Josephus and The Star of Bethlehem

G. J. Goldberg
December 1999
   The Star of Bethlehem described in the Gospel of Matthew has a number of similarities with a star that appeared over Jerusalem in 66 CE that was described by Josephus in The Jewish War (6.5.3 289). I investigate this resemblance,  focusing on the idea that the war star influenced Matthew's account.

    In particular, both talk of a star that stood in the sky in an apparently miraculous way, contrary to the natural movements of the heavens. I argue that the terminology of a star that stands over Jerusalem is forced by the Biblical prophecies that link the star to Balaam and to David.

    I suggest, therefore, that this terminology was used by rebels in 66 CE to connect the star to Biblical prophecies of Balaam and David, and that Matthew, who is believed to have written only a few years later,  borrowed their terminology, regarding it as an authentically Jewish way to describe a star predicting the imminent coming of the Davidic Messiah. 

Two Standing Stars: Matthew 2:9 and Josephus' War 6.5.3 289

The Star Oracle of Balaam

 Halley's Comet
Josephus' Censored Version of Balaam's Oracle
The Standing Star
Plain meanings

Astronomical meanings

Metaphorical meanings

Prophetic meaning. The Standing Angel with the Sword (Numbers 22:31, 1 Chron 21:16, and Revelation 1:16)
The Angel Appears to Balaam

The Angel Appears to David

The Angel Appears to John in the Book of Revelation

Proposed Interpretations of 66 CE

Josephus' Version of the Standing Angel

"The sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven": Matthew and the War
The Standing Angel and the Star of Bethlehem
Or did the star of Bethlehem influence Josephus?
Concluding Remark



Two Standing Stars: Matthew 2:9 and Josephus' War 6.5.4

The curious have searched the works of Josephus for some confirmation of the story of the star which, in the Gospel of Matthew, leads the wise men to the site of Jesus' birth:

Now when Jesus had been born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men arrived in Jerusalem from the east, saying,

"Where is he who is born king of the Jews? For we saw his star in the east and have come to worship him…"

And behold, the star which they saw in the east went before them until it had come and stood over where the child was. And seeing the star, they rejoiced exceedingly. (Matthew 2:1-2, 2:9-10)

But in Josephus' works no mention is found of a prophetic star appearing during the reign of Herod. None of the other Gospels mention it either, and Matthew does not otherwise refer to the star. The birth narrative of Luke contradicts Matthew in major ways. The evidence thus favors the conclusion that the story of the star was a late addition to the stories about Jesus. (For a succinct discussion of this issue, see A Marginal Jew by John Meier.)

But there was some source of the story, and unless it was a deliberate fiction, there may have been events that contributed to the particular tradition recorded in Matthew.

If we look not for events that literally duplicate Matthew's, but instead for those that could have influenced the development of the story, we do find some interesting things in Josephus.

Josephus writes that a series of omens foretold the disaster that was about to befall the Temple:

"Thus it was that the wretched people were deluded at that time by charlatans and pretended messengers of the deity; while they neither heeded nor believed in the manifest portents that foretold the coming desolation, but, as if thunderstruck and bereft of eyes and mind, disregarded the plain warnings of God. So it was when a star, resembling a sword, stood over the city, and a comet which continued for a year." (War 6.5.4 288-289)
What I want to draw attention to here is the linguistic coincidence of Josephus' description of the star and Matthew's. Both describe a star that "stood over" or "stopped over" a place (the Greek can mean either one). One is forced to ask: how does a star in the revolving night sky "stand over" a place on earth?

Here is the parallel:
Matthew Josephus
aster … este epano ou en to paidion huper ten polin astron este
the star...stood above where the child was over the city the star stood

These two texts describe events approximately 70 years apart: Matthew's in 6 to 4 BCE and Josephus' in 66 CE. But Biblical scholarship identifies Matthew as having written his gospel after the war against Rome ended, most likely some time within 70 to 90 CE. Josephus' The Jewish War was published in approximately 78 CE. Thus, it is probable that Matthew and Josephus were contemporaries and that these two texts about a standing star were written within 10 years of each other. This opens the possibility that these two references to a standing star are in fact linked, and that there was some idea of a standing star that existed around the time of the War whose terminology influenced by Matthew and Josephus.

