When did the star of Bethlehem appear and how long was it visible?

The star of Bethlehem is associated with the birth of Christ and the visit of the magi (wise men) as recorded in Matthew 2:1–12. The text implies the star of Bethlehem appeared onlyto the magi in the East (most likely the area of Persia, or modern-day Iran). There is no biblical record of anyone else observing the star of Bethlehem.

The magi in the East saw something in the heavens—the star of Bethlehem—that alerted them to the fact that the Jewish Messiah was born. The magi do not call the star of Bethlehem by that name; in Matthew 2:2 they refer to it as being “his star,” since it was a sign to them that a king was born. The star prompted the magi to travel to Jerusalem, the capital of Israel. This would be the logical place to start looking for the birth of the King of the Jews for someone who did not know of Micah’s prophecy about Bethlehem.

To consider the timeline of the stars visibility and when and where the magi arrived to see the Messiah, we have to consider some of the underlying particulars as I have addressed in an earlier article. The distance the magi traveled to see the Messiah once they arrived in Jerusalem is inconsequential, but the time it took for them to actually arrive at Jesus dwelling is more significant. In order to make this point we look at the facts of Mary, Joseph and Jesus travels along with the particulars of the magi’s interaction with the star of Bethlehem for context.

After Mary gave birth to Jesus, she stays in Bethlehem for 33 Days of Purification (Leviticus 12:4, Luke 2:22) this is 6 miles or a one hour walk from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. After Jesus is born 8 days later He was circumcised in Bethlehem, Mary fulfills the 33 days of purification in Bethlehem which was a requirement of the law. (Leviticus 12).

Mary, Joseph and Jesus travel to Jerusalem's temple to present Jesus to the Lord, to christen Him. Before Mary and Joseph leave the temple to return home a woman named Anna, a widowed prophetess who lived in the house of God, blesses them as well (Luke 2:36-38).

Jerusalem to Nazareth - 92.3 miles 32 hour walk

“And when they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city Nazareth”. Luke 2:39

The mileage from Jerusalem to Nazareth and Capernaum or vice versa is approximately 92 miles. The most direct route would be about 90 miles, however this would be through Samaria. This was an area between Jerusalem and the Galilee area to the north.

The Jews as a whole hated the Samaritans and they the Jews. Travel through Samaria was to be avoided because of the mountainous conditions and the racial hatred. The travel route was from Jerusalem down to the Jordan valley ‘the Jericho Road’. Then across the Jordan River into the area know as Perea (part of present day Jordan and once a part of Israel). One would then go north on the east side of the River Jordan on up into Decpolis still on the east side of the River Jordan. Just below the Sea of Galilee the route crossed back over the River Jordan and then split.

One route went on Northwest to Nazareth the other route passing along the West side of the Sea of Galilee past Tiberias and on through Magdala to Capernaum. Both these routes are about the same mileage.

After seeing the star of Bethlehem, the magi traveled to Jerusalem to look for the Messiah. The question arises, how would Persian magi know about the Jewish Messiah? They would have been exposed to the writings of the Jewish prophet Daniel, who had been the chief of the court seers in Persia. Daniel 9:24–27 is a prophecy that gives a timeline for the birth of the Messiah. Also, they may have been aware of the words of the pagan prophet Balaam (who was from the town of Pethor on the Euphrates River near Persia) in Numbers 24:17. Balaam’s prophecy specifically mentions “a star” and “a scepter” rising out of Jacob.

What exactly was the star of Bethlehem? The Greek word translated “star” in the text is the word aster, which is the normal word for a star or celestial body. The word is used 24 times in the New Testament, and most of the time it refers to a celestial body. It can be used to denote angels, as in Revelation 12:4, where aster refers to the fallen angels who followed Satan’s rebellion. Basic rules of biblical interpretation, state that we should take the normal sense of a word unless there is compelling evidence to suggest otherwise. In that case, the star of Bethlehem should be considered an actual heavenly body.

However, there is evidence to suggest that the star of Bethlehem was not a natural stellar phenomenon, but something unexplained by science. First, the fact that the star of Bethlehem seemed to appear only to the magi, indicates that this was no ordinary star. Also, celestial bodies normally move from east to west due to the earth’s rotation, yet the star of Bethlehem led the magi from Jerusalem south to Nazareth. Not only that, but it led them directly to the place where Joseph and Mary were staying, stopping overhead. There is no known natural stellar phenomenon that can do that.

Some months after Jesus is born, as much as 24 months, the Magi arrive in Jerusalem from the east. They head to King Herod's palace to sell their merchandise to the wealthy in the royal court. They congratulate the king on his good fortune. They tell him they have seen a star indicating that they will find “the baby who was born to be the king of the Jews”Matthew 2:2

When the wise men see Jesus for the first time, He is in Nazareth, NOT Bethlehem, Jerusalem or Egypt. It is typically assumed that the wise men saw Jesus in Bethlehem because Herod dispatched the wise men too Bethlehem. (Matthew 2:7–9)

The wise men never even went to Bethlehem, they followed the star in the East to where Jesus was, Galilee in the city of Nazareth. (Mathew 2:9-12, Luke 2:39)

The Magi did not arrive until sometime after Christ’s presentation in the Temple in Jerusalem (Luke 2:22-39). By the time the wise men see Jesus, he was a young child in a house, indicating that the star they followed, lead the magi in such a way as to prolong their arrival in Nazareth.

“And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother”Matthew 2:11

The Greek word translated “young child” in Matthew 2:9 means one who is between the ages of 3 months to 2 years of age. There were no Angels, shepherds or animals at the house with the Magi. The approximate age of Jesus is supported by Herod’s decree to kill every child in Bethlehem from a new born to the age of 2 years.

King Herod discovered from the magi the “exact time” the star of Bethlehem had first appeared to them (Matthew 2:7), and he later ordered all male children two years old and under in Bethlehem to be killed (Matt 2:16). Herod thought the star of Bethlehem had first appeared when Christ was born; if he was right, then Jesus could have been up to two years old when the star of Bethlehem later guided the magi through the streets of Nazareth. This means the star of Bethlehem was visible to the magi for at least two years to the day of their arrival in Nazareth.

The star of Bethlehem in Matthew 2:1–12 was likely an angel or a manifestation of the Shekinah Glory. The Shekinah, which literally means “dwelling of God,” was the visible presence of the Lord. Prior to this, the most notable appearance of the Shekinah was the pillar of cloud that led the Israelites by day and the pillar of fire that led them by night (Exodus 13:21). The Shekinah can obviously lead people to specific locations, and it was seen later in connection with Christ’s ministry (e.g., Matthew 17:5; Acts 1:9). Either an angel or the Shekinah would fit the evidence.

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© Tony - W.A.M