Query: Jewish References to the Star of Bethlehem?

Last week, in the midst of all the other things keeping Nomi and me busy, we managed to have lunch with Brother Guy Consolmagno (LJ: brotherguy) when he was briefly in town. He asked us if we knew of any Jewish sources that mention the star of Bethlehem, or anything about Judaism and astrology of that time, and I'm drawing a blank. I've done some searching, but I can't find any Jewish sources that discuss or mention the star of Bethlehem. Brother Guy is looking for this information for something he's working on; can anyone help us out?

ETA: Brother Guy clarifies what he's looking for in this reply to this post.


I've checked with the reference librarian at Hebrew College. He cannot think of anything, but suggested there might be some polemics against it.
It is unclear which historical astronomical event the “Star of Bethlehem” corresponds to; certainly if the event is recorded in Jewish sources, it won’t be recorded by that name.

If Brother Guy is looking for Jewish interpretations of Numbers 24:17, I can look up my commentaries, but I suspect that he has access to English translations of any Hebrew sources I own.
The Gemara, of course, has several references to astrology. For example, searching for "Mars" in the Soncino yields Shabbat 129b and 156a.
And, of course, "Brother Guy Consolmagno" anagrams to "Earth-born cosmology gun"
Hmm. It would be a Sanhedrin-era event... are astronomical events even discussed in the Talmud?

Not that he counts as a Jewish scholar per se, but I wonder if Josephus mentions it?
"Earth-born cosmology gun"? Oh, my...

I am in the process of developing a general book about the Star of Bethlehem that does NOT try to prove it was one thing or another, but rather to just review all the different takes that different writers and cultures have had on that story...

Just in case it wasn't clear, I am not looking for any kind of "independent confirmation" of the reality (or not) of the astronomical event; that's not what I am interested in here. Rather, regardless of whether or not the author of Matthew was intending to record an actual historical event in his relation of the Star of Bethlehem story, the very fact of the existence of that story is curious to me.

What does it say about the culture from which, or to which, the author of Matthew (heck, let's call him "Matthew" for short!) is writing that he thinks a story involving astrological symbolism is interesting?

Did he expect his audience to take away from this story the idea that "the stars" proved anything? Or was he rather merely to use this story to show that the birth of Jesus was significant to Gentiles (== those people who used astrology, as opposed to the Jews).

So I guess my questions could be phrased as, did any contemporary Jewish scholars make any comments at all about the story? (Apparently not.) And how would they likely have reacted to such a story?

Judaism during that time period had a complex relationship with astrology. Although foretelling the future is prohibited, that didn't prevent people from believing that astrology was effective. Some of the ancient synagogues have mosaics of the zodiac.

The Wikipedia entry on the topic seems pretty solid:

Particularly interesting is the passage it references from Josephus about astrological events predicting the destruction of the Temple. I looked it up and it says:

"Thus were the miserable people persuaded by these deceivers, and such as belied God himself; while they did not attend nor give credit to the signs that were so evident, and did so plainly foretell their future desolation, but, like men infatuated, without either eyes to see or minds to consider, did not regard the denunciations that God made to them. Thus there was a star resembling a sword, which stood over the city, and a comet, that continued a whole year."

I hope this provides helpful context!

probably forbidden d'rabbanan, but my $0.02 worth...

Well, this isn't a "Star of Bethlehem" reference, but you may find it interesting to check out the midrash, some of which may be approximately contemporary with Matthew and quite probably would have been broadly known to contemporary listeners. (Lots of Jewish kids today don't seem to distinguish what's in the text vs. what's midrash. Sigh.

IIRC there are midrashim that identify specific constellations w/ the various countries, see esp. near the Exodus story. But there is also a particularly nice one near the Avra(ha)m story --near the "go out and count the stars" scene-- where the midrash refers to the stars having moved around. (The astrology at Avra(ha)m's birth had predicted that he via Sara(i/h) would be childless.) The idea of course is that G-d rules the stars, not vice-versa, and that the stars don't rule Yisrael (while they do the other nations of the world). If you can locate that midrash it could be evocative because of the Avraham:brit::Jesus:"new covenant" parallel. Another source you might like to took at are the Tisha b'Av kinnot, which are full of symbolic astrological references.

Re: probably forbidden d'rabbanan, but my $0.02 worth...

