This is an updated blog post for the feast of Epiphany, based on two previous pieces written for Ephiphany.
The 6th of January is the Feast of the Epiphany. In the Church’s calendar, this is the day on which we celebrate the visit of the magi (wise men) to the infant Jesus. Anyone who has attended a church or school nativity play will be familiar with the story of the three wise men who, following a star, came from the east to bring gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the baby Jesus in Bethlehem.
In truth, we don’t know much about the wise men at all. We don’t know where they came from, what they did, or who they were. We don’t even how many of them visited the infant Jesus at Bethlehem. Because we don’t know, we tend to make assumptions and create stories. For example, we assume there were three of them, because three gifts are mentioned, but the biblical account doesn’t say how many wise men there actually were. Over the centuries, they’ve been transformed from ‘wise men’ to ‘kings’, and once they became kings, they were even given names. But the Bible doesn’t name them, and although they have traditionally become known as Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, their true identities remain a mystery.
So, what do we know? We know that there were at least two of them, because Matthew talks of ‘wise men’ not ‘a wise man’. Herod didn’t mobilise his troops when they arrived and so, as biblical scholar Nicholas King has said, there probably weren’t enough of them to be mistaken for an army. We can infer some other things, as well. They came from the east, and it’s possible that they may have been from Persia, what would be modern-day Iran. They almost certainly weren’t kings, but they may have been priests in the Persian religion of Zoroastrianism, or possibly court astrologers.
Today, both church and society tend to take a dim view of astrology. It’s seen as ‘mumbo-jumbo’. But in the ancient world, and even into the middle ages, it was an important discipline, and it was the forerunner of modern astronomy. The wise men were familiar with the night sky and the constellations, and noticed when a new star appeared; and they believed that this new star signalled an event of international importance. They probably plotted the orbits of the planets and studied the regular progression of the stars across the night sky. How else would they have known that they were looking at something new? I suspect that they could predict things like lunar and solar eclipses, too, though that’s just a guess on my part. Being able to read the stars and predict significant celestial events was incredibly important in the ancient world. Religious festivals and rituals were often timed to coincide with certain phases of the moon, and people understood astronomical events to be a means by which God let people know that important things were happening in the world. So, it’s understandable why those who could read the sky and interpret what they saw there would be highly placed in society and trusted advisers to kings and rulers. In fact, such men might well be entrusted to act as ambassadors to bring their king’s greetings and gifts to a newly born king of another nation.
The wise men were the scientists of their day. That’s a bold statement, I realise. I’ve already proposed that they were astrologers and we don’t today accept that as a science. But ancient astrologers were good at making accurate observations and being able to predict astronomical phenomena. Observation enabling prediction is pretty much the essence of science, and so I class the wise men as scientists.
A Christian understanding of the story of the wise men is that, through their science, God draws to their attention a new and amazing thing that he is doing. In today’s world, the media is particularly good at portraying science as the enemy of religion and faith. The argument is that the more we learn through science, the less likely we are to believe in God. That may be the case for some, but it isn’t the whole story. There are still wonders to be discovered on this world and in the wider universe, and it is often science that allows us to uncover them. It’s true that not everyone will look for God in the wonders of the universe. For some, however, the more we discover, the more we are in awe of the God whose love allowed all things to come into being. For them, that awe and wonder leads to a desire to respond in some way to that God, just as the wise men responded by following the star to an unknown destination.
The star is a key player in the story of the wise men, and many have wondered to what, exactly, the ‘Star of Bethlehem’ refers. In December 2015, this question was considered at Christmas by the programme The Sky at Night on the BBC. Among the possibilities that they suggested were a supernova, a series of conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn, and the heliacal rising (annual re-appearance of a star from behind the sun) of a star with the Arabic name Sa’d al Malik, which may have been associated in the Ancient Near East with the birth of a king. Other possibilities included an especially bright meteor, such as the one seen in Russia in 2013, a comet and a nova. They ruled out the idea of a meteor, in part because meteor showers are common and in part because something as spectacular as the 2013 meteor would probably have been widely noted. They also ruled out a supernova because it, too, is spectacular and, as the programme pointed out, it seems that Herod and his astrologers took no notice of whatever it was that attracted the wise men. A supernova is not likely to go unnoticed, so this becomes an unlikely candidate for the ‘Star of Bethlehem’. They dismissed the idea that it was the heliacal rising of a star, as this is an annual event meaning that there is no immediately obvious reason that it would be linked to an unusual or extraordinary event, such as the birth of a new king. The remaining three possibilities – the triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, a nova and a comet – were all strong contenders. The programme ruled out the triple conjunction, however, as being too common or ordinary an occurrence. I, on the other hand, am quite taken by the idea of the triple planetary conjunction as the trigger for the wise men’s journey, simply because it was exactly the sort of thing that ancient astrologers would have been on the look-out for, and to which they would have attached specific significance. The programme also ruled out the nova because, although it fits the criteria and, as they said, there isn’t strong evidence against, there is also no concrete evidence for it. The programme’s presenters decided that the most likely candidate for the ‘Star of Bethlehem’ was a comet – it’s unusual enough to be noteworthy, but may be visible only at certain times of the day, so not necessarily seen by everyone. In the ancient world, comets were associated with events of national and international importance. A comet disappears behind the sun and then re-appears, which could explain why the wise men saw the star, seemingly lost sight of it, and then saw it again as they approached Bethlehem. And, as the programme pointed out, the comet’s tail, if viewed near the horizon, can appear to be pointing at a specific location. I have to admit, they made a compelling argument in favour of their choice.
One of the things I found particularly interesting about this programme was that it used science, not to try to disprove the biblical narrative, but to try and understand it. The biblical account was taken pretty much at face value as the starting point, and historical corroboration was sought that allowed the presenters to examine their possible candidates for the ‘Star of Bethlehem’. Of course, from our distance in time from the events and with the rather vague description of the star given in Matthew’s Gospel, we will probably never be able to say conclusively what it was that the wise men saw that set them off on their journey to Bethlehem. But does that matter? It is, without doubt, interesting, even exciting, to speculate on the astronomical phenomenon involved, but from a theological point of view, what is important isn’t the astronomical event itself, but the interpretation and significance attributed to it – in theological terms, the revelation that accompanied it.
Even though we don’t know who the wise men were or exactly where they came from, we can make some educated guesses about them. They were probably astrologers working in the royal court of their own kingdom; they were the scientists of their day. For them, their science of watching the stars and planets and their religious beliefs and understanding worked together to inform their understanding of the social and political events of their day. For us, science and faith can work together to help us piece together and understand the events behind the events of the biblical narrative, such as was done by the Sky at Night’s investigation into the ‘Star of Bethlehem’. More than that, scientific and religious understanding can both help us to value and appreciate the magnificent world, and universe, in which we live.