The Star of Bethlehem and the Magi

Interdisciplinary Perspectives from Experts on the Ancient Near East, the Greco-Roman World, and Modern Astronomy


This book is the fruit of the first ever interdisciplinary international scientific conference on Matthew's story of the Star of Bethlehem and the Magi, held in 2014 at the University of Groningen, and attended by world-leading specialists in all relevant fields: modern astronomy, the ancient near-eastern and Greco-Roman worlds, the history of science, and religion. The scholarly discussions and the exchange of the interdisciplinary views proved to be immensely fruitful and resulted in the present book. Its twenty chapters describe the various aspects of The Star: the history of its interpretation, ancient near-eastern astronomy and astrology and the Magi, astrology in the Greco-Roman and the Jewish worlds, and the early Christian world – at a generally accessible level. An epilogue summarizes the fact-fiction balance of the most famous star which has ever shone.

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Peter Barthel (PhD 1984) is Professor of Astrophysics at the Kapteyn Institute of the University of Groningen, researching active galaxies and quasars in the near and distant universe with ground- and space-based telescopes. He has a keen interest in science communication and education, and has won prizes as well as a Royal Distinction for his original efforts in these areas.

George van Kooten (PhD 2001) is Professor of New Testament & Early Christianity at the Faculty of Theology & Religious Studies at the University of Groningen, researching the Bible in its historical and cultural context. He holds degrees from the universities of Leiden, Durham and Oxford, and was visiting fellow at the universities of Cambridge (2013-14) and Göttingen (2015).
“The Star of Bethlehem is known to almost everybody, whatever their personal faith - be it through the Nativity story told in Matthew’s Gospel or through art and material culture where the depiction of the Star has played a hugely important role for centuries. Church Fathers and scholars alike have debated the ‘when’ and ‘what’ for almost as long, resulting in very different interpretations. However, what had been missing so far was a multi-disciplinary approach. The Groningen symposium has done just that, for the first time ever asking experts in very different fields to answer the same four questions about the Star, namely ‘What?’, ‘When?’, ‘How?’ and ‘Why?’ The learned, surprising, thought-provoking answers in this fascinating volume are a must-read for anybody interested in a phenomenon that has influenced our culture like few others.”
Silke Ackermann FSA, Director, Museum of the History of Science, University of Oxford

“When one considers that the source of the material treated in this book consists of only twelve verses of the Bible (Matthew 2: 1-12), this is a remarkable collection of research papers. Throughout the book there appears a wide range of judgments on the nature and historicity of Matthew’s story, from the claim that it is midrash, a rabbinical commentary which tells a beautiful story to interpret events to gentiles by the use of texts from the Old Testament, to the description of an historical happening. Since Matthew is not here to tell us, the reader will have the interesting task of judging among the expert views.”
George V. Coyne, S.J., Director Emeritus, Vatican Observatory

“The nature of the Star of Bethlehem has fascinated our society for many centuries. ‘The Star’ has attracted the attention of artists, astronomers, historians, science fiction writers, theologians and others. This book summarizes the views of world-experts in a variety of fields presented at a multidisciplinary conference in Groningen in 2014. While there is no clear consensus on the nature of ‘The Star’, the twenty chapters provide an intriguing and eminently readable assessment of an enigmatic event that is directly connected to the advent of one of the major religions in our world.”
Tim de Zeeuw, Director General, European Southern Observatory (ESO)

"The impressive assembly of specialised knowledge makes the book both a fascinating and a daunting read."
Ari Heinze, Waianae, Hawaii, Southeastern Theological Review 8:1

Prologue, Peter Barthel and George van Kooten


1. Kepler’s De Vero Anno (1614), Owen Gingerich

2. The Historical Basis for the Star of Bethlehem, Michael R. Molnar

3. A Critical Look at the History of Interpreting the Star of Bethlehem in Scientific Literature and Biblical Studies, Aaron Adair

4. An Astronomical and Historical Evaluation of Molnar’s Solution.Bradley E. Schaefer

5. Astronomical Thoughts on the Star of Bethlehem, David W. Hughes

6. De Ster der Wijzen (1920): A Forgotten Early Publication About the Star of Bethlehem, Teije de Jong


7. What, If Anything?, Peter Barthel

8. The Astronomical Resources for Ancient Astral Prognostications, Alexander Jones


9. Mesopotamian Astrological Geography, John M. Steele

10. The Story of the Magi in the Light of Alexander the Great's Encounters with Chaldeans, Mathieu Ossendrijver

11. Pre-Islamic Iranian Astral Mythology, Astrology, and the Star of Bethlehem, Antonio Panaino


12. Matthew’s Magi as Experts on Kingship, Albert de Jong

13. Greco-Roman Astrologers, the Magi, and Mithraism, Roger Beck

14.The Star of Bethlehem and Greco-Roman Astrology, Especially Astrological Geography, Stephan Heilen


15. The World Leader from the Land of the Jews: Josephus, Jewish War 6.300–315; Tacitus, Histories 5.13; and Suetonius, Vespasian 4.5, Jan Willem van Henten

16. Stars and Powers: Astrological Thinking in Imperial Politics from the Hasmoneans to Bar Kokhba, Kocku von Stuckrad

17. Balaam’s ‘Star Oracle’ (Num 24:15–19) in the Dead Sea Scrolls and Bar Kokhba, Helen R. Jacobus


18. The Star of the Magi and the Prophecy of Balaam in Earliest Christianity, with Special Attention to the Lost Books of Balaam, Darrell Hannah

19. Matthew’s Star, Luke’s Census, Bethlehem, and the Quest for the Historical Jesus, Annette Merz

20. Matthew, the Parthians, and the Magi: A Contextualization of Matthew’s Gospel in Roman-Parthian Relations of the First Centuries BCE and CE, George van Kooten

Epilogue, Peter Barthel and George van Kooten
Scholars of the Ancient Near East, classicists, scholars of Jewish and biblical studies, historians of science, ancient historians, historians of religion, astronomers, laymen with a qualified interest in astronomy, religion, and the antique world.
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