A Sign Over Bethlehem

December 2 BC / January 1 BC

The events involving the Magi at Bethlehem were probably about one year after Jesus’ birth. Conceived at Passover in 3 BC, Jesus would have been born at end of the year or the beginning of 2 BC. (See the TIMELINE section.)

The shepherds would have been present in the hours following his birth. It is probable that the shepherds would have found the family during the early morning hours after sunrise. It is doubtful that they would have made their explorations in the darkest moment of the night. The presence of the shepherds was in fulfillment of the prophecy in Jeremiah 33:12-13. This prophecy indicated that following the disaster accompanying the destruction of the nation under the Babylonians, God would again show his favor to his people. One group specifically cited was the shepherds in the region near Jerusalem.


The Wise Men Arrive About One Year After the Birth

About one year after the birth of Jesus the Magi arrived. They were not present with the shepherds at the time of Jesus’ birth. It seems probable that the two events got mixed together in people’s minds because both events happened at about the same time of the year.

After having been advised by Herod to search for the Messiah in Bethlehem, the wise men went to the small town. Was it necessary for the wise men to travel at night? Probably not. The wise men most likely traveled to Judaea and from Jerusalem to Bethlehem in the normal way, during the daytime. The route was well-known, the Magi did not rely on the star to find their way.

The wise men were never following the star because it was not their guide. From time to time the star had been a manifest sign. The star announced the coming of the Messiah. It did not indicate how to find the way to the Messiah. However, over Bethlehem, the star did serve as a sign affirming that the Messiah was indeed located in the town. The star had announced the Messiah’s coming in the east. In the west in Judaea, it confirmed his presence.

The traditional idea that the Magi followed the star to a specific house, cave or stable is not realistic. It would have been practically impossible for any normal star or planet (other than a bright angel or a star with a tail) to have guided the wise men all the way to a doorstep as is often assumed. The “streets,” alleys and passages in the town/village may not have allowed anyone to directly follow any star to a house, due to curving streets, different street orientations, impasses, buildings, etc.. The the Magi most likely went to Bethlehem in the daytime and made inquiries until they found the child-Messiah, just as King Herod had instructed them. However, before meeting the Messiah and his parents, while they were in Bethlehem itself, the Magi realized that the star had again become a sign concerning the Messiah.

The Star Stood Over Bethlehem and all of Judaea

During the fall MUL.BABBAR (Sedeq/Jupiter) had risen rose higher in the sky each night. Toward the end of December 2 BC, near the moment when the Magi had their meeting with Herod, the star was at mid-heaven before dawn. The star had preceded the Magi, having arrived in the Judaean skies ahead of them for an unexpected rendezvous. During the latter part of the night, the bright star (magnitude -2.2) did completely dominate the sky above the Judaean hills. One could certainly say that the star “stood over” the town. MUL.BABBAR was by far the brightest object above Bethlehem. Matthew’s language is accurate and descriptive. MUL.BABBAR was “standing over” (εσταθη επανω) the place where the Messiah was located.

During the latter part of each night, throughout the last part of December and into very early January, MUL.BABBAR’s position was generally over the town of Bethlehem from about 4:00 AM until 6:00 AM.

In reality, the Magi would have mainly looked up to see the star, because it was well above their heads. The image shows a view from Bethlehem, looking due south toward 5:00 AM, when MUL.BABBAR reached its highest altitude. (67.5° above the horizon, 3/4 of the way to the zenith). The star was over 60° above the horizon from about 3:30 AM to about 6:30 AM. MUL.BABBAR’s high altitude would have forced any observer to lift his head significantly in order to look directly at it.

Matthew’s language is descriptive. The star was not at 90° above the town, but it was well over it. Looking at a star at such an altitude can put a significant strain on one’s neck. The star was well above the town and the Magi.

MUL.BABBAR’s position, “standing over” the village/town of Bethlehem at the end of December 2 BC, would not have particularly attracted the attention of masses of people or the authorities. MUL.BABBAR was also mostly very high over the town. It was actually approaching the zenith above the heads of the Magi. It was not toward the horizon. The “Star of Bethlehem” was not overly spectacular. When Herod directed the wise men toward Bethlehem, neither the king nor the Magi saw a star with a beam of light descending to the ground indicating the way to a specific house. If this had been the case, Herod’s soldiers and everyone else in the whole region would have found their way to the child-Messiah. The events were much more discreet.

