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We read at Matthew 2:1-2 King James Version (KJV):

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, 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."

If the wise men came from the east, Bethlehem would be positioned to the western side from their point of view. And, if they saw the star in the east, they would have proceeded further east following the star, and not gone to the western side.

Interestingly, many other versions of the NT , including the NRSVCE do away with the direction east , putting the event thus:

Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising ..

I wish to know if the direction of the star of Bethlehem which the wise men had seen before they set on their journey to find the Saviour , was modified in the later versions of NT with a purpose .

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  • The Bible does not say they followed the star all the way from their homelands to Jerusalem. It just says the star went before them on the much shorter trip between Jerusalem and Bethlehem (verse 9). We are not told how they knew to go to Judea. Many explain it as due to the astrological position of the star and the presence of significant conjunctions. – davidlol Jan 6 at 19:05
  • "observed his star at its rising" -- stars always rise to the East of the observer, so this interprets the passage the same way.One of the answers has a different interpretation of "in the East". – disciple Jan 6 at 23:27
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As you point out, the Magi came from the east, out of Persia or southern Arabia, towards Jerusalem, in the west. Matthew2:1-2 confirms that they saw his star in the east (from whence they came). Celestial bodies move from east to west (due to the earth’s rotation), yet this heavenly body apparently led them west, to Jerusalem.

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 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.

However, the real conundrum is that once they got to Jerusalem, this “star” had seemingly disappeared. It was Herod who instructed them to go to Bethlehem, which is a village about five miles south of Jerusalem.

“After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed” (Matthew 2:9-10).

After the magi got to Jerusalem the “star” had apparently disappeared, then reappeared and led them from Jerusalem SOUTH to Bethlehem where it STOPPED, directly over the place where the child was. No natural stellar phenomenon can do that.

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.” This meaning refers specifically to Matthew 2:2, 7, 9, and 10.

Perhaps, instead of thinking about a literal star, we should acknowledge that what the Magi initially saw, what led them first towards Jerusalem and then specifically moved south and stood over the place where Jesus was in Nazareth, was no natural stellar event, but was a phenomenon orchestrated by God. The article in the link below is worth reading. It is copyright protected so I can’t cut and paste, but the essence is that this was no natural stellar phenomenon.

Waging Wisdom Star of Bethlehem - 21 December 2018 – Charles Strohmer – Re-enchanting the Star of Bethlehem: https://wagingwisdom.com/2018/12/21/re-enchanting-the-star-of-bethlehem/

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The expression "we have seen his star in the east" could simply mean that they were in the east when they saw it. Little else would make sense, as stars, like the sun and moon, rise in the east and set in the west every day.

And according to the Catholic Encyclopedia's Maji article, the "Star of Bethlehem" could not have been a literal star at all:

These theories [about what kind of astronomical object it was] all fail to explain how "the star which they had seen in the east, went before them, until it came and stood over where the child was" (Matthew 2:9). The position of a fixed star in the heavens varies at most one degree each day. No fixed star could have so moved before the Magi as to lead them to Bethlehem; neither fixed star nor comet could have disappeared, and reappeared, and stood still. Only a miraculous phenomenon could have been the Star of Bethlehem. It was like the miraculous pillar of fire which stood in the camp by night during Israel's Exodus (Exodus 13:21), or to the "brightness of God" which shone round about the shepherds (Luke 2:9), or to "the light from heaven" which shone around about the stricken Saul (Acts 9:3).

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From the references, it appears to be saying the magi saw the star in the east; that is, it is their position in the east from which they saw the star. It's not the position of the star in the east.

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, Mat 2:1

The wise men were from the east of Jerusalem.

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. Mat 2:2

They saw his star in the east. In other words, in the east they saw his star.

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. Mat 2:9

Again, they saw the star when they were in the east; it is from their position in the east. As the OP points out, had the star been to the east from their position, they would not have travelled west to Jerusalem. So, the in the east refers to the magi's position, not to the star's position from their point of view.

En (Dative) 1. Spatial/Sphere: in (and various other translations) 2. Temporal: in, within, when, while, during 3. Association (often close personal relationship): with 4. Cause: because of 5. Instrumental: by, with 6. Reference/Respect: with respect to/with reference to 7. Manner: with 8. Thing Possessed: with (in the sense of which possesses) 9. Standard (=Dative of Rule): according to the standard of 10. As an equivalent for eis (with verbs of notion) Greek Prepositions

They saw the star to the west from when they were to the east.

Some translations try to clarify this verse Mat 2:2 by saying that the star rose without referencing the position of the magi, which of course was in the east.

NIV: 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.”

ESV: saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose[fn] and have come to worship him.”

NET: saying, "Where is the one who is born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him."

