Star of Bethlehem

Mysteries pack the pages of the Bible, and none unfolds with more intrigue than a tale of a group of men from a distant land following a star to Bethlehem. The Magi left the comforts and luxury of a royal palace to ride through the barren Middle Eastern desert in blistering summer heat. Their star-inspired journey would have taken five to eight months and covered more than 1,000 miles. Why did they do it?

The Magi

The word Magi (from which we derive the modern word for magic) used in Matthew 2:1 is a Greek word describing a special class of scholars who studied philosophy, medicine, natural science and especially stars, blending astronomy with astrology. The Magi were masters of star event predictions. They were the best of the best when it came to detecting and deciphering signs in the heavens.

The Magi were to the Persian Empire what the Levites were to the nation of Israel. They were highly revered men of holiness and wisdom—teachers and instructors to Persian kings. History even tells us that no religious sacrifice could be offered in Persia without one of the Magi being present.

The Magi’s spiritual beliefs and practices influenced the entire ancient world, and, as a result, most people of this time believed that astronomical phenomena were connected to events on earth. By matching every planet and constellation with important people, countries and events, the Magi could interpret any heavenly occurrence, thus gaining a prophetic understanding of what was going on in the world. This system of reading the heavens was a commonly accepted way of gaining knowledge.

While the general ancient populace embraced heavenly readings, God didn’t look upon the practice favorably. Astrology is clearly condemned in the Old Testament.

“All the counsel you have received has only worn you out! Let your astrologers come forward, those stargazers who make predictions month by month, let them save you from what is coming upon you. Surely they are like stubble; the fire will burn them up. They cannot even save themselves from the power of the flame … All of them go on in their error; there is not one that can save you” Isaiah 47:13-15 NIV.

“Hear what the LORD says to you, people of Israel. This is what the LORD says: ‘Do not learn the ways of the nations or be terrified by signs in the heavens, though the nations are terrified by them’” Jeremiah 10:1-2.

Although God clearly disagrees with astrology, He controls the heavens and was able to communicate with the Magi of Christ’s day by speaking a language they would understand.

One Old Testament prophecy that most people in the ancient world, including the Magi, were familiar with actually mentions a star as a sign of the coming Hebrew Messiah.

“I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel. He will crush the foreheads of Moab, the skulls of all the sons of Sheth. Edom will be conquered; Seir, his enemy, will be conquered, but Israel will grow strong” Numbers 24:17-18.

When you combine this information with the Magi’s ability to read the constellations, it’s reasonable to believe that they saw something significant in the sky in the months leading up to Christ’s birth that convinced them this ancient prophecy was about to come true. Why else would they bother making the long trek to Bethlehem?

So what exactly did they see?

Modern Astronomy

Thanks to computer technology, modern-day astronomers (who are much different from astrologers) can take the trajectories of stars and work backward to any date and time in history to tell us what was happening in the skies at that time. Using these techniques, it’s clear that a possible “star” may have hovered over Bethlehem at the time of Christ’s birth (which biblical scholars estimate to be between 5 and 7 AD).

Astronomers are now aware that in 7 AD, the planets Jupiter and Saturn converged under the sign of Pisces on three different dates (May 27, October 5 and December 1). This event only happens once every 853 years. The last convergence of these heavenly bodies also included the planet Mars—something that occurs only once every 3,500 years. In other words, there were three nights in the year 7 AD when an incredibly bright “star” lit up the sky. It was a star unlike anything people had seen in their lifetimes because it wasn’t actually a star—it was the perfect alignment of three planets. This fact in and of itself is impressive on a natural level, but digging into the profound symbolism associated with the event reveals even more.

The Magi would have assigned meanings to different stars by dividing the heavens into 12 quadrants (our modern-day zodiac). The planets that converged to create the bright “star” in 7 AD were Jupiter, Saturn and Mars. Together they aligned under the sign of Pisces. All ancient stargazers, especially the esteemed Magi, knew that any time Jupiter and Saturn converged it meant that an important event was about to take place. Astrologers were also very familiar with which planets and stars represented which cultural groups and countries.

Jupiter was known as the King’s star. When this planet was seen in certain configurations, it indicated that a king was about to be born. Saturn was known as Israel’s star. When this planet was on the move, it always meant something for the people of Israel. Pisces represented the House of the Hebrews, and Mars was known as the War star. With the convergence of these specific bodies of light in 7 AD, the implication would have been clear: A great king was going to rise from among the Jews. His birth would bring war, possibly even a challenge to the powerful Roman Empire itself.


We know that after the Magi arrived in Jerusalem and began asking where they could find the new king of the Jews, Herod and the people of Jerusalem were deeply troubled.

“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 in the east and have come to worship him.’ When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him” Matthew 2:1-3 NIV.

Their concern is understandable given that Persia had a long-standing history of hostility with Israel. At one point in time, Persia had even conquered and enslaved the people of Israel. So the sudden appearance of Magi in Jerusalem would have alarmed everyone, especially given that their entrance into the city was likely not very subtle.

The Magi probably would have entered Jerusalem with a full military escort, something that was necessary to ensure their safe passage through hostile Roman territory. And they would have shown up with all the arrogance and pomp you’d expect from an established world power. With flags flying high, gaudy clothing, expensive jewelry and a cavalry that was unrivaled in all the world, this was not the trio of quiet kings we often see in Nativity scenes. Some scholars estimate there may have been 40 to 50 Magi, along with their entourage of traveling companions.

To Herod and the people of Jerusalem, this surprise visit may have seemed more like the precursor to a full military invasion. Not to mention that when the Magi asked Herod, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?”, they were insulting the man who had claimed the title “King of the Jews” for himself.

Judging by Herod’s reaction to the Magi’s question, he was unfamiliar with Jewish scriptures. He called upon a set of Jewish advisers (the Jewish ruling council, or Sanhedrin) as well as an assortment of other learned scribes.

“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’” Matthew 2:4-5 NIV.

When King Herod asked what exactly the prophet had written, Herod’s advisers quoted this prophecy to him:

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times” Micah 5:2.

This news would have shaken Herod to the core, while giving the Magi more reason to press on.

The Gifts

“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. 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. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh” Matthew 2:9-11 NIV.

The gifts of the Magi were not arbitrary gifts. They were specifically chosen for the prophesied king of the Jews:

• Gold. A present fit for royalty alone, the Magi’s gift of gold implied Jesus would someday be king.

• Frankincense. Ancient people burned frankincense because they believed it carried their prayers to heaven. The Magi’s gift of frankincense hinted at Jesus’ priesthood. It suggested that he would be the go-between for God and man.

• Myrrh. The Egyptians used myrrh as an embalming material. The gift of this ointment signified that Jesus was born to die. In fact, according to John 19:39-40, myrrh was one of the burial spices used when Christ was buried.

Imagine for a moment what it must have been like to witness the wealthy, influential Magi bow down before an infant child—to see them worship a baby born to a common carpenter and his wife. They were pagans who had found God’s son simply by reading ancient prophecies and following the signs of the times.

Will we follow the example of the Magi?

Will we relentlessly pursue Jesus Christ even if we have to leave the comforts of home to wander through the barren desert? Will we come to Christ with the kind of gift fit for a king? Will we ignore others who are disturbed by our quest?

Will we risk everything to see the face of Jesus?

“I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel.”
© Grey Dog Media, LLC 2024. All Rights Reserved.

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