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The Star of the King of the Jews ... Matthew 2:9

And, lo, the star which they saw in the east went before them and stood over where the young child was. [KJV]

And lo, the star, that they did see in the east, did go before them, till, having come, it stood over where the child was. [Young's Literal]

και ιδου ο αστηρ ον ειδον εν τη ανατολη προηγεν αυτους εως ελθων εστη επανω ου ην το παιδιον [Elzevir 1624]

The first sighting of the star is recorded in Matthew 2:2 :

... for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.

My question is - Did they follow the star all the way from the east or did they see it when they were in the east and see it, once more, in Jerusalem ?

They say 'we have seen' once they are in Jerusalem, and the narrative then records (after they leave Herod) 'the star which they saw in the east' [KJV] 'the star that they did see in the east' [YL].

Does the original Greek give us any information about whether they followed a moving star all the way from the east or whether they had two distinct sightings of the star - one in the east and one in Jerusalem ?

I am also curious (and perhaps I should not be) as to whether they might have seen from the east what might be called a geo-stationary object which they were able, by triangulation, to determine was high above Bethlehem (or Jerusalem). Then, once in Israel, the object became localised and they were able to follow its movement.

Or - is there not enough information given us to tell ?


It is remarkable that in the narrative of the visitation of Gabriel to Mary, in the narrative of the appearance of the heavenly host to shepherds and in the narrative regarding the singular astronomical event that there is an absolute minimum of information given about what was actually seen and what was actually occurring.

The focus is entirely on the spiritual significance of the coming of Messiah, the birth of Jesus Christ, and it seems to me that we are given only the events as they were immediately witnessed by those who would, afterwards, testify to them.

So my question is tentative, lest I intrude too much on matters upon which scripture is silent.

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Your question is intriguing, even if the lack of information in the Bible suggests that we don’t need to know! Speculation won’t get us very far, either. However, it is possible that the conundrum hinges on the translation of the Greek word we take as “star.” Perhaps it wasn’t a scientifically identifiable heavenly body at all. That would explain why we are all scratching our heads wondering did the Magi first see “his star in the east” and then follow it west? Or did the star rising in the east simply alert them to the anticipated birth of a king in Israel as prophesied in Numbers 24:17 (1) and so the Magi packed their bags and headed west towards Israel?

The English Standard Version presents us with a slightly different take on Matthew 2:2 and 9:

“For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him... After listening to the king [Herod, in Jerusalem], they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was” (Matthew 2:2, 9).

The ESV Study Bible Notes suggest that the star was not a natural phenomenon (e.g., a comet, supernova, or conjunction of planets) but was supernatural. Given the distance to be covered from Babylon to Jerusalem (800 miles via the main trade route), and the likely size of the caravan (attendants and guards) it would have taken 40 days or so to make the journey.

The New Living Translation puts it this way:

”We saw his star as it rose and we have come to worship him... And the star they had seen in the east guided them to Bethlehem. It went ahead of them and stopped over the place where the child was” (Matthew 2:2, 9).

The NLT Study Bible Notes say “star as it rose” could also be translated as “star in the east.” Also, that the star was placed by God to guide the wise men to the Messiah and then refers to the prophecy in Numbers 24:17. (1)

Young’s Literal Translation of Matthew 2:9 says only that it was after they had got to Jerusalem and spoken with Herod that the star they had seen in the east “did go before them, till, having come, it stood over where the child was.” It directed them from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, 6 miles south.

The KJV translation that the Magi “saw his star in the east,” suggests they saw the star where they were in Babylon, which is to the east of Jerusalem. The night sky was well known to people living 2,000 years ago but it seems this star was new – that it had never before been seen and charted. Did they then follow this object for 800 miles, heading west towards Jerusalem, travelling at night? The Bible does not say.

Any astronomer living in the northern hemisphere knows that the North (or Pole) Star appears to be in a fixed position. No matter where a person lives in the northern hemisphere, if they follow a path directly towards the North Star, they will end up at the North Pole. Of course, you would have to be travelling at night to keep your eye on it. But only after they get to Jerusalem scripture says “The star went before them.” Bethlehem was only 6 miles from Jerusalem, almost directly south, so this implies very specific, localized guidance from the traveling star, which came to rest over the young Jesus’ specific location.” Since when does a star rise in the east then head west (and slightly south) for 800 miles, then move 6 miles south and stop? And where did it go to after the Magi found Jesus? Which brings us back to the Greek word ‘aster’ which is translated in Matthew’s gospel as ‘star’.