The translations are not particularly helpful if one thinks only of our sun rising in the east. But the idea is the star rose to the west, perhaps as the sun set, and they followed it.

Was there a purpose to trying not to give a sense of direction? If there was, it was benign.

  • How can you tell that an ulterior motive was benign? – Andrew Leach Jan 6 at 21:59
  • @AndrewLeach The two views are identical; that is, the magi in the east saw a star and travelled west or the magi saw a star rising and travelled west. – SLM Jan 7 at 4:31
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Three years before Herod’s death, there was a rare triple conjunction that 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 the biblical use of the word ‘east’ in the birth narrative of Jesus. It wasn’t just that the Magi from Persia saw the first sighting in the east, but also that this remarkable ‘traveling backward’ illusion (when viewed from earth) would give more reason to speak of “in the east”, plus an understanding comes as to the strange ‘standing still’ bit (that would happen last).

Zoroastrian Magi viewed Jupiter as representing a new king; Saturn the old. 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. Once arrived in Jerusalem, their open declaration of their arrival to Herod the Great garnered them further direction – the religious leaders confirmed that prophecies showed Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Then, the ‘star’ appearing to stand still above Bethlehem would absolutely assure them that their astronomical calculations and astrological expectations about a new king of Israel were sound.

An article on this was in 1 September 2009 ‘Weekend’ magazine which was reviewing a BBC2 documentary on Christmas Eve that year. It gave that explanation of David Hughes, Professor of Astronomy at Sheffield University. The first conjunction was in May, giving them plenty time to plot the next two conjunctions (in September and November) and travel the very long distance to Jerusalem (over which the second conjunction appeared) at the time of Jesus' birth. The Bible shows a time gap between Jesus’ birth and the arrival of the Magi. There was also a little-known census that year, written about by 5th century historian Orosius. This triple conjunction seems to tick all the boxes.

Objection is sometimes made to the astrological views of the Magi, with claims that only Satan would attempt to work through such means, in order to destroy the new-born king of Israel. Well, God already knew centuries earlier what evil elements at the time of Christ’s birth would try to do, including Herod’s murder of baby boys after the Magi heeded God’s warning to give Herod a body-swerve by going home a different route. The prophecy in Jeremiah 31:15 is equally as God-inspired as the one in Micah 5:2 about Bethlehem. The One who created the cosmos would know all about any triple conjunctions due to take place the year Jesus was born, and if he chose to use Magi to take heed and follow its three phases, then the event is awesomely God-inspired and directed. Satan never stands a chance trying to thwart God’s plans of yore, not that that stops him trying, yet it is illogical to conclude that Satan caused special ‘star’ signs to dupe the Magi, as if Satan has the power to create celestial phenomena! No, God knew from the founding of the world both how and when Messiah would arrive on earth, and how and when Magi would notice what he wanted them to notice, to fulfil prophecy. It’s all remarkably interesting and none of this explanation detracts one whit from the God-ordained series of events, that include planetary movements at specific times. This was all of God.

I agree that it appears as if some modern Bible versions have tried to 'amend' that verse about "his star in the east", almost as if they are embarrassed by that term. Yet if that triple conjunction three years before Herod's death fits the bill, "his star in the east" holds good, just the way it appears in the Greek text of Matthew 2:1-2.

  • Unfortunately, such naturalistic explanations do not fit all the details as well explained by @Lesley. – Mac's Musings Jan 7 at 21:30
  • It could well be that that particular event does not fit all the details but I'm not out to convince anyone that they do - I just offer that idea as a way of giving an answer to the question. I'm certainly not going to debate with anyone that that is the explanation! I would only say that a natural event, in the hands of God and his timing, becomes supernatural. It certainly wasn't demonic. And I appreciate some of the points in Lesley's answer but claiming, 'No natural stellar phenomenon can do that' is not necessarily correct. – Anne Jan 7 at 21:40
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Christ's manger is a typology of Noah's ark and vis a vis. The wooden crib contains salvation for the world, as the ark contained the saved of the world. The provision of bread was found in the ark and the provision of bread was found in the manger and in Bethlehem the house of bread. As creatures were drawn to the ark by God, kings were drawn to the manger by the Star of Jacob (Balaam's oracle). Psalms 72 explains kings of Tarshish, Sheba and Seba will bring him gifts. Tarshish, Sheba and Seba are from the lineage of Shem, Ham and Japeth found in the Table of Nations, Genesis 10. God's perfect design had all nations represented at Christ's manger just as all nations would come forth from Noah's ark. I suspect the number of days the kings traveled from the east to the manger will equal the number of days that Noah's family were within the ark--again in God's perfect design and pattern.

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    That typology plays out pretty well in the book version of Ben Hur too. – Peter Turner Jan 7 at 18:15

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