The star of Bethlehem is mentioned only briefly in the Gospel of Matthew, but it has fascinated generations of astronomers, historians, and theologians. Matthew’s account tells how wise men or magi from the East were looking for the newborn King of the Jews and followed a star that led them to Bethlehem. There they found the baby Jesus and presented him with gifts.
The identity of the star of Bethlehem has been debated for centuries. Various explanations have been proposed, including an actual astronomical event like a comet or planetary conjunction, a miracle or angelic light, or a literary invention by the author of Matthew. Each possibility raises historical and theological questions. Understanding the original context and purpose of Matthew’s story is key to discerning what the star may have been.
The Biblical Account
The story of the wise men and star appears only in Matthew 2:1-12. This is the account:
- Wise men from the East come to Jerusalem looking for the newborn King of the Jews, saying they saw his star in the East (Matthew 2:1-2).
- King Herod and the people of Jerusalem are troubled by this news (Matthew 2:3).
- Herod asks the wise men when the star appeared and sends them to Bethlehem, asking them to report back about the child (Matthew 2:4-8).
- The star guides them to a specific house where Jesus is found with Mary. They worship him and give gifts (Matthew 2:9-11).
- The wise men do not return to Herod but leave by another route after being warned in a dream (Matthew 2:12).
A few key details stand out in this account:
- The star is associated with the birth of the King of the Jews.
- The magi interpret the star as signaling his birth.
- The star guides them to the specific location of Jesus in Bethlehem.
- Herod was not aware of the star and had to ask when it appeared.
Matthew does not elaborate on what the star was or how it functioned as a guide. There are no other biblical references to the star outside this passage. The rest of the New Testament is also silent about the magi and provides no details to fill in gaps in the story.
Many scholars have proposed that the star of Bethlehem was an actual astronomical phenomenon that occurred around the time of Jesus’ birth. Astronomical events mentioned as possibilities include:
- Comets – Comets with their long tails would have seemed miraculous and could have signified the birth of a king.
- Nova/Supernova – The explosion of a star could have looked like a heavenly announcement.
- Meteor – A meteor or fireball in the night sky could have appeared to signal something significant.
- Planetary Conjunction – A rare alignment of planets like Jupiter and Saturn could have formed a bright “star.”
Advocates of these astronomical explanations seek to correlate the appearance with the presumed date of Jesus’ birth. However, there are challenges in finding definitive evidence:
- The actual year and date of Jesus’ birth are unknown.
- There are no known surviving records describing astronomical observations around this time period.
- Many miraculous interpretations were attached to astronomical events in the ancient world.
- Planetary conjunctions and other events occurred frequently and cycles were well known.
- Only Matthew connects the star to Jesus’ birth.
Some astronomers have focused on a triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 7-6 BC as a likely candidate. But definitive proof has remained elusive. Ultimately, even if a specific astronomical event could be identified as the star of Bethlehem, questions would still remain whether that is what Matthew intended to convey.
Angelic or Miraculous Light
Another perspective is that the star of Bethlehem was not a natural astronomical event, but rather a miraculous sign specially created by God to announce the birth of the Messiah. In Scripture, the glory of God is sometimes associated with brilliant light and splendor (Ezekiel 1:28; Revelation 21:23). Angels are also described as shining or glowing with bright light (Matthew 28:3; Luke 2:9). Some interpreters suggest possibilities like:
- A unique shining angel sent to guide the magi.
- A manifestation of the Shekinah glory of God.
- A sign similar to the pillar of cloud/fire that guided Israel.
- A vision or dream rather than an actual guide in the sky.
In these views, the star of Bethlehem was a one-time divine sign announcing the advent of Jesus, the Messiah, rather than a recurring astronomical event. Its appearance to the magi, outside of Israel, symbolized the inclusion of the Gentiles. While the star cannot be identified with scientific certainty, God was able to use it to direct people to the newborn King.
Literary Device or Metaphor
Some scholars contend that the star of Bethlehem was not an actual historical event but rather a literary device used by Matthew. Reasons include:
- It is only referenced in Matthew and appears to borrow imagery from Numbers 24:17.
- It has parallels to concepts like the Christchild as the morning star heralding a new dawn.
- Details conflict with other accounts, like Herod being unaware of the star.
- A miraculous star does not align with Luke’s focus on the humility of Christ’s birth.
Rather than an astronomical or angelic light, the star could function as metaphorical imagery conveying spiritual truths about Jesus’ identity and significance. As throughout his gospel, Matthew highlights how Jesus fulfilled Messianic prophecies, even drawing Gentiles like the magi to worship him. So the star illustrates Jesus as the promised King coming to restore Israel and initiate God’s kingdom, extending to all nations.
The Identity and Motives of the Magi
The magi are called “wise men” and referred to as being from the East but few other details are provided about their identity or background. Later traditions developed extensive backstories for them, but these are mostly legends with scant biblical basis. Possible origins proposed include:
- Persian astrologers or astronomers – The magi were known as followers of Zoroaster and studied the stars for signs and omens.
- Arabian astronomers – Frankincense and myrrh were Arabian trade items, suggesting the visitors were from Arabia.