My Greek Interlinear by William D. Mounce translates the Greek word ‘anatole’ as east = the place of rising, the east, i.e., the sun. As we know, the sun appears to rise in the east and set in the west as the earth rotates. The sun, of course, is static. The Greek word ‘aster’ is translated as star – but it does not always literally mean a star. It can also mean “luminous body like a star” and refers specifically to Matthew 2:2, 7, 9, and 10. (2) It is only after they get to Jerusalem that Matthew 2:9-10 offers us a clue:

”The star they had seen in the east guided them to Bethlehem. It went ahead of them and stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy!”

This suggests that before they got to Jerusalem the star had disappeared, which would explain why they were so delighted to see it again. The only facts offered in the Bible are that the Magi saw a star rise in the night sky in the east where they were in Babylon and they subsequently travelled all the way to Jerusalem. Even though they knew about the prophecy of a royal birth in Israel (1), would they have known about the prophecy in Micah 5:2-4 which named Bethlehem as the place where this promised ruler would come from? After all, they had not gone directly to Bethlehem, but to Jerusalem and it was Herod the Great who told them to go to Bethlehem. Then the star they had seen in the east leads them in a southerly direction for about 6 miles and stops over the place where Jesus was.

Only one thing is certain – what they saw in the east and what they saw that lead them from Jerusalem to Bethlehem was supernatural – it was “a luminous body like a star” (2). Nothing says they followed this heavenly light from Babylon to Jerusalem, only that it seems to reappear after they got to Jerusalem and lead them to Bethlehem.

(1) ESV Study Bible Notes: Numbers 24:17 prophesied that “a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.” This was understood by Jews to point to a messianic deliverer (e.g., Dead Sea Scrolls, Damascus Document 7.18-21; Testimonia 9-13.)

  • Thank you. Up-voted. But I have always accepted that the Magi were from much further east than Babylon as it took them two years to make their journey. Herod enquired of them when the star appeared and then slaughtered all children under two years. So I accept a two year journey and that the Magi might well have come from, say India, Tibet or China. – Nigel J May 31 '18 at 13:13
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    Fair comment. After Herod found out from the Magi the exact time the star had appeared (Matthew 2:7), and after the Magi returned to their country by another route (Matthew 2:12), Herod issued a decree 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 (Matthew 2:16). This was in fulfilment of Jeremiah 31:15. Thanks for the up-vote. – Lesley May 31 '18 at 15:02
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Sight of the movement of planetary bodies as seen by humans on earth is affected by their location and whether they have access to magnifying lenses. The view enjoyed by people on the International Space Station, as it orbits the earth, is altogether different to that of those confined to terra firma! We also know that the views provided by the Hubble telescope go beyond anything we could hope to see, standing on the ground, without visual aids. The Magi were thus limited, yet only in one sense. There were other unknown factors at work with regard to the extraordinary celestial signs they saw, factors that enabled them to arrive at the very house where Mary and the child Jesus were located (and not a Sat Nav in sight – of the literal kind – but there was spiritual navigation of old at work here!)

First consideration – where were the Magi when first they set out on their journey to find the child? Second consideration – what triggered their journey; what made the arduous trip vital? Third consideration – is there information available to us in this space age that helps resolve the questions asked about this engagement of the Magi with the Christ-child?

1- Where did the Magi set out from? They could have been Zoroastrian men of learning, especially with regard to astronomical events. This means they could have been based in Iran, for the founder of Zoroastrianism, Zarathustra, lived in Iran. However, by the time of Christ’s birth there could have been priests of Zoroastrianism in very many other countries by then. We only know that it was a really long journey taking a long time. https://www.gotquestions.org/Zoroastrianism.html

