Star of Bethlehem V: What do Matthew and other contemporary sources say about the Star?

We have already looked in the second post of this series at some of the problems with interpreting the Nativity story. Now we have to face them head on. Matthew, Mark and Luke are what are called Synpotic Gospels: they have a lot of content in common, but also significant differences. Although there are many different variants on the theory, the central idea is that Mark wrote first and that Matthew and Luke based their Gospel accounts heavily on his, while adding new material and re-writing. Different analysts count the similarities and differences in different ways, but some tallies suggest that almost all of Mark’s text appears in some form in either Matthew, or Luke, or in both. Here is a classic example of what they mean by this: the story of the healing of the leper. Here we have the story, as it appears in the original Greek used for formal translations, in Matthew, Mark and Luke. We can see that there are words and whole phrases in common:

Matthew 8:2–3 Mark 1:40–42 Luke 5:12–13
Καὶ ἰδοὺ,
Κύριε, ἐὰν θέλῃς
δύνασαί με καθαρίσαι.
ἐκτείνας τὴν χεῖρα
ἥψατο αὐτοῦ
Θέλω, καθαρίσθητι·
καὶ εὐθέωςἐκαθαρίσθη
αὐτοῦ ἡ λέπρα.
Καὶ ἔρχεται πρὸς αὐτὸν
παρακαλῶν αὐτὸν
καὶ γονυπετῶν
καὶ λέγων αὐτῷ ὅτι,
Ἐὰν θέλῃς
δύνασαί με καθαρίσαι.
καὶ σπλαγχνισθεὶς
ἐκτείνας τὴν χεῖρα
αὐτοῦ ἥψατο
καὶ λέγει αὐτῷ·
Θέλω, καθαρίσθητι·
καὶ εὐθὺς
ἀπῆλθεν ἀπ᾿
αὐτοῦ ἡ λέπρα,
καὶ ἐκαθαρίσθη.
Καὶ ἰδοὺ,
ἀνὴρ πλήρης λέπρας·
ἰδὼν δὲ τὸν Ἰησοῦν
πεσὼν ἐπὶ πρόσωπον
ἐδεήθη αὐτοῦ λέγων·
Κύριε, ἐὰν θέλῃς
δύνασαί με καθαρίσαι.
ἐκτείνας τὴν χεῖρα
ἥψατο αὐτοῦ
Θέλω, καθαρίσθητι·
καὶ εὐθέωςἡ λέπρα ἀπῆλθεν ἀπ᾿

At least some of the differences are down to Luke correcting Mark’s word order and grammar. We have already seen that he seems to have been far more fluent in Greek than Mark, who undoubtedly spoke, wrote and thought in Aramaic and struggled with Greek as a foreign language.

Synoptic_word-for-wordYou do not need to be able to read Greek to see that there is a whole chunk of text, highlighted in bold, that is repeated verbatim in all three texts and other words that are common to Matthew and Luke. Here (left) is another example where Matthew and Luke are compared and words that are different are highlighted in black[1]. There is a whole segment of text that is identical. About one quarter of Matthew and one quarter of Luke are, essentially, the same content, although with differences in phrasing and style.

Instances like this and the fact that Matthew and Luke both talk of the Nativity, but Mark does not, make many experts believe that Matthew and Luke used a second common source text, with content quite different to Mark, usually denominated “Q” for “Quelle” (source, in German) or the Logia, which has since been lost. Given the way that Matthew and Luke use Mark’s text in different ways because they were interested in different aspects of the life and work of Jesus it is not so surprising that they highlight different parts of the Nativity story.

Cave_of_the_Nativity_EntranceIf you are fortunate enough to be able to go to Bethlehem, you will undoubtedly visit the church of the Nativity in Manger Square, originally built on the orders of Emperor Constantine and replacing a temple to Apollo built on the site by Emperor Hadrian. Within the church are two, stone staircases that lead down to a crypt, supposedly built from the cave in which Jesus was born and, appropriately, called the Cave of the Nativity. Within this crypt are various, tiny chapels. In a corner, under the Altar of the Nativity, we find a NativityStarfourteen-pointed star made of silver fixed to the marble floor marking, by tradition, the spot where Jesus was born.

So, we move on to what is probably the most famous astronomical observation report in the history of the human race. Below, we compare the “original” Greek with the beautiful traditional English of the King James Version, comparable in epoch with the Greek text that it translates:Matthew 2, 1

We find the word ἀστέρος (asteros, star) just four times: in verses 2, 7, 9 & 10. This is all the evidence that Matthew provides.

