Matthew (Part 03) - The Magi and Their Star
Although we say that Matthew includes one of the two birth narratives of the New Testament, Matthew has very little to say about the birth of Jesus. As far as storyline goes, chapter 1 focuses on the genealogy and Joseph’s handling of the Holy Spirit conception. At the very end, Jesus is born and named. Chapter 2 begins sometime after the birth of Jesus—probably about eight to nine months after.
Luke gives us a few more details. One of Luke’s details is that when Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem, they found that there was no room in the “inn.” That word inn is katalyma, which is later used in Luke (and also in Mark) to describe the upper room where Jesus and his disciples celebrated the Passover before his death. That the “inn” is really not an inn should be of no surprise to us. Joseph is returning to Bethlehem, the city of his heritage. It should be filled with his relatives. Would we really expect Joseph to come to a city full of relatives and then attempt to stay in a hotel?—especially in this culture where even strangers were welcomed into homes? Most Jewish homes of this time were built in such a manner as to house the family on the first floor, but with another room—a guest room—on the floor above. This guestroom (katalymn) of (more than likely) Joseph’s parents was already occupied when Mary and Joseph showed up. But there was no problem—Joseph and Mary stayed on the first floor with his parents. Another common structural item was to have an area (next to, but a few feet lower the main floor) where the animals would be brought in at night. Of course, a manger made a perfect cradle for Jesus. So, Mary and Joseph were not outcasts in a foreign city that had no room or time for them, whose only friendly face was an overworked innkeeper who allowed them to stay in the stables. They were in Joseph’s hometown, probably at the home of his parents, comfortably settling in…well, as comfortably as a woman nine-months pregnant can.
Matthew begins chapter 2 telling us that Joseph and Mary (and Jesus) are still in Bethlehem of Judea (not Bethlehem of Galilee only a few miles from Nazareth). They were probably still in the house of Joseph’s parents—potentially even planning to live there for quite a while. During this time, Magi arrive in Jerusalem asking, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” Several questions may plague us from these statements. Who are the Magi? What star was seen and how did it tell them that a king would be born in Bethlehem? Why would a foreign people want to worship a king of Palestine?
The first non-biblical recorded mention of Magi is from Herodotus, a 5th century BC Greek historian. He mentions the Magi as being a tribe of the Medes in the 7th century BC. Herodotus tells us that the Magi predominantly acted as dream interpreters and moved to become part of Persia in the 6th century BC. Normally tribes are noted for their surroundings—their land. Since Magi were noted for their wisdom and prophetic abilities, the term strayed from identifying an actual tribal people to identifying the people who were magicians, enchanters, and astrologers of the 6th century BC and beyond. Daniel was made by Nebuchadnezzar to be chief among these people (Daniel 5:11), probably holding the title Rabmaj. The Magi continued to be counselors to kings, traveling with Xerxes and others in the 5th and following centuries.
Strabo (64BC – AD23), another Greek historian, mentioned the Magi as he discussed the Parthian empire in his Geography:
“…since I have said much about the Parthian usages in the sixth book of my Historical Sketches and in the second book of my History of events after Polybius, I shall omit discussion of that subject here, lest I seem to be repeating what I have already said, though I shall mention this alone, that the Council of the Parthians, according to Posidonius, consists of two groups, one that of kinsmen, and the other that of wise men and Magi, from both of which groups the kings were appointed.”
This passage is normally understood to mean that among the council, the Magi were the ones responsible for choosing from among the kinsmen (relatives or appointees of the king) the person who should be the next king. Thus, the Magi were kingmakers. No wonder Herod was disturbed as these Magi entered Jerusalem.
The Magi of 6 BC who came to find a newborn king began their journey after seeing a star. How did they interpret that the star they saw should signal the birth of a king among the Jews? Could it have been from a study of the Hebrew Scriptures? The only non-evil mention of a star (singular) in the OT is in Numbers 24:17. Here Balaam is giving his final oracle in conjunction with the Israelites. In it he says, “a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.” This, of course, speaks of Christ. But Christ is the star. This is no prophecy of a new star at his birth leading the way for Magi to find him. He is the star (deity) and the scepter (king) who will lead his covenant people and destroy all the wicked. We are left, then, with no OT prophecy of a guiding star that appears at Christ’s birth. So the question remains puzzling—how did the Magi interpret a star as foretelling the birth of a Palestinian king?
From the Matthew 2 statements about the star we note three observations that the Magi made. The star rose in the east (2:2). It went before them (2:9). And it came to rest over the place of the child (2:9). The Magi were astrologers. That the star is some heavenly body seems logical both from its name and from the activity of the Magi. Adding to that assurance, they describe it to Herod and the people of Jerusalem as a star. But how does a heavenly body like a star lead someone? The position of a star in the sky to an observer in Jerusalem would hardly seem different to an observer in Bethlehem, a city only about five miles to the south. The going “before them” and the coming “to rest over the place where the child was” seems to indicate something very much closer to the earth—like perhaps a bright light that hovers only maybe a few dozen feet above the ground. But no one else seems to have seen this light. And again, the question that seems most difficult—what about this bright light or star caused the Magi to associate it with a new king?
