We’re now ready to examine the qualifications for the Star. Working from the Biblical account in Matthew, unpacking it verse by verse, we can compile a list of nine qualities which must be present before any celestial phenomena could be considered to be the Biblical Star of Bethlehem. If any qualification is missing, then we will assume we haven’t found our Star. All of the following verses come from the Gospel of Matthew Chapter 2.
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod,— Matthew 2:1a
To begin, we see again how important the date of Herod’s death is to the investigation. If Herod died in 4 BC, then Christ had to be born before that year. But if Herod died in 1 BC, as the best evidence indicates, then we should look at the years 2 and 3 BC.
Magi from the east came to Jerusalem— Matthew 2:1b
Who are these magi?
The word, ‘magi,’ which is sometimes translated ‘wise men,’ is the root from which we get our word ‘magic.’ This doesn’t make them all magicians, in the present sense of the word. Some of them were learned men in general, who studied the physical world and were knowledgeable about many things, including the stars. Magi were often court astronomers who were consulted by the rulers of the day for guidance in affairs of state. This was also true in much earlier times. For example, during the Babylonian captivity of the Jews, some 500 years earlier, King Nebuchadnezar kept a stable of court magi. Nebuchadnezer made the Jewish prophet Daniel Chief Magus of his court when Daniel was able to interpret a dream the other magi could not (1).
There were magi of various schools, and some were more respected than others. We know something of a particularly prestigious school of magi from the writings of Philo. Philo was a Jewish philosopher and contemporary of Jesus who lived in the large Jewish community of Alexandria, Egypt. Philo wrote in praise of an Eastern school of magi and their great learning and understanding of the natural world (2). This school may have descended from the Babylonian magi of Daniel’s day. Matthew does report that the Wise Men were from the East, and Babylon is east of Judea. It was at one time part of the Persian Empire, which ties in with Philo. So it is possible the Wise Men were of this prestigious Eastern school. This would account for Herod giving them an audience, and for his strong reaction to the news they brought.
…and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?— Matthew 2:2a
The Magis’ question gives us three points for our list of qualifications for the Star. Whatever happened in the sky indicated
2) kingship and
3) Jews. It also gives us a clue about the Magi. They were interested in things Jewish.
…We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”— Matthew 2:2b
When the wise men said “we saw his star in the east,” they didn’t mean “we saw his star while we were in the East.” The Greek text here says the Star was “en anatole,” meaning they saw his star rising in the east. That’s what all but polar stars do, because of the rotation of the Earth. Stars rise in the east, but not all celestial objects do that. So, that’s another qualification for the Star:
4) it must rise in the east like most other stars.
The motive of the Magi in coming to Jerusalem tells us a great deal more about them. They wanted to worship a Jewish king. It can’t be proven from the text, but it is quite possible that some of the Magi were of Jewish descent, perhaps a Jewish remnant from Daniel’s day. This would help explain why a Jewish philosopher, Philo, would admire them, why they were watching the sky for things Jewish, why they wanted to worship a Jewish king, and why they were taken so seriously by Herod and Jewish chief priests. If they were not Jews, then they must have been most impressive magi indeed, as Jews of the time were deeply disdainful of pagans and their beliefs (3).
When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.— Matthew 2:3
You must know more to understand just how very troubled Herod and Jerusalem became at the Magis’ news. Historians tell us that respect for the stars and guidance derived from them was at a peak (4). Both ancient historians and the Bible make it clear that the Jews of this period expected a new Jewish ruler to arise, based upon Jewish prophecy (5). And it was accepted that the stars could announce such an arrival.
For example, about 60 years earlier, in 63 BC, magi made a presentation to the Roman Senate. They described celestial portents indicating that a new ruler had been born. Evidently regretting that news, the Senate responded by ordering the death of baby boys in the candidate age range (6). Sound familiar? It turns out that when Herod ordered the slaughter of children in Bethlehem he may have been following a sort of Roman precedent. That precedent may be one reason Jerusalem was troubled at the news the Wise Men brought. Perhaps they realized the Romans might shed blood in response.
4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: 6 “‘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 be the shepherd of my people Israel.'”— Matthew 2:4-6
Herod took the Magis’ message as factual, and consulted the Jewish experts about the location of the birth. The fateful verse in the Book of Micah which is quoted to Herod by the Jewish experts soon resulted in the death of many little boys in Bethlehem.
Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared.— Matthew 2:7
Another qualification for the Star:
5) It appeared at an exact time. And yet another qualification:
6) Herod didn’t know when it appeared. He had to ask.
8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” 9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.— Matthew 2:8-9
And now we have the last three qualifications for the Star:
7) It endured over a considerable period of time. The Magi saw it, perhaps from Babylon, traveled to Judea and saw it still.
8) It went ahead of them as they traveled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. You might not realize that this doesn’t mean the Star was needed to guide the travelers to Bethlehem. Bethlehem was (and is) just five miles south of Jerusalem on the main road. They couldn’t miss it. No, the Star appears ahead of them as they trek south not so much as a guide as a further confirmation of the signs they had seen. Lastly,
9) The Star stopped! Can a star do that? Yes, it can, as we shall see.
- The Book of Daniel, Chapter 2
- Says Philo at QUOD OMN. PROB. (74): “Among the Persians there is a body of the Magi, who, investigating the works of nature for the purpose of becoming acquainted with the truth, do at their leisure become initiated themselves and initiate others in the divine virtues by very clear explanations.”
- Tacitus, The Histories, Book V: “…among themselves [the Jews] are inflexibly honest and ever ready to show compassion, though they regard the rest of mankind with all the hatred of enemies.”
- As examples, Suetonius reports in De Vida Caesarum: Tiberius (LXIX) that Tiberius Caesar, who reigned at the time of Christ’s birth, was “addicted” to astrology. Tacitus reports in The Histories (Book II) that Emperor Vespasian kept a personal astrologer, Seleucus, and that his troops were familiar with celestial signs. See also, Martin, at footnote 11.
- Tacitus, The Histories (Book V), writes: “…most [of the Jews] firmly believed that their ancient priestly writings contained the prophecy that this was the very time when the East should grow strong and that men starting from Judea should possess the world.”In De Vita Caesarum: Divus Vespasian, Suetonius records that “[t]here had spread over all the Orient an old and established belief that it was fated at that time for men coming from Judaea to rule the world.”He goes on to say that Vespasian was so concerned with this prophecy of the Christ that he attempted to exterminate the entire Davidic family line—even helpless old men were killed.
Josephus appears not to have believed the prophecy, but he records that it had great influence on others. In Wars (6.5.4), he even states his belief that the prediction was the cause of the first Jewish War against the Romans. “But now, what did most elevate [the Jews] in undertaking this war was an ambiguous oracle that was also found in their sacred writings, how ‘about that time, one from their own country should become governor of the habitable earth.’ The Jews took this prediction to belong to themselves in particular, and many of the wise men were thereby deceived in their determination.”
The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were plainly on the lookout for the Christ. The Book of John 1.14-27
Upon meeting Jesus, Andrew immediately told others that he had found the Christ. The Book of John 1.41
Even the Samaritan woman at the well had this on her mind. She told Jesus, “I know that Messiah (called Christ) is coming.” The Book of John 4.25
- Suetonius, De Vita Caesarum: Divus Augustus (94), recounting the report of Julius Marathus. As some of their wives were pregnant at the time of the prediction, senators conspired to insure that the Senate’s decree was not recorded in the treasury. Each perhaps hoped that their unborn child might be the ruler-to-come. The decree was apparently not implemented widely, if at all.