In verse 2 the star is described as “τὸν ἀστέρα ἐν τῇ ἀνατολῇ” (ton astera en té anatolé). Much has been made over the last few decades of the fact that this phrase (1) does not explain whether the Magi or the Star was in the East and (2) it has been suggested that ἀνατολῇ has a special meaning (helical rising – the first sighting of a star in the dawn sky after conjunction) if not written en the plural. Most classical scholars though are not scientists and less astronomers, so I asked a Greek astronomer – Dr Eleni Kalfountzou – to read the text as an astronomer. She says “It means in the east, but here it is used as a cardinal point, so there is no plural. It might be the same in English but here, ἀνατολῇ should be written with a capital A.”

In other words, Matthew is saying clearly that the Star was seen in the East.

Later, Matthew says of the Magi: ἰδοὺ μάγοι ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν;  “Behold, there came wise men from the east”. Here, the use of the word east (ἀνατολῶν – plural) refers to the geography e.g. from a country in the east. The word μάγοι is usually translated as “magicians” these days, but Eleni points out that it used to have more meanings (e.g. the priest of a tribe).

So, we have an object, a star, observed by wise men or priests who lived to the East of Jerusalem and who saw it in the eastern sky.

What more clues does Matthew offer?

-“φαινομένου ἀστέρος“: “of the appearing star”. Eleni states “I think “appearing” is the best word for the translation. This is interesting because in “old” Greek the word φαινομένου (φαινομένος) means something becoming visible where it was not before. This is very different to the modern Greek use of the word φαινομένος to describe something that looks like one thing but it is actually another”.

In other words, the star suddenly appeared. It is not something that appeared gradually over a period of time.

​”καὶ ἰδοὺ ὁ ἀστὴρ ὃν εἶδον ἐν τῇ ἀνατολῇ προῆγεν αὐτοὺς ἕως ἐλθὼν ἐστάθη ἐπάνω οὗ ἦν τὸ παιδίον“​: “and, lo, the star, which they saw in the East, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.”

This phrase gives us quite a lot of information. The Magi were traveling from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, which is 10km due south: in other words, when they arrived in Bethlehem the Star was now in the South because it was in front of them as they traveled. When they arrived, Jesus was no longer a baby, but a young child, at least several months old. Remember too that Herod asked the Magi when they had seen the Star and then ordered that all children younger than two years old be slaughtered. The clear implication is that some time, maybe even a year, had passed between the sudden appearance of the Star, announcing the child’s birth and the arrival of the Magi.

As any astronomer knows, a star rises in the East four minutes earlier every day as a result of rotation period of the Earth being four minutes less than twenty-four hours. Suppose we take a star exactly on the equator such as the middle star of Orion’s Belt: every fortnight it rises an hour earlier. So, in three months, it will be exactly in the South at the same time of the day that it was seen previously in the East. And, three months later still, it will be in the West at that same time of day. So, Matthew could be  suggesting with this that approximately three months passed between the first sighting of the Star and the arrival of the Magi in Bethlehem.

Historians such as Josephus and Dion do not talk about the Star. However, there are three documents that do.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Ignatius of Antioch writes (Chapter 19:2):

A star shone forth in the heaven above all the stars; and its light was unutterable, and its strangeness caused amazement; and all the rest of the constellations with the sun and moon formed themselves into a chorus about the star; but the star itself far outshone them all; and there was perplexity to know whence came this strange appearance which was so unlike them.

Ignatius lived from about 35 AD to about 107 AD although, as with so many dates of the epoch, they are uncertain, but was approximately contemporary with the writing of at least the later Synoptic Gospels. Unlike Matthew, Ignatius really lets his hair down and ascribes quite astonishing, miraculous properties to the Star.

A second text is The Infancy Narrative of James, also known as the Protevangelium of James. Written in the first person, as a supposed eye-witness account of events between the period before the Nativity and the unrest following the death of Herod, it thus fills in events before the start of the narrative of Matthew and Luke. However, despite its claim to have been written at the time of the Nativity, the experts consider that it was probably written around 145 AD, about two generations after Matthew and Luke. Among the problems that it presents for theologians are the contradictions with the writings of Paul. It was condemned by Pope Innocent I in 405 AD and definitively excluded from the Bible around 500 AD. James writes (James 17:1-2 and 21:1-10:

(1) Then, there was an order from the Emperor Augustus to register how many people were in Bethlehem of Judea.

(2) And Joseph said, “I will register my sons. But this child? What will I do about him? How will I register him?


(1) Now, Joseph was about to depart to Judea when there a great commotion in Bethlehem of Judea.

(2) For astrologers had come, saying, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star in the East and came to worship him.”

(3) And when Herod heard, he was shaken up and sent servants to the astrologers.

(4) And he also sent for the high priests and questioned them in his palace, saying to them,

“What has been written about the messiah? Where will he be born?”

(5) They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it has been written.”

(6) And he let them go.

(7) And he questioned the astrologers, saying to them, “What sign did you see about the one who has been born king?”