Yet this is not the only coincidence between the two appearances of the phrase "a star…stood." I will list them and then discuss each in turn:


-- Both have the surface meaning of a miraculous standing of stars over a well-defined point on Earth

-- Both texts were written c. 80 CE; probably the time difference in their writing is at a decade, but they could even have been produced at the same time

-- Both refer to stars over the Jerusalem area

-- Both had interpreters who read the stars as telling of the coming of the Messiah


The Star Oracle of Balaam

"The oracle of Balaam son of Beor,

the oracle of the man whose eye is clear…

who sees the vision of the Almighty,

who falls down, but with his eyes uncovered:

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." Numbers 24:15-17

This is an excellent candidate for the source of what Josephus identifies as "what more than else incited them to the war." This was an "ambiguous oracle [chrêsmos], found in their sacred scriptures, that at that time one from their country would become ruler of the world." War 6.5.4 312; for the full quote, see Omens). The scepter that Balaam predicted would rise out of Israel and defeat all surrounding nations was taken by the revolutionaries to be one of their own, a world-king, a Messiah; but Josephus turned the prediction on its head an applied it to General Vespasian, who from his victories in Judaea was able to become the emperor of Rome.

There is another source: the oracle of Balaam is quoted four times in the Dead Sea scrolls in conjuncture with Messianic prophecies. It appears in the War Scroll (1QM 11.6-17), the Damascus document (CD 7.19-21), the Messianic Testimonia (4Q175 1:9-13), and the Priestly Blessings for the Last Days (1QSb 5:27). (WIse, Abegg, & Cook, The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation). Thus well before the war the prophecy of Balaam was actively used to predict the coming of the warrior king.

Now the "scepter that shall rise out of Israel" is preceded in the oracle by the line "a star shall come out of Jacob" (Jacob and Israel being the two names of the patriarch; the two lines have nearly the same meaning, a distinguishing feature of Biblical poetry). The star precedes the scepter (king). Thus the many interpreters who, Josephus tells us, looked for signs prior to the war, can have surmised that a star could indeed be the sign preceding the coming of the Messiah. This would simply confirm the popular impression of the day that unusual heavenly events, particularly comets, signaled great political changes. But these explanations do not describe a star that "stands." This issue I shall take up presently, where I shall relate it to Balaam's vision of the angel.

There are other interpretations of the verse. In the Dead Sea Scrolls and pseudepigraphic literature, the "star" and the "scepter" were seen to represent two different persons, a priestly Messiah and a Davidic royal Messiah. (See, for example, John J. Collins, The Scepter and the Star).

Balaam's prophecy is a natural background to Matthew's star of Bethlehem. But Matthew does not cite the prophecy, instead quoting Micah 5:2-5, which describes a leader of peace rather than of war -- whatever the reason, one notes it was a verse less likely to cause conflict between the Christians of Matthew's day and Rome. The first writer to directly associate Matthew's star with Balaam's prophecy seems to have been Origen in the third century (Contra Celsus, Book 1, Ch. 59), although there are Christian interpolations relating Balaam's prophecy to Jesus in some of the pseudepigrapha, such as the Testament of Judah 24; but these are difficult to date.

Whether related directly to Balaam or to simple popular superstition, when there was a sign in the sky, Josephus tells us that its meaning was not heeded or believed, but that the people relied on "pretend messengers of the deity" (War 6.5.3 288). While not immediately stating how these pretend messengers interpreted the star, the remainder of the paragraph explains the two sides that interpreters of omens took: "By the inexperienced this [the light around the altar] was regarded as a good omen, but by the sacred scribes it was at once interpreted in accordance with after events." (War 6.5.3 291) More specifically, Josephus eventually homes in on the prophecy which the false or mistaken interpreters most depended on: that of the world ruler who would come out of Judaea. (War Thus it seems fair to say that every omen was interpreted by the pro-revolutionary "prophets" as signs of success in the war, with the inevitable result that the world king, the annointed king, the Davidic Messiah, would arise.

As it happens, we do know there was a significant astronomical event in 65/66 CE, for this was a year of perihelion for Halley's comet.

Halley's comet
The previous time Halley's comet was observed from Earth was in 12 BCE, and was recorded in Chinese documents. The period of the comet averages 77 years (plus or minus 2.5 years) so that the next approach was about 65 CE. But this could not have been predicted in ancient times. So when Halley's comet appeared in the sky at the same time when so many troubles were occuring and so much religious-based revolutionary fervor was in the air, the "charlatans and pretend messengers of the deity" were eager to consider this a good omen.

