Matt. 2:1-6 Some months after Jesus is born, in 5 or 4BC, a group of foreign merchants selling exotic goods arrives in Jerusalem from the east (see 2 on Map 4). They head to King Herod's palace to sell their exclusive merchandise to the wealthy in the royal court. The group includes 'magi' (‘wise men’ who study the stars), who 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). Herod is furious and intensely jealous as no child has recently been born as his heir.
Herod’s Palace was built on the western side of the Upper City, where important Roman travellers from Caesarea would have entered Jerusalem (see Map 13). The palace covered most of what is now the Armenian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. It was almost totally destroyed by the Roman general Titus in 70AD. All that remains is one tower of the Citadel, a fortress built originally by Herod at the northern end of his palace. In addition, sections of Herod’s city wall were incorporated into the impressive walls (still standing today) erected by Sultan Suleiman in the 16th century. Herod – who relied on Roman patronage – tried to ‘hellenise’ Jerusalem, encouraging Greek customs and making it more like other cites in the Roman empire. He built a large amphitheatre, a smaller odeion (theatre) and a hippodrome (a stadium for chariot racing).
Modern travellers to Jerusalem, entering by the Jaffa Gate, can visit the medieval Citadel and enjoy the ‘son et lumiere’ presentation about the history of Jerusalem. The three original towers forming Herod’s Citadel were named after his wife Mariamne, his brother Phasael, and his friend Hippicus. The only remaining Herodian tower, the Tower of Phasael (now known as the Tower of David although it had nothing to do with King David) houses an interesting museum about the Old City.
The Tower of Phasael in Jerusalem is a remnant of King Herod's palace (EdoM)
Herod plots his revenge
Matt. 2:7-12 King Herod (who was not a Jew himself) consults the Jewish chief priests over the prophesies concerning the Messiah or Christ (see Micah 5:2), and sends the ‘wise men’ to Bethlehem (5 miles / 8 kms south of Jerusalem) to search for this ‘rival’ to his throne.
The 'magi' find the infant Jesus with his mother Mary in a house in Bethlehem – probably the house belonging to Joseph’s relatives (see Luke 2:7 and the feature on Bethlehem earlier in this chapter). They bow before him and worship Jesus as the ‘King of the Jews’. They present him with symbolic gifts of precious gold (appropriate for a king), fragrant frankincense (burnt during worship in the Temple and signifying God’s presence) and costly myrrh (used for embalming and foretelling death), but they return home another way without informing Herod.
The Greek Orthodox Monastery of St Theodosius at the village of Ubediyyeh, 15 miles / 12 km east of Bethlehem, is believed to mark the site where the magi rested when God warned them in a dream that they should not return to King Herod.
The Star of Bethlehem
The 'magi' were probably part of a group of travelling merchants. Like many other traders selling exotic goods in Jerusalem, they came from ‘the east’ – probably from Babylonia or Persia.
Traditionally called the ‘wise men’, these 'magi' were astronomers who recorded the detailed movements of the stars, but were also astrologers who looked for ‘portents’ or ‘signs’ in the patterns and movements of the stars to predict the birth and death of kings. As Zoroastrians, they shared the Jewish belief in one God, and they also believed in a Messiah who would come down from heaven. When they arrived in Jerusalem, they congratulated Herod the Great (the ‘King of the Jews’) because they had seen a star that indicated an heir to the Jewish throne had been born.
No one is sure exactly what the magi saw in the sky signifying to them this important royal birth. But there is no doubt that whatever the Star of Bethlehem was, it also had great astrological significance.
Many theories have been proposed regarding the nature of the Star of Bethlehem. Some believe it was a comet. A ‘broom star’ (a comet with a tail) was, indeed, recorded by Chinese astronomers in the spring of 5BC. But comets were always associated with doom and disaster. Some believe it was a star exploding spectacularly in its ‘supernova’ phase. But this would have had no known astrological significance.
Others believe the ‘star’ was actually a planet – possibly Jupiter, regarded as the ‘kingmaker’ planet by astrologers in Jesus’s day.
An ancient clay tablet from Babylon – now in the British Museum – records a very rare ‘triple conjunction’ of the planets Jupiter and Saturn in the night sky in May, September and November of 7BC. As the two planets moved behind each other on three occasions, this would have looked like a bright star to observers in Babylon.
Furthermore, these conjunctions happened within the constellation of Pisces – a sign of the Zodiac associated at that time with Israel. To religious people in Babylon, the conjunctions may well have signified the birth of a new king in Israel, and they may have set out on a trading expedition to Jerusalem armed with costly gifts of gold (indicating kingship), incense (signifying deity) and myrrh (foretelling death).
The ‘star’ would have moved from east to west across the night sky, and as the planets were moving independently of the other stars in the constellation of Pisces, they might even have appeared to ‘hover’ over Jerusalem or go south towards Bethlehem for some time after the conjunctions.