A number of years ago, a wise parent shared with me an insight for which I have been repeatedly grateful:

One reason God gives us children is so that we adults can [re]discover nature.

This has proven true on numerous occasions for me over the course of raising five children: while outside, whether in our backyard, at a park or on a hike, my kids have pointed out, with no little enthusiasm and urgency, all manner of animals and insects, plants and flowers, clouds and colors in the sky, and, yes, even rocks (“Daaaad! Daaaad! Look at this rock!”). They see the natural world with the wide-eyed wonder that it deserves.

Or does it?

Just what should we “see”? When we behold the natural world, whether a bug or a bird or babbling brook, or, perhaps supremely, the human body (in all its biological complexity and esthetic delight) — when we wander about the world, should we be led to wonder?

Let me give an example: One afternoon while I was mowing the lawn, my then 7-year-old daughter ran up to me, wanting to say something urgent. I turned off the mower, removed my earbuds, and waited. She then pointed to a cloud in the sky and said, “Dad, that cloud looks exactly like a dolphin! Isn’t it cool how God did that?”

My daughter saw the cloud and “saw” in the cloud something more, something beyond it (a dolphin) and even attached a theological explanation to it.

Or consider a more sophisticated (and politically charged) example, a famous line, ever so often tweeted, from the Chilean poet, politician and Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda (1904-1973):

They can cut all the flowers, but they cannot keep back Spring.[1]

Neruda “sees” in the arrival of Spring an inevitability, an inevitability that he then associates with political transformation: “They” can seek to slow it down or conceal its signs, but they cannot stop it.

Of course, we would say that Neruda is assigning a symbolism or significance to Spring, not suggesting that Spring is actually signaling inevitable political transformation. He is designating this transformation to Spring, rather than discovering it in Spring.

But let’s say for a moment that my friend is right about children helping us adults to (re)discover the natural world. I want to suggest why that might be: all children are born as artists. By this I mean not that they are all artistic, but rather that they naturally tend to do at least one incredibly important task of the artist. And what is that?

As the late Eugene Peterson suggested, one task of the artist is, quite simply, to help us see what is there. And children can do this very, very well, not least because they don’t “know any better”! After all, as Hans Christian Andersen tells it, it took a child to “see” that the emperor had no clothes on.

This suggestion — that all children are artists — is simply another way of saying that we humans are, naturally, artists; that is, we are born with a default setting of how to interact with the natural world, not only (or even primarily) designating significance to the world but discovering significance within it.

If we 21st-century Western adults need our children to rediscover nature, perhaps it’s only because that default setting has been enculturated, or brainwashed, out of us.

Indeed, I would suggest that a good portion of humanity throughout our world today and certainly throughout world history were, in the above sense, always children: they saw in the natural world something more. While they could designate a significance to nature, they generally assumed that they were discovering a significance within it. Why?

Because it had been put there. Or so they thought.

This “childlike” view of nature could, unfortunately, be given the label “pre-modern,” as if we “moderns” grew up, leaving silly, childish things behind and along with them the ability to wonder. While modernity sees this “growing up” as reason for celebration (i.e., an escape from superstition), the child in each of us may see it as reason for sorrow and sadness, as when (in the Toy Story films) Andy grows up and leaves all his toys, and along with them his imagination and sense of wonder, behind.

Undoubtedly, pre-modern humans at times erred (greatly) in how they discovered significance in the natural world. But were they wrong to discover significance in that world? Does the peril of superstition about nature preclude the presence of significance within it?

The New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson, in the introduction to his excellent commentary on Hebrews, writes of a number of difficulties facing the “modern” reader of Hebrews, one of which he poses as a question. He wonders…

…whether Christians today any longer see the world as one created by God at every moment, sustained by God’s word, addressed by God’s prophets. Do they still perceive the world as mystery, having a depth of being that lies within and beneath that which is observable, measurable, calculable? Such a sense of mystery and magic at the heart of reality is… a function of perceiving the world as Scripture imagines it.[2]

He then goes on to express a fear that today’s Christians are “incapable of experiencing the world in at least some sense as enchanted.” And if they are incapable of this, will they, he asks, be able to rightly interpret not only God’s world that He has “enchanted” but also God’s Word that He has inspired?