It is tempting to interpret the "star shaped like a sword" as the comet and its tail. The sentence is a little unclear, though. First, the word usually translated here as "star" is astron, which means literally "stars" but can also denote a single significant star, a synonym for aster (which is used by Matthew). So Josephus could be describing a sword-shaped constellation. This heavenly sword is said to have "continued for a year." To this Josephus seems to add, as an afterthought, that there was also a comet. It might be mean that the star first appeared as a sword, then continued "as a comet" for a year. But it is most natural to take the sentence as indicating that a comet and a sword-shaped star appeared together in the sky.

One interpretation of this is that the two tails that every comet has, but are not always clearly distinguished, were very visible in this appearance of Halley's, so that the head of the comet and one of its tails was interpreted as the standard idea of a comet, while the other curved tail was interpreted as an accompanying "sword." Then this pairing could have been seen as some heavenly figure bearing a sword over Jerusalem.

One interesting point: in the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Bible which Josephus made use of, the "star" in the oracle of Balaam is rendered astron, just as it is in Josephus. This supports the notion that Josephus knew  the war star was seen by the people as Balaam's star.

Josephus' Censored Version of Balaam's Oracle
In the Antiquities, which he published some 15 to 20 years after his War, Josephus retells most of the Hebrew Bible, including the oracle of Balaam. However, although he recited much of the Balaam story in great detail, when it comes to the prophecy of the star and the scepter, Josephus suddenly backs away:
"Falling upon his face, he [Balaam] foretold what calamities were to come for kings and what for cities of the highest celebrity (of which some had not yet so much as been inhabited at all), along with other events which have already befallen men in bygone ages, by land or sea, down to times within my memory. And from all these prophecies having received the fulfillment which he predicted one may infer what the future also has in store." (Ant. 4.6.6 125)
The oracle that Josephus boldly identified previously as the most important cause of the War here makes no appearance at all. We can suppose that he did not want to stir up memories of the religious fervor that the Romans found so incomprehensible and so dangerous. Yet at the same time he hints to those who do know the texts that he believes in the prophecy of Balaam -- and that the prophecies that were fulfilled "within my memory" must have applied to the war, and probably included Josephus' association of Balaam's prophecy with Vespasian. But why he does not clearly mention Vespasian in this context is a problem, one which is beyond the current topic.


The Standing Star

What did it mean to these ancient authors and their readers for a star to "stand over" or "stop over" a place?

For although is understood that prophecies such as Balaam's as well as popular culture could motivate Matthew's and Josephus' associations of a star with a Messiah, there is still no explanation as to why both authors talk of their star as one that "stood over" or "stopped over" a point on Earth. Did this have some special meaning to people of the day?

I do not yet have a complete answer to this question, but I have investigated it to a certain degree. I will distinguish between four possible meanings: the plain (or surface), the astronomical, the metaphorical and the prophetic.

Plain Meanings
As Matthew and Josephus used common words for their stars and wrote for a general audience, one should expect that their words should be interpreted in the most obvious way: that a star actually stopped in the sky, a miraculous event out of joint with the natural motion of objects in the sky.

Do we know of other ancient descriptions of stars that miraculously stopped? For if we could find some, then there is no reason to think the texts of Matthew and Josephus are closely linked in any way, for both could be using a "standard miracle," so to speak. But a computer search of the Perseus database of ancient literature has not turned up a relevant parallel to this phrase. The closest found so far is in Aristotle's Metaphysics 1050b.15: "Hence the sun and stars and the whole visible heaven are always active, and there is no fear that they will ever stop--a fear which the writers on physics entertain." A stopping star is a miracle. Aristotle here talks of a fear that the stars will stop, but not of recorded instances of an alleged such event. More investigation is needed, but at present these Matthew and Josephus are the only known instances where an event in the sky identifies a point on earth by "standing above" it.

Josephus' description is not as unambiguously miraculous as Matthew's. Josephus says the star stood over the city and continued for a year; if he had said it "stood over the city for a year" we would have a miracle, but he does not, leaving open the possibility he means that at times during the year the star was in the sky over the city. But then, he does not say this either. He has chosen to describe what could have been a natural sight in terms that make it sound like a miracle. Why did he make this choice? I have a suggestion for a reason, which I will discuss presently.

A major difference between the two authors is that Josephus lived during the time of his star, while Matthew was only reporting a story that was supposed to be a century old. Did Josephus see the star itself? He had traveled to Rome in the early 60's to negotiate with Nero for the release of imprisoned priests, and when he returned to Jerusalem he found that political changes had already begun and the people were eager for revolution (Life 17); this would have been spring or summer of 66 CE. In describing the star, though, he does not specify the year, only implying it appeared about the time of the start of the war; this would be confirmed if the comet were indeed Halley's.

