§ 8. The Star of the Magi

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by Neil Godfrey


§ 8.

The Star of the Magi.

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Magi came from the East to Jerusalem and asked about the newborn King of the Jews, whose star they had seen. Herod, troubled by this news, called the priests and scribes and asked them where Christ would be born. They answered Bethlehem, and he sent the Magi there, who, guided by the star, found the house where the child was and paid homage to him.


Kepler calculated that around the time of Christ’s birth, a remarkable conjunction of planets had occurred, which relieved the apologist of a heavy burden. He now either “inclines to believe it is highly probable that the star of the Magi should be understood as that planet conjunction” *) or, with the proper sense that it is not possible according to the account, he abandons the belief in its “accuracy” and now says that the Magi at least originally spoke of a “constellation” **). It is impossible for us to make this sacrifice, as the wonderful nature of the star is presupposed from all parts of the account, and we stick to what Calvin says, that nothing about natural stars fits everything that is said about the star ***).

Therefore, it also remains with the conclusion that God must have accommodated Himself to the astrological error that the birth of great men is glorified and proclaimed to the world through celestial signs, to the extent that He indicated to the Magi the birth of the Messiah through a star wonderfully created for this purpose. That is, we would have to admit an impossibility, which is impossible as long as we do not stifle reason.

But perhaps the apologist will make the impossibility so flattering, so sweet, that we can swallow it without immediately tasting the bitter core, if not digesting it. Let us listen to him! “There is no question of astrological ideas here. It is only a matter of the sublime singular that the Magi saw the star of the newborn King of the Jews” †). But before we take the pill and, in the same moment that the doctor presents it to us so kindly, we notice to our fortune that its sweet shell is just a shell, and only a half one at that.

*) e.g. Olshausen, ibid. l, 66.

**) e.g. Neander, ibid. x. 29.

***) Nihil convenit naturalibus stellis.

†) Lange, ibid. p. 9Z.


As if the “sublime singular” were not only relative! The star here is the star that belongs to the King of the Jews, just as other stars belong to other holy or heroic men. The star of the Messiah indicates his birth, just as other stars announce the birth of other heroes of the world.

Now the cunning apologist wants to bargain with us, to deceive us! “It’s only about one thing here,” he says *), “just one joyous fire in the heights, a shining signal with which the earth in the middle of its world history salutes the universe to which it so closely belongs.” Go ahead, stingy man! You don’t bribe us with your penny. We will show you a mass of stars that will make your rocket pale and vanish unseen. You only give us words! But look at the shining signals with which the whole history of the world has saluted the Messiah from the beginning to its fulfillment. The great historical heroes up to the Baptist, the views and intuitions of the ancient religions, philosophy, and law, the struggles of the peoples: these were quite different signals, they were the only and worthy signals with which history saluted Christianity.

Finally, the faithful theologian will also not succeed in sowing discord between us and the holy text. He advises us, yes, he says **), it is “first and foremost” necessary to “eliminate the prejudice that the evangelist wanted to designate the star as the topographical guide of the magi.” “It is clear,” he says, “that he only regarded it as their religious guide.” Excellent distinction! If the star announced the newborn King of the Jews to the magi, it was as a religious sign and at the same time a topographical one, for it showed them where to seek the Messiah: in Judaea. The wise men follow this hint and arrive in Jerusalem. Here, they learn through Herod’s mediation where they would find the newborn, so they naturally learn that Bethlehem is the destination of their journey. But they only learn this because the account already has the later events in mind, must involve King Herod in the matter, and wants to weave the prophetic promise that the Messiah will come from Bethlehem into his pragmatism. These interests prompted the author to once leave the star out of sight here. However, hardly have the wise men set out for Bethlehem, so he sends it – from north to south! – ahead of them as a guide and lets it stop over the place where the child was. The star, therefore, leads the wise men to the house where they found the newborn they were looking for. No! says the apologist, the star was not the guide! In the text, it says that the star stood above where the child was. “How close was it to the evangelist to write ‘above the house’? He avoided this idea *)”. But not because he considered it insignificant! He did not even avoid it, he cherished it very firmly, he only – the apologist should not triumph in the future if he uses an inappropriate word – he only avoided the expression that this presentation actually required and, for the more specific “above the house,” set the more general. An involuntary feeling held his hand back from writing the expression that would have led the matter to the extreme point of the impossible and adventurous and made the presentation so stark that the evangelist himself would have had to account for the monstrous idea of a star standing over only one specific house from its great distance. In essence, he did have this idea because immediately after he circumvented the obstacle of the serious, prosaic expression, he says: “and they went into the house and saw the child.” So, the fact that they could enter this particular house is only due to the star having shown them the way to it. Matthew does not know any other intermediate link, such as “the holy child in Bethlehem was much discussed” *) or that the Magi could learn from the city’s talk about the house of the child. The star and only the star is the guide of the Magi to him.

