Tuesday, December 27, 2022

The Magi and the Star of Bethlehem


In the Bible, only the apostle Matthew describes the wise men's visit. The former tax collector carefully recorded the facts, underlying tension, and ancient prophecy.

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 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.’”
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. 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. 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 New International Version

 Matthew relates a story of glorious promise shadowed by menace. Readers are intrigued, but left wanting to know more. Who were the magi? Why did they think the star heralded the birth of a king? What was the star?

Who were the magi?

Magi is a Greek term which might be rendered as sages, astrologers, or priests. The wise men have been described as all three. Although the Bible does not state how many visitors came to the manger, Robin M. Jensen writes in "Witnessing the Divine" that the earliest images, from mid-third century frescoes in the Catacomb of Priscilla, show three. 

From the Catacomb of Priscilla
Photo Courtesy Scala/Art Resource

In many early images, the magi appear to point or gaze at a star overhead. Camels sometimes walk behind them, as in a fourth-century sarcophagus in the Vatican museum. 

In the following sixth-century mosaic from Ravenna, Italy, the sages carry gifts in fluted vessels. Followed by martyred saints, the wise men approach Mary and Jesus. The names Balthassar, Melchior, and Gaspar are inscribed above their heads.

The Ravenna Mosaic, courtesy Scala/Art Resource

In the mosaic above, Balthassar wears a long brown beard. Eventually, he would be described as an African or Moor. Melchior is a clean-shaven youth. Gaspar has long gray hair; over time, he would become the balding man who kneels before the babe in countless Renaissance images, including the following Italian painting.

Adoration of the Magi - Andrea Mantegna - Courtesy J. Paul Getty Museum

Why did the wise men think the star heralded the birth of a king?

As astrologers, the wise men may have interpreted the unusual star rising as an omen. As highly-educated sages and priests, they may have been familiar with Hebrew messianic prophecies.

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."
          Numbers 24:17a NIV

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, 
     “when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, 
a King who will reign wisely 
     and do what is just and right in the land."
          Jeremiah 23:5 NIV

The magi decided to investigate and followed the star's path first to King Herod and then to Bethlehem, where it appeared to stop over a house where the child had recently been born. The wise men paid the baby homage due a king and presented their gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

What was the star?

In his commentary, John MacArthur states,

"This could not have been a supernova or a conjunction of planets, as some modern theories suggest, because of the way the star moved and settled over one place (Matt. 2:9). It is more likely a supernatural reality similar to the Shekinah that guided the Israelites in the days of Moses."

By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night. Exodus 13:21

I believe MacArthur's opinion, that the star led the wise men in a way similar to the pillar of fire guiding the Israelites, perfectly fits the miraculous story.

However, another opinion, also fitting the biblical record, is offered by Simo Parpola in "The Magi and the Star," BAS Bible Review December 2001.

Parpola writes that Babylonian astronomy holds the key to identifying the star and dating Jesus' birth. He theorizes that the magi believed the star would lead them to a new king. Why?

What did the magi know?

Although it is often translated "wise men," magoi, the term Matthew uses for magi, refers to Persian astronomers or scholars. Babylonian astronomy, tied to astrology and divination, interpreted signs in the heavens as messages from gods to the king.

With no telescopes in existance, the magi could view only five planets, but surviving almanacs reveal they could accurately compute significant movements of these planets and the moon in advance.

Parpola writes that modern science identifies several major astronomical events around the time Jesus was born. He dismissed all but one as being too early or late to be considered. However, ancient computations on four excavated clay tablets reveal how the magi understood a major conjunction in 7 B.C.E.

That there are four copies is remarkable, underscoring that this 11-month conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in Pisces was extremely rare. During this time, the planets met three times, appearing as a brilliant star.

How did this lead the wise men to search for a king?

Wise men follow the star - courtesy Deposit Photos

In Babylon, Jupiter was known as the star of Marduk, the supreme god. Saturn was the star of the king, the earthly representative of the god. Mars was the star of Amurru or the West (Syria-Palestine). This conjunction spoke a significant astrological message, and the magi would begin to analyze its meaning.

