Near the time of Jesus’ birth, “wise men from the east” appeared in Jerusalem inquiring, “Where is he who has been king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and have come to worship him” (Matthew 2:1–2). What exactly was this star?
Matthew tells us that it “went before” the magi, and that “it came to rest over the place where the child was” (Matthew 2:9). This is surely strange behavior for a star.
Over the centuries commentators have suggested that this star was a planetary conjunction, a comet or a supernova, a so-called new star.1
Grave difficulties beset each of these proposals, however. True, comets do traverse the sky, and supernovas and planetary conjunctions, because of the earth’s motion, at least appear to move. But that a lighted object high in the sky above could guide someone on the earth below to a precise location simply makes no sense. St. John Chrysostom, the famous Antiochean preacher of the fourth century, long ago recognized the difficulty and proposed a solution:
“Bethlehem’s star did not remaining on high point out the place, it not being possible for them [the magi] so to ascertain it; instead it came down and performed this office. For you know that a spot of such small dimensions, being only as much as a shed would occupy, or rather as much as the body of a little infant would take up, could not possibly be marked out by a star. For by reasons of its immense height, it could not sufficiently distinguish so confined a spot.”2
The same nation, that the star actually left its heavenly abode and descended to earth, and there-upon traveled to the infant Jesus, appears in the Protevangelium of James (21.3), an important second-century infancy narrative.
“And the wise men went forth. And behold, the star which they had seen in the east went before them, until they came to the cave. And it stood over the head of the child.”
But there are problems here too, Aside from meteors, heavenly objects obviously do not leave their orbits and descend to earth. Were a true star indeed to approach our planet, we would all soon perish in an inferno. We may be grateful that the stars are so far away and keep to their courses.
What then are we to make of Bethlehem’s star, whose behavior is so at odds with current knowledge? The answer lies in how the ancients understood stars—which was not at all as we do. Quite simply, Chrysostom’s idea of a star was not our idea of a star. Neither he nor the author of the Gospel of Matthew imagined stars to be immense, inanimate, energetic masses millions of light-years away from, and thousands of times larger than, our planet.
In antiquity, stars were widely thought to be living beings, and this is the clue to a correct understanding of Matthew’s text. A belief that the stars are alive belongs to worldwide folklore and indeed lies behind the common phenomenon of star worship. Greek myths depict divinities (Venus, for example) and heroes and heroines (such as Hercules and Andromeda) as stars. The Zoroastrian Pahlavi texts from ancient Iran equate the fravasûis (the eternal spirits of humanity) with heavenly bodies. The Egyptians identified the dead pharaoh with the Pole Star. Oceanic mythology regards the stars as children of the sun (female) and the moon (male). I could easily go on in this vein.
Jewish tradition also shared this view. The first-century Jewish Alexandrian philosopher Philo took it for granted, as did Plato and the Stoics before him, that the stars were living beings.3 The stars, Philo wrote, “are living creatures, but of a kind composed entirely of mind.”4 God, he said,
“set land-animals on the earth, aquatic creatures in the seas and rivers, and in heaven the stars, each of which is said to be not a living creature only but mind of the purest kind through and through; and therefore in air also, the remaining section of the universe, living creatures exist.”5
Although Philo represents a rather refined, philosophical Judaism, his conviction about the stars was, from very ancient times, a commonplace of Jewish thought. Already in Judges 5:20 we read: “From heaven fought the stars, from their courses they fought against Sisera.” The commentators inform us that this is more than oriental poetry and rhetoric: The text envisages the involvement of the stars, the cosmic forces of heaven, in Israel’s great victory.6
Similarly in Job 38:7 we read of a time “when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted together.” These two lines are in synonymous parallelism: The stars are the Sons of God, that is, the heavenly hosts.
This idea—that the stars are angels—is either stated or implicit in dozens of texts.7
It is also important for my purposes that angels commonly served as guides in ancient literature. For example, Exodus 14:19, which recounts how the children of Israel were led out of Egypt, reads:
“Then the angel of God went before the host of Israel, moved from before them and stood behind them.” Exodus 23:20 explains: “Behold, I send an angel before you, to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place which I have prepared.” This declaration, that Israel had an angelic guide, is then repeated in Exodus 23:23, 32:34 and 33:2.
A very strange book, of uncertain date and origin, known as the History of the Rechabites, makes the same point. At the beginning of this document—which is Christian in its present form but may in-corporate a Jewish source—God sends an angel to the pious Zosimus to guide him on his trek to find the island of the blessed Rechabites. This island turns out to be much like heaven. One is inevitably reminded of how often angels in apocalyptic literature appear as tour guides: They conduct seers to otherworldly places and reveal divine secrets.8
Angels are not only guides. They are also, like stars, bright. For example, the angel at Jesus’ tomb has the appearance of lightning (Matthew 28:3). Paul writes that Satan can disguise himself as “an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14). The extracanonical Life of Adam and Eve explains that Satan, in order to deceive Eve, made himself appear as an angel, and specifically like “the brightness of angels.” The pseudepigraphical Testament of Job tells us that a “light” conversed with Job and goes on to explain that this light was an angel.9 The Dead Sea Scrolls refer to the archangel Michael as “the Prince of Lights.”10 Finally, the meaning of Acts 6:15, when it states that Stephen’s face “was like the face of an angel,” is patent: It shone.
