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The Star of Revelation


(1a) Matt 2:1-12
(1b) InJas 21:1-12
(2) IgnEph 19:2-3



(1) Matthew 2:1-12

/2:1/ Jesus was born at Bethlehem, Judea, when Herod was king. Astrologers from the East showed up in Jerusalem just then. /2/ ”Tell us,” they said, “where the newborn king of the Judeans is. We have observed his star in the east and have come to pay him homage.”
/3/ When this news reached King Herod, he was visibly shaken, and all Jerusalem along with him. /4/ He called together all the ranking priests and local experts, and pressed them for information: “Where is the Anointed supposed to be born?”
/5/ They replied, “At Bethlehem, Judea. This is how it is put by the prophet:
/6/ And you, Bethlehem, in the province of Judah,
you are by no means least among the leaders of Judah.
Out of you will come a leader
who will shepherd my people, Israel.”
/7/ Then Herod called the astrologers together secretly and ascertained from them the precise time the star became visible. /8/ Then he sent them to Bethlehem with these instructions: “Go make a careful search for the child. When you find him, report back to me, so I can also go and pay him homage.”
/9/ They listened to what the king had to say and continued on their way.
And there guiding them on was the star that they had observed in the East: it led them on until it came to a standstill above where the child lay. /10/ Once they saw the star, they were beside themselves with joy. /11/ And they arrived at the house and saw the child with his mother Mary. They fell down and paid him homage. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts—gold, pure incense, and myrrh. /12/ And because they had been advised in a dream not to return to Herod, they journeyed back to their own country by a different route. [Complete Gospels]

(1b) InJas 21:1-12

/21:1/ Joseph was about ready to depart for Judea, but a great uproar was about to take place in Bethlehem in Judea. /2/ It all started when astrologers came inquiring, “Where is the newborn king of the Judeans? We’re here because we saw his star in the East and have come to pay him homage.”
/3/ When Herod heard about their visit, he was terrified and sent agents to the astrologers. /4/ He also sent for the high priests and questioned them in his palace: “What has been written about the Anointed? Where is he supposed to be born?”
/5/ They said to him, “In Bethlehem, Judea, that’s what the scriptures say.” /6/ And he dismissed them.
/7/ Then he questioned the astrologers: “What sign have you seen regarding the one who has been born king?”
/8/ And the astrologers said, “We saw a star of exceptional brilliance in the sky, and it so dimmed the other stars that they disappeared. Consequently, we know that a king was born for Israel. And we have come to pay him homage.”
/9/ Herod instructed them: “Go and begin your search, and if you find him, report back to me, so I can also go and pay him homage.”
/10/ The astrologers departed. And there it was: the star they had seen in the East led them on until they came to the cave; then the star stopped directly above the head of the child. /11/ After the astrologers saw him with his mother Mary, they took gifts out of their pouches--gold, pure incense, and myrrh.
/12/ Since they had been advised by the heavenly messenger not to go into Judea, they returned to their country by another route. [Complete Gospels]


(2) Ignatius, To the Ephesians 19:1-3

Now the virginity of Mary was hidden from the prince of this world, as was also her offspring, and the death of the Lord; three mysteries of renown, which were wrought in silence by God. How, then, was He manifested to the world? A star shone forth in heaven above all the other stars, the light of Which was inexpressible, while its novelty struck men with astonishment. And all the rest of the stars, with the sun and moon, formed a chorus to this star, and its light was exceedingly great above them all. And there was agitation felt as to whence this new spectacle came, so unlike to everything else [in the heavens]. [ANF]




RCL, ECUSA & RC: Year A, B, C
advanceWORD: Epiphany


To Follow a Star

This brief discussion paper by Jock McTavish provides an insight into aspects of astrology and astronomy that are intertwined in this tradition. Includes a link to a NASA site with a movie of the night sky on 23 December 2000: showing a combination of Saturn and Jupiter in Orion, a combination suggested by one of the theories for the Star of Bethlehem.


The Star of Bethlehem

See the article at the Religious Tolerance website for a helpful overview of the various religious views concerning the miraculous star in Matthew's infancy narrative, along with a brief bibliography.


John Dominic Crossan

Item: 369
Stratum: III (80-120 CE)
Attestation: Double
Historicity: -

Jesus Seminar






W Avg

Jesus was born in Bethlehem.






After Jesus was born, magi guided by a star or some other astral phenomenon sought and visited him.






After Jesus was born, Jesus was taken to Egypt by his parents.






After Jesus was born, children were slaughtered in Bethlehem by Herod the Great.







