The answer to this question has to be “a miracle” since there are a great many variables to say with any sort of certainty that it was any particular stellar event. It appeared in the east: if Persia is meant then it is perhaps a two year journey to find Bethlehem.
It is possible that this simply means, as astrologers, they read the signs and determined that the birth of the messiah was near. “We read his horoscope” sounds far less Christmas-y, but that may be in fact what Matthew meant.
Other things besides stars could be considered as omens and portents. Comets and meteors were always considered signs, it is possible that one of these appears at the right time and made the Magi think that Messiah had been born. In addition, the star guides the Magi to the house, this is unlikely to be a comet, meteor, conjunction, etc.
Why would a star be the sign that the Messiah was born? Balaam’s prophecy in Numbers 24:17 describes a king who will rise from Israel who will rule over the nations:
Numbers 24:17 (ESV) I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near: a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab and break down all the sons of Sheth.
While it is difficult to state for certain that this “star” in Numbers was the star in Matthew 2, the connection of a celestial sign with the birth of a great king is a well-known feature of Ancient culture. If Jesus was the Messiah, his birth would have been accompanied with signs and great men (like the magi) would observe and understand the importance of the birth.
The story of the Magi is filled with images of the “three kings” riding camels in robes and crowns, carrying chests of gold, etc. Typically this event is celebrated on Epiphany, on January 6 the last of the 12 days of Christmas. Of all of the events surrounding the birth of Jesus, this one is often thought (at best) to be an invention of Matthew to show parallels between Jesus and Moses, or the “stuff of legends” at the worst.
The carol “We Three Kings” was written by an Episcopal deacon named John Henry Hopkins, Jr., in 1857 it was not published until 1863. It was originally intended for a Christmas Pageant at General Theological Seminary in New York City. This song is likely the reason every Christmas scene has three kings dressed like Persian royalty (usually one black and one Asian).
More perplexing is “I Saw Three Ships,” a song which dates to the 17th century. There is no way for three ships to come sailing into Bethlehem, so it is usually explained that the Wise Men on Camels are the ships. It is possible, however, that the ships refer to three ships bring the relics of the Magi to Cologne Cathedral in the 12th century. According to church tradition dating back to the fourth century the names of the three magi were Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, although this varies in eastern forms of Christianity (Casper becomes Gaspar or Jasper, master of horses, for example).
The arrival of the Wise Men is celebrated by some Christians on January 5 or 6, in association with Epiphany, the day Jesus was revealed. For example, until recently, in Spain children receive their gifts from “Reyes Magos” rather than Santa Claus. In Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic children put it a box of greenery (representing grass) under their bed on January 5 for the camels of the wise men.
Who were the three Wise Men in Matthew 2? They were not kings, although the song “we three kings” has kept that interpretation alive. The idea that they were kings comes from the fact that they bring gifts (i.e., tribute) to Jesus. Craig Blomberg, for example, says “The gifts used to honor the new king were typically associated with royalty” (Matthew, 65). Magicians and astrologers often were important advisors to kings. If they were not political advisors, they were certainly the educated, scientific class of the ancient world.
A Magus was an astrologer, although not in the modern sense of the word. They did in fact tell fortunes by the stars, but there were more or less the astronomers of the ancient world. The same word is applied to advisors of king Nebuchadnezzar, in the KJV this is also translated as wise men, although they are court magicians or astrologers. As odd as it seems, having an astrologer in the court who would read the signs and omens in the heavens was common in the Ancient world.
Where are the Wise Men From? We are simply told “from the east,” likely following the spice route from as far away as Persia. The word Magus has a Persian origin, although they may have been from only as far away as Nabatea on the east of the Jordan.
It is likely “from the east” refers to Babylon, and that the magi themselves were Jewish astrologers who had determined that the time for the birth of the messiah was at hand. There was a lively Jewish community in Babylon from the time of the exile, and it is not unlikely that Jewish men were still functioning in local governments.
