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.

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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.

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

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Written by
Jake Mailhot

Jake Mailhot is the product manager for Lexham Press. He also writes about baseball and lives in Bellingham, WA.

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Written by Jake Mailhot