Stars, Astronomy, The Star of Bethlehem and the Magi in the Bible

The Magi Visit the Messiah

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi[a] 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, and all Jerusalem with him. 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:

“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
    who will shepherd my people Israel.’[b]

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they 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. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route. Matthew 2: 1 -12 NIV Bible Gateway

astrologer. This term is used in the NIV and other English translations of Daniel to render the Hebrew word kaśdîm H4169 (Dan. 2:2 et al.; Aram. kaśdāy H10373 in 2:10 et al.), which could also be translated “Chaldean” (cf. NRSV and see Chaldea). In the same passages, the KJV uses “astrologer” as a translation of ʾaššāp H879 (Aram. ʾāšap H10081), which means “enchanter.” In addition, both the KJV and the NIV use “astrologers” to represent a difficult Hebrew phrase in Isa. 47:13 (lit., “dividers of heaven”). The Magi from the east mentioned in Matt. 2:1 (magos G3407) were high-ranking Persian priests expert in astrology and other occult arts.”

Copyright © 1987, 2011 by Zondervan.

“astronomy. The study of celestial bodies and phenomena. While the word astronomy is not found in the Bible, there are many passages that refer to some aspects of the subject. God is recognized as the maker of the stars (Gen. 1:16) as well as the one who knows their number and names (Ps. 147:4). In the beautiful poem of Ps. 19 the psalmist asserts that the heavenly bodies (referring to the stars) show forth the glory of their Creator. A reference is made also to the sun as one of the heavenly bodies.

“There are hundreds of biblical references to stars, sun, moon, and planets. When God wished to tell Abraham how numerous his descendants would be, he took him out and showed him the stars. Then God said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them” (Gen. 15:5). The Bible refers in a most striking manner to the height of the stars—that is, to their distance from the earth: “Is not God in the heights of heaven? And see how lofty are the highest stars!” (Job 22:12). Another reference to the great height of the stars is found in Isa. 14:13, “I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God.” The implication here is that it must be a very great distance to the stars, but it was not until recent times that scientists became aware of the astonishing distances involved.

“It appears that the biblical writers were aware that the stars differ greatly from each other. Paul, writing to the church at Corinth, says, “The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor” (1 Cor. 15:41). This has been verified by the astronomers. Not only do stars have different colors, but they also differ widely in size, in density, in temperature, and in total amount of light emitted. The sun, around which the earth revolves, is an average star. While it is over one million times as large as the earth, there are some stars that are one million times as large as the sun. On the other hand, there are other stars smaller than the planet Mercury.

|”One of the many sins of the children of Israel was that of worshiping idols. They wanted to worship also the sun, the moon, and the stars. In Deut. 4:19 they were warned not to indulge in such worship. In spite of such warnings, sun worship prevailed many times. Asa and Josiah, kings of Judah, found it necessary to take away the sun images that had been kept at the entrance to the temple. See idolatrysun.

“While there is little evidence in the Bible that the Hebrew people had indulged very much in the study of astronomy, it is clear that they recognized a sublime order in the movements of the heavenly bodies. They observed carefully the daily rising of the sun, its majestic movement across the sky, and its final setting in the west. This is vividly portrayed in the story of the battle with the Amorites as recorded in Josh. 10, when the sun stood still in the middle of the sky. Many theories have been proposed in an attempt to give a scientific explanation to this “long day of Joshua.” None is completely satisfactory, and they will not be discussed here. It is sufficient to add that this is one of many miracles recorded in the Bible to show us that God is the ruler and sustainer of the universe.

“More remarkable than the long day of Joshua when the sun apparently stood still, is the story of the return of the shadow on the sundial of Ahaz. In this case the Lord gave King Hezekiah a sign saying, “I will make the shadow cast by the sun go back the ten steps it has gone down on the stairway of Ahaz” (Isa. 38:8). This is, indeed, a remarkable miracle. If taken literally, it means not only that the earth stopped rotating on its axis, but that it reversed its direction of rotation for a short time. Again the scientists have no answer to explain such an event.

“There are a number of allusions in the Bible to eclipses of the sun and of the moon. In Isa. 13:10 it is stated, “The rising sun will be darkened,” while in Joel 2:31 we have the statement, “The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood.” These two descriptions accord quite well with observations of eclipses of the sun and of the moon. As the shadow of the moon sweeps across the face of the sun it appears that the sun is turned to darkness. When the earth comes directly between the sun and the moon, there is an eclipse of the moon. When the eclipse is complete, it is still possible to see the surface of the moon, due to the fact that the atmosphere of the earth bends the light rays from their straight line path. Thus sunlight is bent somewhat as it passes the earth; it is then reflected by the moon and returned to the earth. Just as the sun appears to be red when it is setting, due to the passage of the light through more atmosphere, so the eclipsed moon appears strange in color. The Bible uses the apt expression “turned…to blood” to describe this astronomical phenomenon.

