An angel had already announced the birth of Jesus Christ to shepherds in the fields just outside Bethlehem (Luke 2:9–12). These shepherds have witnessed the first appearance of God’s glory since its departure from the Temple and Jerusalem (Ezek 8–11). As soon as the announcement finished and the angels who sang God’s praises went away from them, the shepherds hustled over to Bethlehem and found Jesus born, clothed, and resting with his mother and Joseph in a feeding trough (Luke 2:15–16). When they arrived, were the magi there? During the Christmas season, portraits depicting the birth narratives often have the shepherds and magi visiting Jesus at the same time. Actually, the visit of the magi follows the shepherd’s visit. By the time the magi find “the one born King of the Jews” (ὁ τεχθεὶς βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων), the shepherds have already made their way back to their sheepfolds (Luke 2:20), and Jesus had already been circumcised in Bethlehem (Luke 2:21) and presented in the Temple in Jerusalem (Luke 2:22–38).
An astronomical phenomenon triggered the attention and prompted the journey of at least two magi to the land of Israel to commemorate Jesus’ birth. Matthew gives these two chronological reference points (Matt 2:1): (1) the magi arrive after Jesus had already been born (γεννηθέντος), which (2) occurred during Herod’s reign (ἐν ἡμέραις Ἡρῴδου τοῦ βασιλέως). They went straight to Jerusalem and were inquiring about the location of “the one born King of the Jews” (Matt 2:2). They did not go directly to Herod. Matthew says that Herod heard about what they were asking and became nervous (Matt 2:3). Upon arriving in Jerusalem, the magi ask a question (ποῦ) about the location of someone, explain why (γάρ) they are asking it, and share that they will worship (προσκυνῆσαι) the one they looking for (Matt 2:2).
So, what did they actually see? The meaning of αὐτοῦ τὸν ἀστέρα ἐν τῇ ἀνατολῇ in Matt 2:2 has been the subject of great controversy. The word ἀστήρ can refer to more than the traditional gloss “star” communicates. Basically, it can refer to any heavenly body except the sun and moon. Advances in astronomical studies in the modern era allow people to distinguish between different objects in the sky (e.g., planets, galaxies, comets, etc.). In the first century, however, objects in the sky were classified as “sun” (ἥλιος), “moon” (σελήνη), or “star” (ἀστήρ). In the first century, they knew only one sun and one moon. Everything else in the heavens was considered ἀστέρες. Like the meaning of the word ἀστήρ, the meaning of the prepositional phrase (ἐν τῇ ἀνατολῇ) connected to it has two semantic possibilities. It can refer to one of the four cardinal directions (i.e., “east”) or to a “rising.” The latter in conjunction with ἀστήρ would refer to an object in the sky that becomes visible as the sun rises (i.e., in the morning).
The lexical range for the word ἀστήρ is more than just “star.” And there is no lack of discussion as to what astronomical phenomenon Matthew refers. When Halley’s Comet neared Earth’s vicinity in 1986, for example, religious and scientific discussions about the relationship to Matt 2:2 abounded. A comet certainly, not just Halley’s, is possible, but not the best option. The primary reason is neither Halley’s comet nor any other comet has the capacity to do that which the ἀστήρ in Matthew 2 did. Matthew 2:9 says it “went on before them” (προῆγεν αὐτούς) until arriving it stood over where the child was (ἕως ἐλθὼν ἐστάθη ἐπάνω οὗ ἦν τὸ παιδίον).” The ἀστήρ in Matthew 2 has the capacity to pinpoint where an individual is for a group of individuals to follow and locate. In order to be a comet, it would have to move through the sky and then stop. Such a miracle is possible, especially given a passage like Isa 38:8. But is there a better answer?
Understanding the ἀστήρ as a planet is not really the best answer, although this has been suggested. G. Banos, for example, argues that Uranus is what the magi identified, some eighteen hundred years before Herschel discovered it. Is there a better option? D. Allison believes it is an angel (“The Magi’s Angel,” 17–42). W. Varner, using discourse-analysis methodology, has shown the parallels that exist between four pericopes in Matthew’s narrative of Christ’s birth (Matt 1:18–25; 2:1–12; 2:13–18; and 2:19–23). Viewing this as an angel would certainly make the parallelism even stronger. Still, why Matthew would use ἀστήρ in place of ἄγγελος is the question someone would have to answer in order to convincingly hold this position. It is possible that the angel did not identify himself as an angel, only showing forth a radiance similar to what the shepherds in Luke’s birth narrative see at first. Since what they saw was never identified by the magi as an angel, Matthew could have retained its anonymity. He would have done so by using the word ἀστήρ. Like Luke’s account, where the angels appeared to the shepherds at night (Luke 2:8), it is possible the ἀστήρ in Matt 2:2 chooses to appear in the morning hours approaching sunrise. If it appeared in the morning hours only, it would have given the magi enough time to follow it six miles to Bethlehem and see it hover over the house where Jesus was. Like the angels in Luke’s account, they appear and disappear in Matthew. Heavenly beings had the capacity to make themselves known to specific people without disclosing their presence to whole communities or regions. For this reason, Herod could have only asked the magi about the timing of the appearance in Matt 2:7.
The only other possibility, and a likely one, is the ἀστήρ refers to a heavenly object that was star-like in its appearance. It appeared miraculously for the identification of the Messiah’s birth in Bethlehem, drew the attention of the magi who were waiting for his birth, and ultimately led them from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on the final leg of their journey. Once moving from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, it stopped and remained over Jesus’ specific location, disappearing into the sky once they arrived. Ultimately, though, identifying the exact nature of this miraculous object is as impossible as identifying the substance known as “manna” in the Old Testament.
Allison Jr. Dale C. “‘The Magi’s Angel.’” Pages 17–42 in Studies in Matthew: Interpretation Past and Present. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005.
Banos, George. "Was the Star of Bethlehem the Planet Uranus?" Astronomy Quarterly 3:12 (1980): 165-168.
Humphreys, Colin J. “The Star of Bethlehem—a Comet in 5 BC—and the Date of the Birth of Christ.” Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society 32:4 (Dec 1991): 389–407.
Kidger, Mark R. The Star of Bethlehem: An Astronomer’s View. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.
Malina, Bruce J., and Richard L. Rohrbaugh. Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. 2nd ed. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2003.
Molnar, Michael R. The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1999.
Owen, Eugene D. “The Christmas Star.” BibSac 93:372 (1936): 473–478.
Varner, William. “A Discourse Analysis of Matthew’s Nativity Narrative.” Tyndale Bulletin 58:2 (2007): 209–228.
Wilkins, Michael J. Matthew. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004.