My grateful thanks to Father Richard Smith for giving me his thoughts concerning 'The Star'
The Star of Bethlehem : A Theological Reflection
The Wise Men and their star are unique
to Matthew’s Gospel. This Gospel is the most Jewish, Matthew was particularly interested in the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies.
It is important to remember that the rabbis had produced commentaries on the Scriptures – ‘Midrash’. So, Matthew was not making such a great leap in his application of Old Testament texts.
Numbers 2417 reads, ‘… a star shall come forth out of Jacob’. Although the immediate context
is the story of Balaam and Balak, the verse had come to be understood as having a messianic content. It was this that Matthew incorporated in his account of the birth of Jesus. It was his way of saying, ‘Here is the Messiah’.
It should also be said that people in the Eastern Empire were expecting something to happen. In his ‘Life of
Vespasian’, Suetonius wrote, ‘There had spread over all the Orient an old and established belief that it was fated at that time for men coming from Judæa to rule the world.’ The Jewish historian, Josephus, wrote,
‘… about that time one from their country should become governor of the habitable earth.’ Almost at the same time as the birth of Jesus, we find the Roman Emperor being hailed as the ‘Saviour of the World’.
We might say that Jesus was born into a ‘waiting world’.
It had long been a common Middle
Eastern belief that events and the destinies of human beings were in some way determined by the stars. The attraction was that stars pursue an unvarying course – an acceptable antidote to the chaos in which most people found themselves.
If a brilliant new star appeared, or an astronomical phenomenon disrupted the normally fixed course of the heavens, it looked as if God
was breaking into his own order, announcing something special.
It is generally accepted that the Wise Men were ‘magoi’
who came from somewhere east of the Jordan. But this supposition about their place of origin is based on a mistranslation of Matthew 22b, ‘For we have seen his star in the East’. The Greek says
that they had seen the star ‘at its rising’. It has long been argued that Matthew brought the Wise Men into his account of Jesus’s birth because they were Gentiles, but they could have been Jewish!
Like other ancient Middle Eastern peoples, the Jews believed that stars were animate beings. Furthermore, the Jews often identified
them with angels – the messengers of God. The apocryphal ‘Arabic Gospel of the Infancy’ and the mediæval Byzantine exegete, Theophylact, thought that the star which led the Magi to Jesus was an angel.
The New Testament contains a considerable shift in the way in which ‘magi’ were seen. Matthew reflects the long-held view that these were
wise men. But the early Christians disapproved of such people, including them with magicians, sorcerers and charlatans. They were suspicious of Matthew’s birth narrative because it appeared to favour astrology.
The star leads them to Jesus, in whom the power of astral determinism is broken. This view is reinforced by a legend that the star,
having fulfilled its purpose and now redundant, fell from the sky over Bethlehem.
William Barclay says that the guidance of the star is poetic
and should not be turned into ‘crude and lifeless prose’. I suspect that he would not have approved of the repeated attempts to identify the astronomical phenomenon which was ‘The Star of Bethlehem’