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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Star (2)

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1. Introductory.—Occasional reference is made in the NT to a star or stars, and, in most cases, an extraordinary significance of some kind is associated with the mention of such.

Two Greek words are employed, viz. ἀστήρ and ἄστρον. The latter also bears a collective meaning (= a group of stars, a constellation), but not in the NT. ἀστήρ is often applied metaphorically (see below). ἄστρον occurs in Luke 21:25, Acts 7:43 ‘the star of the god Rephan’ (a quotation from Amos 5:25 f.), Acts 27:20, Hebrews 11:12. Elsewhere (exc. 2 Peter 1:19, where φωσφόρος, ‘day-star,’ occurs) ἀστήρ is used.

Sometimes these references are without any special significance (e.g. Acts 27:20, Hebrews 11:12 ‘as the stars of heaven in multitude’), but more often some definite symbolical application is apparent, as, for example, when a period of calamity marking a Divine visitation is described as a time when the light of the sun and the moon is withdrawn and ‘the stars fall from heaven’ (Matthew 24:29, || Revelation 6:13; Revelation 8:10-11; cf. Ezekiel 32:7). In Revelation 9:1 the image of the ‘fallen star’ has a personal reference, Satan apparently being denoted by it (cf. Luke 10:18 ‘I beheld Satan fallen as lightning from heaven’); on the other hand, by the figure of ‘the seven stars’ which Christ holds in His right hand (Revelation 1:16; Revelation 2:1; Revelation 3:1) are signified the angels of the seven churches under the direction of Christ; cf. Revelation 1:20 (Grimm-Thayer). In Revelation 12:1 the ‘crown of twelve stars’ may be intended to symbolize the twelve tribes (or the twelve Apostles ‘regarded as the crowning ornament of the Jewish Church’). A mythological allusion is apparent in Revelation 12:4 (‘a woman arrayed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars’). One passage (Revelation 22:16) identifies Christ with ‘the bright, the morning star’ (ὁ ἀστὴρ ὁ λαμπρός, ὁ πρωινός), in accordance with which also Revelation 2:28 (‘I will give him the morning star’) and 2 Peter 1:19 (‘until the day-star [φωσφόρος] arise in your hearts’) are probably to be interpreted (see, further, below).

2. The star of the Magi (Matthew 2:1-12).—In its main outlines the story of the visit of the Magi to Jerusalem and Bethlehem is probably based upon what the compiler of the First Gospel believed to be facts. It rests upon a historical basis. The widespread expectation of the coming of a World-Redeemer, about the time of the beginning of the Christian era, and the interest of Eastern astrologers in His advent in the West are well attested, and may well have led to some such visit as is described in Mt.* [Note: See esp. the admirable discussion in W. C. Allen’s ‘St. Matthew’ (ICC), pp. 11–15.] (See, further, art. Magi). It must be remembered, however, that Mt.’s narrative is governed by an apologetic purpose. It was written for the special object of meeting the needs and objections of Jewish readers. One influential motive at work in Matthew 2 seems to be a desire on the part of the Evangelist to suggest a likeness between the Divinely guided career of Moses, the instrument of Israel’s redemption from Egypt, and the Messianic Redeemer who saves His people from their sins. ‘Thus the story of the Magi and the star has a striking parallel in the Midrash Rabbâ to Exodus in the section which deals with the birth of Moses. There we are told that Pharaoh’s astrologers (האסטרולונין) perceived that the mother of the future redeemer of Israel [i.e. Moses] was with child, and that this redeemer was destined to suffer punishment through water. Not knowing whether the redeemer was to be an Israelite or an Egyptian, and being desirous to prevent the redemption of Israel, Pharaoh ordered that all children born henceforth should be drowned.’† [Note: See an art. by the present writer in The Interpreter (Jan. 1906) on ‘The Gospel Narratives of the Nativity and the alleged influence of heathen ideas.’] But perhaps the leading motive in Mt.’s narrative in this section of it is to suggest the homage of the Gentile world, and the selection of the gifts (gold, frankincense, and myrrh) may have been influenced by passages from OT Messianic prophecy which predict the allegiance of the nations (Isaiah 60:1 f., Isaiah 60:5, Psalms 72:11-12; Psalms 72:15).‡ [Note: Notice esp. Isaiah 60:3 ‘And the Gentiles shall come to thy light.’] A contrast may also be intended to be suggested between the spiritual Kingship of the Messiah, and the earthly kingship of secular rulers (like Herod) who are instinctively hostile to the new force that has entered the world.