So it is not clear if Josephus himself actually saw the star, or instead was reporting what the people said about it on his return to Jerusalem. The fact that he uses unclear language here favors the view that he was reporting what he was told, and not what he saw. In which case, the phrase "the star stood over the city" is not Josephus', but was the terminology of the populace.


Astronomical meanings
A star can momentarily occupy a point directly above a point on Earth, at zenith -- one would be looking straight up at the star if one were at this point at the appropriate time. The star could then be said to "stand over" that point. But this would only last a moment during the sky's revolution, whereas these two texts seem to indicate a phenomenon that lasted some time. More generally, given a point in time and a particular observation point an one can see stars that momentarily stand aligned above some point on the horizon or object on earth. As will be discussed presently, this could possibly apply to Josephus' description, but not to Matthew's.

Astronomers who have addressed this question have developed a number of interesting hypotheses to identify the star Matthew describes, under the supposition it was a natural object. A theory that is particularly influential today is that of the astronomer Michael Molnar, who has determined that there was an unusual double occultation of Jupiter by the moon in the constellation of Aries which took place on March 20 and on April 17 in the year 6 BCE. This would have been visible to (or at least predicted by) astrologers in Babylon, the home of the Magi. Jupiter represented kings, and Aries was the constellation that ruled over the area that included Judaea. The event could thus have been interpreted by astrologers of the day as the birth of an important king in Judaea. Molnar has directed attention to two coins minted about 15 CE and 55 CE that may represent planetary conjunctions or occultations that demonstrate the importance of these events.

In Molnar's interpretation, Jupiter would have undergone retrograde motion at this time (when it seems to reverse direction in the sky, a visual phenomenon caused by the relative motion of the Earth and Jupiter). At the point of return of the motion Jupiter can be said to be temporarily "stopped" in its normal course through the sky. Given the appropriate observation point at this time, the planet could have appeared to have "stopped" or "stood" over Bethlehem. The same association of "stood" with planetary retrograde motion has been made by many previous astronomers in their suggestions for the identity of the Star of Bethlehem. For a full account, see Molnar's book The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi.

As interesting as astronomical investigations are, they do not explain the text of Matthew we have before us. The plain meaning is that a star (not a planet or the moon) miraculously guided wise men to the very spot of Jesus' birth. Thus we must add to the astronomical view some theory of the evolution of the text: we must suppose that the actual astronomical sighting was misunderstood and corrupted over the years, so that a lunar occultation becomes a star, and the normal movements of objects in the sky and the well-known retrograde motion of the planets are transformed into a miracle. At the same time, the corruption of meaning is assumed to be not so complete as to obliterate the essential clues to the star: the east, the moving and stopping, the astrological interpretation.

Matthew's text, which describes a star moving and then stopping, invites an interpretation as some corrupted reference to planetary retrograde motion, but Josephus' text does not. Josephus was contemporary with his star and so could not have confused a planet with a star, as Matthew is speculated to have done. Thus we need a different explanation for Josephus' term.

Astronomers have not addressed Josephus' star with the same intensity as Matthews', nor determined if the same interpretation of a standing star can be applied to both, and if not, whether there is a plausible reason for the different meanings of the phrase.

There is a sense in which Josephus' description can be taken literally. As mentioned before, if an observation point and a time of night are specified, there is a definite relationship between a star and a point on earth. One can say at that moment that the star is standing over some point. Jerusalem is special in that there is indeed a particular place and time when such an arrangement would be noticed and considered significant: in the court of the Temple, at the time of the evening sacrifice. It was a general meeting place of heavenly significance where such observations can be made and discussed. Thus Josephus could be describing a natural occurrence, albeit in a language that invites alternate interpretations.

Metaphorical meanings
The astronomer Michael Molnar has interpreted these two passages as including a mixture of astronomical and metaphorical meanings. A discussion comparing Josephus' and Matthew's stars had been included in the first manuscript of his book, but it was removed as being too extraneous to the story. In a private communication he writes:

"The Matthew account is mixing metaphors. The Star of Bethlehem did stand over (above) in the sky as it reached a "station" after retrograde motion[....] The other inference of Matthew, like Josephus, is a figure of speech. No star, planet, or comet literally stands above a place. This ancient expression indicates that the celestial event relates to a specified person or place.