“Calculated eclipses of the sun that occurred in Palestine during OT times are as follows: July 31, 1063; August 15, 831; June 15, 763; May 18, 603; May 28, 585. Very likely the prophets Amos and Joel witnessed the eclipse of August 15, 831. Such an eclipse is vividly described by Amos: “I will make the sun go down at noon and darken the earth in broad daylight” (Amos 8:9).

“The subject of astrology has been connected with astronomy since early times. The reference in 0Jdg. 5:20 no doubt refers to the influence of the stars in the lives of people. The writer states, “From the heavens the stars fought, from their courses they fought against Sisera.” However, the Hebrew people seemed to have had little to do with the subject. In the book of Daniel there are repeated statements made concerning the astrologers. It is to be noted that Daniel and his three friends, though closely associated with astrologers, are always mentioned as keeping themselves separated and undefiled. Again and again when the magicians and the astrologers were unable to perform a task, it was Daniel who was able to do important things for the king. Thus it is apparent that the Bible condemns the pseudoscience of astrology.

“Probably the most fascinating part of biblical astronomy concerns the star of Bethlehem. This story is told in the second chapter of Matthew. When the wise men from the E came to Jerusalem they asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him” (Matt. 2:2). Even King Herod was greatly disturbed over the news, and he inquired of them diligently at what time the star appeared. This star seemed to be their ever-present guide, for it is stated that “the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was” (2:9).

“The question is: What kind of a star can continually guide travelers to a definite point on the earth? Many answers have been proposed. One is that this was an unusual conjunction of bright planets (the coming together on the same meridian at the same time of two or more celestial objects). Another theory is that this star was a nova (an explosion that makes a star look suddenly much brighter), although it is unclear how such a bright star could serve as a guide to the wise men. Still another theory is that this was the planet Venus at its greatest brilliance, but these Magi knew the movements of the planets, and therefore the bright appearance of Venus would hardly have served as a guide to lead them to the Christ child.

“Evidently here is another of the many biblical miracles that modern science is unable to explain. This miraculous appearance, which is called a star, aroused the curiosity of the wise men to such an extent that they followed it for many miles until finally it pointed out the exact place where they wished to go.

Constellations mentioned in the Bible

“There is much evidence in the Bible that some of the constellations were known to the writers. The Lord asked Job, “Can you bind the beautiful Pleiades? / Can you loose the cords of Orion?” (Job 38:31; cf. also v. 32; 9:9; Isa. 13:10Amos 5:8). One constellation that has a special significance to some Christians is Cygnus (the flying swan), also known as the Northern Cross. Its six stars form a huge Roman cross in the summer sky, about the size of the Big Dipper. This constellation sinks westward in the sky until at Christmas time it stands upright just above the horizon in the NW. Some see rich symbolism in the fact that the star Deneb at the top of the cross, where the head of Christ was, is a super-giant, while the one at the bottom, Albireo, where his feet were, is a beautiful telescopic double-star.

“In the last chapter of the last book of the Bible, the Lord Jesus is called “the bright Morning Star” (Rev. 22:16). Evidently the writer, the apostle John, had frequently waited for the morning light and had watched for the bright morning star, which is usually a planet. Its beauty had greatly inspired him, so he used this striking figure for the Lord Jesus Christ. Many Christians watch for his coming as people of old have watched for the morning and have seen the bright stars of the morning!

Copyright © 1987, 2011 by Zondervan.

“Magi. may´ji (pl. form of Latin magus, from Gk. magos G3407, in turn a borrowing of Old Pers. maguš; cf. Heb. māg H4454, “official”). Originally a religious caste among the Persians. Their devotion to astrology, divination, and the interpretation of dreams led to an extension in the meaning of the word, and by the first century B.C. the terms “magi” and “Chaldean” were applied generally to fortune tellers and the exponents of esoteric religious cults throughout the Mediterranean world. Magus or “sorcerer” is the name given to Simon in Acts 8:9 and to Bar-Jesus in 13:6 (Elymas, 13:8). The Magi of Matt. 2:1-12 (KJV, “wise men”) may have come from Arabia Felix (S Arabia). Astrology was practiced there, and a tradition of Israelite messianic expectation may have survived in the region since the days of the Queen of Sheba. Much early legend connects S Arabia with Solomon’s Israel. Ancient report, linked to later astrological study, may have prompted the famous journey. This, of course, can be no more than speculation. The legend of “the Three Kings” is late and medieval. The old Arabian caravan routes entered Palestine “from the East.”

