Star of the Magi

1. The Magi

2. Herod's Enquiry

3. Two Facts concerning the Star

4. The Wisdom of the Magi Not Astrological

5. The Prophecy of Balaam

6. The Star Not a Conjunction of Planets

7. The Star Not Nova Cassiopeiae

8. The Legend of the Well

9. Lesson of the Narrative

1. The Magi:

The birth of our Lord was announced in a supernatural manner not only to Jews by the angelic message to the shepherds, but also to Gentiles, for "Wise-men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we saw his star in the east, and are come to worship him" (Mt 2:1-2). The word which has been rendered "wise men" in the King James Version and the English Revised Version (the American Standard Revised Version "Wise-men") is "Magi." These, according to Herodotus, were originally a tribe of the Medes (Herodotus i.101) and from their supposed skill in divination the term was applied to the learned and priestly caste among the followers of Zoroaster; they were thus in principle worshippers of one only God, and rejecters of polytheism and idolatry. The simple creed and high morality, which Zoroastrianism in its purest form professed, were well adapted to prepare its faithful disciples to receive a further revelation, and we may reasonably believe that the wise men who had been thus guided to worship the new-born king of the Jews had been faithful to the light afforded to them, for "in every nation he that feareth him (God), and worketh righteousness, is acceptable to him" (Ac 10:35).


2. Herod's Enquiry:

The gospel tells us that the arrival of the Magi at Jerusalem threw Herod the king and all the city into great excitement, and Herod at once called a council of all the chief priests and scribes of the people that he might learn from them where the Messiah should be born. In reply they quoted to him the prophecy of Micah which had indicated Bethlehem as the destined site. "Then Herod privily called the Wise-men, and learned of them exactly what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search out exactly concerning the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word, that I also may come and worship him. And they, having heard the king, went their way; and lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. And when they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy" (Mt 2:7-10). So much, and no more, are we told of the star of the Magi, and the story is as significant in its omissions as in that which it tells us.

3. Two Facts concerning the Star:

What sort of a star it Was that led the wise men; how they learned 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. We are indeed told but two facts concerning it: first, that its appearance in some way or other did inform 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, that, when they had come to Judea 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 Mt 2:10 that in some way or other the wise men had for a time lost sight of the star, so that the two facts mentioned refer to two separate appearances. The first appearance induced the Magi to leave the East and set out for Judea; 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.

There can be no doubt that the Magi took their journey in obedience to direct revelation from God, and since we are told that God warned them in a dream not to return to Herod, so that they departed to their own country another way, it is but reasonable to suppose that their outward journey had been directed in a similar manner.

4. The Wisdom of the Magi Not Astrological:

It has been conjectured that as the Magians were credited with a great skill in astrology they may have been able to forecast the birth of our Lord by the rules of their article But this conjecture must be peremptorily rejected. It ascribes to the pseudo-science of astrology a reality to which it has no claim, for it is inconceivable that the planetary configurations can really foretell the birth of princes. Even if it were admitted that such could be the case, no such event could be taken as indicating the One Birth for which the world was waiting, unless some direct and explicit revelation from God had been received to that effect. For that Birth was necessarily unique, and science can deal only with repeated events. No astronomical research is now, or was at any time, competent in itself to supply the indication needed; it was not in virtue of any natural learning that the wise men understood the meaning of the star. And if a mere astronomical research was helpless to supply any such power of prediction, still more emphatically must the claim of "occult knowledge" be disallowed. So far as occult knowledge has had any basis in fact at all, it has been simply a euphemistic way of describing the frauds, impostures and crimes by which debased heathen priesthoods and "medicine men" have imposed upon the gross superstition of their followers. The very suggestion that, by means like these, God's purpose would be made known shows that those who suggest it have not entirely shaken off the influence of heathenism.

5. The Prophecy of Balaam:

The suggestion has often been made that the prophecy of Balaam, "There shall come forth a star out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel" (Nu 24:17), may have been preserved in the East and have furnished the clue upon which the Magi acted. It is a pleasing thought that these devout Gentiles had thus preserved and meditated upon the prophecy given through one who may well have been of an allied order to themselves; but that prophecy can surely not have been sufficient in itself, and some much more direct intimation must have been vouch-safed to them; though the prophecy may have aided their faith and have dictated the form in which they announced their mission to King Herod and the Jews.

