It is often said that the wise men followed the star of Bethlehem as a visual guide across deserts and by “moor and mountain”. However, this is not the case. This is one of the great mistakes which has been made in interpreting the biblical text.
The star did get to the skies above Bethlehem in advance of the wise men, but it did not visually guide them. It was not even visually in front of them during their prolonged journey. The star was not leading or guiding the wise men. That was not its role. The star announced the coming of the Messiah while the wise men were in the east. Later, above Bethlehem as a sign, the star confirmed the Messiah’s presence in the town. The star carried a message. It did not serve as a directional indicator. The way from Mesopotamia and Iran to the land of Israel was well-known and well-traveled. One would not have needed a brilliant visual guide to show the way.
Here is Matthew’s text:
After hearing the king, they went their way; and behold the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was.
How Should One Understand the Words: “The star ‘ preceded/went on before’ the wise men”?
Many modern Christians and skeptics who read the text of Matthew chapter two have thought that the star led the Magi from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. However, the Greek Fathers did not think this way. They had the idea that the star guided the men all the way from the east to Judaea. One finds this repeatedly in many accounts and sermons in the early centuries of Church history. The ancients tied the experience in the east to the star’s “going ahead of / preceding” the Magi. The Greek Church Fathers thought that the star “preceded/went ahead of” the wise men from the east, not just from Jerusalem to Bethlehem (five miles / eight kilometers).
Remarkably the Greek Church Fathers speculated that the star was actually a brilliant angel, which went ahead of the wise men during the daylight hours. They realized that people would usually never travel at night (See John Chrysostom, Homilies on Matthew, Sermon IV). One also sees this in some old paintings. The star is often portrayed as being visible in the daytime.
But what if the star never guided anyone anywhere? Is it possible that we have simply misreading Matthew for many centuries? How could this be?
The key phrase in Matthew’s text is “The star went before them”, “went ahead of them” or “the star preceded them”. This same phrase using the same key Greek word, proago, meaning “to precede / to go ahead of”, is found in other places in the book of Matthew.
In Matthew 14:22: Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead of Him to the other side, while He sent the crowds away. After He had sent the crowds away, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray; and when it was evening, He was there alone. But the boat was already a long distance from the land, battered by the waves; for the wind was contrary. And in the fourth watch of the night, He came to them, walking on the sea.
Jesus sent the disciples on ahead of him, however, he did not follow their boat as if he were following a beacon or guide. The boat and the disciples had simply arrived at a certain point when Jesus also arrived there.
At the last supper, Jesus makes the following statement: “But after I have been raised, I will go ahead of you to Galilee.” (Mt 26:32) The word for “going ahead” is the same word which is used in Matthew 2:9.
After Jesus was raised from the dead an angel appeared to some of his followers and said to them: “Go quickly and tell His disciples that He has risen from the dead; and behold, He is going ahead of you into Galilee, there you will see Him…” (Mt. 28:7)
Here again, it is obvious that the disciples did not follow Jesus to Galilee in the same sense that one usually thinks about the wise men following a star. Jesus simply indicated that he was going to arrive in Galilee ahead of the disciples. They were not following him in the sense that they were watching his every move and taking directional guidance from him. The disciples simply arrived in Galilee after Jesus had arrived there. He then saw them again in Galilee.
This is exactly how that we should think of the star. The star arrived in the heavens above Bethlehem before the wise men arrived in the town. That is all. The star never guided the wise men to Bethlehem, nor did it ever guide them anywhere. The star was not actually visually ahead of the wise men when they traveled to Bethlehem. In the end, the star was above them. Essentially the star never guided the wise men anywhere.
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The scene in the illustration below never happened.