"As for Josephus, he was drawing attention to a comet which like the proverbially cloud of doom hanging over Jerusalem. It is possible that it stopped moving among the stars much like a stationing planet (it was around for a year and maybe stationed in the sign of the Jews, Aries), but I don't believe that's why he mentioned it. Comets were harbingers of disaster (notice the root of this word -- dis-"aster" [bad star] -- a legacy of ancient astrology). And Josephus alluded to this and tied it to Jerusalem by saying it stood over the city."

My response to this is that the structure of the texts preclude this interpretation. Surely Matthew causes his readers to understand that the star stopped over the child with sufficient precision to identify the infant for the magi (and for them to confidently give him expensive gifts). One can speculate that Matthew's source was speaking metaphorically, and that subsequent tradition misinterpreted or deliberately corrupted this meaning. But that is only one possible reconstruction of Matthew's source, and is not well motivated by the text before us.

The structure of Josephus' paragraph also precludes a metaphorical interpretation. The point Josephus is making that visible signs had double interpretations, so he necessarily must list what the visible signs are without interpreting them himself.

Specifically, Josephus states in his opening sentence that people did not believe "manifest portents" and disregarded "the plain warnings of God." He then lists a series of increasingly strange manifestations: the sword-shaped star standing over the Temple, the light around the altar, the cow that gave birth to a lamb in the Temple, the enormous bronze gate of the eastern Temple court that opened by itself, chariots in the sky, the voice of an army in the Temple's inner court. These, Josephus states repeatedly, had their interpreters as being either good or bad omens. His description of the star must therefore be no more metaphorical than the other manifestations in the series, for saying that a heavenly event astrologically ruled over a place is already an interpretation of the event; and the omens are linked to the Temple by their manifest location, so Josephus does mean the star also was linked to the Temple by its manifest location.


Prophetic meaning.  The Standing Angel with the Sword (Numbers 22:31, 1 Chron 21:16, and Revelation 1:16)

The Angel Appears to Balaam
I discussed previously how Halley's comet preceding the war is described in two parts in Josephus' passage, interpreted as a heavenly figure bearing a sword which "stood over the city" and continued for a year. The star has an obvious relationship with the oracle of Balaam, but so also does a heavenly figure with a sword:
    Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road, with his drawn sword in his hand; and he bowed down, falling on his face.(Numbers 22:31)
This angel gives Balaam the gift of true prophecy, telling Balaam: "Go with the men; but speak only what I tell you to speak." (Numbers 22:35) Therefor it is this angel who, through Balaam, speaks the oracle of the Star and the Scepter.

This angel is standing with a sword: we see two of the key words here in Josephus' description of the star. The angel is not in the sky over Jerusalem, but only on the road to Moab (across the Jordan River from Jericho). Can we explain this?

The Angel Appears to David
The standing angel with the sword appears only one other time in the Hebrew Bible. Balaam's vision of the angel is overtly referenced when King David is shown the place to build the Temple:
And David lifted up his eyes and saw the angel of the Lord standing between the earth and the heavens, and in his hand a drawn sword stretched out over Jerusalem. Then David and the elders, clothed in sackcloth, fell on their faces. (1 Chron 21:16)
Not only does this match the Balaam passage by including the standing angel with a drawn sword,it begins when David lifted his eyes and saw the angel of the Lord, just as Balaam did, and it continues with David and the elders behaving as Balaam did, by falling on their faces. The Chronicler is making an obvious allusion to the oracle of Balaam that he expects his readers to understand. This makes perfect sense, for Balaam's oracle has been understood as referring to David and his descendants throughout Jewish history, and continued to apply in Jesus' and Josephus' day as a promise that a descendant of David would return as the annointed king, the Davidic Messiah.

This verse of Chronicles is itself rich with Messianic meanings and warnings. The verse occurs after many Israelites have been destroyed because David had sinfully conducted a census; the angel comes to forgive David, and then indicates the location at which the Temple is to be built, commanding David to establish an altar on the threshing-floor of Oman the Jebusite.

Unlike Balaam's vision, in Chronicles the angel is standing between the earth and the heavens and his sword is over Jerusalem. This resembles the imagery used for the star omen of 65/66 CE as reported by Josephus. If it difficult to believe that exegetes of the day, on seeing a star (comet) that was somewhat sword-like in the sky over Jerusalem, would have not related this to Balaam's star, and thus to his vision of an angel and to David's vision of the same angel over Jerusalem. The terminology of a star that stands over Jerusalem is forced by the standard star prophecy.

