Part Five: The Star, the Magi, and the Massacre

The following is the last of a five-part series. Read Part One: Is the Story Myth or Fact? Read Part Two: Making Sense of the CensusRead Part Three: ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ — Was Jesus Really Born There? Read Part Four 'Behold, a Virgin Shall Conceive and Bear a Son'

By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD

A long time ago, in a remote country of the mighty Roman Empire, in an obscure village among an outcast race of people, a child was born. In fact, he was born to a poor peasant girl and a carpenter who had no bed for him except a manger in a cattle stall. They named their infant Son “Jesus.” After His birth in the town of Bethlehem (to which his parents had been forced to travel, to comply with the Roman census), Jesus and his family fled their own country, which was then under the tyrannical rule of King Herod, and lived in Egypt for several years as refugees. (Herod had been propped up on the throne of Palestine by the Roman Emperor, but he was not descended from the authentic lines of the kings of Israel. He hailed from Edom, not Israel, and in reality, his claim to rule the Jewish people rested solely on brute force). After Herod died, Jesus and his family safely returned to their native land and lived in the region of Galilee, in a remote mountain village called Nazareth.

Quoted above is my own assessment (from another web series) of the basic elements of the Nativity story that should be amenable to any open-minded historian, even if he or she is not willing to embrace the miraculous elements of these accounts (for example, that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary). Nevertheless, historians do not need to shy away from the supernatural, where there is significant evidence of its influence on the course of events — and that holds true especially for New Testament historians. Saint Matthew in particular records for us a series of divine interventions surrounding the birth of Christ that can and should be examined fairly, with the normal tools of historical research.

The Star and the Magi
Around the time that Jesus was born, the Mediterranean world prospered under Roman law, and the peace secured by the Roman legions. In fact, there were said to be signs in the heavens of the favor of the gods upon the Empire. In particular, a conjunction of the paths of Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation of Pisces (a conjunction which happened three times in the year 7 BC — rediscovered in the West by the great astronomer Johannes Kepler in 1606) was interpreted at the time as a celestial celebration of the reign of the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus. After all, The Romans considered Jupiter to be the star in the night sky representing the Roman Emperor, and Saturn the star of the Golden Age of the world. Imperial propaganda portrayed the Pax Romana that Augustus brought to the Mediterranean basin as the Golden Age of peace and prosperity.

Astrologers in Persia, however, must have interpreted this rare meeting of stars in the night sky in a different light: for according to the ancient lore of the Near East, though Jupiter was the star of the world ruler, Saturn was held to be the star not of Rome but of Palestine, and the constellation of Pisces (the last of the signs of the zodiac) was the constellation representing the last age of the world. As one historian puts it: “If Jupiter encountered Saturn in the sign of the Fishes, it could only mean that the ruler of the last days would appear in Palestine” (Stauffer, Jesus and His Story, SCM, 1970 edition, p. 33). It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the Gospel writer St. Matthew tells us that around that time Wise Men from the east arrived in the capital city of Palestine, asking “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him” (Mt 2:2).

In his book Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, Pope Benedict XVI commented on recent scholarship regarding the star and the coming of the Wise Men:

Naturally, attempts have been made to establish more precisely who they were. The Viennese astronomer Konrad Ferrari d’Occhieppo has shown that in the city of Babylon — which had once been a center of scientific astronomy, but was already in decline by the time of Jesus — there was still “a small group of astronomers who were gradually dying out … Earthenware tablets, covered in cuneiform signs with astronomical calculations … are clear proof of this” (Dern Stern von Bethlehem, p.27). He goes on to say that the conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation of Pisces in the years 7-6 B.C. — now believed to be the actual time of Jesus’ birth — is something that the Babylonian astronomers could have calculated, and it may well have pointed them toward the land of Judea and to a newborn “king of the Jews.” (p. 94)

