoi makes them seem like they would have come thundering into the area of Jerusalem on Arabian stallions accompanied by some tough-looking dudes carrying serious weaponry. Their cavalry was known for defeating the Roman army. There could have been scores or hundreds of people accompanying them. Many people have said that the Magi came with a small army. Some think that the normal garrison of Roman soldiers that usually occupied Israel was off fighting the Homonadensian War, leaving them unprotected.

Also, do not overlook the fact that the Magoi had the authority to choose someone as king over the Parthian empire, which was every bit an equal to the Roman empire. It's little wonder that when the Magoi showed up asking about a king, Matthew 2:3 says "When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him." Three ordinary astrologists strolling into Jerusalem on camels would not even disturb King Herod's lowest bodyguard, much less the whole city of Jerusalem. But the arrival of these guys freaked everybody out in Jerusalem!

How could Magi know of the coming of the Messiah?

Let's think back several hundred years before the time when the Christmas Star appeared. Daniel's role in the Magoi was discussed above. Furthermore, he was a great prophet. The Lord revealed to him many things about the future. One of these things included prophecy about the coming Messiah (or "Anointed One") as recorded in Daniel chapter 9. We could speculate that Daniel may have also written down other prophecies which were not put in the Bible, but left for them as a special revelation. And he may have explained to them the true meaning of "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." (Numbers 24:17) Daniel was put in charge of the Magoi several hundred years before the birth of Jesus for reasons only known to God. But it certainly seems like special revelation for the Magoi could have been one of the reasons.

Or it could be that everything we said about Daniel's prophecies and the prophecy in Numbers was irrelevant. While we have downplayed the Magoi as astrologers, it is probably true that they came from a tradition of examining the skies to find reason, meaning and purpose in life. Obviously, there was some sort of light in the sky for the Magi to see. Maybe God simply decided to give the Christmas Star as something which would have been interpreted by them as an astrological sign of the coming of a great king, one worthy of their paying honor to, considering their role as the men who acknowledged who was the rightful king.

When did the Magi (or kings or wise men) see Jesus?

We saw in Matthew 2:13-14 that Joseph and family left for Egypt in the middle of the night, probably within hours of the Magoi's leaving. And they stayed in Egypt for at least several months, probably years. But Joseph, Mary and Jesus were in Jerusalem 41 days after the birth of Jesus for His presentation and Mary's purification, as described in Luke 2:21-39. (See discussion on the Birth of Jesus page.) So the Holy Family could not have left for Egypt within the first few days after the birth of Jesus. What that tells us that the Magi were not present the night of the birth of Jesus. Nor did they see him in the first six weeks. (Our apologies to all those who sell nativity scenes with wisemen.)

How long after the birth of Jesus did the Magi see Jesus? One would think that it would take at least a few months to figure out what the star signified, decide to make the trip, organize the trip, and travel the long distance. We saw in Matthew 2:16 that Herod was thinking that the child might be as much as 2 years old when the Magi left, based on his order to kill all the boys up to 2 years old. So it's no stretch to think that Jesus might have been a year old or more by the time the Magi came to worship Him. If the star first appeared the night of the birth of Jesus, then it would be very reasonable to assume that it was a year or more after His birth that the Magi arrived. However, if the star appeared sometime before the birth of Jesus, like maybe when He was conceived, then the Magi might have seen Jesus just a couple of months after His birth.

Where did the Magi see Jesus?

Many have referred to the Christmas Star as the Star of Bethlehem, but whether or not it had anything to do with Bethlehem is another question, as we will now see. We just saw that the Magi were not at the place of the birth of Jesus anytime within the first few days. At first glance the Biblical narrative seems to indicate that they found the child in Bethlehem. But when we start to think things through more, maybe it wasn't in Bethlehem. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him." After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him.

Notice that the passage says that Herod told them to go to Bethlehem. It does not say that they went there. Also notice that it seems that the star may not have been guiding them for a while, since they stopped in Jerusalem to ask. Then after they left Herod "the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was." So the star seemed to make a reappearance. Since they now had the star to lead them, "they were overjoyed." And they would not really care what Herod had said.

