What the Bible does and does not say
What we have come to know as the Star of Bethlehem is mentioned only in two short passages - amounting to five verses - in the Gospel of Matthew; there is no mention of it in the other Gospels at all. Why is there no mention of the star in the other Gospels if it really was such an important part of the Nativity? A partial answer can be given at once: The Gospels were written by different people over many years and intended for different audiences.
Our entire biblical account of the Star is limited to a few verses of one Gospel. Matthew Chapter II verse 2 reads:
“1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, Magi from the East came to Jerusalem,
2 asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star at its rising[i] and have come to pay him homage.
And Matthew Chapter II, verses 7-10 are as follows:
7 Then Herod secretly called the Magi and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.
8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child and; when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage’.
9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.
10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.
11 On entering the house, they saw the child[ii] with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.”
What do these texts say about the Star?
Neither narrative says very much about the star. Note how this text, taken from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible states that the Magi had seen the Star “at its rising”, correcting an old mistake in the translation of the original Greek which was pointed out by David Hughes in 1976. This states that the Star was seen at its heliacal rising or “at the first light of dawn” and thus would have been in the east at dawn.
Nowhere does it say that the Star disappeared between the departure of the Magi from their own land and their arrival in Bethlehem, although there is a suggestion (no more) that it might have done in verse 9. What it does say is that the Star that had previously been in the east went before them on the road to Bethlehem. As Bethlehem is 10km south of Jerusalem, it implies that the Star was, at that time, in the south. It also implies that the Star was visible for several weeks because it had been seen before their journey started and was still visible when they arrived in Bethlehem.
The passages do make it clear that Herod did not see the Star because he had to ask the Magi when it had appeared. They do not state though how many Magi there were, nor does it state that they were kings, nor does Herod treat them as visiting royalty.
If modern Biblical scholars are correct, it is not surprising that the star is mentioned only in Matthew’s Gospel. After the death of Jesus, his followers went preaching and teaching around the Roman Empire. They would have described the things that Jesus did, and recounted – as best they could remember – the things he said. With the death of the first Apostles and with the destruction of the spiritual and cultural centre of the Jewish people (of which the early Christian community regarded themselves as members), the time was right to set down these deeds and sayings in a written form: the Gospels were born. In many respects, the Gospels are not “original” works, even though they were a unique literary style. They were the selected, edited, and abridged versions of the different long-standing oral traditions. A simple explanation of why Matthew mentions the Star, but Luke no is that Luke’s Gospel is a historical account of the life of Christ, whilst Matthew’s is more poetic and more mystical. The Star interested Matthew, but not Luke.
Matthew appears to have been a Jewish Christian. His narrative has many quotations from the Torah, and uses the phrase “so that the prophesy might be fulfilled” or some close variant of it on many occasions. We find these words four times in Matthew II, in verses 13, 15, 17 & 23, where Matthew describes the flight and exile of Mary, Joseph and the infant, but they do not appear in the account of the Star. And yet, given the author’s command of the scriptures, he would have known of the Oracles of Balaam, which form Numbers XXIV, 17. In particular there are the verses:
“I see him, but not now;
I behold him, but not near -
a star shall come forth out of Jacob
and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel;
it shall crush the borderlands of Moab
and the territory of all the Shethites”,
Which are taken to predict that a star would be seen. This text is one of the principal reasons that are cited for believing that Matthew “invented” the Star to give additional significance to the Nativity and to show that the prophesy of Balaam had been fulfilled.
Jewish tradition, however, sees the Oracle of Balaam in a different way. Their translation of the passage given above is substantially the same, although it has some significant differences:
“I see him, but not now;
I behold him, but not nigh:
There shall step forth a star out of Jacob,
And a sceptre shall rise out of Israel,
And shall smite through the corners of Moab,
And break down all the sons of Seth.”
This passage was taken by the Hertz, the late Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, to refer probably to King David, the first monarch to reduce King Moab to subjection, rather than referring to the Messiah. Later, this same passage was taken to refer to the Jewish resistance leader Bar Cozeba, during the last Jewish war of independence which occurred under Emperor Hadrian. In fact, Bar Cozeba’s name was even changed to Bar Cocheba (the Son of a Star) to reflect this fact. The sceptre is taken to mean a person who is a holder of a sceptre, that is, a ruler or monarch.
Many people do not realise that there are two other texts, both written fairly close to the time when Matthew’s Gospel was set down, which do mention the Star, thus our knowledge of it is not solely based on Matthew’s account. The Apocryphal Gospel of James, one of the texts that was not incorporated into the Bible by the Council of Nicaea in 325AD, mentions the star when it reports Herod’s questioning of the Magi:
“And he questioned the Magi and said to them: `what sign did you see concerning the new born King?’ And the Magi said: `We saw how an indescribably great star shone among these stars and dimmed them, so they no longer shone, and so we knew that a King was born for Israel. And we have come to worship him’, and Herod said: `Go and seek and when you have found him, tell me, that I may also come to worship him’. And the Magi went forth. And behold, the star which they had seen in the east went before them, until they came to the cave. And it stood over the head of the child.”
Curiously, James is written as an eye-witness account of the events surrounding the Nativity and ends with the author’s explanation that, at this point he was forced to flee to the desert to avoid the disturbances after Herod’s death. However, experts date it as having been written between 140 and 170AD (Matthew is dated between probably between 80 and 100AD and Luke perhaps between 80 and 130AD (with some sources even suggesting a considerably earlier date for Luke).
Another record is found in the Epistle Number XIX of Ignatius, written to the Ephesians around 130 AD (which is perhaps only 30 years after Matthew’s Gospel):
“Its light was unspeakable and its novelty caused wonder”
This comment is brief and to the point, although we have no idea what Ignatius’s source of information might have been. It, like the Apocrypha, but unlike Matthew, suggests that the Star was an extremely prominent object in the sky. The clear implication of this brief passage is that the Star had appeared suddenly and unexpectedly. One suspects strongly that the brightness of the Star in both this text and James is poetic licence. However, not many types of astronomical object can appear suddenly like this, and as we shall see, bright objects that appear suddenly rule out many of the possible scientific explanations of the star.
At this stage then, we can see that we have really only three options available when it comes to explaining the Star of Bethlehem mystery. These three options are:
1. ) The Star is a myth, or a legend, which was added to the Gospel of Matthew to fulfil the Old Testament prediction by Balaam that a star would announce the birth of the Messiah, or simply to give added significance to the birth of Jesus. In this case the Star of Bethlehem did not exist.
2. ) The Star is a report of a genuine, but normal astronomical event, subsequently modified by retelling on many occasions or by artistic licence, or both, and which was incorporated into Matthew’s Gospel. It is basically a true account of some phenomenon which was observed the sky around the time of the Nativity.
3. ) The Star was a miracle which is beyond the province of science to explain. In this case, the Star existed and was seen, at the time of the Nativity, but was not a natural phenomenon of any kind.
[i] The New Revised Standard Version does not use the familiar phrase “in the east”, found in many other translations of the Bible, although it suggests it as an alternative translation to the one given here.
[ii] The word used in the original Greek contradicts the version seen in most Nativity plays of a new-born baby Jesus being visited by the Magi. The phrasing suggests that Jesus might have been several months old at the time of their visit.