A potential problem with this identification is that they do not know where the Messiah was to be born, something which Herod’s own wise men knew. It would seem odd that educated Jewish men would not know this somewhat obvious prophecy.
The gospels seemed to have been formed “backwards.” The initial preaching of the apostles was Christ Crucified and Risen. This is clear from Acts 2:23, 32, 3:14, 10:37-41, and 1 Cor 15:3-5. The teaching of Jesus (didache) was added to the “passion” of Jesus (kerygma). The last (canonical) stage of the development was to include a prologue concerning the origins of Jesus – was he simply a man? Matthew and Luke include miraculous birth stories, John has a theological prologue announcing that Jesus is the Word who was with God from the beginning since he is God. Notice the development taking mark as the earliest of the Gospels – there is no birth narrative and virtually nothing about his family history. The earlier one goes into the traditions of concerning Jesus, the less about Jesus’ birth we find.
One might extend this another step historically and include the infancy narratives that are created well after the end of the apostolic era. These apocryphal stories are much more fanciful and creative – and far less historically reliable. On the other hand, there are much more theological presentations of Jesus as well in the writings of the church fathers, in these Jesus becomes the Christ of theology.
Why were the infancy narratives written in the first place? Crossan thought the question should not be what Matthew and Luke tell us about the birth of Jesus, but “why they tell us anything at all?” What would motivate the gospel writer to include an explanation of the birth of Jesus? Raymond Brown suggested three reasons (Birth of the Messiah, 29).
The most simple explaination for the birth narratives is curiosity. Since Mark did not have many biographical details that people always seem to want to know about, the later gospels were interested in filling-in that gap.
Apologetic. One possible motivation for Luke’s presentation of John the Baptist’s birth along side Jesus’ birth is to show the superiority of Jesus over John, perhaps to answer non-Christian disciples of John (similar to those we meet in Acts 19) There is an apologetic value of the birth narrative when presenting the Gospel to skeptical Jews as well, helping to explain how the Messiah (who as to be born in Judean Bethlehem) ended up to be a native of Galilee. There is also the charge made by early Judaism that Jesus as of illegitimate birth, answer by both evangelists by the explanation of a virgin birth.
There are obvious theological motives as well. The genealogy in Matthew connects Jesus to David, Moses, Joseph, and the other great men in the history of Israel. Like Moses he survives the slaughter of children by a pagan ruler, and like Moses he goes to the mountain to dispense the Law (Matthew 5-7). There is a developing Christology in the four Gospels, Mark tells us that Jesus is already the Son of God at the baptism. In the next two gospels (Matthew and Luke are chronological about the same time), Jesus is God from the moment of his conception, and in John he is God from the very beginning. In fact, John tells us Jesus is equal with God from eternity since he is the creator (John 1:1).
I would add a fourth motivation for Matthew and Luke including the birth narratives. More than Mark, these two gospels are interested in showing that Jesus fulfilled prophecy, beginning with his birth. Readers familiar with the Old Testament know than God has done a number of miracles to bring special individuals into the world – Isaac and Samuel are examples of children born to elderly or barren parents. Jesus is the ultimate “miracle child” since he was born from a virgin.
All of this highlights the uniqueness of Jesus at the very beginning of the story. What might be a few other motives for the writers of the gospels to include the story of Jesus’ birth? Or to think of it the other way, why did Mark and John omit the brith of Jesus?
Joseph discovered his young wife to be is with child (Matthew 1:18-19). Betrothal in the Second Temple Period was a legally binding relationship which could be set aside only through a divorce-like proceeding. A betrothal period could take up to twelve months (m.Ket 5:2), during which time the woman is still under the authority of her father.
Normally there were no sexual relations between the engaged couple, although it is likely that sort of thing did happen. If the man lived with his father-in-law during the betrothal, he cannot divorce his wife is she is found not to be a virgin. There is a whole section of the Mishnah (Ketuvim) dealing with engagements and breaking those engagements. It is impossible to be certain that the practices described there were in force at the time Jesus was born, but it is likely that some of the things we read there reflect the issues with which Joseph dealt.
