The Star of the Magi

Courtney Roberts, M.A.


The Star of the Magi remains one of the most popular, and puzzling mysteries of the Bible.  Its inclusion, at the very beginning of the very First Gospel, raises any number of good questions.  For instance, why would the authors (and editors) of the Christian gospels choose Zoroastrian Magi and astrology to herald the coming of Jesus Christ? 
Did the Magi have some special significance then that we have since lost? 

After all, the New Testament narrative opens with them.  

So who were they, and did their astrological beliefs really lead them to Jesus?  Once we understand who the Magi were, how their astrology informed their beliefs, and how much those beliefs influenced their Jewish neighbors, some strikingly obvious conclusions emerge.

This work highlights the surprisingly widespread influence, of the Perisan Magi & their astrology, shedding new light on the rise of monotheism and Messianic expectations in the Middle East, and the Christian West.

Obviously, many other solutions to this mystery have been proposed...

Modern astronomers have taken on the star, and the last several decades have witnessed the appearance of a heavenly host of books, papers, and planetarium shows proposing just about everything from comets, supernovas, chance sightings of Uranus, and any number of planetary conjunctions, eclipses, and occultations. 

Their methods usually involve examining a list of likely astronomical events to see if anything fits the meager descriptions in Matthew. Once a particular event has been chosen, creative explanations are then offered as to why it must have been meaningful to the Jews.

No real consensus has ever arisen from this line of inquiry, for there are too many phenomena to choose from, and it's too easy to back-engineer a religious rationalization from any of them. Without a solid background in astrology and religious studies, that?s what these researchers must do: back-engineer religious rationalizations.

More recently, the astronomer Michael Molnar received a lot of attention (and rightly so) for his 1999 book, The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi.  Molnar concludes that an occultation of Jupiter by the Moon in the sign Aries was the most likely candidate for the Star of Bethlehem, and he touts a date of April 17th, 6 BCE for the birth of Jesus Christ. He even produces a birth chart for Jesus, with the Sun, Moon, Jupiter, and Saturn all in the fiery, aggressive sign of Aries; the Lamb of God as the Ram of God.

In arriving at his conclusions, Molnar is one of the first astronomers to attempt to factor in the principles of ancient astrology.  In fact, as Professor Bradley E. Schaefer of  Louisiana State University says in his review of Molnar's work in Sky & Telescope

      "...the old astronomical views are guaranteed to be irrelevant...the new astrological paradigm forces the realization that astrology was an important force in historical times so that the disregard of the topic by most historians is blatant chauvinism."1

I certainly applaud Molnar for moving in the right direction, and trying to grasp the astrology of the Star as it was perceived in its day. Unfortunately, Molnar was not very particular about which ancient astrology he used. His research, like much of western scholarship, is firmly entrenched in the classical and Hellenistic camp. For instance, he draws his astrological references from the work of western astrologers like Claudius Ptolemy, a 2nd century CE Alexandrian, and Firmicus Maternus, who practiced in Rome in the 4th century CE.

Persian Magi

Meanwhile, the gospel of Matthew makes it clear that the astrologers in question were Magi. They were Persians, not Romans or 2nd century Alexandrians.  

The Persian Magi were great astrologers. Of that there is no doubt, but to assume that Persian Magi in the 1st century BCE were practicing the same kind of Hellenistic astrology as Ptolemy or Firmicus Maternus is a big leap in the wrong direction.

The Persians had their own distinct school of astrology; a fact which has been largely ignored, not only in Molnar’s work, but throughout most of the research on the Star.2 This is entirely in keeping with our western, classical world-view. We rarely acknowledge the far-reaching scientific and religious contributions of the Persians, the traditional enemies of our cultural heroes, the Greeks and Romans.

On the other hand, Judeans living at the time of Christ were very much aware of the contributions of their Persian neighbors.  Greece and Rome had not been kind to the Jews, whereas the nearby Parthian Persians and their Magi had long been their friends and allies against these brutal, foreign invaders. 

