In a previous post, I began a critique of one recent attempt to explain the Star of Bethlehem as a natural phenomenon, namely a comet. There I showed that in the land in which the Magi were likely to have emerged from, comets, like in most all other cultures, are considered evil omens.
However, one should ask what we know about the Magi and what we know about their interests in astrology. After all, if we are trying to figure out what would have been interesting in the skies to these eastern sages, we need to know what they thought of events in the heavens.
Firstly, the term magos in the Roman world would have meant something other than the peoples of Persia, and it was often used for astrologers in general or various diviners or magicians. In fact, our term ‘magic’ is derivative of the Greco-Roman term. Also, Christian figures such as Justin Martyr stated that the Magi were from Arabia. Now, this may have been because of his understanding of Isaiah 60, where gifts brought to the Jewish king by various members of regions close to the Holy Land are mentioned, along with a great light. However, Matthew seems to imply that the Magi are in fact from the Parthian Empire. Firstly, the term magos appears in only one book in the Greek Old Testament, in the Book of Daniel. Thus, a reader living in an environment that was dedicated to the holiness and importance of the OT would place the Greek term in the context of eastern soothsayers from the Babylonian Empire. Furthermore, Matthew calls them magi “from the East”, which would point in the direction of Babylonia/Persia far more than to Arabia, and this would also distinguish the Magi from the hucksters of the time in Imperial Rome. Thus, it
seems best to think of these Magi as the ones mentioned from the East, especially as mentioned by figures such as Herodotus and Strabo.
Now, the magi were the priests of the Zoroastrian faith, one that is considered even more ancient than that of the Hebrews (Mary Boyce placed the prophet Zoroaster in about 1200 BCE). Also, the Zoroastrians had a cosmic dualistic theology, that there were two
principle gods, Ahura Mazda (the good), and Ahriman (the evil). These are the Avestan names of the deities, and later languages would show modification in the names (compar YHWH to Jehovah). Also, most all our texts for the faith come in later centuries and didn’t reach the form we know them until the Sassanian period. Nonetheless, we can learn a fair bit about their beliefs from their texts, along with comparing classical sources, though we must be cautious concerning their quality.
Now, what do we know about Zoroastrian astrological beliefs? (My discussion here is primarily based on that of Gerard Mussies, “Some Astrological Presuppositions of Matthew 2: Oriental, Classical and Rabbinical Parallels” in van der Horst, Aspects of Religious Contact and Conflict in the Ancient World, pp. 25-44.)
From what we can gather, firstly, Greek astrological methods did not become well-known in Persia until the Sassanian period, especially under leaders such as Shapur I
who instituted programs to gather and translate Greek and Indian scientific works, namely in areas such as astronomy and astrology. That this translation effort in Pahlavi does not come to be until this time suggests a lack of interest in the sort of astrology one finds in the works of Ptolemy. This of course does much to harm the theories of researchers such as Michael Molnar who depend on their interpretation of horoscopes using Greek treatises. But what is more damning is what Zoroastrians had to say about the main edifice of astrology: the planets.
According to the preserved texts, in the beginning Ahura Mazda had the stars, Sun, and Moon as stationary objects giving off their light, a sign of their purity. Also important where the constellations, especially those of the zodiac. However, Ahriman corrupted the heavens as much as he could, and caused some of the bodies in the sky to move and attack the other uncorrupted bodies. Thus the planets, the wandering stars, were evil, the product of the Evil One. Along with the the five classical planets were the eclipsed Sun and Moon (the normal Sun and Moon were still good), the comet Mush Parig, and the lunar nodes called Goshihr. The key thing is that changing bodies were the corrupted, which those that were regular such as the stars and the normal course of the Sun and Moon were pure and good.
Thus we see in the holy texts a very negative view of the planets. In other texts, we find Zoroaster himself debating with Babylonian scholars about the meaning of heavenly bodies, which implies the debate going on in Sassanid Persia rather than an historical recollection–this of it as a sort of WWJD
story, but instead WWZD. We also get a sense for how late this debate is because the most ancient texts, the Avesta, speaks only of major, bright stars such as Sirius, along with the Sun and Moon. The planets are not mentioned until this derivative literature is produced which is from the 3rd century CE or later. There is also no direct evidence of astrological knowledge in earlier periods, and indirect evidence is not persuasive.
What this means is that the sort of object that Matthew describes, one that moves and stops, even a comet or planet, would be considered evil. It is also likely that a supernova would be ominous because of its unpredictability. The only sort of astrology practiced by the Zoroastrian priesthood was most primitive, even when compared to what the Babylonians had done in the Enuma Anu Enlil
. Thus, it would be inappropriate to call the Magi ‘astrologers’ as they would not have cast horoscopes or done judicial astrology. In other words, Matthew’s Magi were not the right people to be interpreting the heavens.
This is a major wrench in the works for all attempts to identify the Star because any configuration of planets would be baleful to the magi, and similarly for comets or most anything else considered to be the Star of Bethlehem. Later Zoroastrians would adopt Greco-Indian astrology and make their own innovations, such as the great conjunction system of world history, but all this is centuries too late. This also goes against the historicity of Matthew’s tale since his choice of astrologically-minded people is incorrect. However, since it is more likely Matthew was trying to evoke the magi of Daniel, it is likely why he chose the term; his purpose is literary, not historical, as future posts will demonstrate.