Since Mary is pregnant, she must have been unfaithful. Joseph therefore decides to divorce her “quietly” because he does not want to shame her. The verb δειγματίζω is used for the shaming of a woman caught in adultery, as the the scribes wanted to do to a woman caught in adultery in John 8:2. Dio Chryssostom mentions a Cyprian law requiring an adulteress to cut her hair and be “subject to contempt by the community” (Dio Chrys. 47; BDAG). This form of the verb does not appear in the LXX, but the compound verb παραδειγματίζω appears 6x. In Num 25:4 it describes the public hanging of those who fornicated with the prostitutes from Baal-Peor (compare PsSol 2:12-14, a possible allusion to that story).
The divorce (ἀπολύω) is to be “quiet,” an adverb (λάθρᾳ) often meaning “in secret” or “in private.” In Matt 2:7, for example, Herod summons the wise men “in secret.” It is occasionally used outside of the New Testament with the sense of “not going through proper channels.” It is possible that Joseph, being a poor man, did not feel it necessary to spend the money and time to properly punish her, so he would dissolve the marriage without bringing it before proper authorities who would (perhaps) insist on a shaming of Mary and (undoubtedly) money from Joseph.
Since Joseph was described as a “righteous man,” it is possible that he thought he was obligated by the Law divorce Mary (Nolland, Matthew, 95). Numbers 5:11-31 may indicate that if a man discovers his wife in adultery a divorce is required, as well as a public shaming. It is also possible that Joseph did not want to shame himself by declaring to the public that his betrothed wife had been unfaithful. While the text says that it is Mary’s shame that is in mind, Joseph would have a certain level of humiliation when the news became public
Whatever his motives, Joseph is describe as “doing the right thing” and preserving Mary from a public disgrace for adultery.
An angel warns Joseph not to divorce Mary because the child was conceived by the Holy Spirit (1:20-21). The angel indicates that the conception of the child is by the Holy Spirit. While we usually talk about this as a virgin birth, it is better to think in terms of a virgin conception and a normal birth. There is nothing in the Bible which implies that there was anything unusual about the pregnancy after it begins. Jesus’ birth was normal and Mary and Joseph go on to have other children.
The Greek text does not have the definite article, the child is conceived by “a holy spirit.” There are a number of suggestions for what this might meet, at the very least it refers to the power of God as responsible for Mary’s pregnancy.
There is little use trying to figure out the “science” of how this happened, then whole point is that this is a miracle from God. The child is not Joseph’s nor is he the son of any human, he is the “son of God.” The connection of the Holy Spirit to the birth of Jesus is important for several reasons.
First, like Adam, the human Jesus is a special creation of God. Paul will use this parallelism between Adam and Jesus in Romans 5:12-21. The virgin birth is therefore analogous to the special creation of Adam in Genesis 2.
Second, the Hebrew Bible refers to the king of Israel as a “son of God.” In Ps 2:7, for example, the enthroned King of Heaven says to the king of Israel “you are my son, today I have begotten you.” The virgin birth is the ultimate enthronement of a king in the line of David. It is significant tat Joseph is called a “son of David” in this text, the only place in the New Testament where someone other than Jesus is given that title. This likely highlights the royal importance of the child to be born.
Third, there are many references to special servants of God in the Hebrew Bible who are born through miraculous circumstances. Beginning with Isaac, several old or barren women have children. Even John the Baptist is born in this classic “Old Testament”scenario. A virgin giving birth is the ultimate unlikely birth!
Fourth, there are a number of references to the coming messiah / servant of God as being specially empowered by the Spirit of God, Isa 11:2, for example, describes the “root of Jesse” as having the seven-fold Spirit of God upon him.
That the child is not the result of unfaithfulness, but rather a divine miracle, would comfort Joseph and assure him that this child is part of the larger plan of God.