There has been a lot of excitement this December regarding an astronomical phenomenon known as a great conjunction. This great conjunction, also known as a planetary conjunction, is an alignment of Jupiter and Saturn with Earth that is visible in our night sky. A great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn last came this close in the night sky nearly eight hundred years ago. However, this year for a few days beginning on December 21st (which also just so happens to be the winter solstice), these two planets aligned so closely that they could appear as a single point of bright light in the night sky. Because this year’s great conjunction occurs so near the date of Christmas, some have referred to this great conjunction as a “Christmas Star.”
Anyone familiar with the narratives about Christ’s birth is aware that a star led certain magi to the newborn Jesus—details that are found only in Matthew’s Gospel (Matt 2:1-12 versus Luke 2:1-21). Was this star that appeared at Jesus’s birth a great conjunction, or was it some other kind of astronomical occurrence such as a supernova or comet? A close look at Matthew’s birth narrative indicates that the star seen by the magi cannot be reconciled easily with any natural, astronomical occurrence. First of all, it is by observing this star’s rising in the sky that the magi gain the knowledge that they must find “the newborn King of the Jews” (2:2) in Jerusalem where they travel from their distant “Eastern lands” (2:1). Moreover, this same star later leads them accurately from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, at which point the star finally stops above the house of Mary and Joseph where the newborn Jesus is to be found (2:9-11).
Because of the strangeness of this star, John Chrysostom and commentators followed by him have surmised that this was really an angel appearing as a star (Hom. Matt. 6). Nevertheless, pagans and Jews of the AD first century did believe that astronomical events and other heavenly signs defying natural conventions could signify the birth of a great king, or function as a sign of some notable person’s death, as well as signifying other events of cosmic importance. As a sign of Jerusalem’s impending destruction by the Romans in AD 70, the Jewish historian Josephus notes that there had been “a star resembling a sword that appeared over the city, and a comet that continued for an entire year” (J.W. 6.289-290). Josephus states that God “in many ways pre-signifies to our human race the acts of salvation,” while adding that many Jews at that time were misled by an “ambiguous oracle found in the sacred Scriptures” that “one from their land will rule the inhabited earth” (J.W. 6.310-313). Josephus is referring to the Balaam oracle of Numbers 24:17 which many Jews believed predicted the coming of the Jewish Messiah. Balaam was a pagan seer who was called by the pagan King Balak of Moab to inflict a harmful curse on the Israelites as they camped near Jericho before entering the Promised Land. However, Balaam was unable to do this because God inspired him to bless and utter prophecies about the people of Israel. Balaam says these important words in his oracle: “A star will rise out of Jacob, and a person will rise out of Israel” (LXX, ἀνατελεῖ ἄστρον ἐξ Ιακωβ, καὶ ἀναστήσεται ἄνθρωπος ἐξ Ισραηλ, Num 24:17). Balaam’s words were understood to be a prophecy about Israel’s Messiah by Jews of Josephus’s day and earlier (such as by the Qumran Essenes in the Dead Sea Scrolls). It should not be surprising, then, that the Balaam oracle and its reference to a messianic star functions as a backdrop to Matthew’s presentation of the magi, as well as contributing to the astronomical, indeed cosmic, significance of Jesus’s birth as God’s Messiah.
