Star Light in the Sky

Two Bible scholars explore the powerful symbolism of light that guided the Magi to the baby Jesus.

The stories of the first Christmas are resplendent with light. In Matthew, the star of Bethlehem shines in the night sky to guide the wise men to the place of Jesus' birth. In Luke, the night is filled with light, radiant with the glory of the Lord, as angels bring the news of Jesus' birth to shepherds keeping watch over their flocks: "And the glory of the Lord shone all around them." And more, two of the hymns in Luke's story climax with light imagery: "The dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness" (1:78–79); Jesus is "a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel" (2:32).

Light is an ancient archetypal symbol. It is also central to ancient Judaism and early Christianity, the context in which Matthew and Luke wrote their stories of Jesus' birth.

And, to say the obvious, light in the darkness is central to the Christian celebration of Christmas. Jesus is born in the deepest darkness—in the middle of the night at the winter solstice. This is not historical time, not a historical fact about the date of Jesus' birth, but parabolic time, metaphorical time, sacred time, symbolic time. The symbolism is perfect.

Light Imagery in Matthew's Story


Matthew uses the symbolism of light in his story of the star of Bethlehem that led the wise men to the place of Jesus' birth. The most widely known episode from Matthew's birth narrative and a centerpiece of Christmas pageants, it is part of the larger story of Herod who, like a new Pharaoh, seeks to kill the infant Jesus. As one born to be "King of the Jews," Jesus is a rival king in the conflict of kingships that runs through Matthew's story.

Here we focus on the use of light imagery in the story. In the relevant portions of Matthew 2:1–12, references to the star are italicized:

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the child who has been born King of the Jews?

For we have observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage."

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