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Why did they think a bright star in the heavens signifies the birth of a divine king? Why did they connect it with Israel and Jerusalem of all places? They weren’t even Jewish! And what made them pack their bags and take a long journey to go and meet this child?
Can you imagine the scene?
“Hey Melchior! Something interesting is happening here in the sky! Get away from the firelight and come look here, I want to show you something!”.
“You’re so excitable Caspar! What is it now? I am still finishing my lamb chop. Take a breath, I will be there in a minute”.
Maybe that is how the conversation started. The Magi — stargazers in an open plane pondering the heavens and studying the constellations. Or maybe in an ancient library, oil lamps burning until late at night, dusty scrolls and parchments lying around, grey-haired men with long beards discussing the mysteries of the universe.
Since I was a boy, I always wondered about them.
So, who were the Magi?
The term Magi means Wise Men. This title was linked to the priestly classes originally from Babylon and Persia. Their work was to study sacred texts and watch the movement of the heavens to interpret possible divine messages.
The Magi from our Bibles were familiar with the Jewish religion and customs and could have been of Jewish origin themselves. The Jews were exiled to Babylon in 586 B.C. The book of Daniel tells us that the young Jewish nobility was incorporated into the Babylonian king’s court (Daniel 1). They learned about the Babylon culture and religion and served in the king’s administration. That is how Daniel and his three friends ended up fulfilling senior positions in the Babylonian and Mede-Persian Empires. Daniel, specially gifted to repeat and interpret Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams, even got promoted to second in the kingdom and chief of the Wise Men (Daniel 2:48). The Wise Men were also referred to as…
Daniel’s devotion to Yahweh paired with his leadership over the foreign Magi would have ensured that the Jewish religion became part of the new Magi-curriculum.
Not all the Jews in Babylon made the return trip home to Jerusalem (Ezra 1, 2). Some of them said #IAmStaying although they kept their Jewish identity. And this is how we have Jewish, or at least Jewish-aware, Magi living outside of Israel whilst remaining interested in the ancient Jewish religious texts; today known as the Old Testament.
Common misconceptions about the Magi
Our classic Nativity scenes from children’s Bible storybooks have a few things wrong.
- Nowhere in the Bible do we read how many Magi there were. The Nativity scenes have three for convenience, possibly because they presented three gifts.
- They weren’t there on the night of Jesus birth. They came between 1 and 2 years later. Luke’s rendition of the story ends with only the shepherds visiting the baby. Matthew has the Magi worshipping a toddler-age Jesus in a house, sometime later (probably between one and two years)
- The star they followed did lead them somewhere, but only on the last leg of the journey (from Jerusalem and into Bethlehem). When they left their homeland they connected what they saw in the heavens with the birth of an important Jewish king, hence going to Jerusalem, the Jewish capital.
What did the ancient scholars from the Middle East know about the stars, the celestial movements, and the constellations? Quite a lot! They didn’t make a distinction between astronomy (scientific exploration of celestial objects and space) and astrology (the interpretation of the movements of the celestial bodies influencing human affairs) like we do today. Numerous archaeological evidence exists to show they were well versed in both. They also had the mathematical prowess to track the heavenly movements, make calculations and align their calendars. The zodiac’s twelve constellations most familiar to us today, became prominent in Babylonian astronomy around 400 B.C., but it is believed to have been well studied for centuries earlier. Our Magi from the New Testament were experts in these constellations. The zodiac traces the sun and moon’s movements through each of the constellations.
I always enjoy the Naked Bible Podcast by Michael S. Heiser and Trey Stricklin. In one of their episodes they discuss some options on the actual birthday of Jesus (it’s not 25 December, of course). In it, they cover a lot of ground pertaining to the Magi and their stargazing, and I draw much of the next section from that episode. You can find the original recording here, as well as a similarly themed episode entitled “Is Christmas a pagan holiday?” here. They include references to some additional peer-reviewed academic material which covers the research and can be downloaded. It is quite informative and I highly recommend it.
Do the stars tell us anything?
