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In Matthew 2:1-3 (NET), the author states:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “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.”

Why would the Magi have automatically associated a star with kingship? Was the a historical/religious basis for doing so?

  • 1
    Ref Numbers 24:17 (NIV) "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. He will crush the foreheads of Moab, the skulls of all the people of Sheth". – Abu Munir Ibn Ibrahim Dec 26 '16 at 6:17
  • @AbuMunirIbnIbrahim: That seems plausible, but do we have anything to indicate that the Magi were Jewish or would have been that intimately familiar with the Torah? – James Shewey Dec 26 '16 at 6:22
  • In the historical and geographical context, who else other than Jews would have messianic expectations, or expect anything from the Jews, and in Judah of all places? In Persia, non-Zoroastrian minorities were sorely persecuted. So these Jews were looking for a leader to provide them relief. – Abu Munir Ibn Ibrahim Dec 26 '16 at 6:39
  • @AbuMunirIbnIbrahim Do you believe it was Jesus' purpose to "crush the foreheads of Moab" etc. Otherwise, this is not a prophecy of him. – Dick Harfield Dec 26 '16 at 8:11
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    It seems this Q&A could be relevant to the consideration of this question, too: "Was there an astronomical origin of the Star of Bethlehem in Matthew 2?" – Dɑvïd Dec 27 '16 at 12:29
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At the time of Christ, people associated astrological events as signs. The Jewish scholar Philo of Alexandria (25BC-50AD) wrote:

‘timely signs of coming events’ since ‘the stars were made for signs’. 1

In his article The Star of Bethlehem, A Comet in 5BC and the Date of Christ’s Birth, Colin J Humphrey’s shows how a comet of 5BC fits Matthew's record and he states:

an examination of historical records shows that comets were interpreted as heralding both good and bad major events, in particular the births and deaths of kings and important victories or defeats in wars. They were regarded as portents of major changes in the established order. 2

Humphrey's gives an example of this. He cites the Roman historian Justinus who recorded that the birth of Mithridates was accompanied by a comet:

"Heavenly phenomena had also predicted the greatness of this man [Mithridates, the famous King of Pontus]. For both in the year in which he was born and in the year in which he began to reign a comet shone through both periods for 70 days in such a way that the whole sky seemed to be ablaze." 3

Humphrey's summarizes how comets were perceived:

Thus the assumed astrological significance of comets to ancient civilizations is clear: they were interpreted as portents of gloom and death for the established order, but they were equally regarded as heralds of victory in war and the birth of new kings who would change the existing order. 3

This fits Matthew's description of how Jerusalem reacted to the arrival of the magi:

When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him (Matthew 2:3 ESV)

The sign meant not only the birth of the King of the Jews; it indicated a change to the existing order.

Humphrey's also addresses the question of magi visiting kings:

It is important to realise that there are many references in ancient literature to Magi visiting kings and emperors in other countries. For example, Tiridates, the King of Armenia, led a procession of Magi to pay homage to Nero in Rome in AD 66. 4

So in addition to the prophecies of Daniel that the time was near, the magi and people of the time would have the expectation His birth would be accompanied by an astronomical sign. In fact, a scholar such as Philo would likely reject an account of a momentous birth if that birth was not also accompanied by an astronomical sign.


1. Philo, De Opificio Mundi, 22.
2. Colin J. Humphreys, The Star of Bethlehem, A Comet in 5BC and the Date of Christ’s Birth, Tyndale Bulletin 43.1 p. 38
3. Ibid p. 39
4. Ibid p. 33

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MATTHEW & THE MAGI

Matthew's account references 3 magi, rather than 3 kings. Specifically, all we know from Matthew's account appears in the first twelve verses of chapter 2.

Matthew's references to these three 'magi' is commonly accepted to be a reference to Zoroastrian priests from the region of Media. The religion we call 'Zoroastrianism' knew itself as Mazda-yasna meaning "devotion (yasna) to the one God Ahura-Mazda" and relates to an earlier pagan worship the House of Israel engaged in prior to captivity.

The magi first appear in history in the seventh century b.c. as a people within the Median nation in eastern Mesopotamia where the pagan House of Israel was taken into captivity ([2 Kings 18:11] and [2 Kings 17:6]).