The Magi

This brings us immediately, if perhaps unexpectedly, to Epiphany. For here, according to Matthew 2.1-12, God’s world and God’s Word collude in a climactic way to enchant and illumine some very inquisitive outsiders, while the (supposed / self-identifying) community of faith, from king to commoner, is caught completely off guard.

But first let’s zoom ahead, some 60 years after Jesus’ birth. In AD 66, while Nero was emperor, a young King Tiridates of Armenia visited Rome, accompanied by an impressively large retinue. Armenia was located, uncomfortably, between two great superpowers, the Roman and Parthian empires. After five years of war, Rome promised Tiridates protection from their Parthian neighbors in return for serving Nero as a client king.

But — and here is where things get interesting for us — the young Tiridates was not only a promising king and lethal warrior. According to the 1st-century Roman natural philosopher Pliny the Elder, he was also what Pliny calls a magus. Indeed, among his entourage were others like him, so that, collectively, they were called magi.[3]

As recorded by the 2nd-century historian Dio Cassius, upon arriving in Nero’s court, these magi knelt down, with King Tiridates declaring his allegiance to Nero: “Master, I am the descendent of Arsaces, brother of the princes Vologaesus and Pacorus, and I am your slave. I have come to you, my God, worshipping you as [I worship the sun god] Mithra.”[4]

Apparently, in the 1st-century world, a visit by magi from the east to pay homage to a king was a thing.[5]

But about these magi — who were they and what did they do? By itself the role is rather broad. But it certainly can include having an expertise in the nighttime skies, so that these particular magi were a cross between what we would call astronomers and astrologers. As the above quote indicates, the magi of Tiridates’ retinue were probably Zoroastrian priests, worshippers of the god Mithra, who was closely associated with (or perhaps even identified with) the sun. Blurring our “modern” line between “science” and “religion,” such magi (and other astrologists) could be called either mathematici or Chaldaei, with the former term underscoring the mathematical heavy-lifting required for their work while the latter highlighting the ethnic and geographical origins of the art — i.e., Chaldea, or Babylon.[6]

But to what end? The magi held that the heavens at night at the very least hinted at, and perhaps even held sway over, human destiny. (Whether the heavenly bodies ruled, or merely revealed, the fortunes of humanity was disputed.) While we moderns might scoff at such a role (and certainly it had its shams and charlatans), there is little doubt many magi would have seen themselves as those who study nature in the service of human need. That is, such magi studied the heavens in order to help humanity. Who today studies nature in the service of human need?

Scientists, psychiatrists, psychologists, and doctors, at least. And one could also add authors or those in the visual and performing arts, who carefully study and simulate with great skill a scene or a sound.

From the vantage point of two millennia, we “moderns” may chuckle at their methods, but what will scientists even 50 years from now think of many of our practices and procedures? Indeed, the key difference between these magi and many minds at, say, MIT is in fact not their methods but their mindset: these magi believed that the natural world was trying to tell them something, that it was enchanted. There was meaning to be not merely designated but discovered, not merely “constructed” but uncovered and contemplated, not out of mere intellectual curiosity but because it could impact the entire course of humanity.

And, generally speaking, these magi would have had a very compliant clientele.

The Nighttime Sky in the Ancient World

For while the magi of Matthew 2 were experts in the nighttime skies, ancient peoples, on the whole, whether those of the ancient Near East or those of the Greco-Roman world, from kings to commanders to commoners, were adherents (or, at the very least, enthusiasts) of the stars, assigning to them an astonishing significance over the affairs of men. It’s hardly accidental that in Hellenistic Greek, the lingua franca of Jesus’ day, the word for “sign” and the word for “constellation” are one and the same (σημεῖον, say-MAY-on). So seriously were these celestial signs taken that the Roman historian Suetonius (circ. AD 70-150) reports that, when the Emperor Nero saw a comet, fearing that it might signal the end of his own regime (and, thus, the end of his life), he ordered that some Roman aristocrats be murdered in his place in an attempt to redirect or re-interpret the meaning of the comet’s arrival.[7]

At nightfall, while wood fires could be built or oil lamps lit, generally speaking, when the sun went down, all was dark, and the night sky shone far brighter than we Westerners, mostly urbanites or suburbanites, could imagine, apart from our occasional overnight hiking trip. Given this frequency of exposure, ancient peoples’ fascination with, even fixation on, the starry host is hardly surprising and has its chastened counterpart in the Scriptures (e.g., Ps. 8.3).

