Astrology and the ‘Wise Men’ who visited Jesus

  • Question 126 from Matt, United Kingdom
    Astrology is wrong… God said it, Daniel was shouted at for it. Why then did the wise men, when looking for the baby Jesus, follow the stars to where he was?

    Although astrology, as a form of divination, is specifically condemned in the Old Testament (eg in Leviticus chapter 19, verse 26), this prohibition only extended to the Israelites, as the chosen people who had received the divine law.

    The nation of Israel was forbidden to practice astrology because it was closely linked to worship of the stars and other heavenly bodies, which made it a form of idolatry. It also detracted from the divine Law entrusted to Israel, and the fact that Yahweh dwelt among the Israelites in the Temple at Jerusalem. The Old Testament writers placed an emphasis on how Yahweh – and the worship of Yahweh – was meant to be the focus of the Israelite people.

    However, there are two important things to be drawn from the story of the wise men visiting Jesus. Firstly, it is a highly symbolic story – the wise men, or ‘magi’, come from the East, that is Babylon, the culture which conquered and enslaved the Israelites many years previously. It is ironic then that these ‘wise men’ would come and prostrate themselves at the feet of Israel’s king.

    Equally symbolic is their chosen profession. The Greek word ‘magoi’ is the root of the English words magic and magician. The only other New Testament story which uses the word ‘magoi’ is in the description of Elymas in Acts chapter 13, verse 8, when the word is often translated as ‘sorcerer’. As ‘astrologers’ the ‘magi’ would have been key religious figures in the society they hailed from, and so their inclusion in the story makes a serious point: Jesus the new-born ‘King of the Jews’ is also the ruler of the gentiles.

    This has been a recognised meaning behind the story since the time of Ignatius of Antioch, who died in c.107AD. In his Epistle to the Ephesians, Ignatius wrote: “From that time [the appearance of the star] all sorcery [mageia] and every evil spell began to lose their power; the ignorance of wickedness began to vanish away; the overthrow of the ancient dominion was being brought to pass…” [Epistle to the Ephesians section 19, quoted in JC Fenton, Saint Matthew, 1963]

    The gospel author has therefore included this story to illustrate that Jesus is more than just King of the Jews – his arrival on Earth would affect all human beings, typified by the reverence accorded to him by gentile wise men who don’t follow God’s law.

    A second important principle to draw from this story is that God uses many different means to reveal divine truth to human beings. In Matthew’s gospel it is possible for God to guide heathen magicians using the guidance mechanisms they understood. However, God’s use of gentile means to communicate with gentiles does not contradict the laws given to the ‘chosen people’ prohibiting astrology.

    While many commentators would regard the story of the wise men as symbolic, it is worth noting that in the book of Daniel, which was probably composed in Babylon, there is a prophecy that the ‘Anointed One’ would come after a certain period of time (Daniel chapter 9, verses 25-26).

    If the story of the magi is true, it may be that a copy of Daniel ‘s prophecy remained in Babylon after the repatriation of the Jewish captives at the end of the exile. This perhaps explains why the magi associated the appearance of an unusual astrological sign with the birth of a ‘King of the Jews’.

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