As Norman Cohn puts it, in Cosmos, Chaos, and the World to Come:

"For some two centuries, Judea formed part of the vast Achaemenian (Persian) Empire...Achaemenian rule was relatively benign, and was recognized by the Jews to be so: whereas there is plenty of Jewish propaganda against Babylonian and Seleucid (Hellenistic) and Roman rule, there is not a single Jewish text, biblical or rabbinic, directed against Persian rule."3

The Islamic scholar Said Amir Arjomand drives the point home in his article, 'Messianism, Millenialism and Revolution', in describing the early days of Jewish Messianism:

"...Persian notions spread widely in the Hellenistic era and gave rise to a particular oracular form of resistance to Hellenistic domination that was absorbed into intertestamental apocalypticism."4

            In other words, Judeans were inspired in their endless uprisings against their Greek and Roman overlords by the Persian religion and its astrology.  Further, in distinct contrast to the Hellenistic and classical astrology described in Molnar's work, Persian astrology was replete with apocalyptic prophecies and messianic promises.  Their astrology thoroughly permeated their religion, and vice versa.

The Astrology of the Magi

The Magi’s religion included long-standing and highly developed astrological traditions about a coming world savior; a messiah, who would be born of a virgin.  The Magi were ultimately expecting three world saviors, over a period of several thousand years, and they would all be born of virgins at the appropriate astrological intervals. The coming of the third savior would precipitate the apocalypse, the ultimate battle between the forces of good and evil at the end of the world.

These ancient Persian beliefs had tremendous bearing on the development of Jewish Messianic expectations, both politically and spiritually.  These same Zoroastrian traditions persisted into early Christianity, particularly Syrian and Nestorian Christianity, where a number of sources still attest to the traditional belief that Zoroaster prophesied the coming of Christ, his star, and the virgin birth.

The Islamic Version - Masha'allah!
The astrology of the Magi experienced an enthusiastic revival in the work of the Islamic astronomers of the Golden Age of Baghdad (8th - 9th century CE).  
There, the upstart Abbasid caliphs, eager to legitimate their new dynasty, gladly adopted the Persian astrology of the Magi to their own ends, proclaiming themselves the rightful heirs to the imperial majesty of ancient Persia.

The famous 8th century court astrologer, Masha'allah, produced some of the most influential work of this period, obviously drawn from the Persian traditions of the Magi.

In his work, and that of his successors, we find preserved the peculiar Persian passion for the millennia, and the role of major planetary conjunctions in the rise of great prophets, new religions, and new world orders, albeit reworked to fit the new Islamic revelation.

In the recycled Magism of Masha’allah, certain conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn signal the dawn of new world ages, and heralded the birth of Christ and the rise of Christianity, as well as the birth of Mohammad and the rise of Islam.  The same combination of Saturn-Jupiter conjunctions and millennia confirmed the Moslem Caliphs on their throne and held the hope for the future in the coming of the Mahdi, the promised deliverer at the end of the world.

 This is the astrology of the Magi, and it’s a far cry from anything the Greeks or Romans were doing. Magian astrology provided the chronological underpinning for their entire messianic and apocalyptic worldview.  This is what the author of Matthew has been trying to tell us for two thousand years.
The Star of History

“The historical perspective, which sees Judaism as fulfilling its mission and then making way for the gospel and the Church, has an impressive inner consistency and spiritual allure; the only problem with it is the real history of Judaism.”5    

All history is historiography. It’s all an exercise in the writing of history – it is never the thing itself. This is as true of my work, as that of all my sources. We are all just chasing ghosts. We never really catch them.  Those dim vapors that haunt our dreams slip through our fingers and race away across a forgotten, foreign landscape, littered with ruins, where, laughing, they mock us from just over the next ridge.  

It happens every time. Just when we think we’ve finally got it right, some obscure source arises unbidden with the dead-obvious answers to all the questions we forgot to ask, and we’re right back to square one; face-to-face with our own presumption and ignorance.

It’s at that point that you realize, if you’re lucky, that history, like everything else, is like a magic mirror. You never really see it as it is.  You see it as you are.        