It is noticeable, however, that Mt. here does not cite any proof-passages from the OT (in Matthew 2:5-6 the quotation from Micah is placed in the mouth of the Sanhedrin). If the compiler had in mind the passage in Numbers 24:17 (‘There shall come forth a star out of Jacob,’ etc.), as has been sometimes supposed,§ [Note: E.g. by Wünsche, Neue Beiträge zur Erläuterung der Evangelien, p. 12.] his failure to cite it would indeed be surprising. But it is to be observed that in Numbers the star is identified with the Messiah, and would hardly be applicable in this story. (See, further, below).

It may be, as Zahn* [Note: Das Evangelium des Matthäus (1903), p. 101.] suggests, that Mt. regards the episode of the visit of the Magi to render homage to the newborn King not so much in the light of a fulfilment of ancient prophecy, as a new prophecy ‘which indicates that the Messiah Jesus, who has been born to save His own people from their sins (Matthew 1:21), will be sought out and honoured by heathen, while the leading representatives of the religious thought and worship of Israel ask no questions concerning Him, and leave it to the tyrant, who enslaves them, to concern himself about the true King of the Jews, and then only with the object of compassing His destruction.’ On this view the star and the astrologers—the Magi—become significant as proof that God uses even such imperfect means as astrology for bringing the heathen to the knowledge of the truth.

The ‘star’ of the narrative doubtless refers to some particular star, or to some unique astral phenomenon which the Magi were led to connect with the birth of the World-Redeemer in the West. The detail about the star ‘which they saw at its rising’ going ‘before them, until it came and stood still above (the place) where the child was,’ is, doubtless, not intended to be understood literally. It is merely a poetical description of the illusion which makes it appear that a luminous heavenly body keeps pace and maintains its relative position with the movement of the observer.

Various attempts have been made to identify the ‘star’ of this narrative with some exceptional heavenly phenomenon, and to fix its occurrence by means of astronomical calculation. The most famous of these is that of Kepler (1605), who thought of a close conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation Pisces,—a rare combination which takes place only once in 800 years, and which occurred no less than three times in the year 747 a.u.c. (= b.c. 7). See Edersheim, LT [Note: T Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah [Edersheim].] i. p. 212 f. But the data are too indefinite to allow of any certain conclusion in the matter. Moreover, the ignorance displayed by Herod and ‘all Jerusalem’ as to the nature of the star hardly suggests that its appearance would strike any but practised astrologers.

The association of the birth of great men with such phenomena was a common feature in the ancient world where astrology was held in high esteem. Thus, e.g., ‘on the birthnight of Alexander, Magi prophesied from a brilliant constellation that the destroyer of Asia was born’ (cf. Cic. de Dirinatione, i. 47, cited by Allen, op. cit. p. 12). On Jewish ground we have already seen the same idea at work in connexion with the birth of Moses in the Midrash passage cited above. Edersheim (op. cit. i. p. 211 f.) also cites some late Midrashic passages which connect the coming of Messiah with the appearance of a star. But these are of very uncertain value.

3. The star of the Messiah.—Sometimes the Messiah Himself is metaphorically referred to as a Star,† [Note: The same word is used metaph. in Arabic for a ruler.] a description which is based, apparently, on Numbers 24:17 :

‘There shall come forth a star out of Jacob,

And a sceptre shall rise out of Israel’;

In the Targum Onkelos this is rendered:

‘When a king shall arise out of Jacob,

And the Messiah shall be anointed from Israel’;

And in pseudo-Jonathan:

‘When the mighty King of Jacob’s House shall reign,

And the Messiah, the Power sceptre of Israel, shall be anointed.’

Here, it will be noticed, the Star is expressly identified with the Messianic King. A similar Messianic application of this passage meets us in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, where (Judah, 24 [Greek text]) the following occurs:

‘Over you a star shall proceed out of Jacob,

And a man shall arise from my seed like the sun of righteousness’ (cf. Malachi 4:2). Cf. also Test. Levi 18.

In the first part of the 3rd Messiah-Apocalypse embodied in The Apocalypse of Baruch (ch. 53), the seer beholds the Messiah appear like lightning ‘on the summit of the cloud’; and this lightning ‘shone exceedingly so as to illuminate the whole earth’ (cf. Matthew 24:27 ‘For as the lightning cometh forth from the east, and is seen even unto the west, so shall be the coming of the Son of Man’; Luke 17:24 and the other NT passages cited below; cf. Volz, Jüd. Eschatologie, p. 221).