Copyright © 1987, 2011 by Zondervan.
Map Image Credit Bible Mapper

The following is from the book: The Astronomy of the Bible by E. Walter Maunder


“No narrative of Holy Scripture is more familiar to us than that of the visit of the wise men from the East to see Him that was born King of the Jews. It was towards the end of the reign of Herod the Great that they arrived at Jerusalem, and threw Herod the king and all the city into great excitement by their question—

“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.”

Herod at once gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, and demanded of them where the Messiah should be born. Their reply was distinct and unhesitating—

“In Bethlehem of Judæa: for thus it is written by the Prophet, And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule My people Israel. Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, inquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young Child; and when ye have found Him, bring me word again, [394]that I may come and worship Him also. When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.”

“So much, and no more are we told of the star of Bethlehem, and the story is as significant in its omissions as in that which it tells us.

“What sort of a star it was that led the wise men; how they learnt from it that the King of the Jews was born; how it went before them; how it stood over where the young Child was, we do not know. Nor is it of the least importance that we should know. One verse more, and that a short one, would have answered these inquiries; it would have told us whether it was some conjunction of the planets; whether perchance it was a comet, or a “new” or “temporary” star; or whether it was a supernatural light, like the pillar of fire that guided the children of Israel in the wilderness. But that verse has not been given. The twelve or twenty additional words, which could have cleared up the matter, have been withheld, and there can be no doubt as to the reason. The “star,” whatever its physical nature, was of no importance, except as a guide to the birthplace of the infant Jesus. Information about it would have drawn attention from the object of the narrative; it would have given to a mere sign-post the importance which belonged only to “the Word made flesh.”

“We are often told that the Bible should be studied precisely as any other book is studied. Yet before we [395]can criticize any book, we must first ascertain what was the purpose that the author had in writing it. The history of England, for instance, has been written by many persons and from many points of view. One man has traced the succession of the dynasties, the relationships of the successive royal families, and the effect of the administrations of the various kings. Another has chiefly considered the development of representative government and of parliamentary institutions. A third has concerned himself more with the different races that, by their fusion, have formed the nation as it is to-day. A fourth has dealt with the social condition of the people, the increase of comfort and luxury. To a fifth the true history of England is the story of its expansion, the foundation and growth of its colonial empire. While to a sixth, its religious history is the one that claims most attention, and the struggles with Rome, the rise and decay of Puritanism, and the development of modern thought will fill his pages. Each of these six will select just those facts, and those facts only, that are relevant to his subject. The introduction of irrelevant facts would be felt to mark the ignorant or unskilful workman. The master of his craft will keep in the background the details that have no bearing on his main purpose, and to those which have but a slight bearing he will give only such notice as their importance in this connection warrants.

“The purpose of the Bible is to reveal God to us, and to teach us of our relationship to Him. It was not intended to gratify that natural and laudable curiosity [396]which has been the foundation of the physical sciences. Our own efforts, our own intelligence can help us here, and the Scriptures have not been given us in order to save us the trouble of exerting them.

“There is no reason for surprise, then, that the information given us concerning the star is, astronomically, so imperfect. We are, indeed, told but two facts concerning it. First that its appearance, in some way or other, informed the wise men, not of the birth of a king of the Jews, but of the King of the Jews, for Whose coming not Israel only, but more or less consciously the whole civilized world, was waiting. Next, having come to Judæa in consequence of this information, the “star” pointed out to them the actual spot where the new-born King was to be found. “It went before them till it came and stood over where the young Child was.” It may also be inferred from Matt. ii. 10 that in some way or other the wise men had for a time lost sight of the star, so that the two facts mentioned of it relate to two separate appearances. The first appearance induced them to leave the East, and set out for Judæa; the second pointed out to them the place at Bethlehem where the object of their search was to be found. Nothing is told us respecting the star except its work as a guide.

“Some three centuries ago the ingenious and devout Kepler supposed that he could identify the Star with a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn, in the constellation Pisces. This conjunction took place in the month of May, b.c. 7, not very long before the birth of our Lord is supposed to have taken place.

“[397]But the late Prof. C. Pritchard has shown, first, that a similar and closer conjunction occurred 59 years earlier, and should therefore have brought a Magian deputation to Judæa then. Next, that the two planets never approached each other nearer than twice the apparent diameter of the moon, so that they would have appeared, not as one star, but as two. And thirdly, if the planets had seemed to stand over Bethlehem as the wise men left Jerusalem, they most assuredly would not have appeared to do so when they arrived at the little city. Ingenious as the suggestion was, it may be dismissed as unworthy of serious consideration.

