Star of Bethlehem: Magi, Astrology, and Epiphany

We three kings of Orient are,

Bearing gifts we traverse afar

Field and fountain, moor and mountain,

Following yonder star.

Oh, star of wonder, star of night,

Star with royal beauty bright.

Westward leading, still proceeding,

Guide us to thy perfect light.

Many Christians around the world will be celebrating Epiphany this Sunday, which marks the end of the Christmas season and commemorates the visit of the Magi to baby Jesus.

The star of Bethlehem is one of the most recognizable elements of the Christmas story, and yet its true nature and meaning are shrouded in mystery. In The Star of Bethlehem, Michael Pettem combines a modern scientific understanding of stellar phenomena with a fascinating account of ancient astronomy and history to illuminate this key biblical event.

In this excerpt, Pettem examines the ancient meaning of the star that the Magi would have understood, giving us a deeper understanding of this famous symbol.


Matthew’s audience lends its ears to the voice of the gospel reader and hears that Magi, or astrologers, have arrived from the East in the city of Jerusalem, the center of the world for the Jewish people. The eager audience immediately learns the reason for their visit as the story quotes the Magi, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We observed the rising of his star, and we have come to pay him homage” (Matthew 2:2).

The message heard and the meaning taken from the Magi’s star is that Jesus is born King of the Jews. This points out a great difference between Jesus and Herod, who was not born king of the Jews, but acquired the kingship by his cunning and by the grace of Rome.

Jesus is King by birth.

Because of his innate kingly stature, a celestial sign marks his birth as that of the King of the Jews. The Magi perceive this, as we have stressed, by astrology. Since the star has announced him as King of the Jews, the Magi proceed to the Jewish capital: to Jerusalem for the King of the Jews.

The Magi’s message from the star does not end with the statement that they were seeking the newborn king of the Jews. They also say that they “have come to pay him homage” (Matt 2:2). The Greek word translated here as “pay him homage” was used of petitioners and worshipers falling down and kissing the feet or robe of an oriental king or god. Do the Magi mean that they have come to worship him not just as the human king of the Jews, but as a deified king? Have they in fact come to worship a god?

Our imagined hosts, Matthew’s first audience, thus hear the Magi call Jesus “king of the Jews.” Since a star is a highly placed being, and the Magi legitimate interpreters of stellar revelations, they will be inclined to accept this word. They also hear that the Magi worship him and present to him rich gifts.

Since they know the pagan culture around them, of which the Magi are a part, Matthew’s first audience might conclude that the Magi consider Jesus to be a divine king. Later in the reading of the gospel they hear from pagan soldiers that Jesus was surely a son of god. So, if they had not drawn this conclusion when they first heard the story of the star, they may on reflection see that the Magi’s pagan perspective probably assumes that Jesus is a god king.

Thus the first hearers of Matthew’s gospel probably eventually conclude that the Magi, from their pagan point of view, announce Jesus to be the divine King of the Jews.

* * *

This excerpt is adapted from The Star of Bethlehem, on sale now.

Written by
Jake Mailhot
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  • This is what the faithful knew at the coming of Christ:
    “When you come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations. 10 There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer 11 or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, 12 for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD. And because of these abominations the LORD your God is driving them out before you. 13 You shall be blameless before the LORD your God, 14 for these nations, which you are about to dispossess, listen to fortune-tellers and to diviners. But as for you, the LORD your God has not allowed you to do this.

    The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Dt 18:9–14). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles. Typical.

    “Do not turn to mediums or necromancers; do not seek them out, and so make yourselves unclean by them: I am the LORD your God. (Le 19:31).

    Daniel answered the king and said, “No wise men, enchanters, magicians, or astrologers can show to the king the mystery that the king has asked, 28 but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries…”
    (Da 2:27–28).

    • If I’m not mistaken, the goal of the author is to explain why the Magi traveled from so far to honor the one they called “the King of Jew”, and not to encourage anyone to practice astrology.

      • Marie,
        First, if the magi truly used astrology to determine the birth of a Jewish king, how would that fail to encourage the practice of astrology?

        Second, the issue is where revelation of future events comes from or current events, beyond normal perception, are revealed. If astrology were practiced by Hebrews and this was not just specific revelation to the magi, why was Herod in the dark about the birthplace of Jesus? And if astrology were a legitimate science or even art, in which the Creator of the Universe supernaturally reveals events not reveled in His Word, why did God make it a point to condemn this sort of thing and blind Nebuchadnezzar’s astrologers and exclusively reveal future events through His prophet, Daniel? (Daniel 2:25ff)

  • Pretty misguided comment (though I have no idea what position this book takes). There was a LONG history of Jewish orthodox astral prophetic interpretation that didn’t violate these passages.

    • Michael, if you “have no idea what position this book takes”, you didn’t read the blog post before making your haughty assertion.
      Excerpts from the blog:
      “We three kings of Orient are,
      Bearing gifts we traverse afar”

      “Because of his innate kingly stature, a celestial sign marks his birth as that of the King of the Jews. The Magi perceive this, as we have stressed, by astrology.”

      In the assertion you make about my quoting of Scripture, “You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” (Mk 7:8 ESV, typical).

      My response to you:
      “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.” (Col 2:8–10).

      “But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.” (Ga 4:9–11)

      The history recorded in the OT is a repeated falling away and whoring after the pagan idolatry of the surrounding nations. And astrology is one of those damnable practices. When God’s creatures look(ed) at the stars to find something mystical and intrinsically revealed in the stars, other than God our Creator, “Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
      Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.” (Ro 1:22–25).

  • The Magi were astrologers and also the inspector of livers of birds. From there they tried to predict the future and the meaning of life. According to the Torah, they were to be stoned. This was the best light the Gentiles had, and it was totally insufficient. The Jews had wise men also. They could quote the great light of Scripture, even though they were blind to its implications. Herod found out from them where the Christ should be born. They told Herod, but none seemed willing to follow the Gentile wise men to Bethlehem to see for themselves. Herod was very worldly wise, but this time his wisdom failed also. He should have spent spies to follow the wise men to Bethlehem. Wisdom was everywhere, but it was only by the revelation of the Angels that the shepherds came to the manger. and it was not because the wise men figured it out of themselves. they were directed by God.

Written by Jake Mailhot