It was apparently from Numbers 24:17, Messianically interpreted, that the false Messiah Simeon derived his designation Bar Cochba (i.e. ‘Son of the Star’). When Rabbi Akiba acknowledged him as the Messiah, he expressly cited this Scripture passage (Bab. [Note: Babylonian.] Sanh. 97b) as applicable to Simeon, though this opinion was not generally shared by the learned among the Jews of the time. Bar Cochba seems to have been invested with a Messianic character by the irresistible force of popular public opinion. After the disastrous issue of his revolt it became necessary to apologize for Akiba’s mistake, and one such explanation seems to be reflected in some of the minor Midrashim which make the reference apply to Messiah ben Joseph, who was destined to be killed in battle before Messiah ben David could appear.* [Note: the Pesikta Zutarta (ed. Wilna, 1880, p. 129b) and Jellinek’s Beth ha midrasch, iii. p. 141, etc.] There is thus good evidence that in the time of Christ the ‘Star’ of Numbers 24:17 was popularly identified with the Messianic King.† [Note: For an early Christian application of Numbers 24:17 to Christ, cf. Justin Martyr, Apol. i. 32: ‘Isaiah, another prophet, prophesying the same things by other expressions, thus spake: “There shall rise a star out of Jacob, and a blossom shall ascend from the root of Jesse,” ’ etc.]

This idea may have influenced those NT passages where Jesus is represented as the ‘Morning Star’ (Revelation 22:16; Revelation 2:28), though it must be remembered that the angels are described symbolically in the Bk. of Enoch (lxxxvi. 1, 3) as ‘stars’—a metaphor which helps to explain the symbolism by which Jesus is here described as ‘the Morning Star.’ ‘Among the stars of the spiritual firmament,’ Jesus is ‘the brightest in the whole galaxy’ (Swete, Apocalypse, p. 306). A similar conception meets us in 2 Peter 1:19 (‘Take heed unto the lamp of prophecy until the day dawn, and the day-star [φωσφόρος] arise in your hearts’), and, in fact, the essential idea is present in all those passages of the NT which speak of the spiritual illumination that accompanies the revelation of the Messiah (cf. the fragment of an old Christian hymn in Ephesians 5:14 ‘Awake, thou that sleepest … and Christ shall shine upon thee’; cf. John 1:9 Christ ‘the Light which lightens every man coming into the world,’ etc.). There is also the remarkable description of the Messiah as the ‘Day-spring from on high’ (ἀνατολὴ ἐξ ὕψους) in the Song of Zacharias (Luke 1:78), which may possibly have been associated in thought with the Messianic Star.‡ [Note: See an art. by the present writer in ZNTW, vol. vi. p. 96 f. (Feb. 1905), where this point is specially discussed.]

The association of the idea of light with the Messiah and the Messianic age was well established in Jewish Literature. This idea is founded on—or, at any rate, finds classical expression in—Isaiah 60:1 f. (‘Arise, shine; for thy light is come’). The Midrash (Yalkut Shim.) on this passage is instructive. It comments thus:

‘What is asserted by the words of the Psalm, “In thy light shall we see light” (Psalms 36:10)? It is the light of the Messiah that is meant. For when it is said, “God saw the light that it was good” (Genesis 1:4), it is thereby taught that the Holy One (Blessed be He) contemplated the generation of the Messiah and his works, before the world had been created, and that He concealed the light for the Messiah and his generation beneath His throne of glory. Then spake Satan before the Holy One (Blessed be He): “Lord of the World, for whom is the light hidden beneath Thy throne of glory destined?” [Answer] “For him who in the time to come will subdue thee and bring thee to shame.” ’

The Midrash then goes on to relate that at his request Satan was allowed to see the Messiah, and at the sight of him trembled and sank to the ground, crying out; ‘Truly this is the Messiah, who will deliver me and all heathen kings over to Gehenna.’* [Note: See the whole passage in Weber, Jüd. Theol.2 p. 397 f. Edersheim, LT ii. p. 728 (Appendix ix.).]

Gressmann (Der Ursprung der isr.-jüd. Eschatologie, p. 307 f.) traces the association of light in connexion with the Servant of Jahweh, who is represented as the Light of the World in Deutero-Isaiah (Isaiah 49:6; Isaiah 51:4) to the mythical representation of the World-Ruler as a solar hero in the old Saga.

In fact, under the figure of light the salvation and felicity of the Messianic age are constantly depicted (see esp. Volz, Jüd. Eschatologie, pp. 328–331). The heavenly Jerusalem of the Apocalypse is a city filled with celestial light (Revelation 21:23; Revelation 21:25; Revelation 22:5). The long drawn out contrast between light and darkness that pervades the Fourth Gospel is also significant in this connexion.

G. H. Box.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Star (2)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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Tuesday, November 19th, 2019
the Week of Proper 28 / Ordinary 33
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