(8) And the astrologers said, “We saw a star shining with incredible brilliance amidst the constellations and making them seem dim. And so we knew that the king had been born in Israel and we came to worship him.”

(9) And Herod said to them, “Go and search. If you find him, report to me so that I also may come and worship him.”

(10) And the wise men departed. Then, the star which they had seen in the east led them until they came to the cave and stood over the head of the child.

This version of the Nativity combines elements of Matthew and Luke. Herod and the details of the Star appear, as in Matthew’s version, but also Augustus’s census, as in Luke, although a full four chapters earlier. Without going to the extremes of Ignatius, his description of “a star shining with incredible brilliance amidst the constellations and making them seem dim” has a healthy dose of exaggeration. To be so bright the Star would have needed to be comparable in brightness to the Full Moon: there is no way that such an object would not have been widely observed and commented by Roman writers and known of by Herod and his court.

The Book about the Origin of the Blessed Mary and the Childhood of the Saviour“, now known as the Pseudo Gospel of Matthew mentions the Star and the Magi. Pseudo-Matthew 13, states:

And it came to pass some little time after, that an enrolment was made according to the edict of Caesar Augustus, that all the world was to be enrolled, each man in his native place. This enrolment was made by Cyrinus, the governor of Syria, It was necessary, therefore, that Joseph should enrol with the blessed Mary in Bethlehem, because to it they belonged, being of the tribe of Judah, and of the house and family of David… Moreover, a great star, larger than any that had been seen since the beginning of the world, shone over the cave from the evening till the morning. And the prophets who were in Jerusalem said that this star pointed out the birth of Christ, who should restore the promise not only to Israel, but to all nations.

And then, in Chapter 16:

And when the second year was past, Magi came from the east to Jerusalem, bringing great gifts. And they made strict inquiry of the Jews, saying: Where is the king who has been born to you? for we have seen his star in the east, and have come to worship him. And word of this came to King Herod, and so alarmed him that he called together the scribes and the Pharisees, and the teachers of the people, asking of them where the prophets had foretold that Christ should be born. And they said: In Bethlehem of Judah. For it is written: And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, art by no means the least among the princes of Judah; for out of thee shall come forth a Leader who shall rule my people Israel. Then King Herod summoned the magi to him, and strictly inquired of them when the star appeared to them. Then, sending them to Bethlehem, he said: Go and make strict inquiry about the child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also. And while the magi were going on their way, there appeared to them the star, which was, as it were, a guide to them, going before them until they came to where the child was. And when the magi saw the star, they rejoiced with great joy; and going into the house, they saw the child Jesus sitting in His mother’s lap.

The Armenian Gospel of the Infancy, another of the apocryphal Infancy Gospels, offers even more details both of the Star and the Magi in Chapter 5:10 and 11:1-4 respectively, of which I will spare the reader! In this case the Magi are described as an army of twelve thousand that took nine months to arrive in Jerusalem. This is an incident obviously based on a much later event, widely reported by Roman historians, which we will look at in the next post, which occurred at about the time that the Synoptic Gospels were being written rather than any event at the time of the Nativity: Roman Protectorate or not, the legions of the province of Syria would certainly have responded to the arrival of a large army in Judea and the “invasion” would have been widely reported.

There are many contradictions between the various apocryphal gospels that expand on the Nativity story: repeating Luke’s error about Augustus’s census is one, worrying example. One common factor though is that far more than the traditional twelve days passed between the Nativity and the arrival of the Magi, the time quoted ranging from a few months to two years. Similarly, the appearance of a cave as the scene of the Nativity is also a common factor, which suggests the caves that Bethlehem shepherds used to shelter at night during winter. This is also consistent with the tradition in Bethlehem referred to above that Jesus was born in a cave under what is now the Church of the Nativity in Manger Square.

The Star is so central to the tradition of the early church and appears in so many early writings that it is hard to believe that it did not exist in some form. While different writers have clearly added to and exaggerated the events, it is clear that:

  1. It appeared suddenly in the East.
  2. It was prominent, without ever being so spectacular that everyone saw it.
  3. It was visible for at least weeks or months.
  4. It had particular significance to the Magi who observed it.
  5. Weeks or, more likely, months passed between the Nativity and the arrival of the Magi.


Now, it is time to look at the figure of the Magi and who they might have been in the next post.

[1] Source from Alecmconroy – Own work, CC BY 3.0,


One thought on “Star of Bethlehem V: What do Matthew and other contemporary sources say about the Star?

  1. Eleni has kindly passed me some more information on the vocabulary used in the original Greek text. Matthew uses the word παιδίον (paidion) to describe the infant. As in English, there are multiple possible words to use:

    Had the words μωρό (mooro) or βρέφος (brephos) been used it would have meant that Jesus was a baby at the time.
    The word παιδίον though makes no assumption of age and just means “child”.


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