The following papers from the Fall 1994 meeting of the Jesus Seminar are published in Forum NS 2,1 (1999):

W. Barnes Tatum, "The Historical Quest for the Baby Jesus." 7-23
Lane C. McGaughey, "Infancy Narratives and Hellenistic Lives." 25-39

Barnes Tatum notes that there may have been a pre-Matthean version of the magi story, as the star seems to function rather more accurately in the final stage of the journey (when it leads the magi precisely to the house where Jesus is living) while earlier it simply led them in a westward direction without any specific destination. This earlier form reflected the motif of an eschatological visitation of Gentiles to Zion, that is to Jerusalem; also known in Jewish tradition as the city of David.

Lane McGaughey notes that the magi's visit reflects items D and E from the classic form of the ancient infancy narrative:

A. Genealogy
B. Miraculous conception
C. Angelic annunciation or parental vision
D. Birth accompanied by supernatural signs
E. Human responses to the birth: positive or negative.

Acts of Jesus (p. 508) outlines the legend of the three kings from the 13th century Travels of Marco Polo. (see below)

Acts of Jesus (p. 128) also has a reference to a comet that appeared shortly after the death of Julius Caesar and was believed to be a portent of his posthumous divinity. This "Julian Star" became a popular literary motif, and was sometimes described as shining more brightly than all other stars. It appears on the reverse of a coin issued by Augustus in 17 BCE.


Gerd Luedemann

Commenting on the infancy narratives overall, Luedemann [Jesus, 124-29] concludes that Luke and Matthew represent "two equally unhistorical narratives."

He cites the occurrence of a miraculous heavenly sign at key points in the life of Mithridates VI in a history written by Justinus (active in the reign of Augustus, 2 BCE to 14 CE):

His future greatness was even proclaimed in advance by miraculous heavenly signs. In the year in which he was born and also in the year in which he first began to reign, during the two-fold period a comet shone for seventy days, so brightly that it seemed to make the whole heaven glow. For not only did it occupy the fourth part of the heavens with its magnitude, but the gleam which flashed forth from it even surpassed the splendor of the sun; and it occupied the period of four hours each time it rose and set. [Epitome from Pompeius Trogus, 37,2]


John P. Meier

Meier [Marginal Jew I,211ff and 376] considers these traditions to be "largely products of early Christian reflection on the salvific meaning of Jesus in the light of OT prophecies" and concludes that their historicity is "highly questionable."


John Shelby Spong

In [Born of a Woman 1992:86-94] Spong reviews a number of literary, historical and natural factors that may have contributed to the development of the legend about the star and the magi:

Isaiah texts (following Herman Hendrickx, Infancy Narratives, 37):

Who stirred up one from the east who meets victory at every step?
He gives up nations before him, so that he tramples kings underfoot. (Isa 41:2)

The Lord called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name. ...
Kings shall see and arise; princes, and they shall prostrate themselves. (Isa 49:1, 7)

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. ...
And nations shall come to your light and kings to the brightness of your rising ...
A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall cone.
They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord. (Isa 60:1, 3, 6)

The Balaam tradition in Numbers 22-24 (following Raymond Brown, Birth of the Messiah, 193). Balaam, was remembered in Jewish tradition as a Gentile seer from the east. The key oracle reads:

I see him, but not now;
I behold him, but not near --
a star shall come out of Jacob,
and a scepter shall arise out of Israel. (Num 24:17a)

The biblical story of the visit to Solomon by the Queen of Sheba (1 Kings 10:1-13) included the themes of exotic visitors bringing gold, spices and precious stones to honor Israel's divinely blessed ruler. Hendrickx [Infancy Narratives, 39] quotes the following midrash which incorporated a supernatural star into the legend:

As the Queen of Sheba approached the holy city reclining in her litter, she saw at a distance a wondrous rose growing at the edge of a lake. But when she came near she saw to her astonishment the rose suddenly transformed into a flashing star. The closer she came the more dazzling was its light.

Jewish midrashic traditions include other instances of a star appearing at the birth of a Jewish hero: Chaldean astrologers had advised the evil King Nimrod of Abraham's birth after seeing a rising star, while others are associated with the birth of Isaac and Moses. [see Brown, Birth of the Messiah, 543]

Halley's Comet was recorded in 12/11 BCE, and is the only known instance of a "wandering star."

A rare juxtaposition of Jupiter, Saturn and Mars occurred in 8 BCE, creating an unusually bright glow in the sky.

Josephus (Antiquities XVI V. 1,136-41) gives an insight into the media hype associated with political celebrations when he described foreign ambassadors traveling to Jerusalem to hail King Herod on the occasion of the completion of the palace in Caesarea, around 9 BCE.