What is truly remarkable about this fixation, which developed into astrology (especially in the latter half of the first millennium BC), was how relatively consistent it was across a spectrum of cultures. For example, the constellation of stars that we English speakers today call Virgo was known to ancient Babylonians (the likely origin of the magi) as Av-Seen, to the Greeks as πάρθενος (PAR-then-os), to the Romans as virgo, and to the Jews as בְּתוּלָה (bu-too-LAWH) or בְּתוּלְתָא (bu-tool-TAW).[8] All these terms mean relatively the same thing: maiden or virgin.

In short, the stars presented an essentially universal, or cross-cultural, language with which God could, if desired, “speak” to the world. Though the Hebrew of Ps. 19.3-4 isn’t fully clear, it appears to speak of the heavens communicating, using “no [verbal/audible] speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their ‘voice’ goes out into all the earth, their words to ends of the world.”

But when these magi arrived in Jerusalem sometime after Jesus’ birth, asking, “Where is the one born king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising, and we have come to worship him” (Mt. 2.1), just what exactly had they “seen?” What in the starry night was so surprising and specific that it could lead them to conclude that there was (i) a birth (ii) of royal blood and (iii) of Jewish descent that (iv) had already taken place?

The ‘Star’ of Bethlehem

The so-called “Star of Bethlehem” has justly captured the imagination of many throughout the past two millennia. But it has also understandably caused the eye-rolling of more than a few others: are we really to believe that a star (like our sun) was making its own path in the night sky and then somehow “came and stood over where the child was” (2.9)? As understandable as this objection would be to any English reader, for readers of both the original Greek and other languages (e.g., Spanish), the word translated in English as “star” (ἀστήρ, astār) can describe any number of celestial phenomena (not too unlike the Spanish word estrella), from a planet to a meteor to (what we typically call) a star, and even to… a comet.

It is undoubtedly true that Christianity professes a cosmos that is both created and controlled by Israel’s God, so that “nothing is impossible” for Him, so that “he does whatever he pleases” (Ps. 135:3; Dan. 4:35). And yet, as we’ve hinted at so far, He is pleased to use the created order itself to give witness to Himself, so that it may well be that the events of Matthew 2 were the supreme example of how “the heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Ps. 19.1-6).

While it is probably impossible to know with certainty what the magi saw, it seems most plausible that this “star” may have been a most extraordinary comet.[9] How so?

Practically speaking, a comet is the best candidate for an extraordinary astronomical phenomenon that can appear on the horizon of the night sky and actually move, slowly (enough to be followed on, say, a camel) but surely, across the heavens, disappear and then reappear and come to “stand on” or “rest over the place where the child was” and then disappear, possibly forever, over the horizon.

But astrologically speaking, a comet was construed, probably across cultures, as the coming of a new king — i.e., of a regime change. Why is this? After a little bit of thought, it’s fairly straightforward: all the other heavenly bodies — e.g., stars, planets, and the moon — follow a relatively predictable path in the night sky; that is, they do what they’re told, like any good subject. A comet, however, doesn’t appear to follow any predictable path; it doesn’t follow any “rules” but rather flies freely through the night sky, going wherever it pleases, like any ruler would. And in so doing, it would give new meaning and purpose to the rest of the constellations in the night sky as it passed “through” them. That is, the known constellations and planets would be re-interpreted and redefined in light of this new arrival.