2- What triggered their journey? Zoroastrian Magi viewed Jupiter as representing a new king; Saturn the old. In 7 B.C. a rare triple conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter could have been the celestial event that enabled them to visit Christ, the new-born king. The planets coming together would signify a change of ruler. This happening in Pisces would speak to them of Israel as they associated Pisces with Israel. This triple conjunction would make the planets involved appear to be travelling backwards and, on specific days, to have actually stopped. All planets do this, but it is very rare when two do so at the same time. This could account for a special light appearing to stand still over Bethlehem in November that year. Luke 2:21 informs us that the eight-day-old baby Jesus was taken to the Temple in Jerusalem during the Feast of Tabernacles, which takes place in September, so perhaps the Magi arrived at the house (not the stable) used by the holy family a couple of months later. The first stage of the conjunction would have been brilliantly aligned many months prior to Jesus' birth to prepare them for that long journey, and its third appearing was over Bethlehem, after they’d got to Jerusalem (via the second sighting). Also, there was a census by Quirinius (during his first term of office) for Jewish men only, to register at their birth-town. A few thousand priests were noted by historian Orisius to have refused to comply with that little-known census. It indicates an earlier time for Jesus’ birth than is accepted, yet it all falls into place with that triple conjunction.

3- Space-age knowledge includes this awareness of how the appearance of star movements to us on the ground can be something of an optical illusion due to the movement of the earth orbiting the sun while, at the same time, the moon also orbits between earth and sun. There are times when the alignment between earth and its moon, combined with the tilt of the earth on its axis (like a spinning top) makes planetary bodies appear to zig-zag briefly, before resuming what appears to us to be their ‘normal’ progression. There are no actual backward blips – it just looks that way from the point of view of persons standing on terra firma, looking up at the night sky.

David Hughes, Professor of Astronomy at Sheffield University, discovered a few years ago that, three years before Herod's death, there was that rare series of alignments of Jupiter and Saturn.

In summary, Jupiter and Saturn appeared to come together three times over several months. The first conjunction was in May 7 B.C., giving the Magi plenty time to plot the next two conjunctions (in September and November) and travel the long distance to Jerusalem (over which the second conjunction appeared) at the time of Jesus' birth. Herod the Great told them the prophesied king would be born in Bethlehem. And by the time the third conjunction happened, it brought the Magi to Bethlehem, to the very house where Mary and the child were. This implies a bit of a time lapse between Jesus' actual birth in a stable and being a child in a house in Bethlehem. Clearly, the stable accommodation had only been temporary (undoubtedly much to Mary’s relief). The Bible shows that Mary and Joseph stayed local as Mary went to the temple in Jerusalem for her purification. Although this gives 7 B.C. as the year in question, the census of Qurinius accords, causing Joseph to take the heavily pregnant Mary down to Bethlehem, his home town, by around September, and they were still in the village when the Magi pitched up. They had plotted the course and timing of that triple conjunction after the first sighting in May (from where they were, in another country). They knew the next alignment would be some four months later, marked by a special brilliance, and that the third one would be shortly thereafter. Their amazing knowledge of star movements and their mathematical expertise combined to lead them to Jerusalem, then Bethlehem. Yet God knew centuries beforehand how all of that would work out, for God made the stars too, making them move as they do. Hence the ancient prophecy about wailing in Ramah at the death of the children (Herod’s vain attempt to kill the young king – Jeremiah 31:15. Also, Numbers 25:17-19 proves divine arrangements working out:

“I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel… Out of Jacob shall come he that shall have dominion, and shall destroy him that remaineth of the city.”

That is why Herod asked the religious leaders about this promised one, after the Magi turned up (not surreptitiously avoiding him, otherwise they would have been thought spies). “For we have seen his star in the east”. The religious leaders confirmed that the Christ would appear in Bethlehem, quoting Micah 5:2. Yet the Magi had more faith in the new king than did the religious leaders who seemed not to try to find him, so as to adore him! (Or, if they did, God ensured they failed.) This points to three brilliant sightings, the first one getting the Magi moving, the second one getting them to Herod for confirmation and more specific location, the third identifying the very house in Bethlehem.

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Yes, the Magi did have two separate sightings of an unusual star.

  1. The first time they saw a "star when it rose" (ESV Matthew 2:2,9). This means they saw it at dawn near Jerusalem. They came to Jerusalem in the late morning or afternoon, so the “star” was not visible in daylight and no one could see it.
  2. The second time they saw the star after "it came to rest over the place where the child was” (ESV Matthew 9). Only then "they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy" (ESV Matthew 2:10). And this means they were near "the place where the child was”.

For other explanations see my site "On possible historical origins of the Nativity legends".

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