The Star of Bethlehem

The primary reference for the Star of Bethlehem is the Gospel of Matthew which was probably written around 80 CE or slightly later.

In essence, the text (Matthew 2:1-12) speaks of a star that was observed by a group of wise men (magoi) from an unknown location in the East which they interpreted as a heavenly sign that the Messiah and future king of the Jews was born. When the wise men arrived some time later in Jerusalem the star was apparently not visible as Herod and his advisors were unaware of it. However, continuing their journey to Bethlehem the star reappeared again to the wise men and guided them to the house where Maria, Joseph and the young Jesus was staying. Nothing more is said about the star when the wise men – warned in a dream by an angel of the evil intents of Herod – set out on their journey back homewards on the following day.

The star is not mentioned in the other gospels of Mark, Luke or John, nor in any other book of the New Testament. Although a few other early Christian texts add some detail to the Matthaean account, these appear to be embellishments that serve to magnify the miraculous properties of the star and they are of little help in explaining or dating the phenomenon.

So, the bishop Ignatius of Antioch (died around 110 CE) asserted that when the star appeared its light was of unspeakable brightness and all the other stars and the Sun and the Moon formed a chorus around it (Epistle of Ignatius to the Ephesians 19). Similarly, an early text from the New Testament apocrypha, believed to date from the second half of the second century CE, claims that the star was so bright that it outshone the other stars in the sky (Protevangelium of James 21). A later text from the New Testament apocrypha averred that the star shone brightly over the cave where the infant Jesus was adored by the shepherds and when the wise men came nearly two years later the same star guided them to Bethlehem (Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew 13 & 16).

It is important to note that the apocryphal infancy stories of Christ, though they never received a canonical status that justified their inclusion in the New Testament, were well known and greatly influenced the further development of the nativity story, both in written and spoken word and its representation in Christian art. A well-known example for this is the inclusion of an ox and an ass in many nativity scenes: this detail is not mentioned in the infancy gospels of Luke or Matthew but it is already mentioned in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew 14 where it is linked to texts from the Old Testament (Isaiah 1:3).

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