Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Magi and the Star

Matthew 2

1 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, 2 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." 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:
6 "'And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.'"

7 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. 8 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." 9 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. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. 12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.

I have had a lot of questions about this passage. Two related biggies:

  1. What exactly is the "star"?
  2. How did the magi obtain their information about the Hebrew Messiah?

I've considered that the star was just some astrological "alignment" that resulted in the occultic conclusion that the Messiah was going to be born. Hey, God can use whatever means necessary, can't He? I've also considered that it could be some sort of astronomical anomaly. You know, some star went supernova or something, or three planets/stars lined up just like in the movie and made a bright place. I don't think either of these is correct.

The word "anatole" in Greek refers to a dawning, or rising star. It is often translated "in the East" in this passage. Here I have used the ESV which translates it, "when it rose". It matters not whether it rose in the east like any other astronomical object or if it rose in the west. If it was an astronomical object it would have rose in the east. However, it "went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was". It takes a lot of linguistic gymnastics to make this phrase figurative where such figurative phrases don't exist elsewhere. Therefore, I don't believe it was astrological. The magi had been in Jerusalem. Bethlehem is a scant 5 miles south of Jerusalem. Any astronomical anomaly would not show a discernible distinction between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. My conclusion? I don't know. For One who Created the Universe, this sort of thing is right up His alley. It rather goes along with the parting of the Red Sea. Miraculous, I'd say.

So what of the knowledge of the Magi. Scholars are pretty certain they came from Persia. There was once a Hebrew prophet who seemed to specialize in details of the advents of Christ, particularly the second. Daniel spent his life in Persia. He was well known by the Persians to be a man of God and harbored great wisdom and understanding. He had once been placed in a position of power - that of the head of the magi:

Daniel 5

10 The queen, because of the words of the king and his lords, came into the banqueting hall, and the queen declared, "O king, live forever! Let not your thoughts alarm you or your color change. 11 There is a man in your kingdom in whom is the spirit of the holy gods. In the days of your father, light and understanding and wisdom like the wisdom of the gods were found in him, and King Nebuchadnezzar, your father — your father the king — made him chief of the magicians, enchanters, Chaldeans, and astrologers, 12 because an excellent spirit, knowledge, and understanding to interpret dreams, explain riddles, and solve problems were found in this Daniel, whom the king named Belteshazzar. Now let Daniel be called, and he will show the interpretation."

The magi almost certainly had personal prophecy from Daniel written down that they would have used to know the general time and location of the birth of the Hebrew Messiah. Incidentally, why else would they care and how could they understand the appropriate gifts to bring a child king prepared to die for His people?

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