What Star Did the Wisemen Follow?
Updated: Dec 19, 2019
Search the internet, and you can invest an entire day reading theories about the star of Bethlehem that guided the wisemen. While some of the theories are more grounded than others, all we can say for certain is that God used a very special star to lead the wisemen to Jesus.
Matthew describes the star as one the wisemen saw in “ανατολε”, which is a Greek word that can mean east or rising (since the east is the place from which the sun rises). That's why some translations read “in the east” (KJV, NASB) while others read “when it rose” (ESV, CSB, NIV). Comparing other documents from the same era and contrasting Matthew’s use of the same word with a different form and structure just one verse earlier to say the wisemen were “from the east” tips the scales towards the phrase chosen by the ESV, NIV, and CSB, “when it rose.” If Matthew had intended to say the wisemen saw the star in the east, he would likely have used the same form and structure as he used when describing the starting point of the journey of the wisemen.
Perhaps God used a natural phenomenon with supernatural timing such as the alignment of particular planets or a supernova. Or perhaps God supernaturally intervened in the natural order to guide the wisemen. God has used and continues to use both methods in His work in the world.
The description of the star being observed “when it rose” gives a slight advantage to the theories proposing natural phenomena with supernatural timing as the phrase is connected with the natural movements and observations of natural stars. However, an issue that all such theories struggle to explain is Matthew’s description that the star “came to rest over the place where the child was” (Matthew 2:9). And more than likely the wisemen would have described a new star or unidentified heavenly body using language available to them rather than creating a new phrase.
Regarding explanations in which God uses something other than a natural phenomenon, some have suggested that the star was the return of the visible glory of God. That visible manifestation of God’s glory, which is often called the shekinah glory, departed the Temple in Ezekiel 10, and there is no record of its return in the Old Testament. That would explain the star’s ability to move in ways not normally associated with actual stars (or planets), and it would explain how it “came to rest” over a specific house. It also correlates with Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus, which mentions the return of the glory of God (Luke 2:9) for the first time since it’s departure from the Temple 600 years earlier. Because neither Matthew nor Luke connect the glory of the Lord to the star, however, such suggestions are still speculative.
One facet of the story which is less than comfortable for biblically minded Christians is that the wisemen were almost certainly practicing some form of astrology. In other words, it’s hard to deny the wisemen were looking to the stars in the night sky for indications of significant events. Does that mean God condones astrology? No. Leviticus 19:26, among several other passages, condemns all types of divination, which includes astrology.
This aspect of the story does reinforce what we know about the way God works in the world to bring people into His kingdom and family. As Adrian Rodgers often quipped, “God draws straight lines with crocked sticks.” For instance, without condoning polygamy, God used one husband with two wives and two concubines to give birth to the 12 tribes of Israel.
Why doesn’t God tell us more about the star the wisemen followed? Because that’s not the point of the story. We must be wary of peripheral issues that detract from the main point of a text. The main character of this passage is the child of Bethlehem and not the star of Bethlehem.