In fact, if they received the dream about Herod before visiting him, they may have doubted anything that came through him. Bethlehem is not far enough from Jerusalem to require stopping to sleep, and have a dream during that sleep. By horse or camel it would take just a few hours at most. So the dream could easily have been before meeting Herod. We could however, possibly theorize that Herod met with them late at night, and then they determined to find the child the next day. That would give them a night to stay in Jerusalem and have the dream before visiting Jesus in Bethlehem.

Or maybe the journey to the place where the star guided them after leaving Herod was not in Bethlehem, but instead was to a place more than a day's ride. Then they might have bedded down for the night and had a dream after encountering Herod, while on the way to see the child.

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. It is clear that at that point they followed the Christmas Star, the special light that God placed in the sky, and were not dependent on any instructions that came from Herod.

But after Joseph, Mary and Jesus were in Jerusalem 41 days after the birth of Jesus for His presentation and Mary's purification, as described in Luke 2:21-39, they had gone back to Nazareth. (See discussion on the Birth of Jesus page.) It does not say they returned to Bethlehem. They had only gone to Bethlehem because of the census. When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. (Luke 2:39) If they had returned to Bethlehem, you would think that Luke would tell us that they went back to Bethlehem, instead of saying they went to Nazareth!

So we deduce that Joseph had taken his family back to Nazareth and Jesus was probably in Nazareth, rather than Bethlehem, when the Magi were led to him by the Christmas Star. Remember the Holy Family went to Egypt for a long time immediately after the Magi left. However, if you really really hate the idea of the Magi not having been at Bethlehem, then you could go back to Luke 2:39 and put a time space of a few years in between the phrase " When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord," and the phrase "they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth." If you can make the text mean that, then you can get to have the Magi visit the Baby Jesus in Bethlehem, assuming that you have the Holy Family go back to Bethlehem after finishing their time at the temple in Jerusalem. But sorry, you still don't get to have them in the nativity scene. We still can't make that work, since we've got to have the Holy Family in Jerusalem instead of Egypt six weeks after the birth of Jesus.

The Christmas Star

The Greek word "aster" translated as "star" in Matthew 2 implies some kind of celestial object or light in the sky, though not necessarily a star. Today it is called "the Christmas Star", or "the Star of Bethlehem". However, we saw above that "the Star of Bethlehem" might be a misnomer, since it could well have been "the Star of Nazareth." Maybe the "Star of the Magi" would be a better name.

Where was the Christmas Star?

They had seen it in the east. That phrase does not mean that they were positionally in the East and saw the star over the place where they would find Jesus all the way from their faraway land in the East. It is true that they were east of Israel. But the phrase used in Matthew was "En te anatole". The singular Greek "anatole" has the astronomical significance of a star shining in the rays of the rising sun. By contrast "anatolai" means "east". So they had first seen the Christmas Star east of them shining brightly through the early morning light of daybreak. (No, we are not Greek experts. We got that info from others.)

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. While the star may have been seen in the dawn's early light at first, now it seems to be leading them right from Jerusalem to the place where they are going. In other words, it seems near them and moving from Jerusalem to their destination. Finally, it "stopped over the place where the child was."

How did the Christmas Star lead the Magi to Jesus?

The phrase went ahead of them tells us that at a certain point at least it had the appearance of moving and leading the Magoi right where they should go. Had the Christmas Star had the appearance of leading them for the whole journey and then suddenly disappeared, causing them to ask Herod where to go? Or had it seemed to them as a sign which made them realize that they should go to the land of Israel to find the king?

Let's take a look at what they first said to Herod. Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him. They did not say, "We have been following this star which was leading us here and now it's disappeared." Nor did they say, "We have been following this star here and we still see it in the sky leading us generally to this area, but we don't know exactly where it is leading us." No, they said that they had seen the star En te anatole, in the rays of the rising sun, which would have been the opposite direction. Israel was west of the Magoi's homeland. At first it seems that the star was a sign that the Magi saw and understood as meaning that the Anointed One of Israel was to be born.