If you’re lucky.

This is even truer in religious studies. As Jack Spong has said so well, and in so many different ways, “We arrogantly suggest we can speak of what God actually is, when all we can do is describe our experience of God.”6 But we also arrogantly suggest that we can speak of what ancient Judaism was, or what Zoroaster or the Persians actually believed and when, but all we can do is describe our very selective experience of it. We are all bringing something different to it, and looking to take something different away.

Try as we might to break free from this prison of subjectivity, our passionate scrutiny of a subject so dear to our hearts transforms it, over time, into an idol shaped by our own hands into our own image. Perhaps it is better to admit these limitations up front, before arrogantly taking exception to another’s perceptions. So rather than deny the process, I choose to exult in it, and to try to remain ever mindful of the fact that the only thing that justifies the readers’ indulgence in my antics is that I am also revealing something important about them.

History is always with us. It is a living force that drives the present moment, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. The past is past – we can’t go back and change it, but what we believe about the past has everything to do with how we live in the present, and how we build for the future. The sad fact is that even today, underneath all our secularism, humanism, and unbridled consumerism, we still retain, at our core, a medieval, Biblical myth of a history that never was, and this vision of the past dims all our future hopes.

Even with all the recent advances in Biblical scholarship, this myth remains so ingrained, so tacit within our public discourse, so implicit within our foreign policy, that we rarely either question or acknowledge it.  It simply is. We may be virtual and wireless in our working lives, but when it comes to the ‘Holy Land’, we are still as medieval as the crusaders. If this were not so, the Palestinians would have their own country and both America and Israel would enjoy peaceful, prosperous relations with the Moslem countries of the Middle East.  

Instead, our western, Judeo-Christian myth, with its chosen people and its holy land, has condemned us to perpetual enmity, and we are forced to live in fear of those who are actually a lot more afraid of us. And well they should be.

Nothing wrecks the present like fighting the ghosts of a past that never was.  Until we can transform the way we think about the past, we will go on battling these same ghosts until the end of the world, all the while creating a future nobody really wants to live in. As James O’Dea put it: 

"The transformation of our world requires a new story,… It must be a story in which our desire to settle differences is more exciting than the willingness to die for the rightness of our cause."7

If we can take a fresh look, and kick over the traces, a new story begins to arise from the ashes of the ancient world; a more inclusive story, starring a God who is infinitely more equitable and just. The centralized, mono-linear narratives we hold so dear, wherein all of history is leading up to us, were carved out of our own narrow nationalism and pride. Once we start to separate the evidence from the myth, unfettering our past from the historical ‘emplotments’ of orthodoxy, we begin to liberate our future as well.

As it turns out, no people were more chosen than any other; not even us. Some of our history’s heavy-hitters were surprisingly over-rated, and new stars emerge from the most unlikely shadows. No land was more holy than the next, but everyone, everywhere, has always had a part to play in our growing awareness of the truth about ourselves. That’s ultimately more inspiring than anything we were ever led to believe before, and in this story, the Star of Bethlehem is no longer such a mystery, but starts to make perfect sense.

So in trying to tell that story, I want to offer my humble thanks to everyone whose work has helped to form my own, especially those with whom I most passionately, and respectfully disagree. Their numbers are legion. If we are looking at the same thing, but see it differently, perhaps we are all bringing something different to it, and hoping to take something different away.

If, for example, I appear to push the Persians, or astrology too far front and center, please consider that they have both been so utterly marginalized that perhaps it’s necessary to go to the other extreme, just to restore some balance. At any rate, I hope you will be as patient with my attempts to re-write history in my own image as I have tried to be with yours, and that in keeping the process civil, we may all benefit over time.

Having said that, I invite you in, to look at the way I see it, and promise one thing: that if you do, you will never see the world in the same way again. 

