Yes, it’s been 2,000 years, but that pesky star seems yet to be sparkling in the night sky. Every year during the Christmas season-without fail-it manages to reappear, on cards, billboards and as an absolutely necessary element of the backdrops in the school plays. In addition, there seems always to be a brief article in the newspaper musing over it, which usually says something like the following:
“Scholars debate whether the Star of Bethlehem is a legend manufactured by the early church or a miracle which marked the advent of Christ.”
(This quote was taken directly from a web site eponymously titled, Bethlehem Star.)
But at the risk of putting a damper on the holiday spirit, I feel somewhat compelled to call attention to a little item that-as far as I am aware-no one has ever mentioned. Call it a technicality if you like. What I am referring to is the simple fact that the famous Star of Bethlehem was observed by no one but the wise men!
In spite of the glowing pictures we are all so accustomed to seeing on Christmas cards (depictions based upon the mere assumption that the shepherds witnessed the grand event), there is, in fact, no scriptural evidence to support such portrayals. I repeat: no one saw this famous (and mysterious) star but the Magi.
As evidence for this opinion, I give you the story straight from the horse’s mouth:
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.
Notice first, that the wise men came from the “east.” This, by itself, is not exactly an enlightening piece of information. But if you take note of another little item in this passage you can pick up an interesting tidbit. They declared (and unabashedly so) the purpose of their trip. The Magi plainly said that they had come to “worship” him.
Now ask yourself a simple question. Why would citizens from another country come to Jerusalem to worship the king of the “Jews?”
This has always intrigued me. The more I thought about it, the only thing that made any sense was that the wise men were Jews themselves. Nothing else quite fits. Why would ordinary Babylonian astrologers care so much as an iota about the king of the Jews (let alone make a long journey to worship him)?
The answer, quite simply, is that they wouldn’t!
Now for the really good part. Back to the original story:
Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.
It is all too obvious from this verse that Herod (and everyone else in Jerusalem) had not a clue about what these enigmatic out-of-towners were talking about. They hadn’t seen any star. Herod “enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.”
Obviously then, it couldn’t have been anything as dramatic (not to mention warm and fuzzy) as that which we see on the Christmas cards and in the elementary school (and church) plays that always seem to be obligatory during the Christmas rush hour.
It is very likely that the Magi were Jewish astrologers from Babylonia, left there from the captivity of 586 B.C. At the end of the captivity, some of the Jews remained in Babylonia, but you can be assured that they still practiced Judaism. While in Babylonia, some of the Jewish transplants no doubt picked up the study of astrology, an art not too widely relied upon (nor respected) by the Semitic mindset.
In the book of Daniel (a collection of stories written-ostensibly-during the time of the captivity) the word “astrologer” appears a total of eight times, sometimes directly adjacent to the phrase “wise men.”
Daniel answered the king, “No wise men, enchanters, magicians, or astrologers can show to the king the mystery which the king has asked.”
This verse does not so much offer us a condemnation of astrology as something evil, as it casts doubt on its efficacy, because the astrologers were unable to interpret a dream, a function that does not exactly fall within the purview of their expertise.
The author of the gospel of Matthew seems to take an altogether different view of wise men.
And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.
Whoever wrote the gospel of Matthew seems to have believed that God blessed the wise men by visiting them in a dream. I find this extremely interesting and never hesitate to point it out to anyone who tries to tell me that astrology is of the devil or some other such nonsense. Apparently God (at least the New Testament God) doesn’t frown on it.
The Babylonian Jewish astrologers had probably observed an anticipated conjunction of two planets (which used to be called wandering stars before people actually knew that the planets were planets), which means that the beloved Star of Bethlehem may not have been a “star” at all.
My guess is that the Jewish astrologers, while they were still in Babylonia, had done some astrological calculations for their oppressed homeland, and determined that when such and such a conjunction took place it would herald the birth of their nation’s savior. When the conjunction actually occurred, they rejoiced, and celebrated by making their famous trip to worship their new king.
This whole astrology angle would not have been something that the average Jew still living in Israel would have had the slightest inkling about. The Magi’s information, in other words, was a form of esoteric knowledge to them. It is little wonder then that Herod, and everyone else in Jerusalem, didn’t know what they were talking about.