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. Later there definitely seems to be a change in the behavior of the "star" after they left Herod. Now it is more than a sign. It is leading them precisely.

Could the Christmas Star have been the light of a conjunction of planets?

Others who have thought much about the Christmas Star have concluded that planets could appear in the east, then seem to move in a leading way, and then stop.

One writer regarding the Christmas star said, "On June 17th, 2 BC Jupiter and Venus 'collided' - - they stood 1/50th of a degree apart. The two brightest planets in the sky appeared to fuse into one immense blaze of light - - an unprecedented happening. On 27th August 2 BC a grand conjunction of planets occurred. Jupiter and Mars were 1/7th degree apart with Mercury and Venus together just I degree away -- in the rays of the sunrise in Virgo. Jupiter then moved westwards. By mid-November it had passed the zenith and was shining in the western sky-and still moving west. At this point the Wise Men set out. Six weeks later, from Jerusalem, the Wise Men saw Jupiter due south on the meridian above Bethlehem. At that time Jupiter had reached its furthest point west, came to a halt and stood still against the background stars in the sky 65 degrees above Bethlehem." The writers of the Star of Bethlehem site have done a ton of research along these lines.

One problem with this approach is that all the writers that we have seen writing about this assume that Jesus was in Bethlehem. Yet our observations of the biblical text seem to indicate that Jesus would have been in Nazareth then.

Another problem with the idea that the Christmas Star was a conjunction planets is the preciseness with which it led them at the end of their journey. Joseph and Mary would not have been publicizing that their son was the promised Anointed One. So it's not likely that the Magi could follow the star to a general area and then ask around "Where's the king?" like they had with Herod. The text clearly indicates that the light led them right to Jesus. A celestial body probably could not do that.

What was the Christmas Star?

The following sentence helps us a lot. The star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. Well, that certainly makes this light seem to be very unique. The phrase until it stopped over the place where the child was tells us that not only could it move, but it could also stop or appear to stop in a way and a situation that would make the Magoi know where Jesus was.

Whoa! It now appears to be right over the place where Jesus was. They did not have to wander around town asking. You get the idea that it really is almost like a beam of light shining down like a spotlight on Joseph's house, or at some point draws so near to the earth that it appears to hover over that exact house. The closer they get to Jesus, the less this thing seems like a celestial body.

At first it was like a star in the eastern sky. Then it takes on the character of a moving, leading light. Then it takes on the character of either a spotlight shining down on Jesus or something like a hovering light over Jesus. And apparently, no one else can see it. Or if they can see it, they do not understand what they are seeing. There had been no discussion with Herod, regarding the star. In other words, Herod and his star-gazers did not say "Oh, yeah, we saw that too." As said before, a good name for this light would be "the Star of the Magi", instead of the Star of Bethlehem.

It is not necessary to try to make the Christmas star be a celestial body of natural origin. It is entirely possible that it was supernatural from start to finish. Or it could have been that the first sighting was natural, (like the aligning of planets,) and later the light was supernatural, something like what appeared to the shepherds on the night of the birth of Jesus. Luke 2:9 says when the angels appeared to the shepherds the glory of the Lord shone around them. The "glory of the Lord" appears many times in the Old Testament as a moving, lighted cloud that manifests the Presence of God. We know with absolute certainty that the Lord was displaying His Presence this way around the time of the birth of Jesus.

However, the text does not say that the "glory of the Lord" appeared and led them. Usually the Bible tells specifically when the Lord appears in a cloud. So it's hard to label this light as the shekinah glory of the Lord, based on the text alone. Nevertheless, this would not prevent God from causing a unique light to be displayed, in order to direct the Magoi to Jesus.

Our belief is that the behavior of the light is hard to match up with any natural phenomenon. We deduce that this light was not a planet or planets, nor any other celestial body, but a special light given as a sign to the Magoi. Since the Magoi would certainly, at the very least, talk about it to a lot of people upon their return to their powerful positions in Parthia, we can also see how the Lord used this as revelation to Asia. In addition their gifts could easily have funded the safe passage of Joseph's family to Egypt and back again in a few years.


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