MAGI & ISRAELITE TRADITION

Accordingly, scholars have proposed the magi to have been Semitic paganized Israelites or their neighbours familiar with their beliefs, and so would have been familiar with both Molech (Malkam) and YHWH worship.

So they would have been familiar with both Israelite heterodox and orthodox tradition. The magi became skilled in astronomy and astrology (which were indistinguishable) and they possessed a sacrificial system that strongly resembles the Mosaic system Israel also possessed.

Traditional scholarship treated Molech as a name. Lack of evidence of this however has more recent scholarship disputing this instead seeing it not as a proper name but a title. Biblical Hebrew מלך (mlk) stands for מֶלֶךְ melek "king" (Akkadian malku) vocalized as מֹלֶךְ mōlek. (Strong's Concordance H4427, H4428, H4432)

MOLECH WORSHIP & ZOROASTRIANISM

In Molech worship fire represented purity [Lev 18:21][2 Kings 23:10] and so Molech worship was a type of ritual purity worship involving fire which YHWH prohibited. Likewise, in Zoroastrianism, fire was seen as the supreme symbol of purity, and sacred fires were maintained in Fire Temples (Agiaries).

These fires represent the light of God (Ahura Mazda) as well as the illuminated mind, and were never extinguished. No Zoroastrian ritual or ceremony was ever performed without the presence of a sacred fire since their primary altar burned the perpetual flame they claimed descended from heaven.

Therefore 'stars' were seen as eternal 'fires or lights' and the source of all purity. Clearly, this would have had significance with respect to eternal kingship and purity since it would have been from these 'eternal flames' in the sky the eternal pure king should have descended.

CONCLUSION

Even so the Israelites had been prohibited from worshipping the stars directly [Deut 4:19]. However the Israelite taken to the city of the Medes and to Babylon had already strayed from YHWH worship Orthodoxy [Acts 7:43].

Even so it's not hard to see that if a star appeared which would have heralded the coming of a pure king (to the Magi) they would have been willing to seek him out based upon their understanding of the significance of stars.

FINALLY

(Don't shoot the messenger. I'm simply conveying what the Magi thought, according to what is known of Zoroastrianism, and what the bible says of Molech worship. I'm not advocating their beliefs. You asked why star=ruler and why star=messiah for Israelites. It turns out to be the same thing for different reasons. Yes! I see great irony in pagan magi seeking Christ due to pagan belief but hey - God caused them to give Yeshua and family very expensive gifts (representing 'King', 'Prophet' and 'Priest') that likely would have provided the family a great income for years)

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    Could you provide some source or documentation for your aligning the cult of Molech and Zoroastrianism the way that you do? That's a new one for me. Thanks. (I'm not sure myself that Molech contributes anything to this answer in any case, FWIW.) – Dɑvïd Dec 27 '16 at 13:52
  • A.D.H. Bivar "Religious Subjects on Achaemenid Seals" in J. R. Hinnells (ed.) Mithraic Studies, Vol 1. (1975) Zoroastrian dualism from neo-Babylonian religion (Nergal was identified with Moloch so made great headway in Persia during the peroid of Median supremacy prior to the rise of Cyrus the Great and inspired Roman Mithraism) Archaeology in Cilicia has since proved Bivar correct about Nergal being Molech. Also: G. Heider "The Cult of Molek (1985)" J. Day "Molech:A God of Human Sacrific in the Old Testaent (1989)" Nyberg "Die Religionen des alten Iran" – user34445 Dec 27 '16 at 19:20
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    Thanks for that. AFAIK, neither Day nor Heider draw lines of influence from Mol[e/o][k/ch] to Zoroastrianism, so we set them aside for the moment. The connections between Molech/Malik [sic] and Nergal are well known. Bivar's article, exploring that connection, considers possible influence on Mithras cult and broad ANE syncretism connecting dots with Zoroastrianism (via Mary Boyce, on p.285). This is still a long way from Molech having any explanatory power for the nature of the "magi". Of course, these parallels are speculative and are notoriously difficult to assess. .../2 – Dɑvïd Dec 27 '16 at 22:50
  • ... cont'd: See e.g. James Barr, "The Question of Religious Influence: The Case of Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Christianity", JAAR 53 (1985): 201-35 for a discussion of methodological issues. I don't know what you think Nyberg brings to the table. It was published in 1938, and there have been convulsions through the 20th C in the study of ancient Persia and its religion. So I persist in thinking that Molech is a red herring here. – Dɑvïd Dec 27 '16 at 22:52
  • Thanks for your comments Dɑvïd. I value your insight. Perhaps I'm less skeptical than you. Between ancient Persia and Babylon there were only a handful of religions with fire worship. Historians are happy to see parallels elsewhere (commonality re: creation myths, flood myths, etc) - why not parallels in Fire-worship? Specifically the apparent connection between 'purity' and 'fire'; the connection between 'eternal flames (skyward) and eternal flames (earthward) etc. There is little doubt Zoroastrianism was influenced by Judaism. Why not the cult of Molech? Skepticism seems unwarranted. – user34445 Dec 27 '16 at 22:59
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Questions to ask in respect to the historical/religious basis of Matthew 2:1-3:

  • Was there a star of Bethlehem?
  • Did Matthew's magi even exist?
  • Would the magi have associated the star of Bethlehem with a king?

Ian Wilson provides an answer to the first question in Jesus: The Evidence, page 41, when he says Matthew's nativity story has insufficient historicity for us to be confident that there was a star.

John Shelby Spong provides an answer to the second question in Born of a Woman: A Bishop Rethinks the Birth of Jesus, page 89, when he says that the assumption universally held by people he knows in New Testament circles is that the magi were not real people. Bishop Spong believes the author of Luke was simply writing Christian midrash. David Collins (The Star of Bethlehem) concurs:

It has to be said that the introduction of the Magi into the infancy narrative reeks suspiciously of Misrashim, and it seems very doubtful as to whether it incorporates any grain of truth.

If the story of the magi has a historical basis, then there is also a historical basis for the sudden appearance of a star or comet to be seen as a portent of a momentous event or the birth of a king or great leader. Andrew Dickon White (Popular Science Monthly, October 1885) reports Jewish legends that a star appeared at the birth of Moses. Josephus is believed to have told Vespasian that the appearance of a star during the Roman-Jewish War was a portent that Vespasian would become emperor of Rome. When this camed true, Vespasian freed Josephus and allowed him to adopt the family name Flavius. The Church Father Origen considers a star inevitable at Jesus’ birth:

Contra Celsum, I,59: It has been observed that at great events and the most far-reaching changes of history stars of this kind appear which are significant of changes of dynasties or wars, or whatever may happen among men which has the effect of shaking earthly affairs. We read in the book on comets by Chaeremon the Stoic how comets even appeared when good events were about to happen, and he gives an account of these. If then a comet, as it is called, or some similar star appears at new dynasties or other great events on earth, why is it amazing that a star should have appeared at the birth of a man who was to introduce new ideas among the human race and to bring a doctrine not only to Jews but also to Greeks, and to many barbarian nations as well?”

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    I am perfectly comfortable with the idea that this may be a mythologized embellishment in the Messiah's story, but saying "It was made up" still doesn't answer the question of why Matthew's audience would have associated a star with a king or ruler. Even if it was made up, it seems that Matthew is playing on some existing astrological theology or understanding. What is it? – James Shewey Dec 26 '16 at 18:16
  • @JamesShewey Please se my last 2 paras. In these paras, I look at the option that the magi & the star were real, and then why the putative magi might have associated a star with a king or ruler. Even if Matthew is playing on some existing astrological theology or understanding, the same applies. So I point to Jewish traditions that associate stars with great leaders, including Moses; I point to Josephus and, as a retrospect, point to Origen. – Dick Harfield Dec 26 '16 at 23:03
  • @RevelationLad Pls join me on chat – Dick Harfield Dec 26 '16 at 23:17
  • The first two of your sub-questions are entirely irrelevant and off-topic to this question. The text in question should be considered as a piece of literature, and the OP's question is about the literary and historical background to that text. I'd suggest you edit out everything before "If the story of the magi has a historical basis". – curiousdannii Dec 26 '16 at 23:20
  • Hi @curiousdannii By rhetorically asking then answering these subquestions, I was setting the scene for the remainder of my answer. The OP has asked about historical/religious basis, which IMO makes this relevant – Dick Harfield Dec 26 '16 at 23:22

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