The state visit to Nero by the Armenian ruler, Tiradates, in 66 CE, accompanied by the sons of three Parthian rulers, involved a triumphal procession from the east and festive celebrations in Rome on their arrival. In a remarkable parallel to Matthew, his return journey was by a different route. Pliny, one of two Roman historians to describe this event, refers to Tiradates and his entourage as "magi." [see Infancy Narratives, 39; Brown, Birth of the Messiah, 174; and Albright & Mann, Matthew, 13]


Barbara G. Walker

In The Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, Walker suggests that Magi referred to Magicians. In what she calls "Persian-Essenic traditions," Magi were the only seers able to read the coming of the Messiah's star and so identify the right Divine Child. She traces this idea to Egypt, where the Three Wise Men were the three stars in the Belt of Orion, pointing to Osiris' star Sothis, which "rose in the east" to announce the coming of the Savior at the season of the Nile flood. She notes that these three Belt stars were still called Magi in the Middle Ages. In addition, she stated that in "Rome early in the Christian era, Magi meant priests of Mithra [the original Persian 'Messiah'], or astrologers, or miscellaneous healers and miracle-workers; it was a term for magicians in general. Roman Christians were hostile to the magi but were forced to retain the three Magi of the Gospel story because their presence was emphasized as evidence of Jesus divinity."


Marco Polo and the Three Kings

In Persia is the city called Saveh, from which the three Magi set out when they came to worship Jesus Christ. Here, too, they lie buried in three sepulchres of great size and beauty. Above each sepulchre is a square building with a domed roof of very fine workmanship. The one is just beside the other. Their bodies are still whole, and they have hair and beards. One was named Beltasar, the second Gaspar, and the third Melchior.

Messer Marco asked several of the inhabitants who these Magi were; but no one could tell him anything except that they were three kings who were buried there in days gone by. But at last he learnt What I will tell you.

Three days farther on, he found a town called Kala Atashparastan, that is to say Town of the Fire-worshippers. And that is no more than the truth; for the men of this town do worship fire. And I will tell you why they worship it. The inhabitants declare that in days gone by three kings of this country went to worship a new-born prophet and took with them three offerings -gold, frankincense, and myrrh - so as to discover whether this prophet was a god, or an earthly king or a healer. For they said : 'If he takes gold, he is an earthly king; if frankincense, a god; if myrrh, a healer.'

When they had come to the place where the prophet was born, the youngest of the three kings went in all alone to see the child. He found that he was like himself, for he seemed to be of his own age and appearance. And he came out, full of wonder. Then in went the second, who was a man of middle age. And to him also the child seemed, as it had seemed to the other, to be of his own age and appearance. And he came out quite dumbfounded. Then in went the third, who was of riper years; and to him also it happened as it had to the other two. And he came out deep in thought. When the three kings were all together, each told the others what he had seen. And they were much amazed and resolved that they would all go in together.

So, in they went, all three together, and came before the child and saw him in his real likeness and of his real age; for he was only thirteen days old. Then they worshipped him and offered him the gold, the frankincense, and the myrrh. The child took all three offerings and then gave them a closed casket. And the three kings set out to return to their own country.

After they had ridden for some days, they resolved to see what the child had given them. They opened the casket and found inside it a stone. They wondered greatly what this could be. The child had given it to them to signify that they should be firm as stone in the faith that they had adopted. For, when the three kings saw that the child had taken all three offerings, they concluded that he was at once a god, and an earthly king, and a healer. And, since the child knew that the three kings believed this, he gave them the stone to signify that they should be firm and constant in their belief.

The three kings, not knowing why the stone had been given to them, took it and threw it into a well. No sooner had it fallen in than there descended from heaven a burning fire, which came straight to the well into which it had been thrown. When the three kings saw this miracle, they were taken aback and repented of their throwing away the stone; for they saw clearly that its significance was great and good. They immediately took some of this fire and carried it to their country and put it in one of their churches, a very fine and splendid building.

They keep it perpetually burning and worship it as a god. And every sacrifice and burnt offering which they make is roasted with this fire. If it ever happens that the fire goes out, they go round to others who hold the same faith and worship fire also and are given some of the fire that burns in their church. This they bring back to rekindle their own fire. They never rekindle it except with this fire of which I have spoken. To procure this fire, they often make a journey of ten days.

That is how it comes about that the people of this country are fire worshippers. And I assure you that they are very numerous. All this was related to Messer Marco Polo by the inhabitants of this town; and it is all perfectly true. Let me tell you finally that one of the three Magi came from Saveh, one from Hawah, and the third from Kashan.

[Penguin classics edition, translated by Ronald Latham]

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