*) Lange, ibid. p. 93.

**) Ibid. p. 191.

*) Lange, ibid. p. 103.

*) Lange, as cited above, page 104.


Neander, as previously mentioned, is more cautious and has extinguished the star as such, namely as this miraculous star. However, he goes further in the natural explanation. “Some wise men who were investigating the course of the stars according to the course of world events, either following a theory derived from Jewish theologians or one they themselves devised, believed they had received a sign from a constellation or a star of the birth of the long-awaited great king who was to appear in the East.” **) It is true that, as with all such concessions, we do not want to insist that, according to the report, the sign, as it is absolutely miraculous, was given to the Magi by God alone, and that the report knows nothing of “self-devised theories” of the Magi, and that according to him, the same God who gave the sign also interpreted it to the Magi. All of this, of course, must be attributed to the Evangelist if the miraculous nature of the star has already been attributed to his misunderstanding. But then the natural explanation must make it comprehensible to us from history how the foreign Magi could see a sign of the birth of the long-awaited great king in a star or constellation. Usually, one relied on a note that can be found in Tacitus and Suetonius to explain it naturally ***), either to relate the divine miracle to history or to bring it into connection with the story. The former speaks more soberly *) and only says that during the siege of Jerusalem by Titus, a Jewish faction had relied on the prophecy in their sacred scriptures that at this very time, the East would gain strength, and men who would come from Judea would gain world dominion. **) Suetonius makes the matter greater. The Jews, he says, rebelled by referring to an old and constant expectation that had spread throughout the East, that it was predetermined by fate that at this time, world dominion would be seized from Judea. ***) Note the difference! According to Tacitus, the Jewish war faction was strengthened in their resistance against the Romans by a prophecy of the sacred scriptures. Suetonius speaks of an old and constant expectation that had spread throughout the East, so the Magi could have been familiar with it, and they could have been convinced by a remarkable celestial phenomenon that the world ruler had been born in Judea. However, leaving aside the fact that they thought not the world ruler, but the world rulers would come from Judea at that time, †) how does Suetonius know what he knows more than Tacitus?  He has only taken it from his own head and expanded upon the note, which he copied from Tacitus’ writing – as the identical wording “eo tempore Judaea profecti rerum potirentur” demonstrates ††) – in order to provide a grander background for the fulfillment. Suetonius has even fallen into a contradiction that makes it clear as day that Tacitus is his closest witness in this matter. His predecessor speaks mostly of world rulers who would come from Judea, because after him, Vespasian and Titus are the ones of whom the ambiguous prophecy, wrongly explained by the Jews, spoke. Suetonius maintains the majority – quidam prophecies – but only says that this saying referred to the Roman emperor – he means Vespasian – and he is content to name only him because he is busy with his biography at that moment.

**) as cited above, pages 28-29.

***) Olshausen is not willing to discuss it any further, even though he acknowledges the note (I, 64.).

*) Tacitus, “Histories” Book 5, Chapter 13.

**) “At that very time it was foretold that the East was to grow strong and rulers were to come from Judaea.”

***) Suetonius, “Life of Vespasian” Chapter 4: “It had long been an established belief throughout the East that it was fated for men coming from Judaea to rule the world at this time.”

†) Tacitus: “At that very time.”

††) Causabonus noticed the identity of the words, but he only proves the necessity of a different interpretation through his fanciful explanation. He says in Suetonius, “Life of Vespasian” Chapter 4: “Both Tacitus and Suetonius, who refer to the same oracle with the same words, seem to have expressed the concept in those very words, in which the traces of truth and that prophecy from which it originated are apparent. For it is written in the sacred scriptures, ‘from you will emerge the leader.’ Read Josephus, “Antiquities of the Jews,” Book 6, Chapter 31. (By the way, Olshausen has two citations for the same chapter from Josephus, and even these are copied incorrectly, because he mistook two differently cited passages from two different chapters for citations from two different chapters.)”