For example, if the comet were to first appear within the constellation Virgo (i.e., in her “womb”), it could readily be understood that the birth of a royal figure was imminent. And if it passed out of her womb, it was obvious: a great king, a king of possibly cosmic consequence, had now been born.

But, as v. 2 indicates, these magi spoke of “one born king of the Jews.” How could they possibly have known this?

An altogether plausible (but ultimately unprovable) answer to this is within reach.

Almost 600 years earlier a certain King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon was expanding his empire to the west and captured Jerusalem and, true to his foreign policy, took back to Babylon the best and the brightest Jews and had them live in his courts — why? — to culturally assimilate them into the best and brightest Babylonians. But — if the book of Daniel has even some historical value— in the process the best and the brightest Babylonians may well have been exposed to the God of the Jews and especially to his sacred Scriptures.

Had these particular magi read the prophet Daniel, they would have learned two surprising things:

1. On at least six occasions[10] Daniel mentions the prominent, if perilous, place of some elites in the court of Nebuchadnezzar (called in Aramaic an אָשַׁף, ‘āshaf), which when translated into Greek is μάγος (magos).

2. The Jewish prophet Daniel had won favor with Nebuchadnezzar after he had interpreted a dream for the king, a dream announcing that, after his kingdom, three lesser kingdoms would come, during the last of which “the God of heaven” will “set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be passed on to another people. It will crush all other kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will endure forever” (2:44).[11]

So it may very well be that these gentile magi knew of these Jewish scriptures, which may have been just scriptures… until one night when they compared the extraordinary signs among the stars with the otherwise alien Scriptures and concluded that the Creator’s final king was finally coming.

If so, it’s hardly surprising they showed up in Jerusalem ready to worship, yet with just one question: just where is he?

At the magi’s question, both king and commoner in the City of David were not merely surprised but unsettled. The common English translation “troubled” should be understood not primarily as a private perplexity or irritation but as a trauma-inducing anxiety at the very real possibility of impending political, economic and social destabilization: given the sincerity (or naïveté?) of the magi’s question, they probably didn’t know that nearly 40 years earlier the Roman Senate had, at the urging of Mark Antony, given Herod the title rex iudaeorum or “king of the Jews.” [12] (Ironically, Herod “had not a drop of Israelite blood”[13] but was Idumean—i.e., from the people of Edom, the historic, even prototypical arch-enemies of Israel (see, e.g., Mal. 1.2-4); and yet his grandfather had converted to Judaism, and because Herod neither truly devoted himself to nor disavowed himself of his inherited religion, he was recognized as, in some sense, Jewish.)

In a truly extraordinary way, Herod had attained his throne not by kinship or pedigree but by cunning and political connection.[14] Famous for his wondrous building projects and infamous for his ruthless brutality, he was, by the time of the magi’s arrival in Jerusalem, in very poor health; surely knowing that his days were numbered, he probably had the preservation of his most impressive legacy very much on his mind. As such, the magi’s question was the last thing he wanted to hear, and “all Jerusalem” knew it.

In short, whatever signs of a coming climactic Sovereign these outsiders were seeing amongst the stars (or had stumbled upon in ancient alien Scripture), they were met not with interest or affirmation but with anger and angst. But to these naïve magi, all seemed relatively normal, since the incensed king seemed nice and an anxious priesthood and people stayed (strangely?) neutral.

The community of faith had become a community of fear, so that it became a community that’s mostly fake.

But given the hornet’s nest that these magi had unknowingly stirred up, inasmuch as Herod was annoyed and unsettled by them, he was now in need of them: he would enlist them as agents of his own agenda. In place of the old adage, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” in a brilliant move that was true to his impressive political prowess, he went for a different strategy: “In order to beat ‘em, pretend to join ‘em.” This would not be the last (or first) time that political power would attempt to co-opt God’s mission and, encouragingly, fail miserably, though not without great cost.

