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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

Star of the Magi

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STAR OF THE MAGI . The character of the star which was seen by the Magi has been the source of many conjectures. While some consider it to have been an absolutely miraculous appearance, others have tried to connect it with some recognized form of celestial phenomenon. Some have held that it was a comet [the Greek word for the ‘star’ is applied to comets], and if such a comet as Donati’s of 1858, which the present writer remembers well, had been visible at the time of the Nativity, it would have fulfilled the conditions of the narrative, and the difficulties about the star standing over ‘where the young child was’ ( Matthew 2:9 ) would have been lessened. None such, however, seems to have been recorded. Others, noting that there were conjunctions of two of the brighter planets, Jupiter and Saturn (b.c. 7), and Jupiter and Venus (b.c. 6), have tried to connect this appearance with one of these. Others, again, have explained the appearance as that of what is known as a stella nova, i.e. a star which suddenly flashes out with great brightness in the firmament and then either dies out again altogether, or diminishes in the magnitude of its brightness, so as to be scarcely, if at all, visible to the naked eye. The difficulty connected with all these interpretations is due to the necessity that has been felt for giving a literal interpretation to the account that ‘the star … went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.’ But we may take it that the language here is of the same character as that which we constantly use about the sun or moon rising and setting. If, then, we assume that the star, whatever it was, was near the horizon in front of the wise men when they started on their journey, its relative position to them, so long as they kept a direct course, would vary but little. The place in the heavens of any fixed star varies only about one degree, or four minutes, each succeeding day.

A somewhat more difficult question than that about the appearance of the star is, Why did the wise men connect it with the birth of a king of the Jews? The traditional answer to this question is that there had been handed down from generation to generation among the wise men of Babylon a knowledge of Balaam’s prophecy, ‘There shall come forth a star out of Jacob’ (Numbers 24:17 ), and that, when this notable star appeared, it was considered to be the herald of the appearance of a great person. There certainly was a Jewish population in Babylonia in our Lord’s day, and if this prophecy was recognized as coming from a Hebrew document, and reference was made to the Jews, it would be most natural for the wise men, if they were Babylonians, to set their faces towards Jerusalem. There is this difficulty, however, about referring the ‘star’ of Balaam’s prophecy to a phenomenon in the heavens, that from the parallelism of the Hebrew poetry we gather that the ‘star’ is intended to refer not to a star in the sky, but to some great prince or ruler (cf., for this use, Daniel 8:10 ). Still, the explanation of the journey may be much the same. There was a great ferment in the East and a wide-spread anticipation, even in the Roman world, of some great Saviour or deliverer to arise, as the poets Virgil and Horace testify, just about the time when the Saviour was born. If some such brilliant star appeared, this would be taken as portending that the moment for the appearance of such an one had arrived, and search would be made for the Great One. So, in the Apocalypse ( Revelation 22:16 ), our Lord is represented as claiming for Himself that He is not only ‘the root and the offspring of David,’ but also ‘the bright, the morning star.’

H. A. Redpath.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Star of the Magi'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdb/s/star-of-the-magi.html. 1909.

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