Suetonius was familiar with Josephus and his historical work, from which Tacitus took the aforementioned note. Suetonius himself says that one of the captured Jews, Josephus, had predicted to Vespasian that the chains that were currently put on him would be taken off by him as emperor in a short time *). It is possible that when Suetonius spoke of that expectation of the Orient and only referred it to Vespasian, he also had Josephus’ writings in front of him; for at the point where Josephus speaks of that old prophecy, he said it had referred to Vespasian **) and Tacitus interpreted it to refer to both Vespasian and Titus, because he had in mind the prophecy of the captive Josephus that Titus would become ruler of the world like his father ***). But one thing remains clear: Suetonius knew, utilized, and had no other source besides Josephus from which he could have learned of the news of that expectation that had spread throughout the Orient for a long time. He only relied on the conclusions, assumptions, and exaggerated tendencies of historical pragmatism to obtain that information.

*) Suetonius, “Life of Vespasian” Chapter 5.

**) Josephus, “The Jewish War” Book 6, Chapter 5, Section 4.

***) Josephus, “The Jewish War” Book 3, Chapter 8, Section 9.\


So we come back to Josephus. He reports *) that the Jewish war party was incited to resist the Romans by an ambiguous prophecy from the holy scriptures, namely that a world ruler would arise from their land at that time. But they had deceived themselves when they declared this statement to be in their interest, since it actually referred to the rise of Vespasian, who was proclaimed as a world ruler in Judaea.

That widespread expectation, which kept the entire Orient in suspense at the beginning of the Christian era and which theologians make so much of, shrinks to the narrow idea of a Jewish party at the time of Vespasian. And Josephus did not even give us precise information about this narrow idea, nor did he make it impossible to suspect that he attributed to that war party a notion that was familiar to him, and thus created an insoluble confusion in his account. He expressly explains **) the prophecy of Daniel (Dan. 9:26) about the people of a coming prince who would destroy the city and the sanctuary to mean that it refers to the destruction of the Jewish state by the Romans. He could only think of this prophecy when, after the unfortunate days of Jotapata, he recognized the divine providence in the downfall of the Jewish people and in the victory of the Romans, and presented himself to Vespasian as a prisoner. Not only a dream, he says himself ***), but also his familiar acquaintance with the prophecies of the holy scripture gave him the certainty that a new world order would begin after divine providence, all happiness would have departed from his people and passed over to the Romans, and Vespasian and his son would be destined to become world rulers. Only in that prophecy of Daniel could Josephus find the prophecy of Vespasian’s elevation, because the prince of whom Daniel speaks had to be the world ruler or prove his vocation to world rule in Judaea by the fall of the sanctuary of the theocracy. Whether Josephus had already conceived the prophecy of Daniel in this sense during the days of Jotapata and applied it to the Roman conqueror, or whether he made the combination more specific in his historical work after the fact: It remains the case that only that prophecy was capable of being applied to the emperor. But it is also the same and the only one he thinks of when he says that the war party relied on an ambiguous scriptural prophecy when resisting the Romans. He says it was an ambiguous one for good reason: he realizes he made a mistake, realizing – without further explanation – that the war party actually could not have relied on this prophecy. We must say that it was impossible for them to even think of this prophecy, since it predicts the fall of the sanctuary and the city in dry words. But Josephus does not concern himself with this impossibility, he only thinks of this middle part – he only thinks that in that passage the world ruler is mentioned and now wants to shape the interest of his account so that the defeated were misled and incited to resist by that same prophecy which proclaimed the conqueror’s world rule. But the Jews could not imagine finding the guarantee for the success of their resistance in this prophecy *).

*) Jewish War, Book 5, Chapter 4

**) Antiquities, Book 10, Chapter 11, Section 7

***) Jewish War, Book 3, Chapter 8, Section 3.

*) It is clear that Josephus had only that passage from Daniel in mind when he mentions the prophecy that the war party had been deceived by. He says that this ambiguous saying had the sense that at that time κατά τον καιρόν εκείνον, a world ruler would emerge from Judea. There is no other prophecy besides that one in the second chapter of Daniel in which a specific time is indicated, and Josephus thought that the end date would fall into the Roman era. The other prophecies in Daniel that count time, Josephus refers to the time of Antiochus Epiphanes (Arch. 9, 11, 7. 12, 7, 6.).


In short, not only that splendid note about the general expectation in the Orient that the ruler of the world would come forth from Judaea, but also the other one about the hopes of the Jewish war party – which, even if it were more reliable, would no longer help us and would not reveal anything about the views of the Orient at the time of Jesus’ birth – is lost to us.