In what was likely (to the magi) an impressive act that gave a façade of both piety and gravity, Herod gathered “all the chief priests and scribes of the people” (Mt. 2.4). As for these chief priests, these were (by this late in Herod’s reign) no longer Hasmonean (much less legitimate Aaronic) priests but rather priests appointed by the king, quite probably his own kin.[15] Early in his reign Herod appointed a high priest, then replaced him with a more politically expedient one, who then became too powerful, so that, according to Josephus, Herod’s henchmen drowned him in a pool at a family palace near Jericho.[16]

In short, these “chief priests” were “yes” men. All others would have a very short life expectancy.

Interestingly, along with these “chief priests” Herod had also summoned “the scribes of the people.” Why? Though not having the elite status of the chief priests, these scribes exercised popular influence, and Herod likely wanted to “control the narrative” that these scribes would pass on to the peasants. For Matthew’s purposes it shows that, to the extent that these “scribes” were truly “of the people,” when the magi arrived in Jerusalem, no one — from prince to priest to peasant — had either the curiosity or courage of conviction to collaborate with these creation-enchanted magi.

But in spite of — and, yet in a providential sense because of — Herod’s cunning and corruption, the magi heard the ancient Word of God. Though ethnically a gentile, Herod was, religiously, a third-generation Jew and knew enough to discern the eschatological significance of the magi’s phrase “the one to be born…”; and, thus, he “inquired from them where the Messiah was to be born” (Mt. 2.4). We should not miss this beautifully encouraging point: even conniving princes and cowering priests (or pastors) can unwittingly communicate God’s Word to a world that He is calling through His creation. Once again, it would not be the last (or first) time that a political authority would assume a semblance of religious devotion and seek out Scripture with an ulterior agenda.

In reply, those gathered by Herod gave a concise statement that in form combines citation and interpretation and in content combines (or conflates) Micah 5 and 2 Samuel 5. This combination of quotation and commentary “all-wrapped-up-into-one” is par for the course in Jesus’ day.

The scene of vv. 4-6 — i.e., the gathering of an enchanted set of magi, an incensed and insincere king, and an anxious lot of priests and scribes — ends abruptly, and Herod now summons the magi “in secret.” Why in secret? While he could safely assume the magi didn’t know any better (given the naïve sincerity of their original question), he could be certain that everyone else would see through his suggestion (to the magi) for the scheming that it was. And so “sending them to Bethlehem, he said:

‘Go and inquire diligently concerning the child; and when you find him, report back to me, so that I also may come and worship him.’”

True to our knowledge of Herod from extrabiblical sources, Herod could (i) publicly show deference to the Word and (ii) privately promise homage to the coming Christ. It would have been altogether unhelpful to him either to adhere too closely to Judaism or to abandon it altogether.

His truest religious conviction was a creed of convenience.

Historians have routinely critiqued Matthew’s narrative, especially at this point: given the threat that this “one born king of the Jews” presented, why on earth would Herod send them on their way alone? For one so supposedly sly as Herod, this seems rather stupid. Yet there are a number of reasons for Herod’s course of action, three of which are: (1) the reason for the meeting’s secrecy in the first place was so that no one else might know his request; had these magi been seen with any of the king’s soldiers or servants, this would go public and the magi would have been informed; (2) further, a royal escort of any kind probably risked driving the child’s family into hiding, making the child all the more difficult to locate and eliminate; (3) we must not confuse ruthless cunning with rational coherence: anger, paranoia, self-aggrandizement are strong inebriants, especially when imbibed at an old age, and can seriously impair even the most astute.

Sent on their way, the magi headed for Bethlehem and, to their surprise, once again saw “the ‘star,’ which they had seen at its rising, going ahead of them, until it came and was stationed above where the child was” (2.9), so that “when they saw the ‘star,’ they rejoiced with a supreme joy exceedingly” (2.10).

The sign in the night skies that had at first stirred their souls to search the Scriptures and had sent them on their journey had now, reinforced by ancient prophecy, reappeared, providing the roadmap they required to conclude their journey.