The Angel Appears to John in the Book of Revelation
But the angel with the sword appears also in the New Testament, and this is the most direct evidence that in the late First Century this figure was identified with the opening of the Messianic kingdom.
Then I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and a golden sash across his chest...In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword [rhomphaia], and his face was like the sun shining with full force. When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. (Revelation 1:12-17)
Here we have the same motifs as in Balaam's vision: looking, seeing a cosmic man, stars, a sword, and falling on the ground. Furthermore, the seven lampstands, which the cosmic figure explains represent the seven churches (Revelation 1:20), are parallels to the seven altars that the Angel, through Balaam, orders to be built (Numbers 23:1). These transparently form an allusion to the Angel of the Lord that appeared to Balaam and David. Other aspects, particularly his clothing, recall the angel that appears to Daniel in Daniel 10:10, which itself is likely an allusion to Balaam's vision (both Daniel and Balaam are comparable to the magi, being seers of the East). The author is saying this Angel had also been the Son of Man -- or, according to Christian readings of Revelation, the  Angel that appeared to Balaam and David was Jesus.

An interesting linguistic link is that the Greek word used here for sword, rhomphaia, is the same that Josephus uses for the sword-shaped star over Jerusalem, and (as discussed below) is also that which the Septuagint (the Greek Bible) uses for the sword over Jerusalem that was in the hand of David's angel. The Septuagint does not use that word for Balaam's angel; but that sword also is not over Jerusalem.

The standard word for sword in the New Testament is machaira, which occurs 29 times, e.g., as in Matthew 10:34, "I have not come to bring peace, but a sword." In contrast, rhomphaia occurs only 7, and all but one of these are in Revelation (referring to the same sword as in 1:16). The one exception is enough to pique our curiosity: outside of Revelation, rhomphaia appears only in Luke, and there only in connection with a prophecy at the birth of Jesus:

   Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, "This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed -- and a sword [rhomphaia] will pierce your own soul too." (Luke 2:34-35)

This combines the ideas of sign, sword, and the coming of an important man. Taken together, the above demonstrates that 1 Chronicles was indeed associated with the Messiah by the apocalypticism of the time.

Proposed Interpretations of 66 CE
We can now postulate what the oppposing interpretations of the star were that Josephus alludes to. Those who were in favor of war with Rome can have declared:
    "The sign we see in heaven standing over Jerusalem is that of the Angel with the sword that appeared to Balaam and to David. This Angel of the Lord saved the people Israel twice and prophesied that David would arise, then returned to reaffirm David as King and to appoint the place for the Temple. So it is that today the Angel has returned, again to save the people of Israel, and again to return the lineage of David to the throne not only of Israel but of the entire world, and to fulfill the promise of the Temple as the house of prayer for all the nations. We must fight to carry out this destiny!"
So the heavenly sign had a ready interpretation as presaging the coming of the Davidic Messiah.

On the other hand, "the sacred scribes" (War 6.5.3 291) were able to determine the true meaning of the omens -- after they had seen the events that followed. These scribes could say, after the fact:

"No, this was the returning Angel, but it was restoring what it had postponed before. It had stopped the destruction of the people for their sins; now it has begun the destruction again, for we have not stopped sinning. It had signaled David could remain King; now it was taking away that privilege from the Davidic line. And it's first coming denoted the beginning of the kingdom and the Temple; so it was come again at the time appointed for the end of the Temple. We will be returned to the condition prior to the Angel's first coming: a people without a Temple or a king, subjugated to foreign powers."
And Christians would have been tempted to interpret the sign as that of the imminent return of Jesus and the Last Days.

Josephus' Version of the Standing Angel

Josephus in his Jewish Antiquities retells the story of the angels that appeared to Balaam and to David. As we did before, let us compare Josephus' versions with the Bible.

First, the appearance to Balaam. Josephus retells how the "angel of the Deity" causes the ass on which Balaam rode to speak in a human voice, and then:

 The angel himself appeared in visible form and reproached him for his blows, in that the beast was not to blame; it was he himself, he said, who was obstructing a journey undertaken in defiance of the will of the Deity.Terrified, Balaam was prepared to turn back, but the Deity exhorted him to pursue his intended way, while commanding him to speak only the things that he himself should put into his mind. (Antiquities 4.6.3 110-112)
 One notes that Josephus omits the sword completely. More subtly, he does not say the angel "stands", only that he "appears." There is an interesting alternation between calling the figure the "angel [messenger] of the Deity" (Ant. 4.6.3 108) versus calling it the Deity himself, as just quoted.

