As Christmas approaches, stars, one of the symbols of the Christian holiday, appear. What few people realize is that the star, symbolizing an astronomical appearance described in the New Testament, may have its sources in Jewish eschatological literature – i.e. that describing the Messiah’s arrival.
The Star of Bethlehem is mentioned in the New Testament Book of Matthew where it is described as the appearance of a large and remarkable star. Inspired by the star, “wise men from the East” come to Israel where they ask King Herod, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” They are directed by King Herod to Bethlehem based on a prophecy in Micah.
And you, O Beit Lechem of Efrat, Least among the clans of Yehuda, From you one shall come forth To rule Yisrael for Me— One whose origin is from of old, From ancient times. (Micah 5:1)
It is relevant to note the connection between Bethlehem and the Jewish concept of Messiah from the House of David. Bethlehem is the birthplace of King David and the Prophet Samuel anointed David as king of Israel in Bethlehem. The Hebrew word ‘Moshiach’ (Messiah) literally means ‘the anointed one.’
The Star of Bethlehem has become a central feature of the story of the birth of Jesus and features prominently in the upcoming holiday of Christmas. Some Christian theologians claimed that the star fulfilled a prophecy, known as the Star Prophecy based on a verse in Numbers.
I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not nigh; there shall step forth a star out of Yaakov, and a scepter shall rise out of Yisrael, and shall smite through the corners of Moab, and break down all the sons of Seth. (Numbers 24:17)
This Torah verse also plays a central role in the Jewish concept of the Messiah. This verse was interpreted by Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, known as Maimonides and by the acronym Rambam who was the foremost Torah authority of the 12th century. In his book, Mishneh Torah, the Rambam brings this verse about a star appearing as proof that the Messiah will come one day. According to the Rambam, the Messiah will come from Jacob, more specifically, from the tribe of Judah.
In addition, the Zohar, the foundational work of Jewish mysticism describes in detail the stars that are prophesied to appear as a precursor to the Messiah.
After 40 days, when the pillar rises from earth to heaven in the eyes of the whole world and the Messiah has appeared, a star will rise up on the east, blazing in all colors, and seven other stars will surround that star. And they will wage war on it. (Zohar, Parshat Balak)
The prophecy of the Star of Jacob was applied to Simon bar Kokhba, leader of the Second Jewish Revolt of 132 CE, whose adopted name meant “Son of a Star” in Aramaic.
David Nekrutman, the executive director for the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation (CJCUC), noted that it is impossible to say whether the Christian Star of Bethlehem has its roots in the Jewish Star of Jacob.
“The Star of Jacob is undeniably a strong part of Jewish eschatology,” Nekrutman told Breaking Israel News. “Whether or not the verse about the Star of Jacob is the basis for Matthew, one of the more Jewish-oriented sections of the New Testament, is the focus of serious debate in academia.”
Nekrutman noted that classical Jewish sources interpreted the Star of Jacob in two very different ways.
“One approach as explained by the Ibn Ha’Ezra holds that the Biblical verse is a prophecy that relates to the time of King David,” Nekrutman explained. “The other tradition as expressed by Nachmanides holds that the Star of Jacob is a prophecy that is for sometime in the future, a later Messianic period.”
Nekrutman noted that despite the Star of Jacob having its source in the Jewish Messianic narrative, it was not nearly as prominent as its Christian counterpart.
“This might be seen as an attempt by Judaism in the exile to distance or differentiate itself from the more prevalent Christian host culture,” Nekrutman said. “But I think there is a more internal reason the Star of Jacob got deemphasized.”
“The failure of the Bar Kochba revolt – which was considered a political Messiah – had a large impact on the interpretation of the Star of Jacob,” he said. “The failure of the revolt led the sages to deemphasize the eschatology of the Star of Jacob. That led to a preference for the explanation that the Star of Jacob was no longer relevant since it was described as already happening in the time of King David.”
“The Star of Jacob is interpreted according to where you are in Jewish history. Nachmanides lived in one of the lowest periods of Jewish history. He was seeing the Star of Jacob as part of a much brighter future. The Star of Jacob was going to be fulfilled.”
Nekrutman explained that just as historical influences led to deemphasizing the end-of-days explanation of the Star of Jacob, the current state of the Jewish people may lead towards a renewed emphasis on the end-of-days prophetic understanding.
“Now that we are in the Land of Israel and we have a Jewish state, the Star of Jacob can now be seen more in the light of Jewish eschatology and its relevance for the future Messiah of the Jews,” Nekrutman concluded.