For these ancient enchanted ‘scientists,’ the starry skies and the Scriptures together led them to the Savior. For these outsiders, an enchanted world, when guided by the inspired Word, led to the epiphany of “the one born king of the Jews,” the Son of God — and this almost entirely in spite of any self-proclaimed insiders. Even with the people of God at their worst, the twofold witness of an awe-inspiring world and an ancient, inspired Word were more than enough to make these magi bow down and worship:

Coming to the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother. And falling to their knees they worshipped him. Opening their bags, they presented him with gifts — gold, incense and myrrh (2.11).

The narrative ends on a note that is instructive in at least two ways. First, it is extraordinary that God, having engaged the magi through His world and Word now instructs (or “urges”) them, after the epiphany, with a dream: having seen and surrendered to the Son, they now commune with the Father. Within the narrative, they stand on par with Joseph, who in the very next verse will receive the second of four dreams (2.13; see 1.20; 2.19, 22).

Second, while we surely must agonize over Herod’s imminent outpouring of rage upon the little ones, we should nevertheless note the astonishing ease with which Herod “the Great” is outfoxed. In the Messiah, he has more than met his match.

How does Epiphany urge us to respond?

First, we are to surrender: if Herod the Great could not outfox God, then neither can we. And why would we want to? The magi couldn’t have cared less about the humble circumstances of “the one born king of the Jews”; the ‘star’ and Scripture were entirely sufficient. Let us repent of our every resistance. Let us in celebration and with sacrificial gift surrender to the Son.

Second, not only does Epiphany urge us to surrender, it invites us to see deeper. If the world really is “enchanted,” if it really was created to communicate (and to do so cross-culturally), if it is always and ever “speaking” immediately to outsiders of “the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited,”[17] then are we ourselves setting our screens aside and deliberately and expectantly looking and listening with delight? Are we in wonder at His world?[18] (Two great resources for this are N. D. Wilson’s Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl: Wide-Eyed Wonder in God’s Spoken World[19] and Gavin Ortlund’s Why God Makes Sense in a World that Doesn’t: The Beauty of Christian Theism.[20]) What are outsiders all around us seeing and hearing and why? And what if God has in some sense sent them to assist us in better seeing His Son?

Third, in concert with seeing deeper, Epiphany calls us to seek the outsider. Why? Because God is. If Epiphany is about anything, it is about God’s heart for the outsider. It is about how Christ is the clue to the creation,[21] the key puzzle piece that, when put in place, turns the puzzle of this world — both creation itself and the course of human history — into a stunning, if still incomplete, portrait of redemption. We must ask, “In what way(s) has His world enchanted my unbelieving friends?”[22] But it is, secondly and tragically, about the very real possibility of God’s people completely losing the plot when it comes to God’s plans and purposes. Epiphany absolutely calls us to celebrate with the magi, but it no less calls us to sobriety in view of its portrayal of the princes, priests and people who merely pretend to be His people. The “troubled” silence of “all Jerusalem” is deafening.

Fourth and finally, Epiphany calls us to sleep soundly. Neither warped political power nor the weakness and waywardness of God’s people can withstand God’s world mission. God is indeed pleased to use His people, to cause them to know His mercy so that they would then show His mercy. But God is pleased to work not only through but around and in spite of His people.

The message of Epiphany is best captured in Jesus’ prophetic words that summon us to sobriety, surrender and celebration:

I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Mt. 8.11-12).