Note that brotherguy responded below, but I think he replied to his own comment and not yours...
Thanks, this is exactly the kind of stuff I am looking for. Any specific references to texts (in a format that would help me find them in a library) are useful...
Oh, come on now -- it's a Jewish tradition to simply say "there's a midrash" or "in the Gemara it says..." without giving a real reference! :-> Which is a joking way of saying, "alas, much of this I've heard rather than read, or seen only in passing, so I can't source you properly." Atop that, I'm running off to pick up kids, so just quick and core-dumpy:

I'm assuming you don't have reading ability in Hebrew...

For a start check out Bialik Book of Legends for a parallel text to Matthew's astrologer-star-Herod interaction (for us it's Terach-Nimrod's astrologers-Avram's star at birth): you'll have to play follow-the-footnotes at Hebrew Coll. or more likely Brandeis (or if you're based in Italy --? then consult your local librarian. I'm betting the Vatican library has a book or two on its shelves.)

See also Ginzberg _The Legends of the Jews_ for parallels on Abraham's and Matthew's Jesus's early lives and public "ministries" (watch the Jew-girl cringe at using that term to refer to Avraham! cringe, Jew-girl, cringe!) The king-persecuting/hero-fleeing motif shows up in Avraham, Moshe, and Jesus, though admittedly the "descent into Egypt" story in Matthew is meant to more directly parallel Moshe. The polemical purpose is presumably to tie Jesus' salvational and covenantal role to these predecessors, and presumably Matthew's Jewish listeners --assuming he was preaching to (Hellenized/Diaspora) Jews or to Jew-aware goyyim). You can build up your argument regarding the star by noting multiple parallels. (Just don't lose your nihil obstat or trash Jewish-Catholic relations, eh? :->) Again, you'll have to do footnote chasing to get the originals Ginzberg bases himself on.

English translation of the midrash: it'll be under either "Genesis Rabbah" or "Bereshit Rabbah." For Exodus, look at the Mekhilta (not sure if it's available in English) as well as Exodus Rabbah (Sh'mos Shemos or Sh'mot or Shemot Rabbah, depending on the transliterator). The compilation of legends that appear in the Talmud will be found in the Ein Yaakov, which is, I believe, available in translation, probably under that term....yes, by Aronson Pub., it's available at Amazon and presumably in the library. And as long as I'm over at Amazon, yes, there's a translation of Midrash Rabbah (under that name) by Freedman. You'll want to skim the Avraham sections: so if it's organized by parsha (um...section according to the annual lectionary? I'm not sure how to translate that.) you'll want "lech l'cha" and "bo" (for Exodus). As to the Exodus stuff, I kind of feel like it's commentary I read in a Hagaddah on "vyotzianu HaShem miMitzraim...lo al yedei malakh..." (And G-d brought us out of Egypt: not through an angel...) but look also in Midrash on Sh'mos 12(ish), parshat "Bo". Can't be more specific than that, sorry. The concept that each nation has its own "mazel" (constellation) but for Yisrael there is none you can check out midrash on Gen. 15:5 in particular (start w/ Rashi: there are plenty of English translations) and as 530nm330hz commented above, see the Talmud Bavli, Shabbos (Shabbat) 156a + following, for some astrology discussion. Artscroll's translation of the Talmud is probably your best bet as it's heavy on commentary and in particular footnotes and cross-references; note that their commentary is heavily right-wing and polemical and does not represent the position of all Jews, so bring your salt shaker along to the library, eh?

As to the Tisha b'Av kinnos, you can find them easily in translation. Artscroll makes one, and there's commentary. The kinnah I'm thinking of begins "ad ana b'kiyah b'tziyon umisped b'yrushalayim?" -- it's a night-of-TbA one -- um, "how long will there be crying in Zion and ...oh, what's the English, the stuff you say about a dead person...? in Jerusalem." Eulogy.

If you have some Hebrew reading you can ask your local librarian to help you with a Bar Ilan classics library search. I'd look for anything on the first few words of Gen. 15:5 ("v'yotzei...") and on the phrase "ein mazel l'yisrael." Sorry, too lazy to render those in Hebrew characters.

OK, that's the best I can do standing on one foot, so tsey u'lmad. Um. Tolle, lege. :->


September 2014

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