The Magi, The Star, and The Real Story
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
When King Herod heard this, he was disturbed. . . When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written. . .”
. . .After they [the Magi] had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose, went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary and they bowed down and worshiped him. . .
The Gospel of Matthew, 2:1-5, 9, 11
We’ve all seen multitudes of nativity scenes, populated by Mary, Joseph, the infant Jesus, shepherds, maybe some sheep, cows, donkeys, and of course, the three Magi. It makes for a lovely picture, but the Magi weren’t actually there. Neither was the star.
The Gospel of Luke reports on the shepherds, who came to the stable in Bethlehem when Jesus was newborn. The Gospel of Matthew reports about the Magi. However, their visit happened about two years later. One of the clues is a reference to “the house” and not a stable. The reason for the two-year difference — the star appeared to the Magi at the time of the birth and back then, traveling hundreds of miles was a slow process. Also, Matthew refers to Jesus as “the child” and not an infant. Last, we have the evidence of King Herod’s order for his soldiers to massacre every little boy in Bethlehem, two years old and younger, showing that Herod believed the sought-for child could be as old as two.
But there were definitely three Magi. Right? We know that Christmas carol, We Three Kings of Orient Are. Wrong again. Those fellows weren’t kings and probably, there weren’t three of them, either. Matthew’s account never describes them as kings. The term Magi was given to astrologers/astronomers living in what was Babylonia, now Iran. (In ancient times, astrology and astronomy were considered as combined sciences.) As for the number of these men, no mention is given, other than the word Magi itself, which is the plural form. So there were at least two, but could have been far more.
Now, what about the star? Was it a real star or something else?
The Magi call it “his” star, the star of the one born “king of the Jews.” No other star in the night sky gets that type of publicity. Besides, it has some amazing abilities. It can appear and disappear. As it leads the Magi along, it moves from east to west and north to south. Eventually, it stops and hovers above one particular house in Bethlehem. Can any regular star do those things?
Here’s another clue. The Gospel of Matthew was probably written first in Greek and that language’s word for “star” means “radiance” or “brilliance.” So the star was a brilliant light and not the kind of star that astrologers watched the heavens for. Given its astounding powers, this star was, in all likelihood, what is called the Shechinah glory, the name for a visible manifestation of God’s presence. When the Magi in Babylonia saw this unusual light, their expertise told them it was no run-of-the-mill celestial body. It was something supernatural and it heralded the birth of the Jewish Messiah, meaning "savior."
But those men were Gentiles. How did they know about a unique star and the Messiah? The answer goes back to the book of Daniel. About six hundred years before the birth of the Messiah, the Babylonians conquered Israel and they brought most of the Jewish population to their city as captives. Daniel was a young man then and he was placed in the school of astrology/astronomy.
Over time, Daniel demonstrated great skill interpreting the king’s problematic dreams. Once, his accurate interpretation saved the lives of the many incompetent astrologers. Those men recognized their deliverance from certain execution and knew Daniel had not gained his information from just studying the stars, but had received it directly from the God of Israel. The Babylonian king was so impressed, he promoted Daniel to be head of the school of astrology/astronomy.
Because of Daniel’s influence, a specific line of Babylonian astrologers believed in the God of Israel down through the centuries. They possessed Daniel’s prophetic writings that pointed to a Jewish Messiah.
There is still one more question. Daniel’s prophecies never mention a star. How did those Magi know to look for one?
Even earlier than Daniel, another Babylonian astrologer named Balaam was given a prophetic message. His words are found in Numbers 24:17, where the sign for the coming of the Messiah is called a “star.” This star is also linked to being a scepter, symbolic of royalty. Long before Daniel, Balaam would have given the prophecy to his fellow astrologers in Babylon and it would have been passed along, year after year, in the astrology/astronomy school. This, merged with Daniel’s writings, would have been analyzed and the connection between the star and the Messianic prophecies would have been realized.
Clearly, the Magi of Matthew's gospel had been watching for prophetic fulfillment and when they made the recognition in the form of an unusual star, they must have been flooded with wonder.
O Little town of Bethlehem, How still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, The silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth, The everlasting light;
The hopes and fears of all the years, Are met in thee tonight.
Phillips Brooks and Lewis H. Redner
Information from Ha-Mashiach: The Messiah of the Hebrew Scriptures, by Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, Th.M., Ph.D.
The Gospel of Matthew, from the New International Version