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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 '19 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". – Bit Chaser Jan 6 '19 at 23:27
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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.

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  • How can you tell that an ulterior motive was benign? – Andrew Leach Jan 6 '19 at 21:59
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    @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 '19 at 4:31
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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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  • Excellent comments +1. – user25930 Jan 7 '19 at 21:30
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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.

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  • Unfortunately, such naturalistic explanations do not fit all the details as well explained by @Lesley. – user25930 Jan 7 '19 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 '19 at 21:40
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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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  • Indeed. The English of the KJV should strike anyone as highly ambiguous: did they see the star [which was] in the east, or did they [who were] in the east see the star? Your first paragraph seems to me the best answer. They were just mentioned as being "from the East" and then they say they saw the star "in the East". But even if they saw it "rising" as in Iver's answer, they were themselves in the East. :) – Luke Sawczak Jan 4 at 16:35
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The answer to this question of how could the magi follow the star need not be so complicated, although this explanation may appear to be. Please bear with me.

As indicated previously, all heavenly bodies appear to rise in the east and appear to proceed, through the night from east to west to set in the west, unless the sun rises prior. Given that Persia or Arabia is east of Judea, the magi could have been in Persia, seen the body appear to arise in the east, watched it through the night, and seen it track to the west. It may have appeared to stop over Judea depending upon the season, not setting before the sun arose from the magi's perspective.

Once they decided to make their journey, they had a ground track to follow from watching the body, and they could check their course each night as the journey progressed. The magi may have been awaiting this event for a long time, based on oral or written tradition due to Daniel, who was appointed head of the magi during his time in Persia. In this case, they would have logically visited King Herod in Jerusalem, assuming that he would have been awaiting the new King as well, perhaps not aware that Herod was not Jewish. After Herod and the scribes advised proceeding to Bethlehem, which was close by, as mentioned above, the star "disappeared" and "reappeared" overhead, perhaps due to the longitude difference from Persia to Bethlehem / Jerusalem, the magi would have surmised, that they were in the correct place, and they probably knew Jews lived in Judea. As to whether the star or heavenly body actually disappeared and reappeared, this can be explained culturally as follows:

While I was in the USAF in the early 80's, my crew and I were deployed to Saudi Arabia. We landed after midnight, and the local customs officials in Riyadh, would not process us into the country, because a cloud overcast prevented them from seeing the moon. They were waiting to see the new moon to declare the beginning of a new month. Since they could not see the moon, they were prohibited, either by tradition or Islamic law, from assuming the new day of the new month, so we were required to wait until daylight, after flying all the way from the UK. Finally we made a bargain: We were allowed to leave our belongings on the aircraft and proceed to the hotel, under house arrest, until the following evening, when the moon was visible, and we were called to return to the airport to process through customs and immigration.

Using the same cultural logic, the "star" could have been thought to "disappear" and "reappear" if clouds or other obscuration were present between the time the magi arrived in Jerusalem, gained audience with King Herod, and continued to Bethlehem.

Some of these assumptions are not scientific, but they are observable in the "real" world.

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  • Up-voted +1. Interesting. – Nigel J Dec 30 '20 at 5:06
  • @Richard Stewart Interesting and, once stated, a fairly obvious explanation. I edited your question only to correct one typographical error. – Lesley Jan 4 at 10:54
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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 '19 at 18:15
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The difference between "in the east" and "in its rising" is a question of how best to understand the Greek text:

εἴδομεν γὰρ αὐτοῦ τὸν ἀστέρα ἐν τῇ ἀνατολῇ

This means "for we have seen HIS star in the rising/east". The noun anatolē means "rising up". In Greek there are two ways to talk about "east", either "the rising (of the Sun)" or "the risings (of the Sun)". The word for "Sun" may or may not be explicit in the text. Since the Sun rises every day, the plural form "the risings" is most common for the Sun. In this case it is not the Sun, so "in the rising" could mean either "in the east" or "in the rising".