If the apologist still wants to turn the Magi’s gaze towards Judaea, he must use the “living exchange” that connected the peoples of the East and West at the time of Jesus’ birth and rely on the “anticipatory” character that “always precedes great world-historical epochs.” *) Of course, a general anticipation that a turning point is imminent always precedes great epochs in world history, but this anticipation never already contains the developed consciousness of in which specific form, at which point in the world, and on what occasion the new will arise. As if, some object, “the expectation of the Messiah was disseminated among the nations of antiquity by the widely scattered Jews,” and that anticipation could easily give a more specific form and direction towards Judaea. Well then, we promise, since we are only concerned with the truth, that we will immediately concede if someone provides us with evidence that the Jews before the time of Jesus disseminated the specific expectation of the Messiah among the peoples of antiquity. However, before such a remarkable proof, which the apologist should have been trying to provide for a long time, is presented, we intend to argue to the contrary, namely that the prophetic view only transitioned into the reflective form of a fixed belief in the next few centuries before the appearance of Jesus, and therefore could not have been conveyed to foreign peoples as a dogma long before.

*) Neander, ibid. p. 28.


If the faithful theologian loses himself in natural explanation – and, as we have seen, in a bottomless void – he cannot avoid the stumbling block he actually wanted to flee and he must return to faith, which he should never have left for the sake of the holy Tert[ullian]. The Magi found the Messiah, even if they followed a “theory invented by themselves”: enough, they found him. God must therefore have “used an error” to lead them to the truth. But can that be offensive to us? Neander answers and reminds us in more detail how in world history “truth and falsehood, good and evil are so interconnected that often the former must serve as a transition point for the latter. God also meets the needs of the sincerely seeking spirit in error.” However, that principle of the connection between good and evil is firstly, when correctly expressed and developed, diametrically opposed to the standpoint on which the apologist alone must move. How do Belial and others agree? However, good and evil are not only connected, but the latter is in itself the former, and only from that comes the dialectical “transition point” of the evil or false to the good. Then that principle has its place and truth only in the view for which world history is the development of self-consciousness, for only for that can it be valid that the earlier forms of self-consciousness that appear to the imagination as error and evil were in themselves the truth, but because they were only in themselves, they had to move on, be abolished and pass into the fulfillment of the following form. Only here does it make sense to say that natural religion also led humanity to Christian religion, and only here can the thought of necessity enter that religious self-consciousness had to first consider itself as consciousness in nature as its general power before it found its truth in spirit. But just as nature is spirit in itself, or consciousness in being, or figuratively speaking, the longing for spirit, so too was natural religion the longing, the path, or the precursor that led to the religion of the spirit. There can no longer be any talk of a “self-invented theory” of some magi, of an error that happened to be used by God to lead some wise men, and this single coincidence would be – to put it mildly – a tiny event compared to the enormous achievement of history, which with an irresistible and powerful pull led humanity through natural religion to the religion of the spirit.


The evangelical account stands infinitely higher than the anxious confusions of theologians, even though it has compressed a general event that spans millennia into a single incident, thus elevating itself to the realm of impossibility. It knows nothing of a self-devised theory of the Magi, nothing of an error that God could have used coincidentally for a higher purpose; rather, to it, the star, its recognition of its significance, and the wondrous power with which it led the Magi to the divine Child were all worked by God. By attributing to the star this wondrous attraction and the significance of a guide to the Messiah, it has, without intending to do so consciously, without being able to account for its deep foundations, elevated the star to a symbol of natural religion, which, “in its truth” and as a historical form of self-consciousness, like paganism in general, “points to Christianity.” *)

*) We agree with Weisse in this interpretation. See ev. Gesch. l, 220. 221.


One more time! The evangelist did not create his image through reflection, nor did he develop its individual features with a thorough understanding of their deeper meaning. He did not even come to his image through reflection on a remarkable movement in the world of his time. However, we can say that when he shaped it, he unconsciously grasped that movement in its true sense and brought it to its goal. One of the most peculiar phenomena of the dying heathenism was the spread of star worship, which extended with irresistible force from the East over the pagan world, attaching itself to related elements of various modes of thought and even seeking to subject what contradicted it. We can find the inner meaning of this phenomenon in the fact that pagan mythology, with all its colorful diversity and elaboration into details that had lost their meaning, strove to idealize itself into the purity of a simple perspective. The Christian evangelist understood better: with an admirable instinct, he leads pagan wisdom to the Savior through the star.

The external occasions that provided the material for the narrative have often been cited by critics: they are the prophecy of the heathen hordes who would stream to the holy city with the tribute of their homage (Isaiah 60:6; compare Psalm 72) and the star that rises out of Jacob (Numbers 24:17). The former ecclesiastical view has never been entirely free from the erroneous category that the fulfillment occurred precisely because it was predicted. The criticism, in its first form, retained the same category when it regarded Old Testament utterances and Jewish expectations as the generative force of the evangelical perspectives. As already noted, we must take the opposite path based on the correct concept of self-consciousness and derive the instinct and power from the specificity and strength of the higher self-consciousness that found the relatedness in the subordinate sphere and transformed it into material for the representation of the high principle.


