What nativity scene is complete without a shining star at the top? The star has become a Christmas tradition, but the actual star in the Bible occupies only a brief 12 verses, leaving questions in its wake.
What was the star? And what did it signify?
Where Is the Star of Bethlehem Mentioned in the Bible?
The star of Bethlehem is never called by that name in the Bible. It first appears in Matthew 2:2, when the Magi (or Wise Men) from the east go to King Herod in Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
The wise men conversed with a confused Herod, who knew nothing of this king, then set out once more. Matthew 2:9-10 records,
After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.
What Was the Purpose of the Star of Bethlehem?
Matthew is the only one of the four gospels that mentions the star. It doesn’t appear that it was seen or followed by any other parties besides the Wise Men.
However, the star drew these unlikely men to Christ. The Greek word μαγοι (mάgoi) is translated as “wise men” or “magi” depending on the English translation.
This word originally referred to a class of Persian wise men that were something like priests, interpreters of special signs, especially astrology.
Eventually, the word came to be used for anyone who had supernatural knowledge or ability, or a magician. The Wise Men from the east were likely something along the lines of these Persian astrologers.
It’s possible the Magi knew something of Jewish prophecy due to the time the Jews spent in captivity in Babylon. Many Jews never returned to Judea, even after they were given leave to return.
This knowledge combined with the signs the Magi saw in the heavens led them from the east to the little town of Bethlehem.
It is also unlikely that King Herod would have been made aware of Jesus’ birth if he was not approached by the Wise Men. Because of this information, Herod unwittingly set multiple prophecies into motion.
Matthew 2:3-5, 13-18 records:
When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written…”
When [the wise men] had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:
“A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”
The star not only showed the Magi the way to Jesus but also made Herod and the chief priests aware that the Messiah had come, a far greater king than Herod.
What Did the Star of Bethlehem Signify?
The idea that important events or people were heralded by signs in the heavens was a common part of most religions at the time. Astrological events were often thought to portend the birth of great heroes or rulers.
Thus, it isn’t surprising that the Magi were looking to the sky. It also makes sense that God would announce the birth of His Son in a way the Magi would understand.
But how did they come to the conclusion that the star specifically pointed to a “king of the Jews”?
We can’t be certain. However, there are certain prophecies they might have read. In Numbers 24:17, Balaam prophesies, “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel.”
A star and a scepter pointed to a great ruler. It is also possible that they read the prophecies of Daniel, which, especially in Daniel 9, pointed to a timeline for the coming of the Messiah.
The star, then, was associated with kingship, the Messiah, and the Jews. With this information, the Wise Men went to Jerusalem, the capital of Judea, in search of the king.
What Was the Star of Bethlehem?
No one is certain what star the Wise Men followed, or whether it was even a “star” as we know it at all. The Greek word “aster,” translated to “star,” usually means a star or celestial body, but is also used in some places to refer to angels (for example in Revelation 12:4).
When interpreted as a true celestial body, there have been multiple theories advanced. Some have suggested a supernova, such as one recorded in 5 B.C. that lasted only 70 days — perhaps this was the “new star” the Magi followed?
Others have suggested a comet. Many theories concern a specific massing of planets, such as Jupiter and Saturn, inside of meaningful constellations, like Pisces.
Several astronomical happenings could potentially fit the bill due to the meanings planets and constellations had for ancient astrologers. For example, Jupiter and Saturn were planets of rulers, and Pisces was associated with Israel.
When these three came together in 7 B.C., some scholars postulate that this could have been what the Magi saw. There are other such theories involving various other planets and constellations. You can read about some of them here.
Others, however, believe that the star was a supernatural manifestation that can’t be explained scientifically.
These theories suggest the star was an angel (harkening back to the double potential meaning of “aster”), or that the star was in fact a manifestation of God’s Shekinah Glory, like the pillar of cloud and pillar of fire that led the Israelites through the desert (Exodus 13:21).
These theories are especially supported by the fact that Matthew 12:9 states that the star moved:
And the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.
What Does the Star of Bethlehem Mean for Us?
The star reminds us of Jesus’ birth, of His kingship, of His divine nature.
However, the star also reminds us of something we may gloss over in the Christmas story.
Likewise, the star didn’t appear to the scholars and scribes of Jerusalem. Instead, it was shown to Gentile magi, outsiders who would have been scorned by devout Jews as pagans.
The star reminds us that the gospel isn’t just for the religious, for the neat and tidy. It’s for not only the poor shepherds of society but also the astrologers of this world, those foreign to us.
The Father announced His Son’s birth to the most unlikely candidates, showing His love for all of humanity, His desire for all to know Him.
The gospel is for everyone, and we have the honor, the joy, and the sacred duty to share it.
Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/RomoloTavani
Alyssa Roat studied writing, theology, and the Bible at Taylor University. She is a literary agent at C.Y.L.E., the publicity manager at Mountain Brook Ink, and a freelance editor with Sherpa Editing Services. She is the co-author of Dear Hero and has 200+ bylines in publications ranging from The Christian Communicator to Keys for Kids. Find out more about her here and on social media @alyssawrote.