6. The Star Not a Conjunction of Planets:

We are not told how the Magi learned the meaning of the star, neither are we told what kind of a star it was. 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, the two planets being so close as to seem a single star. This conjunction took place in the month of May, 7 BC, not very long before the birth of our Lord is supposed to have taken place. But the late Professor Pritchard has shown (Nature and Revelation, 243-55), first, that a similar and closer conjunction occurred 59 years earlier, and should therefore have brought a Magian deputation to Judea then. Next, that the two planets never approached each other nearer than twice the 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 would assuredly 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.

7. The Star Not Nova Cassiopeiae:

Another suggestion has received at times a very wide popularity. In the year 1572 a wonderful new star appeared in the constellation Cassiopeia. At its brightest it outshone Venus and was visible in the daylight, and though it gradually declined in splendor it was not lost to sight until after 16 months. There have been other instances of outbursts of short-lived bright stars, and in the annals of the years 1265 and 952 some brief notices have been found which may have referred to objects of this class, but more probably described comets. The guess was then hazarded that these three events might all refer to the same object; that the star in Cassiopeia might be a "variable" star, bursting into brilliancy about every 350 years or so; that it was the star that announced the birth of our Lord, and that it would reappear about the end of the 19th century to announce His second coming. This rumor was widely spread, and from time to time ignorant people have noticed the planet Venus which shines with extraordinary brilliancy when in particular parts of her orbit, and have imagined, especially when she has been thus seen as a morning star in the east, that she was 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 in their journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem had Cassiopeia and all her stars behind their back.

The statement that the star "went before" the Magi gives the impression that it was some supernatural light like the shekhinah, "glory," resting upon 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 un-starlike it was. On the other hand, 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.

8. The Legend of the Well:

Yet there is a legend still current in Palestine which may possibly explain how an actual star may have fulfilled this part, and there is a well at Bethlehem that is still shown to pilgrims as the means whereby the wise men "saw the star" the second time. It is said that when they had reached Bethlehem, apparently nearly at mid-day, 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 and knew that it must be directly overhead. Its re-observation under such unusual circumstances would be a sufficient assurance to the Magi that they had reached the right place, and inquiry in the inn would soon inform them 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, the Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.'

If we may accept this legend we may take the star as having been what astronomers know as a "new" or "temporary" star, like that of 1572. When the Magi first saw it, and in consequence set out upon their journey, it may have been an evening star and thus, being seen only in the west shortly after sunset, it would appear, evening after evening, to point them their way to Judea. As they journeyed thither it probably faded as temporary stars in general quickly do. At the same time it would have drawn nearer and nearer to the sun, until it was lost in its rays by the time they reached Jerusalem, when they would seem to have lost sight of it altogether. Having thus lost it, they would naturally not expect to see it again until it had drawn away from the sun on the other side, and been detected as a morning star in the east before sunrise; they would not expect to discover it in the daytime.

In the ordinary way, the planet Venus is, after the two "great lights," the brightest object in the heavens, but temporary stars are on record that have even exceeded Venus in brightness. The difficulty of seeing the planet Venus in full sunshine does not lie in her 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, which would be even greater in the case of a star, would be lessened by looking down the well, as the shaft would narrow the field of view down to a small area, and would direct the observer's gaze straight to the star. There may also have been, at the very time of observation, a temporary revival of the brightness of the star as has been recorded in the case of one or two objects of the same class. The legend, whether well founded or not, seems to have some astronomical verisimilitude, and at any rate suggests a mode in which an actual star could have seemed to stand over the place where the young Child lay. It would also explain what seems to have been implied in the narrative, how it happened that the Magi alone, and not the Jews in general, perceived the star at its second appearance.

9. Lesson of the Narrative:

Yet it seems safer to conclude that the narrative has been purposely left--astronomically--too incomplete for any astronomical conclusion to be drawn from it. One verse more, and that a short one, could have answered all our inquiries, could have told us whether the star was a conjunction of the planets, a comet, or a temporary star; or whether it was a supernatural light like the pillar of fire in the wilderness. But that verse has not been given. The score of 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. The reticence of the gospel narrative on all points, except those directly relating to our Lord Himself, enforces 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 life eternal (Joh 17:3).

E. W. Maunder

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