The BDAG dictionary lists both options:

  1. upward movement of celestial bodies, rising, of stars ...ἐν τῇ ἀνατολῇ at its rising, when it rose Mt 2:2, because of the sg. and the article in contrast to ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν, vs. 1, prob. not a geograph. expr. like the latter, but rather astronomical

  2. the position of the rising sun, east, orient

It is commonly suggested that the bright star they saw when they were still at home in the East, was a conjunction of two or three planets. There was such a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 7 BC in the Pisces.

There was a conjunction of Jupiter and Venus in 3 BC and again in 2 BC. The last one is the most likely one to focus on, but it is confusing because there is diagreement about whether Herod died in 4 BC or 1 BC. The 1 BC year fits with the Bible as Jesus began his ministry in 28 AD and was crucifed in AD 30. If Jesus was born in 2 BC, he would have been about 30 years in 28 AD. The whole topic is interesting, but too complex for a brief response here. Jupiter was recognized by Babylonian astronomers/astrologers as the King star, Venus was the Morning Star and also the Mother star. They met in the zodiac sign of Leo (The Lion of Judah). That was enough for them to believe that a king would be born in the land of Judah. One place to start if you want to study it more is: https://www.space.com/33866-venus-jupiter-conjunction-star-of-bethlehem.html

Another place to look is http://www.askelm.com/video/real/xmas_star.htm

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In Revelation, Jesus says that he is "the bright morning star":

[Rev 22:16 NASB] (16) "I, Jesus, have sent My angel to testify to you these things for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star."

In other words, "I am the greatest".

This actually refers to Venus, the planet, when it rises in the East, just above the horizon. Before dawn, it is the brightest body of the sky and is called "the morning star". In the evening, the same planet, Venus, rises in the West and is called "the evening star". It has two names because they didn't realize that they were the same planet, Venus.

Perhaps due to a conjunction or other astronomical anomaly, it served as an omen to them that a king was born in Jerusalem. Perhaps they knew of the expectation of a Jewish Messiah. Perhaps a memory of their famous ancient queen?

The reason that they came bearing the gifts that they did is that each coincides with OT writings of the kingdom of Sheba, located in the East:

[2Ch 9:1, 3, 9 NLT] (1) When the queen of Sheba heard of Solomon's fame, she came to Jerusalem to test him with hard questions. She arrived with a large group of attendants and a great caravan of camels loaded with spices, large quantities of gold, and precious jewels. When she met with Solomon, she talked with him about everything she had on her mind. ... (3) When the queen of Sheba realized how wise Solomon was, and when she saw the palace he had built, ... (9) Then she gave the king a gift of 9,000 pounds of gold, great quantities of spices, and precious jewels. Never before had there been spices as fine as those the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon.

[Job 6:19 NLT] (19) The caravans from Tema search for this water; the travelers from Sheba hope to find it.

[Psa 72:10, 15 NLT] (10) The western kings of Tarshish and other distant lands will bring him tribute. The eastern kings of Sheba and Seba will bring him gifts. ... (15) Long live the king! May the gold of Sheba be given to him. May the people always pray for him and bless him all day long.

[Isa 60:6 NLT] (6) Vast caravans of camels will converge on you, the camels of Midian and Ephah. The people of Sheba will bring gold and frankincense and will come worshiping the LORD.

[Jer 6:20 NLT] (20) There's no use offering me sweet frankincense from Sheba. Keep your fragrant calamus imported from distant lands! I will not accept your burnt offerings. Your sacrifices have no pleasing aroma for me."

[Eze 27:22-23 NLT] (22) The merchants of Sheba and Raamah came with all kinds of spices, jewels, and gold in exchange for your wares. (23) "Haran, Canneh, Eden, Sheba, Asshur, and Kilmad came with their merchandise, too.

[Eze 38:13 NLT] (13) But Sheba and Dedan and the merchants of Tarshish will ask, 'Do you really think the armies you have gathered can rob them of silver and gold? Do you think you can drive away their livestock and seize their goods and carry off plunder?'

As Matthew was wont to say, "This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophets:..."

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