Almost all heavenly bodies were called stars during this time. A meteor was a “shooting star.” A comet was a “hairy star.” And a planet was a “wandering star.” Planets were called wandering stars because of their erratic paths across the night sky. This, of course, is because of their orbits and our orbit, causing changes in perspective. As we observe a planet further out in the solar system, like Jupiter, against the backdrop of some constellation, the path of the planet crossing the constellation may appear to travel one direction, but then change at another time of year to move backwards. This is not because the planet’s orbit has been interrupted. It is rather because our perspective, which was on one side of the planet, has shifted due to the sharper arcs of our orbit. Note the following few of charts.
The earth is in green, following the red orbit around the yellow sun. The orange ball is Jupiter. The purple line is some constellation out in the galaxy. Our perspective (the black line) sees Jupiter appear within this constellation at a certain point.
Now as the earth moves around the sun, our perspective changes so that Jupiter appears to move across the constellation as in the following depiction.
As the earth continues to revolve around the sun, our perspective continues to shift and Jupiter continues to appear moving across the constellation.
But now notice what happens as the earth’s revolution takes it further along its arc, returning to a previous perspective.
Jupiter now appears to have reversed direction moving left to right instead of its previous course of right to left. It all depends on the perspective of our orbit in comparison to where Jupiter is in its orbit. But that is why the ancients called the planets wandering stars.
Heavenly bodies were also thought to signal some events in earthly life. For example, a comet passing was often connected with the death of some person. The planet Jupiter was often connected with the activity of a king. The positioning of Jupiter along the eastern horizon at dawn could indicate the birth of a king. Of course, this should trigger in our minds a possibility for the astrologer Magi. They may have noticed Jupiter at dawn in the east, understanding it to be a sign of the birth of a king. But why in Palestine?
The constellations were often associated with nations. The constellation Aries (the Ram) was connected to the land of Palestine. In his Tetrabiblios, Claudius Ptolemy stated that Aries the Ram controlled the people of “Judea, Idumea, Samaria, Palestine, and Coele Syria.” This is easy to understand since the Jews had always placed such emphasis in the sacrifice of lambs ever since the Exodus. God even had them begin their year in the month of the Passover—Nisan—which is the same March/April timeframe associated with Aries. A surviving coin of Syria from AD 6 depicts Aries celebrating this association with Palestine.
Calculations have been performed, and we do know the position of the stars and planets for most every moment of this planet’s history. In fact, a free online program called Stellarium offers features enabling anyone with a computer and internet access to study the sky from any point on earth at any time of our history. Using this program, we can travel to Parthia in 6 BC in the mid April timeframe and find that at dawn Jupiter is in fact positioned right at the horizon in the eastern sky. Not only is that true, but Jupiter also has just entered (from our perspective) the constellation Aries, the constellation of Palestine. To any good astrologer of that time, this meant something—a king was born in Palestine!
As we forward the time day by day through the year 6 BC, we notice Jupiter moving across Aries and exiting it. But around the August timeframe, because of the revolution of the earth changing our perspective, Jupiter begins to move back (retrograde) toward and into Aries by December, coming to rest in Aries for about 20 days of December.
This movement of Jupiter can very well be what Matthew is describing in chapter 2 of his Gospel. The star (Jupiter) rose in the east (positioned at the horizon at dawn in the eastern sky). It went before them (or it went where it went before—retrograde back where it had been seen by them before). It comes to rest when they arrive in Bethlehem (or it is stationed in Aries for 20 days in December without moving).
This indeed gives answers to all those puzzling questions about the star and how the Magi were able to note its significance. And all this positioning of Jupiter and the stars that we now know was in place in the year Jesus was born is just too much data to be swept under the carpet of coincidence. If you would like more detail of this discussion, you can read the book The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi by Michael R. Molnar.
We mentioned that Herod was fearful that the Magi had come to appoint a king who would take Palestine back under control of Parthia. But if that was not their intention, why did the Magi come? Did Parthian Magi simply enjoy taking trips around the world to celebrate the birth of kings? This is the only incident known of such an excursion. And according to Matthew, they didn’t come simply to celebrate. They came to worship. For a Persian, worship meant to drop to your knees, place your forehead to the ground, and recognize the object of your worship as superior. Why would the Parthian kingmakers do this to a child born in Palestine?
Remember that Daniel and his three friends were counted among the Magi of the time of Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus (Darius the Mede). Those three friends would not bow (worship) Nebuchadnezzar’s image and were condemned to the fiery furnace, from which God saved them. They surely taught their children to follow the one true God. And their children’s children probably did the same. In fact, a large Jewish population remained in Persia (Parthia) even after Cyrus had issued the decree that allowed them to return to Palestine. I would think that in 6 BC, even about 500 years after Daniel and his three friends lived, that their descendants would still be in Parthia, some of whom would still be part of the Magi that provided wisdom and counsel to their kings. And some of them, studying the writings of Daniel telling them (in chapter 9) that a Messiah Prince was coming in 70 Weeks (490 years), would have been possibly looking to the skies for some hint of his birth as the time drew near so that they, in maintaining the heritage they possessed as the covenant people of God, could come to worship him.