The star of Bethlehem and the wise men or magicians from the East

The magicians from the East, formerly also called sages, saw a special phenomenon in the starry sky. Opinions are divided about what exactly it was that they saw. The evangelist Matthew tells that they followed the star they saw. So they arrived in Bethlehem via Jerusalem. There they worshiped the newly born King Jesus. The star has a special meaning in the Bible. The star has been talked about for hundreds of years before Christ and the symbolism of the star is also cited in Revelation, the last book of the Bible. This star is often depicted around Christmas and used as decoration.

The wise men or magicians or kings from the East

The story of the wise men from the East is central to Epiphany. The fact that kings are spoken of probably has its origins in Psalm 72 verse 10 and 11 where it says: ‘ May […] the kings of Tarshish and the coastlands bring him gifts, the kings of Saba and Sheba offer him tribute, may all kings bow down to him, all nations serve him . A text from Isaiah also resonates in the story of the wise men; out of Sheba they shall all come ; they shall offer gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the glorious deeds of the Lord ” (Isaiah 60:6b). The trio is derived from the three gifts they give, gold, frankincense and myrrh. In ancient Christian art their number varies. Sometimes there are three or four, but sometimes eight or twelve are mentioned.

Sages or magicians? The people who followed the star of Bethlehem are sometimes called wise men, but sometimes also called magicians. The use of the term ‘pointing’ sounds a bit unclear. In Biblical times, in the Jewish-Hellenistic period, philosophers formed the group referred to as ‘wise men’. However, the story is not about philosophers, but about a kind of ‘naturalists’. The magicians were astronomers. They combined what we today call astronomy and astrology. Astronomy is the scientific study of the heavenly bodies and astrology ‘star divination’ has more to do with the supposed connection between the fate of people and the phenomena observed in the sky, such as the position of the stars.

The names of the magicians

Soon the three magicians were given names: Casper, Balthassar and Melchior. More often, anonymous Biblical figures are later assigned a name. For example, the good thief on the cross is called Dismas and Pilate’s wife is called Procla. The three wise men are associated with the three sons of Noah, the progenitors of humanity. The name Baltassar is the Latin version of Belshazzar, king of the Chaldeans (Daniel 5:30; 6:1). Baltassar is then the representative of the Semites. The name Melchior means ‘king of light’. So he could stand for the people of the South, the sons of Ham. This is how a black king makes his entrance. The third sage is called Casper. This name comes from the Caspian Sea. They come to the then three known continents. The three of them symbolize that ‘all kings bow down to him, all nations serve him’ (Psalm 72:11).

The star in Matthew’s story

The evangelist Matthew writes the following about the star seen by the Magi: ‘ Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, asking, Where is the King of the Jews who is born? For we have seen his star in the east, and have come to worship him ” (Matthew 2:1-2). King Herod is not aware of any royal child and he asks the scribe for advice. They say that the messianic king would be born in Bethlehem. The king tells this to the magicians. Matthew then continues: ‘ They heard the king and departed. and behold, the star which they had seen in the east went before them, until it came and stood over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with great joy. And they entered the house, and saw the child with Mary his mother, and fell down and worshiped him. And they opened their treasures, and offered him gifts: gold, and frankincense, and myrrh ‘ (Matthew 2:9-11).

Physical explanations of the star of Bethlehem

The magicians saw a star. It must have been a special star that caught their attention. The question is what they saw. Was it really a star? Or have they observed another phenomenon in the sky. Various physical explanations are offered by astronomers.

The conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn
The German astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) wrote in 1606 about the ‘ascension’ of Jupiter in the ‘coniunctio magna’ of 7 BC. This would be confirmed by the star calendar of the city of Sippar on the Euphrates River, which indicates the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the sign of Pisces for the year 7 BC. We speak of a conjunction when celestial bodies, in this case two planets, appear to be close together in the sky. A planetary occultation of one planet by another planet occurs very rarely. In the planetary occultation from 7 BC, Jupiter is seen as the star of the world ruler, the constellation of Pisces is the sign of the end times and the planet Saturn in the East is the star of Palestine. This could then take on the following meaning: in Palestine, in the year of the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the sign of Pisces, the ruler of the end times will appear. That could have happened in the year 7 BC.