The angel that appeared to David is described by Josephus in this way:

Now the angel stretched out his hand against Jerusalem also and sent the plague upon it as well. And the king put on sackcloth and lay on the ground, supplicating God…Then, looking up into the air and beholding the angel being borne through it toward Jerusalem, with his sword drawn, the king said to God that it was he, the shepherd who was rightly to be punished but the flock which committed no sin should be saved. (Antiquities 7.8.3 328)
Josephus has changed the text. It is best to look at the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Bible) for a comparison, upon which it is generally considered that Josephus based his retellings. There are two significant changes for our purposes.

First, the Septuagint at 1 Chronicles 21:17 says the angel stood (este) -- using the same word as that used of the star in Josephus' description of the omen. But here Josephus has the angel moving, being carried (pheromenon) through the air. Both the Greek and Hebrew versions quite clearly say the angel stood, so why does Josephus change it?

And second, the type of sword has been changed. The Septuagint at this same verse in Chronicles calls the sword a rhomphaia, exactly the same word for sword used by Josephus of the omen star in the War. The rhomphaia is a large, sometimes curved sword, befitting the description of a comet's tale. But here Josephus has changed to a different kind of weapon, a machaira, which in its original meaning is actually a shorter knife. According to the Perseus database, Josephus employs rhomphaia 20 times in his works and machaira 17 times, so he had a slight underpreference for using the latter word. But machaira is by far the word most commonly used for a sword in the New Testament (see below).

The changes we have identified appear completely arbitrary. However, with our experience of Josephus' censorship of Balaam's oracle, we can well suspect that here, too, the motivation is to disguise the true meaning of the verse. It is hard to believe the casual reader of his day would make the association, but Josephus may have been writing also for more knowledgable readers -- perhaps he even was uncomfortable spiritually or superstitiously, as if awakening some evil, in writing the passage that helped start the war, and so made these crucial changes to distance it from what he had written earlier in his Jewish War.

"The sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven": Matthew and the War


I have suggested that in 66 CE, "pretended messengers of the deity" (War 6.5.3 288) spoke of the sign as "standing over" the Temple and as predicting the coming of the Messiah (War 6.5.4 313). This special language, "standing over", used to describe the omen is that recorded by Josephus.

Now consider this scenario: When Matthew wrote his gospel, he associated this sign for the Messiah to an existing belief among some of the Jesus followers that a heavenly sign had attended Jesus' infancy.

The standard view among New Testament scholars is that the Gospel of Matthew was written after the war with Rome, sometime between 70 and 90 CE. Part of the evidence for this view is the presentation of Jesus' prophecies of wars and the destruction of the Temple., which seem to have been influenced by reports of the war.

Thus I propose that Matthew's description of the star of Bethlehem was, in a similar way, influenced in hits language by the popular description of the star that helped to trigger the war -- this popular description was also recorded by Josephus.

There are several possible ways the popular description can have influenced Matthew. Here are four alternatives:

(1) Matthew was aware of a Jewish description of a star predicting a Messiah, and so used this in his own star description when recounting a sign at Jesus' birth.

(2) Matthew thought the star at Jesus' birth and the star before the war were one and the same. By using the same terminology of a "standing star", Matthew was deliberately making this association and saying to his contemporaries after the war: "That star was indeed the sign of the Messiah, but the revolutionaries misinterpreted it: it was foretelling the imminent return of Jesus, who predicted the Temple would be destroyed, and to whom the same sign appeared at his birth."

(3) Matthew believed the star before the war was a false omen, falsely interpreted by charlatans. He instead presented a "true" omen at Jesus' birth, co-opting the false terminology as a deliberate snub to those who had been fooled and a warning for others to be careful in the future.

(4) There was a belief among some Christians before the war that the star of 66 CE and the star at Jesus' birth were one and the same, and so talked of them in the same language. This tradition was passed down during the war. Matthew received this tradition and used part of it, but downplayed the connection with the war.

The first alternative is the simplest, and attractive for that reason. I for a time had favored the second alternative, but have decided that the rest of Matthew's gospel does not support it, but favors the third or fourth alternatives instead.

In Matthew 24 (parallel with Mark 13 and Luke 21) Jesus is presented as giving a detailed description of the terrors that would precede the coming of the Messiah, including the destruction of the Temple. Jesus is here asked

"Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?" Jesus answered them, "Beware that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying "I am the Messiah!", and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet.…

"For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce great signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, even the elect." (Matt 24:3-6, 24:24)

Matthew lists the same false omens and false prophets as do Mark and Luke (and Josephus?!). But he then proceeds to announce the true Sign of the Messiah, something which does not appear in the other gospels:
"Immediately after the suffering of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken. Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see 'the son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven' with power and great glory." (Matthew 24:29-30)
The italicized portion does not appear in Mark; otherwise the passages are identical. Luke has an expanded form of this but also does not include "the sign of the Son of Man."