Why did they head west? And why visit Herod?

The second meeting of the planets occurred in the month of Tishri (October). 
Tishri being known as the month of Amurru would further inspire the magi to travel West. 

Jupiter and Saturn were in opposition to the sun and shining at their brightest. Jupiter (star of the supreme god) appeared directly above Saturn (star of the king). The constellation Pisces provided a stationary backdrop for the planets as they moved together through the night sky.
The magi's journey of about 750 miles from Babylon to Jerusalem would have taken about three weeks by donkey or camel. If they left in early October, they would have arrived before November 7, when Jupiter reached a second stationary point and the "traveling" star seemed to stop.

Parpola describes in interesting detail (The Magi and the Star) how the Earth and other planets overtake one another during their orbits. As the Earth caught the planet Jupiter in the sky, it would appear to pause, then travel backward until Earth passed. 

On November 20, Saturn reached another such overtaking. Both dates—the 7th for Jupiter and 20th for Saturn—would fit Matthew’s description of a star stopping above Bethlehem.

The third conjunction occurred on the 14th of Kislev, December 1. 

Parpola concludes, "How could a star lead the magi to Jerusalem and Bethlehem? These Babylonian astronomers would have 'followed' a star only based on its astrological significance. In 7 B.C.E., they read the message of the 'star'—that a messiah-king would be born in Syria-Palestine—and they headed to a leading political center in the region, King Herod’s court." 

Thank you for reading! May you have a blessed and merry Christmas.

WHIRLWIND ~ Whispers on the Wind, Book 2 

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A king's downfall and a love that transcends war

SPURNED BY POTENTIAL SUITORS, Miriam travels to Jezreel to care for her cousin’s son. There, the precocious seven-year-old works his way into her heart. When Arameans swarm the land like locusts, Miriam focuses on the safety of her young ward but promises adventures beyond the city walls when the war ends.

Gershon, a quiet and kind vintner, is happily building a life for his wife, son, and aging parents. But when his wife dies during childbirth and war looms on the horizon, he must make a decision—will he take a new wife before his heart can mend?

Meanwhile, Dov, a young officer crosses paths with the “bird girl” he remembers from the past, now grown to womanhood. That she is a beautiful woman matters not, as he is a career soldier. Unexpectedly charged with leading Ahab’s army against the Arameans, Dov anticipates death and defeat in Samaria, but when a prophet pledges victory, Dov vows to fight to the end.

When an unlikely victory brings freedom, a bright future seems imminent. Then one afternoon Miriam witnesses a tragedy and must flee with the boy to keep them both safe. With henchmen on their trail, will they find refuge—and her heart the home she’s longed for?



DANA MCNEELY writes biblical novels from an Arizona oasis, where she lives with her hubby the constant gardener, two good dogs, an antisocial cat, and myriad migrating butterflies. When not researching, writing, or struggling with the mysteries of social media, Dana can be found wandering in her personal Eden dreaming up new stories.

You may follow Dana at https://DanaMcNeely.com and receive a free eBook. The Eyes of the Lord is a prequel to Rain. 

For further reading ~

The MacArthur Bible Commentary Scholarly commentary on scripture and prophecy mentioned in this post.
Biblical Archeology Society Collection: The Three Magi  In this collection, various scholars, scientists, and historians have written about the Magi and the star in interesting detail.

Witnessing the Divine: The Magi in Art and Literature Also from Biblical Archeology, this article is the source of several images in this post. 

BAS Library - The Magi and the Star Source of the latter part of this post. Deep analysis of stars and planetary conjunctions leading to a plausible dating of Jesus' birth.


  1. Thank you for posting today, and I hope you had a wonderful Christmas. I appreciate your information regarding the magi and the star.

  2. Thank you, Connie, it was quite wonderful! Hoping the same for you.