Proof that these Babylonian astronomers were quite capable of charting the movements of the stars, and even predicting them with great accuracy, was discovered in the 20th century. Stauffer writes:

The Celestial Almanac of Sippar is one of the recent cuneiform tablets which have come down to us. It contains predictions of the positions of the planets for the year 7 B.C., probably drawn up at the beginning of that year. On this clay tablet all the principal motions and conjunctions of the year 7 were calculated in advance, precise to the month and the day. The main subject of the tablet, however, was the impending conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in [the constellation of] the Fishes, annotations for which appear about five times, with exact dates. In sum, the astronomers of the day knew accurately what events were to be expected in the firmament, and were looking forward with special eagerness to the rare conjunction of Jupiter in 7 B.C. (p. 33)

Historians agree that the medieval monks who gave us our western dating system made a slight error regarding the birth of Jesus, because King Herod was alive when Jesus was born, and Herod actually died somewhere between 4 and 1 B.C. Thus, here in this “stellar conjunction theory,” we have the likely foundation for the story in St. Matthew’s Gospel of the appearance of an extraordinary star in 7 BC, and the coming of Wise Men from the east in search of the newborn King in Palestine, the King who would reign over the final age of the world. No wonder those Wise Men from the east made the long, perilous journey from Persia to seek for Him and pay Him homage!

There is one aspect of this Gospel story, however, that the “stellar conjunction” theory does not fit. Their astrological lore may have led the Magi to Jerusalem in search of the newborn King, but after they moved on to Bethlehem, St. Matthew tells us, “the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” (Mt 2:9-10). Clearly, this was not the way an actual star or planet in the night sky behaves! And this has led some to theorize that the Star of Bethlehem actually may have been a comet (comets do indeed move across the night sky). Although why the appearance of a comet in the east would have led the Wise Men to Palestine then would be left unexplained. Others believe that the strange movements of the star can be accounted for by the astrological phenomena of the occasional halting and retrograde movements of Jupiter in the night sky, from our perspective on earth. But these movements would take multiple nights to observe — not the mere 4 hours it would have taken the Magi to travel from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.

Alternatively, Catholic biblical scholar Scott Hahn prefers the explanation offered by St. John Chrysostom and St. Gregory the Great, that the star was actually the appearance of an angel, guiding the Magi to the newborn King:

“This star,” said St. John Chrysostom, “was not of the common sort, or rather not a star at all, it seems to me, but some invisible power transformed into this appearance.”…

[T]he stars in the sky were often identified with angels in heaven. The motif appears in the Bible, and in other Jewish sources from the time of Jesus. The philosopher Philo of Alexandria [ca. 20 BC-50 AD] speculated that the stars “are living creatures, but of a kind composed entirely of mind.”…

I’m inclined to agree with [St. John Chrysostom] that this was yet another appearance of a Christmas angel. In the beginning, God had created the heavens and the earth, and all the angels were caught up in the cosmic drama. Now all find themselves, once again, caught up in its climax.

With John Chrysostom, I have to conclude that an angel appeared to the Magi as light and led them to true worship — which… is what angels were created to do. (Joy to the World. New York: Image, 2014, p. 116)

There seems little reason to reach for a miraculous explanation, however, when a natural explanation can explain events in history at least as well, if not better. If the star was a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the sign of the Fishes, it still would have been an extraordinary and astonishing coincidence (and in that sense “miraculous”), timed precisely by divine providence to herald the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. We can account for why and how the Wise Men came from the east to Jerusalem: they saw the stellar conjunction in the heavens back in Persia, and interpreted it precisely according their astrological traditions (another aspect of this tapestry woven by divine providence!). Moreover, we can account for their subsequent journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem: they were told at Herod’s court that the Messiah-King would most likely be born in the city of David, according to Jewish prophecy. In short, they did not need the star literally to go before them to lead them to Bethlehem — and it would have been fairly easy for them to find a newborn child in such a small town. Matthew’s words that the star “went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was,” may just be a poetic gloss in the story. The star, after all, was the reason for the whole journey that ultimately brought them to the Christ Child. In a sense, it did lead them right to Him in the end.