Could this Sign be a reference to the star before the war? Were Matthew and his fellow Christians waiting after the war for the promise of the star to be soon fulfilled?

We cannot make this identification. For Matthew, the Sign would appear after all other destruction, even after the stars fall from the sky, and would be immediately followed by the appearance of the Messiah. But the star had appeared before the destruction of the war, and the stars had not fallen from the sky. The Messiah had not appeared immediately and was still delayed at the time of Matthew's writing. Thus the star before the war was not the true Sign: it was one of the false signs, and was only employed by the false prophets.


The Standing Angel and the Star of Bethlehem

Matthew is the only writer to describe a star signaling the birth of Jesus, and the only writer to describe a sign in heaven signaling the imminent coming of the Messiah. A natural inference is that Matthew was influenced by contemporary Jewish expectations of a heavenly sign connected with the Messiah. He thought they were incorrect to have identified any actual event of the day as the sign they were looking for, but he took over their concept and, we can speculate, their language. In which case, the description of the Star of Bethlehem we have today can reflect this language.

I have suggested that the verse 1 Chronicles 21:16 determined the use of the word "standing" when applied to the star over Jerusalem before the war: that it was deliberately used to link the sword-shaped star (or comet) with the angel "standing with the drawn sword." This has the benefit that the star that Josephus saw, or at least his friends in Jerusalem saw, was not, in fact, standing miraculously still in a turning sky, but that it was seen in the night sky over the city at times over the course of a year. The application of prophetic meaning to the star caused the star to be referred to in miraculous terms as "standing over" the city, like the angel. It was in these terms that the star was referred to by the people of the day, and so it was in this terminology that Josephus recorded the phenomenon. Or so we might speculate.

And if this is so, and if Matthew's description of the star of Bethlehem was influenced by the way people spoke of the "prophetic" star, then the star "stood" over the child because the sword-star "stood" over the city, because it was related to the angel with the sword that stood over the city as a message to King David.

Or did the star of Bethlehem influence Josephus?

Reversing the line of inquiry, suppose that a story about a miraculous star at Jesus' birth already was circulating long before the war. Could this story have prompted the story of the star at the beginning of the war?

There are several barriers to this approach. Matthew wrote long after the event; Josephus was alive to witness or hear from witnesses of his event. Thus Josephus' star is unlikely to be a total fabrication. In responsed to this, one can say there were other miracles that Josephus described which challenge belief, such as the report "surpassing belief" but based on the "narratives of eyewitnesses" that aremd battalions were seen racing through the sky and surrounding cities in Judaea (War 6.5.3 299).  Is there some meteorological phenomenon that this could have been based on, or was it a total fabrication by Josephus' source? And if this is fabricated, need we believe the star? But a star and comet are more believable; they are also mentioned first in Josephus' series of ever more miraculous omens, persisted an entire year, and were obviously visible to the entire city, so these would have been more verifiable. And we know Halley's comet would have appeared at this time.

Another factor is that Josephus' language is more naturalistic than Matthew's, and spans the boundary between a natural and a miraculous reading. Matthew's, however, is clearly miraculous. This suggests Josephus' is independent of Matthew's and related to the phenomenon itself.

And we would need a new way to explain why both talk of a star that "stood." In the above investigation, it was suggested that the sword-shaped star over Jerusalem became associated with the angel with a sword of 1 Chronicles who "stood" over the city. This woud explain both Josephus' and Matthews' usage, as both derived from the language for a miraculous star at the time they lived. But a star over Bethlehem cannot be so obviously associated with this verse or with any other Biblical verse that could make "standing" an important characteristic of a star.

Thus the evidence speaks against this direction of influence. One cannot rule out the idea that people in Jerusalem, particularly Christians, could have compared the war star to an existing story about a sign at Jesus' birth. But if they did so, the only evidence that remains is the description of Matthew.

Concluding Remark

There is not sufficient evidence to say that the speculations begun here are a better explanation of the star of Bethlehem than others that have been proposed. It is one way to approach to the similarities between Josephus' and Matthew's stars. This should also show that there are explanations of the star of Bethlehem which place it directly into the time Matthew wrote -- soon after the War of 66-70 CE -- rather than only trying to explain it only in terms of events at the time of Jesus' birth.

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