“Another suggestion shows upon what slight foundations a well-rounded legend may be built. In the year 1572 a wonderful “new star” appeared in the constellation Cassiopeia. At its brightest it outshone Venus, and, though it gradually declined in splendour, it remained visible for some sixteen months. There have been other instances of outbursts of bright short-lived stars; and brief notices, in the annals of the years 1265 and 952 may have referred to such objects, but more probably these were comets. The guess was hazarded that these objects might be one and the same; that the star in Cassiopeia might be a “variable” star, bursting into brilliancy about every 315 or 316 years; that it was the star that announced the birth of our Lord, and that it would reappear towards the end of the nineteenth century to announce His second coming.

“One thing more was lacking to make the legend complete, and this was supplied by the planet Venus, which [398]shines with extraordinary brilliance when in particular parts of her orbit. On one of these occasions, when she was seen as a morning star in the east, some hazy recollection of the legend just noticed caused a number of people to hail her as none other than the star of Bethlehem at its predicted return.

There is no reason to suppose that the star of 1572 had ever appeared before that date, or will ever appear again. But in any case we are perfectly sure that it could not have been the star of Bethlehem. For Cassiopeia is a northern constellation, and the wise men, when they set out from Jerusalem to Bethlehem must have had Cassiopeia and all her stars behind them.

The fact that the “star” went before them and stood over where the young Child lay, gives the impression that it was some light, like the Shekinah glory resting on the Ark in the tabernacle, or the pillar of fire which led the children of Israel through the wilderness. But this view raises the questions as to the form in which it first appeared to the wise men when they were still in the East, and how they came to call it a star, when they must have recognized how very unstarlike it was. Whilst, if what they saw when in the East was really a star, it seems most difficult to understand how it can have appeared to go before them and to stand over the place where the young Child lay.

I have somewhere come across a legend which may possibly afford the clue, but I have not been able to find that the legend rests upon any authority. It is that the star had been lost in the daylight by the time that the [399]wise men reached Jerusalem. It was therefore an evening star during their journey thither. But it is said that when they reached Bethlehem, apparently nearly at midday, one of them went to the well of the inn, in order to draw water. Looking down into the well, he saw the star, reflected from the surface of the water. This would of course be an intimation to them that the star was directly overhead, and its re-observation, under such unusual circumstances, would be a sufficient assurance that they had reached the right spot. Inquiry in the inn would lead to a knowledge of the visit of the shepherds, and of the angelic message which had told them where to find the Babe born in the city of David, “a Saviour, Which is Christ the Lord.”

“If this story be true, the “Star of Bethlehem” was probably a “new star,” like that of 1572. Its first appearance would then have caused the Magi to set out on their journey, though it does not appear how they knew what it signified, unless we suppose that they were informed of it in a dream, just as they were afterwards warned of God not to return to Herod. Whilst they were travelling the course of the year would bring the star, which shone straight before them in the west after sunset every evening, nearer and nearer to the sun. We may suppose that, like other new stars, it gradually faded, so that by the time the wise men had reached Jerusalem they had lost sight of it altogether. Having thus lost it, they would probably not think of looking for it by daylight, for it is no easy thing to detect by daylight even Venus at her greatest brilliancy, unless one knows exactly where to look. [400]The difficulty does not lie in any want of brightness, but in picking up and holding steadily so minute a point of light in the broad expanse of the gleaming sky. This difficulty would be overcome for them, according to this story, by the well, which acted like a tube to direct them exactly to the star, and like a telescope, to lessen the sky glare. It would be also necessary to suppose that the star was flashing out again with renewed brilliancy. Such a brief recovery of light has not been unknown in the case of some of our “new” or “temporary” stars.

“I give the above story for what it is worth, but I attach no importance to it myself. Some, however, may feel that it removes what they had felt as a difficulty in the narrative,—namely, to understand how the star could “stand over where the young Child lay.” It would also explain, what seems to be implied in the narrative, how it happened that the Magi alone, and not the Jews in general, perceived the star at its second appearance.

“For myself, the narrative appears to me astronomically too incomplete for any astronomical conclusions to be drawn from it. The reticence of the narrative on all points, except those directly relating to our Lord Himself, is an illustration of the truth that the Scriptures were not written to instruct us in astronomy, or in any of the physical sciences, but that we might have eternal life.” The Astronomy of the Bible by E. Walter Maunder