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How did the Magi know to follow a star to lead them to the King of the Jews? Was it something in the Old Testament?


Yes, or at least probably.

The prophecy of Balaam is found in Numbers 22:17 and 19: That is, a descendant of Jacob would be a star or great prince. This is, by the way, the only prophecy related to a star.

First, let's think about the star itself. There are three basic schools of thought:
1. Matthew made up the star,
2. God created a special star for the occasion, and
3. God used a real astronomical event to attract the attention of the scholars.

Nobody knows which (if any) of these ideas are correct, but here are some points to think about.

I am strongly inclined to reject School 1. Matthew quotes a tremendous amount of Old Testament scripture to show that Jesus is indeed the Messiah, but in this story he does not. It would be mind-boggling to think that he would omit a recognized Messianic prophecy if he had made up the star, because the prophecy would be the only reason to put a star into the story in the first place. Besides, a lot of Matthew's first readers were alive at the time of Jesus' birth. If they knew he was making things up, his gospel would have been rejected. (A number of so-called gospels seem to have been rejected on exactly those grounds.) So either the whole lot of them were truly gullible, or they had reason to believe it was true.

School 2 has merit. The star behaved kind of oddly. First they saw it, and something about it made them hop on camels and go to Judea. Then it must have disappeared for a while, because they had to stop and ask for directions. Then it reappeared, went in front of them to Bethlehem, and stopped over the house. The Jerusalem Bible study notes conclude, "Obviously the evangelist is thinking of a miraculous star; it is futile to look for a natural explanation."

School 3 also has merit. Why create a special star when you've already created a bunch of stars that can do the job? In 11 B.C., Halley's comet was visible. In 7 B.C. there was a spectacular conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter. There was a supernova in 5 B.C. Then from 5 to 2 B.C., Sirius, the dog star, rose at sunrise, apparently in the Egyptian month of Mesori, which apparently means "birth of a prince." Several of these “stars” appeared in constellations that could be symbolic of the Jews for one reason or another. Now, most scholars put the birth of Jesus around 4 B.C., so any of these natural events could have been what the scholars saw. Folks who think they know which one is right explain in great detail why their candidate is the only possible candidate.

There have been and will continue to be VAST amounts of ink expended on the topic of what the Star of Bethlehem really was. Nobody knows. Nobody is likely ever to know. Don't worry about it.

Now let's think about the magi, which is what our fellow-reader is asking about. How did they know that the star announced the birth of the King of the Jews? The magi were scholars of philosophy and the natural sciences, e.g., astronomy/astrology. Wesley had this to say about them:
What did the magi bring with them? Gold, frankincense, and myrrh are the sorts of gifts one brings only to a personage of great importance. Clearly they interpreted the star as an announcement of the birth of a king, and the particulars of the star’s appearance led them to believe that it indicated a king of the Jews.

Conclusion. The scholars were students of astronomy and philosophy, who attributed great importance to the movements of heavenly bodies. They saw something. Probably they did some research in their libraries and decided that what they were seeing was associated with the Jews, and in particular with the prophecy of Balaam, thus the king of the Jews. They packed.

Copyright 2010, 2011 by Regina L. Hunter. All rights reserved. This page has been prepared for the web site by Deanna Rains.

Opinions expressed on this page are solely those of the author, Regina Hunter, and may or may not be shared by the sponsors or the Bible-study participants.  Thanks to the Holy Spirit for any useful ideas presented here, and thanks to all the readers for their support and enthusiasm.  All errors are, of course, the sole responsibility of the author.

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