Either way — providential stellar conjunction or supernatural angel — there is little reason to doubt that St. Matthew is telling us the historical truth here, as he saw it.

The Massacre of the Innocents
The extraordinary events taking place in the heavens, and the arrival of the Wise Men in Jerusalem (with their portents of a new-born King of the last age of the world) inevitably led King Herod to grow fearful for the security of his throne. Besides, Herod also would have known that according to biblical prophecy, the appearance of a strange star in the sky could very well herald his downfall: “A star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a scepter shall arise out of Israel …. Edom shall be dispossessed” (Num. 24:17-18). Remember that Herod was an Edomite, not a Palestinian Jew).

Not only in the Gospel according to St. Matthew, but also in an ancient Jewish apocalyptic text written between 6 and 15 AD titled The Assumption of Moses, we find reports that Herod tried to remove the infant Messiah from the scene by slaughtering all the children two years old or younger in Bethlehem, the ancestral town of the royal house of David. In Matthew the report is clear and explicit (Mt 2:16-18), and it is given to us as the reason why Mary and Joseph fled with their child from Bethlehem in the middle of the night and escaped to Egypt. But in The Assumption of Moses the report takes the cryptic literary form of a prophecy (a retrospective prophecy about things that had already happened, many years before), including a prophecy that an “insolent king” (Herod) would rule after the Hasmonean dynasty had ended, and among other crimes, would execute judgment upon the Israelites just as the Egyptian ruler Pharaoh had done long ago (when Pharaoh tried to slaughter all the Israelite baby boys, see Exodus 1:22). The Assumption of Moses puts it this way: “and he [Herod] will cut off their chief men with the sword and will destroy them in secret places, so that no one may know where their bodies are. He will slay the old and the young, and he will not spare. Then the fear of him will be bitter unto them in their land. And he will execute judgement on them as the Egyptians executed upon them” (Stauffer, Jesus and His Story, p. 38-39, 1960 edition). Indeed, this kind of behavior fits with everything historians know about King Herod. New Testament scholar Scott Hahn writes: 

He was homicidal, insecure to the point of paranoia, and he had no compunction about killing people. … He murdered one of his wives and three of his sons. He slaughtered the Jerusalem priests whose scriptural interpretations made him anxious, and his other sporadic purges claimed victims by the hundreds. What are a few dead infants and toddlers to such a man? (Joy to the World, p. 137-138)

After Herod’s death, with the danger past, Mary and Joseph returned with Jesus to their homeland. The evangelist St. Luke tells us: “And Jesus advanced [in] wisdom and age and favor before God and man” (Lk 2:52).  

What was St. Matthew trying to tell us by sharing with us the story of the Star, the Magi, and the Massacre? Perhaps he wanted to drive the point home that from the very beginning, God’s plan for our salvation had to be forged and carried out not in some rural paradise, but right in the midst of the dark, confusing, and even at times murderous world that we live in. The Messiah was not born into a quiet and comfortable corner of the Empire, but into a region every bit as dark and treacherous as “the real world” we read about in our newspapers each day. Still, divine providence was at work, signified by a star, and welcomed by a handful of pagan star-gazers sincerely searching for the truth. As the prophet Isaiah had written: “The people who walked in darkness, have seen a great light; those who dwelt in the land of deep darkness, on them has the light shined” (Is 9:2). That light does not arise from the world itself, but comes from above, from Heaven, signified by a star in the heavens. “For a child is born to us, a son is given to us” (Is 9:6). And Jesus Himself is that light — the light of the world (see Jn 8:12), shining out in the darkness of human misery and sin — and the darkness can never overcome it (see Jn 1:5).

Robert Stackpole, STD, is the director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers.

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