The great 2020 conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn has rekindled interest in the “Star of Bethlehem.” Could it have been a conjunction of planets? A comet? A supernova? While there is no compelling argument that it could have been any stellar phenomenon we know of, the truth of the Star of Bethlehem has a much more intriguing and significant biblical explanation.
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” …
Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him.Matthew 2:1-11
Consider that in the Bible, stars and angels are often linked together. For example, Lucifer is called “the morning star,” and in the vision of Revelation 1, Jesus held seven stars which he identified as representing angels. The Christmas narrative already tells us, in Luke, that local shepherds saw angels shining in the night sky when Jesus was born. It makes sense that Magi in Persia saw a different but related vision of those same angels, giving them a sign of Christ’s birth at the same time as the shepherds. Seeing a vision is not a foreign idea in this narrative, since we are told that after presenting their gifts, God spoke to the Magi in a dream. Some time later, after the Magi left Herod, they saw the same bright angelic vision—still too high to identify as angels, but low enough to follow the five miles to Bethlehem. Understanding the star as a vision of angels is consistent with Luke’s account, and explains why no one else saw it (if Herod could see it, he would have followed it, himself).
But the nature of the star is not the most revealing question.
- How did the Magi know what the bright star/sign meant? (God forbids astrology and would hardly have used that as revelation.)
- Specifically, how did they know that it heralded the birth of a divine and universal king? (They accepted the child as their king, and they worshiped him.)
- And how did they know to go to Jerusalem? (Matthew says they followed the star from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, but not that they followed it from Persia to Jerusalem. It seems that after Herod’s confusion, they were relieved to once again see the star which they originally saw in Persia.)
The answers to all these questions are found in the Book of Daniel, the Jewish captive who, over five hundred years earlier, rose to become the greatest of all Babylonian/Persian Magi. Daniel wrote of a bright vision he saw in the night sky. He prophesied of a divine “Son of Man” who would begin to restore the kingdom of God—the Lord, the God of the Jews. He said this would happen during the fourth great kingdom to rise after Babylon, the one that would arise after Greece, which came to be Rome. Daniel said that this kingdom of God would grow to fill the earth. He prophesied that this Son of Man would inaugurate this kingdom by being cut off to atone for sin. And Daniel clearly, specifically, calculated that this would happen in the year we now call 33 AD. Finally, Daniel explicitly gave instructions that his prophecies be sealed away until the time came for them to be fulfilled.
Magi who later consulted those scrolls as Daniel requested could easily work backwards from the prophesied date of the Son of Man’s adult work to reasonably bracket an expected time for his birth. When God gave them a bright vision in the night sky, they assumed, correctly, that Daniel’s prophesy had begun to be fulfilled. They knew where to find this child—in Israel—so they traveled to its capital. And they knew who they would find, the divine/human king who would atone for the world’s sin and inaugurate a kingdom that would encompass people of every nation. Their only confusion came when Herod was clueless. But the reappearance of the angelic vision led them the last few miles of their journey.
The conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn is way cool, but it has nothing to do with the Magi. Their real story is much more amazing. It ties together the Old and New Testaments, and provides astounding evidence of Christ’s identity and mission to anyone willing to take Daniel seriously.
If you would like to pursue this biblical summary, I have detailed it all in A Larger Faith, the Book of Daniel.