The idea that an astrological event or other omen would mark the birth of a notable person was widely accepted throughout the world at the time of the birth of Jesus Christ. Notably, in the centuries prior to the writing of the Gospels, legends developed around the births of Alexander the Great and the Roman Emperor Augustus.
Alexander and Augustus
According to Cicero, Alexander the Great’s birth was heralded by the burning of the Temple of Diana in Ephesus which forecast his conquest of Asia. In Suetonius’s Lives of the Caesars the birth of Augustus was said to have followed shortly after the occurrence of a wondrous event witnessed in Rome. Although the exact nature of this omen in Rome is unknown it was understood to mean that a king for all the Roman people was about to be born. The senate was so alarmed that they drafted a law to forbid all children born that year, 63 BCE, to be banned from public office. However the law was never implemented since many senators hoped it would be their heirs who would fulfill the prophecy.
The Book Of Matthew
In the case of the Star of Bethlehem it is mentioned four times in Mathew 2:2-10 during the course of the story of the Magi/wise men. The first time it is in a query by the Magi as they seek the newly born Jesus.
Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.
The mention of the star had gotten the interest of King Herod.
Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, inquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.
However Herod had already consulted the chief priests and the scribes and discovered that the child whom the wise men sought was destined to be born in the town of Bethlehem.
When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.
When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.
The Stars Origin
For centuries scholars and theologians have tried to connect the Star of Bethlehem to known astronomical events. A pioneering effort was made in 1614 by the German astronomer Johannes Kepler who showed a conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter had occurred in 7 BCE. This conjunction occurred 3 times that year with the final event in on December 4th. Other astronomical theories have ranged from Hailey’s Comet to a distant supernova in a neighboring galaxy.
Modern scientific attempts to determine what the star may have been have all failed to provide evidence of any special occurrence that could have been witnessed from the ancient Near East. Conjunction theories like Kepler’s and other predictable phenomena have all fallen short of being spectacular enough to account for the Biblical tale. While random factors such as a supernova are impossible to disprove, a Babylonian almanac of astronomy recorded during this period seems to discount any fantastic onetime events.
This does leave the possibility of some local occurrence in Palestine that, due to its timing with the solstice, was deemed all the more significant. However there is no ground for even general agreement on what such an event (like a meteor impact) may have been. This leaves us with Kepler’s observations as a best guess.
The Star Prophecy
A likely theory for the origin of the Star of Bethlehem story is in what is known as the “Star Prophecy” from the Book of Numbers.
I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not nigh; there shall step forth a star out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite through the corners of Moab, and break down all the sons of Seth. And Edom shall be a possession, Seir also, even his enemies, shall be a possession; while Israel doeth valiantly. And out of Jacob shall one have dominion, and shall destroy the remnant from the city. (Numbers 24: 14-19)
This prophecy of a military leader rising up to smite Israel’s enemies had become popular with Messianic Jews around the time of the birth of Christ. Jewish patriots were involved in an ongoing struggle against a succession of outside invaders. By the time of the birth of Jesus Christ, the land of Judea was under the harsh rule of the roman sponsored Herod the Great. Herod’s reign was followed by even harsher direct Roman rule. However relevant the Star Prophecy may have seemed to Early Christians and Messianic Jews, the story was way out of historical context in late antiquity when the Bible was compiled.
The Prophet Balaam
To begin to understand this context one need look no further than the naming of ancient enemies such as Moab and Edom which speaks to events that occurred over one thousand years before the birth of Jesus Christ. The original prophecy in the Torah is part of a story cycle involving the gentile prophet Balaam. Balaam is a magician who is asked by King Balak of Moab to curse the people of Israel. However Balaam finds himself unable to defy God and instead of pronouncing a curse on Israel he prophesied that “there shall step forth a star out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.”
The references to a “star” and “scepter” could well be seen as a prediction of a coming divinely ordained king. Balaam seemingly made these predictions in the Late Bronze Age, hundreds of years before the rise of the kings of Israel. It is possible that the stories involving Balaam originally came from a Book of Balaam which was then partially incorporated into the ancient Hebrew texts with appropriate redaction such as the forecast of Israel’s military success over its enemies.
Balaam is represented in Jewish legends as being related to the same culture of magic and divination which would produce the Magi and this is likely no mere coincidence. Regardless of any actual astrological phenomenon the story of the Star of Bethlehem was intended to weave the birth narrative of Jesus Christ into the accepted patterns of the day. Here the Gospel writers used existing Near Eastern astrological traditions to proclaim the divinity of Jesus. Some centuries later the established Catholic Church would proclaim that such magic and divination was only allowed up until the writing of the Gospels after which the Gospels themselves provided all the answers that were needed and further astrological divination was deemed anathema.
Freed, Edwin D, (Stories of the Birth of Jesus, Sheffield Academic Press, London, 2001.)
Graves, R. Suetonius (London, 1994)