When Matthew wrote his account of the Magi and the star, the Christian community had long recognized itself as the sphere in which the difference between heathenism and Judaism had been overcome through faith. However, this realization of their purpose had not come easily, and they had to fight and prove themselves to get there. At first, they accepted the proofs in the form in which they found them, as prophecies of Scripture and as eternal decrees of the divine plan. But that was not enough: as a Christian community, as a foundation of the Savior, they understood their inner purpose only when they viewed it as an essential attribute of their Lord. As the view of the Savior became focused on the individual and personal, became part of his life story, and those attributes became transformed from simplicity into individual historical events, the need to give these events and the relationship of the divine plan to the person of Jesus the utmost significance became even greater. It will be immediately apparent to everyone that this need contributed to the formation of the childhood story of Jesus: for if the divine plan had already been powerfully demonstrated in the child, and had brought the powers that the man and glorified Christ would attract to himself to the child, then it appeared as a necessity that the man could well make his free choice, but which was, in itself, an internal fate that was intertwined with his person from the very beginning. Therefore, the forerunners of the adoring heathen crowds had to go on a pilgrimage to the child, but how did they find it? Through miraculous divine guidance. And how could God better draw them from afar to the secret that had just been born than through the star that, as the natural image of the true star that arises from Jacob, had risen with it? Through this combination, which gave the image its wonderful profound meaning, the worshiping heathen became the Magi of the East.


To that constellation that occurred a few years before the Christian era, Matthew did not think and could not think about it, since he knew nothing about it and could not calculate it – in short, he was no Kepler.

Also, that belief of the Orient that it was destined by fate that a world ruler should come out of Judaea was neither known to the author of the account nor could he *) contribute to “authenticate the legend,” since in this determination, it is a late literary product of Tacitus and Suetonius. The community was already spread over the pagan world before the evangelist’s account was created, and Jesus had already become apparent to them as the world ruler: what more did they need to believe the account, and for the author to work it out?

*) as Weisse assumes, ibid. p. 222.




The UFO of Bethlehem – Through Atheist Eyes with Frank Zindler

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

H/T Debunking Christianity….


The Star of Bethlehem — the “common-sense view”

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Edward Burne-Jones Star of Bethlehem detail
Edward Burne-Jones Star of Bethlehem detail (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here is an interesting excerpt from Early Christianity and Ancient Astrology by Tim Hegedus. (I learned of the book through fortuitous serendipity via astrotheology supporters who describe the book as “a good one”, though their view appears to be based on the cover description alone. It doesn’t do anything to support astrotheology. Quite the opposite, in fact. But I agree it is an interesting book. I had a chance to catch up with it at the University of Queensland library yesterday.)

[The Magi] ask for “the newborn king of the Jews” whose star they have seen “at its rising” (ἐν τῇ ἀνατολῇ) (v. 2, cf. v. 9). (This translation is preferable to “in the east” of older versions [so KJV and RSV], which would be properly ἐν [ταῖς] ἀνατολαῖς.)

The statement of the Magi is not a reference to a time of day, but rather is calendrical (cf. the phrase “the time of the star’s appearing” [τὸν χρόνον τοῦ φαινομένου ἀστέρος] in 2.7): “rising” means the star’s heliacal rising, i.e. the first time in the year that it was visible rising ahead of the sun before dawn. The usual technical term for this was έχιτολῇ but ἀνατολῇ could be used for the heliacal rising as well; the latter seems to be the case in Matt 2.2.

According to the narrative, the heliacal “rising” of the star held significance for the Magi as an astrological omen. It was this more ancient form of astrology, rather than horoscopic astrology, in which the Magi were engaged.

A recent study by Michael Molnar argues that the most likely horoscope in which professional astrologers such as the Magi would have been interested was the appearance of the Sun, Moon, Jupiter and Saturn (all regal signs) in Aries on April 17, 6 B.C.E. However, Molnar’s conclusions are overly sophisticated: there is no need to interpret the Matthean text in terms of technical or sophisticated astrology such as that of Ptolemy and Firmicus Maternus. Rather, the star of Matthew 2.1-12 derives from the widespread belief (found already in Plato) that all people have a “natal star” which appears at their birth and passes away with them, a belief according to the elder Pliny was commonly held among the general population. Continue reading “The Star of Bethlehem — the “common-sense view””

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