- Jewish diaspora from Babylon – Daniel and others had served there in roles similar to the magi of other cultures.
- Pagan priesthood associated with a temple – The word magi could refer to a pagan priestly caste in some contexts.
The text simply calls them “magi from the east” without elaborating on their number, titles, or point of origin. But their presence in the narrative highlights a few key themes:
- Jesus came as Savior for the Gentiles as well as the Jews.
- God draws people to Jesus across religious and ethnic boundaries.
- God can use signs in the natural world to point people to the Messiah.
- Faith leads us to offer Jesus worship and honor wherever we find him.
The magi likely had limited understanding of Jesus’ true identity and purpose. But God used their incomplete knowledge and mysterious spiritual portents to set them on the journey where they would encounter the incarnate Son of God.
The Gifts of the Magi
The three gifts presented to Jesus by the magi were gold, frankincense and myrrh. These valuable items were standard gifts to honor a king or deity in the ancient world. But early interpreters saw symbolic meaning in the gifts that pointed to Jesus and his ministry:
- Gold – Signified Jesus was a king. The gift honored his royal standing.
- Frankincense – Used in temple worship, the incense smoke symbolized prayer rising to God. Honored Jesus’ divinity.
- Myrrh – A perfume used in embalming the dead. Prophesied his suffering and death.
Each gift resonates with important aspects of Christ’s identity and work: King, God, and Suffering Servant. The magi honored Jesus in a way foreshadowing his life and passion. Their gifts were also partly practical. Mary and Joseph were poor and now had the means to finance their coming journey to Egypt and life abroad.
Beyond their immediate use, the gifts of the magi honored what Christ had come to do. They worshiped the infant Savior with gifts emblematic of his ultimate purpose in bringing salvation to all who would believe in his name.
The Star as a Sign to the Nations
A recurring theme in patristic and medieval interpretation of the star was its symbolism as a sign for the Gentiles. Several key points developed in the writings of church fathers and theologians:
- The magi represent the inclusion of the Gentiles into Christ’s kingdom.
- As astrologers, they represent the nobler truth in pagan philosophies.
- The star leads them to the greater light of Christ through lesser lights and shadows.
- Their astrological and pagan knowledge was imperfect but sufficient for God’s revelation.
Epiphanius linked the star with Balaam’s prophecy:
I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near: a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel (Numbers 24:17 ESV)
The star leads outsiders to the Messiah prophesied to rule the nations. Augustine emphasized that the nation of Israel had the Scriptures pointing to Christ but lacked the faith to follow them. Meanwhile, the magi lacked Scripture but were drawn from afar through the star’s revelation.
In this symbolic framework, the star proclaimed the faith of the lowly Gentiles and their acceptance of what God had done in Christ. It showed that Jesus came for all people across nations and cultures who call upon his name.
The Magi as an Example of Pilgrimage
The journey of the wise men following the star to find Jesus became an inspiration for later pilgrimage practices. Key perspectives that developed include:
- Their journey mirrors the spiritual journey of all who seek Christ.
- We must follow the light God gives with diligence to find Christ.
- God calls people from all walks to life to him through varied means.
- Finding Christ brings joy and moves us to worship with gifts and praise.
- Being with Christ necessitates sacrifice and sometimes redirecting our lives.
The magi endured hardship in undertaking a long and perilous journey motivated solely by their faith in the star’s promise. Augustine saw them as representatives of the nations coming on pilgrimage to Christ, the King of All:
In the magi, coming from the East, the lands from all parts are encouraged to believe in Christ. (Sermon 202.2)
The magi’s faithful response to the star’s call exemplifies how God draws people to Christ through diverse means. We do not control how, when or where God calls us, only how we choose to respond when we see the light of faith dawn in our lives.
Later Traditions and Legends
By the Middle Ages, the wise men took on much more prominent place in retellings of the Nativity. Extrabiblical traditions assigned them names (Balthasar, Melchior, Caspar), homelands, and intricate backstories. Key legends included:
- Their relics and remains were brought from the East to various European cities.
- One was said to be young, one middle-aged, and one elderly.
- They were descendants of Noah’s sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth.
- They died shortly after meeting Jesus.
The medieval drama The Play of the Magi expanded their visit into an elaborate, crowning moment of Christmas. The traditions surrounding the magi became creative embellishments to fill in details the Gospels left unaddressed. But they captured the imagination and set the visit of the magi as a crowning event of the Nativity story in popular tradition.
The star of Bethlehem continues to fascinate because of questions left unresolved in Matthew’s brief account. Unanswered questions include:
- When did the star first appear?
- How did the magi interpret its meaning?
- What was the nature of the star? Natural or miraculous?
- Why did the magi not report back to Herod as instructed?
- When did the magi actually visit Jesus?
Astronomers have proposed many plausible astronomical candidates for the star of Bethlehem. But absolute certainty alludes us. Each perspective on the star offers insights into Matthew’s rich portrayal of Jesus as the promised Messiah.
The episode epitomizes a key Advent and Christmas theme of the world’s deep longing and search for salvation. The star draws seekers from diverse places to find the light of Christ through God’s gracious revelation. It signals the dawning of the age when all nations will stream to the Lord’s house under the banner of Christ’s kingdom.