Before the Christmas season is completely forgotten, it should
consider one of Christianity’s most familiar images, the Star of Bethlehem. Described
in Matthew 2:9-11 as leading the wise men to the infant Jesus’ house, it has seized
the Christian imagination and returns every December in Christmas-season
worship. It often appears in art, whether in classical paintings, Christmas
cards, or children’s Sunday-school drawings.
describes the star to indicate Jesus’ special character. After all, not
everyone has a star that rises over them at their birth. Along with the
appearance of Matthew’s wise men and Luke’s angels, Gospel readers get a clear
signal right from the start that Jesus is someone extraordinary.
But why a
star? What did the star indicate about Jesus to those living at the time? Quite
simply, it meant that Jesus was a human being who was a god. By choosing to put
the star into his story, something which Luke chose not to do, Matthew made
clear to his readers that he viewed Jesus as divine.
first century AD, this message could not have been missed, because the
long-lived Caesar Augustus, the first emperor of the Roman Empire, had just spent
decades promoting the connection between a star and the deification of another human
being; in this case, the deified person was Julius Caesar.
Caesar was Augustus’ father by adoption and in the 50s and the 40s BC he saw
how the creaky old Roman Republic had outgrown its ability to govern.
Originally formed to rule the city of Rome and the territory around it, the
Republic could not govern a territory that stretched across the entire
role in the ensuing changes raised the anger and hatred of many of Rome’s
leading citizens. In 44 BCE, he was killed in the Roman Senate by Brutus, a
leader of the anti-Caesar faction. Brutus and his conspirators could not
capitalize on this, however. They were pardoned, but sent to live in exile. The
leadership of Rome was then taken over by a three-man team that included
Julius’s adopted 18-year-old son Octavian, who would become Caesar Augustus.
took place during the Ides of March (March 15), and during celebrations
honoring Julius the following July, a comet appeared in the Roman sky. For more
than a week, it was bright enough to be seen during the day. This was taken as
a sign of the dead Julius Caesar’s deification and his apotheosis (ascension) up
to heaven and was known in Latin as Sidus Iulium
Octavian seized on this “comet star” for the purpose of religious and political
propaganda, persuading the Senate to grant Julius divine status in 42 BC and then
erecting a temple to the star, which he dedicated in 29 BC.
the story in his Metamorphosis
, written in 8 AD. “Then Jupiter, the
Father, spoke..., ‘Take up Caesar’s spirit from his murdered corpse, and change
it into a star, so that the deified Julius may always look down from his high temple
on our Capitol and forum.’…[The goddess] Venus…took up the newly freed spirit
of her Caesar from his body, and preventing it from vanishing into the air,
carried it…higher than the moon, and drawing behind it a fiery tail, [which] shone
as a star.”
ancient Mediterranean world, coins were issued by the rulers and carried their
political message. Octavian issued coins commemorating the comet star several
times. A coin from 19-18 BC placed Octavian (now Caesar Augustus) on the
obverse and prominently displayed on the reverse the star with eight rays and
the label divus ivliu
“Divine Julius.” The comet was indicated by adding
flames to the vertical ray.
By the time
of Jesus’ birth in 4 BC, these coins had entered widespread use from Spain in
the west Mediterranean to Syria and Palestine in the east. They carried the
story of Julius Caesar and the star as the sign of his divine status.
gospel, Matthew drew upon this widely known link between a bright star and the
divine nature of a human. The main difference between Julius and Jesus, in
Matthew’s view, was that Julius had to wait until his death before deification,
while Jesus’ divine character was clear from his birth.
Coin caption: A coin issued by Caesar Augustus in 19-18 BC
commemorating the comet-star that appeared in 44 BC at Julius Caesar’s death.
The coin is captioned “Divine Julius.” (Copyright: WikimediaCommons.)