A supernova A supernova is a kind of explosion in the universe. Often it is a heavy star or a light white dwarf that explodes. A supernova produces a lot of light. This explosion is sometimes visible from Earth for several months . It looks like there is a very bright star in the sky. Sometimes a supernova produces so much light that it can even be seen during the day. So it is a special and striking phenomenon that can be seen in the sky. Perhaps the magi saw a supernova and associated it with the coming king of the Jews. From sources outside the Bible there is no writing about a bright supernova. Of course, this does not mean that a supernova did not occur.

A comet
Another possibility is that the magicians observed a comet. In many popular images of the Christmas Star of Bethlehem, this star also has a tail, which is associated with a comet. Some comets can be seen from Earth . There are comets that are regularly visible because they come close to Earth every so often in their orbit. These are called periodic comets. There are also non-periodic comets. They only come close to Earth once. This happens unexpectedly and cannot therefore be calculated in advance. It is actually impossible to determine whether a non-periodic comet was visible in the time around the birth of Jesus. This is possible for periodic comets. For example, calculations show that Halley’s Comet could be seen about 12 years before Christ. It then took until 65 years AD before this comet could be observed again.

The star of Jesus in the Biblical context

Many theologians are critical of the physical explanations of the star of Bethlehem. For example, the New Testament scholar Jakob Bruggen writes in his explanation of the Bible book of Matthew (2012): ‘ The much-discussed suggestions are based on the idea that the star was a generally striking phenomenon. However, it cannot be ruled out that the magicians used a unique way of interpretation, making what seemed ‘ordinary ‘ to others meaningful to them. Bruggen (2012) also proposes that it is possible that God caused phenomena to occur in the stellar world that were only observed by the magicians and to which the eyes of others remained closed (compare, for example, 2 Kings 6: 17-18 and Acts 7: 55- 56). Other theologians are also skeptical about scientific explanations because the Bible is primarily about theology and salvation history. The text of the Gospel can be explained more literary from the context of the Bible than scientific theories can provide a definitive answer to the phenomenon of the star of Bethlehem.

A star rises from Jacob In Numbers 24 verse 17a, the non-Israelite fortuneteller Balaam says: ‘ I see him, but not now; I look at him, but not up close; a star rises from Jacob, a scepter rises from Israel ‘. In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Jewish Bible, the Hebrew word ‘scepter’ is replaced by ‘man’ (Greek: anthroopos ). In the Targum Onkelos, the Aramaic version of the Hebrew Bible written in Babylon, the word ‘sceptre’ has been replaced by ‘messiah’. Particularly interesting is the idea that the words of the magician Balaam are known in Babylon. The expectation of the extraordinary king in Judaism could therefore have been used as material by the magicians for their astrological calculations.

The Jewish tradition and the star In the Jewish tradition, the star from Jacob in Numbers 24:17 is interpreted as messianic. Jewish resistance leader Shimon bar Kochba fought against the Romans in the years 132 to 136 AD. He was seen by some of his followers as the Messiah. Rabbi Akiba greeted him in 132 as the ‘star son, the star of Jacob’. A coin from Bar Kokhba depicts a star above the temple. In later Jewish tradition, a link is often made between the stars and a person or the birth of a person. For example, rabbinic literature records that at the birth of Isaac, God increased the light of the sun forty-eight times . At the birth of the patriarch Abraham, a very large star is said to have appeared.

Jesus as a star The star of Bethlehem refers to Jesus. This reference can also be found elsewhere in the Bible. In the Bible book of Revelations 22:16, Jesus represents himself as a morning star. This star refers to the light of a new day. It is a star that gives hope. The one in whom this star rises becomes partaker of the light of Christ and the new day dawns for him or her (2 Peter 1:19). In contrast, the author of the letter Jude speaks of the false teachers of his time as wandering stars (Jude 13).

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