Wednesday, January 7, 2009

What was the Star?

Question: "What was the star of Bethlehem?"

Answer: The Star of Bethlehem is associated with the visit of the magi (wise men) from the East as recorded in Matthew 2:1-12. From this passage we see three things of interest. First, the text implies the Star appeared only to the magi in the East (the “East” most likely being the area of Persia, or modern-day Iran). There is no biblical record of anyone else observing this phenomenon. While we cannot be dogmatic regarding this point, it is clear that the magi observed something in the heavens that no one else observed that alerted them the Jewish Messiah was to be born (Matthew 2:2 refers to the star as being “His star”). Second, the Star prompted them to travel to Jerusalem, the Jewish capital. This would be the logical place to start looking for the birth of the King of the Jews. Third, when the magi were told that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, not in Jerusalem, they left. Upon their leaving, the Star that appeared to them in the East re-appeared and led them to Nazareth, and stopped once it was over the place Joseph and Mary were then staying (Matthew 2:9).

Now the Greek word that is translated “star” in the text is the word aster, which is the normal word for a star, a celestial body. The word is used 24 times in the New Testament, and in the majority of the uses it refers to a celestial body. It can be used to denote angels as it does in Revelation 12:4, when it is used to describe the fallen angels that followed Satan’s rebellion. However, in the sense it is used in Matthew 2, it is referring to a celestial body. Basic rules of biblical interpretation state that we should take the normal sense of the word unless there is compelling evidence to suggest otherwise. In fact, many biblical interpreters have done as much by suggesting a natural explanation of the Star of Bethlehem. Their suggestions range from calling it a supernova or a comet to saying it was the conjunction of several celestial bodies which provided a brighter-than-normal light in the sky.

However, there is compelling evidence to suggest that what we see in Matthew 2:1-12 is not a natural stellar phenomenon, but something unexplained by science. That evidence lies in the three things noted above. First, the fact that the Star only appeared to the magi indicates that this was no ordinary stellar phenomenon. Furthermore, what led the magi to travel to Jerusalem was the fact that they were looking for the sign of the Messiah. How would Persian magi know about the Jewish Messiah? They would have been exposed to the ministry of the Jewish prophet Daniel who was the chief of the court seers for Persia. In Daniel 9:24-27, we see a prophecy that gives a timeline for the birth of the Messiah. Second, they would have been aware of the prophetic utterance of the pagan prophet Balaam (who was from the town of Pethor on the Euphrates River near Persia) in Numbers 24:17 (a prophecy that specifically mentions a “star coming out of Jacob”). Finally, celestial bodies normally move from east to west due to the earth’s rotation, yet this Star led the magi from Jerusalem south to Bethlehem. Not only that, but it led them directly to the place where Joseph and Mary were staying; stopping directly overhead. There is no natural stellar phenomenon that can do that.

So if the normal usage of the word “star” doesn’t fit the context, what does? What we likely have here in Matthew 2:1-12 is a manifestation of what the Jews call the Shekinah Glory. The Shekinah, which literally means “dwelling of God,” was the visible presence of the Lord. The most notable example of the Shekinah can be found in Exodus 13:21. The Shekinah was the pillar of cloud that led the Israelites by day, and the pillar of fire that led them by night. The Shekinah fits all of the biblical evidence available in Matthew 2:1-12. The Shekinah can appear to specific individuals, it can disappear and re-appear, it was seen frequently in connection with Christ’s ministry (e.g., Matthew 17:5; Acts 1:9), and it can lead people to specific locations. It shouldn’t surprise us that God would use a miraculous sign to signal the advent of His Son, the Messiah, into the world.

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