Certainly, nothing in the Bible encourages us to consult modern astrology for answers to human affairs. But a good first question to start with would be: is there somewhere in the Scriptures which would make the Magi think they would find meaning from looking at the stars? Indeed, there is. The Apostle Paul actually makes us aware of it.
In Romans 10 Paul talks about people who have not heard about Christ yet (either Jew or Gentile). He emphasises how important it is for us to evangelise with that famous line:
So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the words of Christ – Romans 10:17.
But then he goes on to ask and answer a strange question:
But I ask, have they not heard? Indeed they have, for “Their voice has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world” – Romans 10:18
Let’s pause here. Where does Paul get that from? It comes from Psalm 19:4. The first 4 verses give some context:
The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words,
whose voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world. – Psalm 19:1-4
Paul’s point is that God’s glory is communicated by the creation itself, and he specifically emphasises the celestial bodies.
So, the Magi would have known this Psalm. They would also have known several other places in the Old Testament which make mention of some heavenly constellations, for example, Orion and Pleiades in Job 9:9.
To be clear, the options we are discussing here are not prophecies, interpretations of prophecies or anything like that. We are simply trying to seek possible explanations of what the Magi could have seen that set them off on their journey.
OK, so we can’t find anything in the Old Testament directly which gives us a clue of what the Magi saw. Is there something in the New Testament that could help us to understand the Bethlehem Star in Matthew 2? Yes, there is.
Revelation 12 describes the birth of Jesus, as well as his ascension, in clear astronomical terms. However, it doesn’t quote the Old Testament and so it cannot be seen as part of the Old Testament messianic prophetic framework. It is something that John records well after Jesus’ birth, in a way looking back and giving us the context necessary to possibly help us understand the Magi’s vigilance.
The Story in the Heavens
Revelation 12:1-6 reads:
1. And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.
2. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth.
3. And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems.
4. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it.
5. She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne,
6. and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days.
In this passage, we have the sun, moon and stars mentioned, and they’re all astronomical objects. The description that the woman is clothed with the sun is common astronomical language of the day for the sun being in the midst of a constellation. The only woman in the zodiac is the constellation Virgo.
So, this gives us a point of reference, it is very plausible to see the Revelation 12 sign language as referring to Virgo, a zodiac constellation.
In ancient astrology, there’s an obvious link between the Virgin daughter of Zion and Virgo, which literally means Virgin. The woman from our Revelation passage has on her head the “crown of twelve stars” (v. 1), and in Jewish literature, these are references to the twelve tribes of Israel. Joseph’s dream in Genesis 37 makes this link comfortable. Jewish writers like Josephus and Philo also believed that the 12 stars representing the tribes corresponded to the twelve signs of the zodiac. Several mosaics have been uncovered in ancient Jewish synagogues confirming this connection.
Virgo has nine stars and three planets (from the constellation of Leo) around her head, making up the “twelve stars” imagery.
The passage clearly refers to Jesus’ birth; verse 5 says it is a male child who will “rule all the nations with a rod of iron”, a reference to Psalm 2:9.
In the Bible, the woman who gives birth to Messiah is the faithful community of Israel, who is present both before and after birth. Israel, as the virgin of Zion that produces the Messiah, is well-known theology from the Old Testament (2 Kings 19:21; Isaiah 37:21; Jeremiah 14:17). Of course, Mary was also a virgin who gave birth to the Messiah, but the context here fits Israel better. Mary wasn’t persecuted, for example, and these verses cover the birth, ascension and what happens afterwards.
Revelation tells us that the Woman gives birth to the Messiah. How would the Magi have linked Virgo to the birth of a king? Well, one explanation is that they would have been able to connect the dots pretty easily from the Isaiah 7:14 prophecy about
The virgin will conceive and shall bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.
But even if they did not make that connection, from a pagan perspective, Virgo has strong associations with other ancient “mother goddesses” — figures that would produce divine kings.
There are some additional links of importance at this point.