In the latter part of December, astronomically MUL.BABBAR arrived at its first stationary point. After December 20th, the “star” MUL.BABBAR visibly stopped moving among the background stars. MUL.BABBAR had moved among the background stars from the constellation Leo to the constellation Virgo during the late summer/fall. Finally, it came to a point almost exactly between the stars now known as Porrima and Zaniah. Positioned between the two stars, MUL.BABBAR’s lack of movement would have been easy to discern and measure for trained astronomers. The planet would have been visually stationary for 12-14 days. The middle of that period was its first stationary point. The wise men would not have been surprised that the “star” had come to a halt. They would have expected it, but they may not have expected another messianic sign at this time.

Why the Wise Men Were Surprised

The wise men were well aware that MUL.BABBAR rose in the east late each evening and that it was overhead for a portion of the night. However, apparently, it was only when the Magi had already arrived in Bethlehem, when the star was really above them, that the men finally realized that the star was again fulfilling its role as a messianic sign. The Magi were perhaps surprised because in this case, MUL.BABBAR was not significantly related to any other celestial objects. Neither LUGAL (Regulus), Dilbat (Venus) nor the Sun or Moon were involved. The Magi had seen several signs in the east related to various celestial objects. Yet here, unexpectedly, above Bethlehem and in an unspectacular way, MUL.BABBAR alone became a sign. For the men from the east, MUL.BABBAR (Sedeq), the “star” of righteousness/king planet, was not proclaiming the Messiah’s presence or arrival at every instant. The Babylonians thought of the stationary points of the “wandering stars,” the planets, as a phase of their cycles which could have meaning. In this case, apparently, God thought so as well. This event over Bethlehem was the seventh in a row involving MUL.BABBAR’s synodic cycle.

For the Magi, MUL.BABBAR’s (Sedeq) stationary position among the stars, “standing over” the town confirmed the presence of the Messiah, the “Righteous One”. The “righteous branch” from David’s line had arrived and was present. (See Jeremiah 23:5-6 and 33:15-16.) Matthew says that the wise men rejoiced greatly to see the star (although it had been there all along). The Greek says: ιδoντες δe τoν αστερα, εχαρησαν χαραν μεγλην σφoδρα: “When they saw the star, they rejoiced with great strong joy.” The Greek word for great (mega) is one of the words used. It was the new awareness that the star had again become a messianic sign, over the very place where the Messiah was, that caused their rejoicing. This realization may have happened a few days or a few hours before the rendezvous with the holy family. We are not told when the rendezvous took place. It could have been during either the day or at night.

They Came into a House

After some searching in Bethlehem, the Magi were able to encounter Mary, Joseph, and the one-year-old child. Matthew’s text about the wise men coming “into a house” (εις την οικιαν) indicates that the wise men met the family privately, not in public. Otherwise, there would be no specific need of insisting that the wise men “went into a house.” The phrase was not intended to be an indicator of the star’s position over a specific house. In addition, the phrase does not necessarily mean that the star was only seen or appreciated as a sign again in the moments before entering the place where the young child was located. The phrase “coming into the house” is used elsewhere in Matthew concerning things which were done privately:

Then He left the crowds and went into the house. And His disciples came to Him and said, “Explain to us the parable of the tares of the field.” (Similarly see also Matthew 17:24-27.) In Mark, we read: “He did not speak to them without a parable, but He was explaining everything privately to His own disciples.” (Mark 4:34)

Here is Matthew’s text again with notes:

“When they saw the star (realizing after their arrival in Bethlehem that it had again become a sign), they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. (Subsequently, the next day/night, or even later perhaps) After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother, and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod (We are not told when this happened.), the Magi left for their own country by another way. (Matthew 2:9-12)

Matthew’s text about the wise men and the star is concise, being written almost like shorthand. Note that immediately after giving their gifts, the Magi had a dream. There is no mention of them returning to their lodging or going to sleep. In the account, the dream follows immediately. We have very few details about the events. For good or bad we usually fill in the gaps in the text with assumptions.


A much fuller explanation of the men and events is available in the author’s books.