Angels also regularly descend from heaven to earth. The story of the angels and Jacob’s ladder in Genesis 28:10–17 comes immediately to mind, as does the passage in 3 Maccabees 6:16–29, where God opens “heaven’s gates” to send forth two angels of glorious appearance, who thereupon confound the persecutors of the righteous Jews. In Revelation the seer speaks as follows: “And I saw an angel come down from heaven” (Revelation 18:1, 20:1). With this we may compare the first-century C.E. Jewish-Egyptian romance Joseph and Aseneth. There an angelic star comes down from heaven:
“And when Aseneth had ceased making confession to the Lord, behold, the morning star rose out of heaven in the east. And Aseneth saw it and rejoiced and said, ‘So the Lord God listened to my prayer, because this star rose as a messenger [Greek: aggelos] and herald of the light of the great day.’ And Aseneth kept looking, and behold, close to the morning star, the heaven was torn apart and great and unutterable light appeared. And Aseneth saw it and fell on her face on the ashes. And a man came to her from heaven and stood by Aseneth’s head. And he called her and said, ‘Aseneth, Aseneth.’ And she said, ‘Who is he that calls me, because the door of my chamber is closed, and the tower is high, and how then did he come into my chamber?’ And the man called her a second time and said, ‘Aseneth, Aseneth.’ And she said, ‘Behold, here I am, Lord. Who are you, tell me.’ And the man said, ‘I am the chief of the house of the Lord and commander of the whole host of the Most High.’”11
The legend of Satan and his angels was also commonly represented as the falling of stars from heaven. As Revelation 12:4 has it, the devil, in the guise of a red dragon, “swept down a third of the stars of heaven, and cast them to the earth.”12
We may now return to Bethlehem’s star in the Gospel of Matthew. Today we know that astronomical objects do not go before people to guide them on their way. Nor can they come to rest over a person, a house or a city. Nor do they leave heaven and come down to earth. But in old Jewish and Christian tradition, angels, who are identified with stars, can do these things and in fact often do them.
In short, I believe we should identify the star in Matthew 2 as an angel. To put the matter some-what differently, the star that went before the magi in Matthew was akin to the angel that went before Israel in Exodus as he fled pharaoh’s armies.
As support for my reading of Matthew, I can cite an old and little-studied apocryphal gospel, the so-called Arabic Gospel of the Infancy. This relates, in chapter 7, the following story:
“And it came to pass, when the Lord Jesus was born at Bethlehem of Judaea, in the time of King Herod, behold, magi came from the east. … And there were with them gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And they adored him [Jesus], and presented the gifts to him. … In the same hour there appeared to them an angel in the form of that star which had before guided them on their journey; and went away, following the guidance of its light, until they arrived in their own country.”
This, I believe, only makes explicit what is implicit in Matthew, namely, that the guiding star was a guiding angel.
I must confess that the interpretation found in the Arabic Gospel of the Infancy is not the dominant interpretation in Christian exegetical history. Most ancient commentators have assumed that Bethlehem’s star was an inanimate celestial phenomenon. But I think I can explain the reason for this. It has to do with Origen, the great but controversial church father of the third century. Origen agreed with the Greek philosophers that the heavenly bodies are alive and have souls. Indeed, he spent much time discoursing on the subject.13 His theology also allowed for both universalism—every-one will make it to heaven—and the transmigration of souls, which aroused so much opposition in the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries that he was officially declared a heretic by the orthodox church. This condemnation of Origen’s teaching, combined with a desire to obliterate all traces of polytheism from Christian theology and a need to eliminate any basis for astrology, led the great church father Jerome, the emperor Justinian and other prominent Christians to argue that the stars are not alive.14 In the end they prevailed. As the Second Council of Constantinople (553 C.E.) put it: If anyone shall say that the heaven, the sun, the moon, the stars … have souls, and are reasonable beings, let him be anathema.” Thus the idea that the heavenly bodies are animate ceased to be an option for Christian theology; and with that the identification of Bethlehem’s star with an angel exited the house of exegetical options.
I conclude with two observations: First, it may well be that any investigation of what modern astronomy might tell us about Bethlehem’s star amounts to a search for what was never there.
Second, nothing said here should prejudice one’s answer to the inevitable question, what, if anything, really happened? Did wise men from the east follow a light—be it star or angel—to Bethlehem and so discover Jesus? Or is Matthew’s story to be considered an haggadic-type legend whose meaning is to be found elsewhere than in its correspondence to historical facts? Those disinclined to believe that wise foreigners trailed a heavenly portent to Judea will, obviously, be no more inclined to credit the report of an angelic guide. On the other hand, those accustomed to believing that the creator arranged a conjunction, supernova or comet to coincide with Jesus’ birth should have no trouble accepting that the same creator directed the magi to the Messiah through the instrument of an angel. The issue of interpretation is not the issue of historicity. This I leave to the reader.
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