The constellation just above the head of Virgo in the zodiac is Leo (the Lion), as can be seen in the image above. The tribe of Judah, which produced the line of kings and ultimately Jesus the Messiah, has been linked with a lion from when Jacob blessed his son in Genesis 49:9-10. Jesus himself is also directly referred to as the Lion of Judah in Revelation 5:5. Jewish astronomers, therefore, associated the constellation of Leo with royalty. For the gentiles, the constellation of Leo was also linked to royalty because of the star Regulus, called the “King Star” by ancient astrologers. It was big and bright. So, we have the King constellation (Leo) and the King Star (Regulus) in the Leo constellation.
In trying to determine Jesus’ original birthdate using modern knowledge of astronomy, researchers realised that on one of the potential dates they suspected Jesus might have been born on is when Regulus came in conjunction with the planet Jupiter (September 3 B.C.). The largest planet, Jupiter is known as the King Planet and has quite a presence in the sky. So, we have the King constellation (Leo), with the King Star (Regulus) and the King Planet (Jupiter) all tied together in this time period. To be in conjunction with Regulus would have made a pretty big impression on stargazers of the time. From an ancient astrological interpretation point of view, you have two conjoined signs of royal birth in it, and the Magi had certainly noticed.
If we put all these things together, we have:
- The Woman/Virgo with twelve stars on her head. Rich with Jewish religious imagery as well as physical representation in the night sky via the constellations
- The sun clothing Virgo (giving us the position of the sun in the ecliptic, in other words roughly between August 23 to September 22)
- The moon at Virgo’s feet (i.e. looking at the sky the moon would appear to be at the bottom of the Virgo constellation). The moon in this position, given all the other signs in the sky, actually narrows down the time frame quite significantly for Jesus’ birth to a 90-minute window in September, 3 B.C.
- The dragon, which we have not discussed here to conserve space but is represented by either Hydra or Malina — both workable options
- Jupiter and Regulus is seen together as representing royal birth with Jupiter as the most likely item to have been seen in the sky by the Magi
These points give us good coverage, but leaves us with one remaining problem. The Magi only met Jesus a year or two after Jesus’ birth. So, how do we understand the phenomenon where the Magi followed the star to Bethlehem? The answer lies in Jupiter’s well known “retrograde motion”, the appearance of moving back and forth in the night sky.
Between the times when the Magi first noticed the signs in the heavens, and then eventually reaching Jerusalem and then Bethlehem, more than a year has passed. During that time, Jupiter was going through its retrograde motion which was tracked by the Magi and it influenced the trajectory of their journey in a major way.
And so, a probable answer to the question “what did the Magi see?” would be the conjoined Jupiter and Regulus, given proper context by the wider context of what happened in the constellations during that time.
When you walk by the Nativity display in the mall this year, think twice. When you see the Wise Men standing next to the friendly cow by the manger, remember: It was not so! Popular culture and convenient Christian traditions are not always closely aligned with the Bible. And what other things might you believe or “know” without it really being so? Perhaps something as simple as the number of wise men? Or perhaps something as serious as the nature of salvation and the characteristics of God Himself?
In spending some time on this topic, I realised that there are three important things I can learn from the Magi.
- Be alert, keep on learning and studying. The Magi did. They had their noses in the Scriptures, but they were also present in their own time and circumstances. For us, this means that we need to read our Bibles more and daily be transformed by it. We should ensure our spiritual diets include ample intake from the Scriptures directly, before any other forms of spiritual food we might be getting in. Let’s beware of Spiritual junk food. Read, listen and challenge, think, contemplate and consider. The Lord speaks through his Word more than any other method on earth. It is available to us all for free.
- Journey. The Magi did. After they have learned and recognised the signs they were studying, they prepared, packed their bags and took on the journey. It was a journey of faith, not knowing all the details yet but knowing enough to realise something bigger than themselves are out there. Something higher than their existence and understanding. And they went out and actively pursued it.
- Respond. The Magi did. They responded in the right way to God’s calling, actively seeking out Jesus to worship him and serve him with what gifts they had.
Let’s become Wiser this year and let’s remember Proverbs 1:7:
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, fools despise wisdom and instruction.