In Matthew’s Gospel, the magi are referred to in Greek as μάγοι (magoi). In antiquity, magi is a general term that can refer to astrologers, seers, soothsayers, dream interpreters, and magicians that used various methods of divination to predict the future. Balaam himself is referred to positively as a μάγος (magos) by Philo of Alexandria (Mos. 1, 276), while Eusebius of Caesarea refers to the magi in Matthew’s Gospel as “Balaam’s successors” (Dem. ev. 9.1). The specialized knowledge of such seers and astrologers has contributed to the magi of Matthew’s Gospel being referred to as “wise men,” a translation which in my view miscasts the presentation of the magi in Jesus’s birth narrative. Moreover, references in popular Christmas carols to “three kings” further obscures the magi’s role in Matthew’s Gospel since they are not presented as kings, and the reader is never told that they are three in number, but only that the magi offered three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Rather, early Christian art has portrayed two, three, four, and eight magi, while the Syriac tradition has suggested that there were twelve magi present at Jesus’ birth. Although the term μάγος (magos) can be used pejoratively at other places in the Greek New Testament to mean “magician” (e.g. Acts 13:6-11), in Matthew’s birth narrative the magi are portrayed in an exclusively positive light. The magi in Matthew’s birth narrative are pagan astrologers (i.e. Gentiles) who use their specialized religious knowledge to approach Jesus the Messiah. However, their religious knowledge is limited: it does not allow them to make it all the way to Jesus. For this to occur, these Gentiles need the help of the Hebrew Scriptures. It is God’s revelation in the Hebrew Scriptures that informs the magi more precisely that the one to be born in Bethlehem is not only the King of the Jews, but the world’s Messiah (the Christ, ὁ χριστὸς, Matt 2:4). There is irony in Matthew’s narrative as King Herod the Great and certain Jewish religious authorities, having the benefit of the Hebrew Scriptures, do not travel to Bethlehem to find the newborn Messiah. Rather, Herod conspires to kill the newborn Christ, but he will not find him (2:13-23), whereas the Gentile magi are led by a star to find Christ and worship him. Moreover, Matthew has skillfully used this plot to kill Jesus as a proleptic passion narrative, foreshadowing the plot by certain Jewish religious authorities at the end of Jesus’s life who conspire to have Jesus crucified. So, too, the magi who see the cosmic sign of the star at Jesus’s birth foreshadow certain Gentiles coming to worship Jesus after his death, fulfilled by a group of Gentile Roman soldiers who see the cosmic sign of an earthquake at the crucifixion and confess that Jesus truly was the Son of God (27:54). These threads reach their dramatic conclusion at the end of Matthew’s Gospel when Jesus appears to the eleven disciples after his resurrection, commanding them to “make disciples of all nations” (i.e. Jews and Gentiles) while also promising to be with his followers until the end of the age (28:16-20).
Although this year there is a great planetary conjunction, the Great Conjunction to be truly celebrated is the coming together of divine and human, when heaven and earth perfectly aligned in the birth of Jesus Christ. Indeed, Jesus is extolled in Matthew’s birth narrative as Emmanuel, “God with us” (1:23). It is by the incarnation that God became human in order to take on fullness of our human condition, both our joys and our sorrows—even death itself—in order for Christ Jesus to save us and transfigure us. Or, as St. Athanasius famously wrote, “The Word of God became human, so that we might become God” (De incarn. 54.3). Matthew’s Gospel emphasizes that the entire cosmos participates in the Great Conjunction of Christ’s birth. In fact, Matthew’s Gospel begins with a genealogy in Matthew 1:1-25, the first words of which are, “The record of the birth of Jesus Christ.” In Greek, however, “record of the birth” is βίβλος γενέσεως (biblos geneseōs), words that are also used for the title of the book of Genesis in the Greek Old Testament. For the story of Jesus’s birth to be told, it is as if Matthew can only begin by comparing Jesus’s birth with the story of creation itself. Jesus’s birth is, in essence, a new genesis for the entire cosmos. Moreover, Matthew structures Jesus’s genealogy in a 14x14x14 pattern, thus conveying that Jesus’s birth has been carefully planned and carried out by God over the course of history, despite the twists and turns of human sins, tragedies, and disappointments.
Although 2020 has been a difficult year marked by sickness, loneliness, hunger, poverty, suffering, and death, we are yet called to remember that “the people who sit in darkness have seen great light, and on those who sit in the land and shadow of death, light has risen” (Matt 4:16). The celebration of Christmas is a time to contemplate the cosmic significance of Christ’s birth. Indeed, stars, planets, angels, and all creation have been brought into perfect alignment for God and humankind’s Great Conjunction at Christ’s birth. This gives us reason to hope.
John Fotopoulos is an Associate Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity in the Department of Religious Studies at Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame, Indiana.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.