As Kim Paffenroth insightfully noted, in an article that should be required reading for anyone venturing an opinion on the Star, “…how one frames the question, ‘What was the Star of Bethlehem?’, and how one answers it, reveals a great deal more about the person making the inquiry than about the Star itself.”8

A question like ‘What was the Star of Bethlehem?’ has produced centuries of debate and very little consensus.  I hope the questions I’m raising generate different kinds of answers; answers which ultimately expand our entire understanding of how messianism and the three great Monotheisms evolved. As we turn in despair from the endless cycles of war and conquest that have brought us to this current crisis, perhaps this Star can guide us toward a more inclusive and genuine appreciation of the common religious heritage we all share.

The Star of the Magi 
Introduction & Prologue 
End Notes 

1. Schaefer, B. E., 1999, pg. 77

2. Yamamoto & Burnett, 2000, pg. 573, #2.  The authors refer to Kusyar ibn Lannan (mid 10th – mid. 11th cent.) who distinguishes between Ptolemaic (Hellenistic) general astrology and that of ‘the Persians’….  This directly contradicts Molnar’s claim that “…the Magi, although they came from the East, they practiced not archaic Babylonian astrology but a newer Hellenistic astrology.” (pg. 39)

3. Cohn, N., 2001, Pg. 231

4. Arjomand, S. A., 2002, pg. 107

5. Blenkinsopp, J., 1988, pg. 12. In his commentary on Ezra-Nehemiah, Blenkinsopp quotes Hans Heinrich Schraeder regarding the standard approach to postexilic Judaism in Christian scholarship:

6. Spong, J. S., 1999.

7. O’ Dea, J., 2007

8. Paffenroth, “The Star,” 449.

9. Hooker,  R. 1996

Apocalypse Not?

Prologue: Persia

"Sometimes history is about ideas. 

Nothing more clearly emphasizes this aspect of history than the sudden eruption of the Persians on to the world stage... the sudden rise of Persian power not only over Mesopotamia, but over the entire known world, has its center of gravity in a new set of ideas constellating around a new religion? " 9

Richard Hooker

 25 centuries ago, a mighty wind blew out of Persia, sweeping everything before it. Arising amidst the ruins of Assyria, charging south from the shores of the Caspian, flying west across the deserts from the half-remembered homeland of Airyana-vaejah, swirling and mingling together on the plains of Persis and old Elam, it strengthened and grew into a force that could not be denied. 

The men who rode upon this wind were called 'Great'; Cyrus the Great, Darius the Great, for this was the dawn of the mighty Persian Empire, a force like no other before, and these were new men, inspired by a new vision, and an old prophet.

In their eyes, their world was a battleground between the forces of good and evil, and they were sworn, of their own free will, to fight for the good, and for the truth. 

In their eyes, the plain of this earth and the arching cosmos above were one; all one under one god; the Great god, the good God, the wise God, Ahura Mazda.

 Strengthened and upheld by the promise of one who was to come, a savior whom Mazda would send to defeat the forces of evil forever in the greatest battle of all time, at the end of time, and the end of the world, these Persians pressed on, preparing his way, and lo, the whole world fell before them. For no one had seen such a vision before, no one had set forth upon such a quest as this, so who could withstand their genius? 

A man is only as big as the God he worships, and before them all else seemed small.

They scorned the worship of idols as folly, the petty playthings of children; not fit for men. Instead, they would climb to the tops of the highest hills on moonless nights to gaze upon the face of the cosmos, for somewhere within that vast and timeless expanse, they might just glimpse the Almighty, the God of the heavens. 

Do not look to Judea! It was these men, the Great, who sought that vast and infinite one God, and the savior who was to come. 

Do not look to the Greeks, my friend, they were but borrowers. It was these men, the Great, who freed us from the jealous gods. From such bold imaginings, they transformed myth into mathematics, and ruled the Babylon that gave us science and astronomy, while the Greeks were still trembling in fear at thunder and lightning. 

 Do not look to Alexander; he only conquered an empire, he couldn't keep it. 

These Persians invented Empire, and held dominion over all the known world. Empire, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, the Apocalypse, magic, the Messiah and the Mithraeum; they were all born out of the wake of this mighty wind.

So how did we forget? How did we contrive to write them out of our past? And how to weave them back in, and weave us all back together again?