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  1. “Podrán cortar todas las flores, pero no podrán detener la primavera.”
  2. L.T. Johnson, Hebrews: A Commentary, New Testament Library (Louisville: WJK, 2006), 106.
  3. Natural History, 30.6.16-17. Pliny has little patience for these magi.
  4. Roman History 63.4-5. Here the Greek word for “worship” is the same as that found (3x) in Mt. 2.1-12—namely, προσκυνέω (proskuneō): “…we saw his star at its rising and have come to worship him” (v. 2; see vv. 8, 11).
  5. In his first edition of Herod: King of the Jews and Friend of the Romans (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999), Peter Richardson, though skeptical of the historicity of Matthew’s account, states, “The homage by Eastern visitors has an appropriate ring of truth.” After mentioning the visit of Tiridates (whom he mistakenly identifies as Tigranes) he provides several other examples of important 1st-century visitors coming from the east.
  6. In a similar vein Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds in Early Christianity, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 239, states, “Astrology remained doubleminded in antiquity: both scientific and religious. It appeared scientific, and the ancients failed to make a distinction between astronomy and astrology.”
  7. Suetonius, Twelve Caesars, Nero, 36.1.
  8. The former is Hebrew; the latter, Aramaic.
  9. The most recent case for the “star” being a comet is made by Colin Nicholl, The Great Christ Comet: Revealing the True Star of Bethlehem (Wheaton: Crossway, 2015).
  10. Dan. 2.10, 27; 4.4; 5.7, 11, 15.
  11. It is also possible that they were familiar with some version of the prophetic words of Numbers 24.17: “A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will arise out of Israel.” With its lengthy tail, a comet can readily appear as a scepter in the sky.
  12. So the Roman historian Josephus (War, 1.282).
  13. Eusebius, Church History, 1.7.24.
  14. Later Josephus (War, 1.:665-6) writes of Herod: “As for his success in life, he prospered in almost every respect, perhaps more than any other man. For though having no pedigree, he not only acquired for himself a kingdom of his own but held onto it and left it to his own sons. But in matters of his own family, he was wholly unsuccessful” (my translation).
  15. In his second edition, Richardson (along with co-author Amy Marie Fisher), Herod: King of the Jews, Friend of the Romans (New York: Routledge, 2018), 330, writes of the elite status of most priests living in Jerusalem—they were mostly wealthy and well-connected. Geography mattered: “Priests who lived away from Jerusalem [like Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist (see Luke 1-2)] had little influence because they needed to be in the city only two weeks in the year.” As for the former Hasmonean priests, while we’re not certain, “it seems Herod executed some, took others’ property, undercut the previous power structures, and obliterated the vestiges of allegiance to the Hasmonean family. It is less clear to what extent he created a new ruling elite, though it is likely—and was politically necessary—that he did so, elevating primarily members of his extended family…, transferring land ownership, and shifting wealth and power. The councils and courts he occasionally convened [such as the one here in Mt. 2] imply a wider social and religious elite.”
  16. War, 15.50ff.
  17. From C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” a sermon first given on June 8th, 1942, at Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford.
  18. E.g., what are we to make of, e.g., humor and laughter, or tickling and smiling? Or what evolutionary purpose do tears serve? On this see Why Only Humans Weep: Unraveling the Mystery of Tears by Dutch psychologist Ad Vingerhoets (Oxford: OUP, 2013), who maintains that while some other mammals have tear ducts, only human produce tears (i) out of emotional or moral motivation and (ii) continue to cry into adulthood, or full development. Tears even transcend social motivation, given that we often cry alone.
  19. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2013. This is an incredibly accessible, joy-instilling, thought-provoking work.
  20. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2021, esp. ch. 2 (“The Meaning of the World: Why Things like Math, Music, and Love Make More Sense If There Is a God”).
  21. See Lesslie Newbigin, The Light Has Come: An Exposition of the Fourth Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), pp. 1-11.
  22. Given the Old Testament’s stern admonitions against various forms of divination (including celestial) (e.g., Dt. 18.9-14), it is instructive and altogether encouraging that God would nevertheless use astral phenomena to announce the arrival of His Son: as skewed or unseemly as this enchantment with the stars was, God could still use it. In this sense, the Christian can read Mt. 2.1-12 and sing (with the hymnist): “This is my Father’s world”!
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Posted by Bruce Clark

Rev. Bruce Clark (PhD, University of Cambridge) serves as a Presbyterian pastor. He is the author of Completing Christ’s Afflictions: Christ, Paul and the Reconciliation of All Things (WUNT, 2015). He has taught biblical studies courses at both the masters and doctoral levels and is presently researching “faith” language in early Christianity.


  1. Dr Clark! This has been an incredibly rich read for me. Thank you for your work. Would you happen to have any other works available along these lines, or in a similar vein to your work on Paul’s filling up the afflictions of Christ? Thank you for drawing our attention back to wonder and hearing God in the created world around us.


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