Bethlehem Star: What It Was, What It Meant


From the Biblical account in Matthew, unpacking it verse by verse, we can compile a list of nine qualities that must be present before any celestial phenomena could be considered to be the Biblical Star of Bethlehem. If any qualification is missing, then we will assume we haven't found our Star. Let’s start with the nine points of Christ’s star:


1. It signified birth.

2. It signified kingship.

3. It had a connection with the Jewish nation.

4. It rose in the east, like other stars.

5. It appeared at a precise time.

6. Herod didn't know when it appeared.

7. It endured over time.

8. It was ahead of the Magi as they went south from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.

9. It stopped over Bethlehem.


All of these following verses come from the Gospel of Matthew Chapter 2:1:

“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod” (NIV)


To begin, we see again how important the date of Herod's death is to the investigation.

If Herod died in 4 BC, then Christ had to be born before that year. But if Herod died in 1 BC, as the best evidence indicates, then we should look at the years 2 and 3 BC.


Matthew 2:1b continues: “Magi from the east came to Jerusalem…” (NIV)


Who are these magi?


The word, 'magi,' which is sometimes translated 'wise men,' is the root from which we get our word 'magic.' This doesn't make them all magicians, in the present sense of the word. Some of them were learned men in general, who studied the physical world and were knowledgeable about many things, including the stars. Magi were often court astronomers who were consulted by the rulers of the day for guidance in affairs of state. This was also true in much earlier times. For example, during the Babylonian captivity of the Jews, some 500 years earlier, King Nebuchadnezzar kept a stable of court magi.


Nebuchadnezzar made the Jewish prophet Daniel Chief Magus of his court when Daniel was able to interpret a dream the other magi could not. There were magi of various schools, and some were more respected than others. We know something of a particularly prestigious school of magi from the writings of Philo. Philo was a Jewish philosopher and contemporary of Jesus who lived in the large Jewish community of Alexandria, Egypt. Philo wrote in praise of an Eastern school of magi and their great learning and understanding of the natural world. This school may have descended from the Babylonian magi of Daniel's day.


Matthew does report that the Wise Men were from the East, and Babylon is east of Judea. It was at one time part of the Persian Empire, which ties in with Philo. So it is possible the Wise Men were of this prestigious Eastern school. This would account for Herod giving them an audience, and for his strong reaction to the news they brought. Matthew 2:2 continues with Herod’s question:


 “...and asked, "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” (NIV)

The Magis' question gives us three points for our list of qualifications for the Star. Whatever happened in the sky indicated 1) birth, 2) kingship and 3) Jews. It also gives us a clue about the Magi. They were interested in things Jewish.


In verse 2, Matthew writes:

“We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him." (NIV)

When the wise men said "we saw his star in the east," they didn't mean "we saw his star while we were in the East."


The Greek text here says the Star was "en anatole," meaning they saw his star rising in the east. That's what all but polar stars do, because of the rotation of the Earth. Stars rise in the east, but not all celestial objects do that.


So, that's another qualification for the Star: 4) it must rise in the east like most other stars.


The motive of the Magi in coming to Jerusalem tells us a great deal more about them. They wanted to worship a Jewish king. It can't be proven from the text, but it is quite possible that some of the Magi were of Jewish descent, perhaps a Jewish remnant from Daniel's day. This would help explain why a Jewish philosopher, Philo, would admire them, why they were watching the sky for things Jewish, why they wanted to worship a Jewish king, and why they were taken so seriously by Herod and Jewish chief priests.


If they were not Jews, then they must have been most impressive magi indeed, as Jews of the time were deeply disdainful of pagans and their beliefs. In verse 3, we read Herod’s response:


“When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.” (NIV)


You must know more to understand just how very troubled Herod and Jerusalem became at the Magis' news. Historians tell us that respect for the stars and guidance derived from them was at a peak. Both ancient historians and the Bible make it clear that the Jews of this period expected a new Jewish ruler to arise, based upon Jewish prophecy. And it was accepted that the stars could announce such an arrival. For example, about 60 years earlier, in 63 B.C., magi made a presentation to the Roman Senate. They described celestial portents indicating that a new ruler had been born. Evidently regretting that news, the Senate responded by ordering the death of baby boys in the candidate age range. Sound familiar? It turns out that when Herod ordered the slaughter of children in Bethlehem, he may have been following a sort of Roman precedent.


That precedent may be one reason Jerusalem was troubled at the news the Wise Men brought. Perhaps they realized the Romans might shed blood in response in Matthew 4:4-6:


“When he had called together all the people's chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. "In Bethlehem in Judea," they replied, "for this is what the prophet has written: "'But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.'" (NIV)


Herod took the Magis' message as factual, and consulted the Jewish experts about the location of the birth. The fateful verse in the Book of Micah which is quoted to Herod by the Jewish experts soon resulted in the death of many little boys in Bethlehem. Matthew pens these words in verse 7:3: "Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared." (NIV)


Another qualification for the Star: 5) It appeared at an exact time. And yet another qualification: 6) Herod didn't know when it appeared. He had to ask. In verses 8 and 9, the Hebrew king orders:


“He sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him." 9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.” (NIV)


And now we have the last three qualifications for the Star: 7) it endured over a considerable period of time. The Magi saw it, perhaps from Babylon, traveled to Judea and saw it still. 8) It went ahead of them as they traveled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. 

You might not realize that this doesn't mean the Star was needed to guide the travelers to Bethlehem. Bethlehem was (and is) just five miles south of Jerusalem on the main road. They couldn't miss it.

No, the star appears ahead of them as they trek south not so much as a guide as a further confirmation of the signs they had seen. Lastly, 9) the Star stopped!  


1. It signified birth.

2. It signified kingship.

3. It had a connection with the Jewish nation.

4. It rose in the east, like other stars.

5. It appeared at a precise time.

6. Herod didn't know when it appeared.

7. It endured over time.

8. It was ahead of the Magi as they went south from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.

9. It stopped over Bethlehem. 

John the apostle tells us that Jesus Himself was the “star,” the light of men. He embodied the revealed truth of God. Jesus not only revealed the nature of God, but His light also revealed the character of man.


“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it...v.14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:1-4, 14 (NIV)


• What do we learn about Christ and His relation to God and man according to the John 1 passage?


• The magi were persistent in their search for the king. What are some ways that you can seek God’s Word and His presence in the coming year?


• Read Isaiah 9:6-7. What are the descriptive names of Christ in this passage? How do they impact the blessings you receive from knowing Christ? Spend some time praying and praising God for who He is. 


Read the following passages and record your observations.

John 1:1-14; Matthew 2; Isaiah 9:6-7; John 3:19-20; 1 John 1:5-9 

Material for this study may be found at

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