In the Old Testament, Balaam, a seer or magi prophesied the coming of the Messiah to the King of Moab: “There shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Scepter shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Seth.” (Numbers 24:17)
The Books of Matthew and Luke describe the appearance of the Star of Bethlehem and the birth of Jesus. Biblical scholars believe these two books were written between A.D. 80-90. Both of the authors are believed to be Greek-speaking Jewish Christians who lived in Antioch, a center of early Christianity.
During the Roman Empire cities and client kingdoms under Roman rule issued their own coins. Latin inscriptions were used on official Imperial issues for the provinces and cities. In the eastern part of the Empire, in Hellenistic cities such as Antioch in Syria, coin inscriptions were written in Greek (Molnar, p. 49).
In A.D. 5 Quirinius, the imperial governor of Syria, annexed Judea into Syria. His legate and legions were based in Antioch. In B.C. 6, the city of Antioch produced a 19 mm copper coin. The reverse shows Aries the Lamb bounding right with head reverted, and a star above. The Biblical account in Luke 2:1-18 tells us there were “shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night.” In Hellenist astrology the sign of Ares depicts the land of Judea. The star on this coin may represent the same star described in the Old Testament as the Star of Jacob and in the Book of Matthew as the Star of Bethlehem. The obverse of this coin shows the head of Zeus facing right (RPC 4265).
“Believing that these coins portrayed the Messianic star under which Jesus had been born, the people of Antioch would have spread stories and perhaps the evangelist Luke used those stories to retell the Nativity. Thus the evangelist placed the time of birth when the coins first appeared in 6 B.C.” (Molnar, p. 124).
The Magi or Wise Men
In the sixth century B.C., the Greek historian Herodotus described a group of seers or magi who were “priests and wise men in Persia.” The magi were particularly well known for explaining physical natural science and predicting the future from omens and dreams (Molnar, The Star of Bethlehem: p.33). According to some estimates, this group of seers or magi existed for more than five thousand years.
The Book of Matthew describes the journey of the magi to seek the birth of Jesus. Matthew's message contains astrological terminology. Twice Matthew says the Magi or wise men saw the Star of Bethlehem “at its rising.” Matthew's reference was not meant just for the Jews, but for the larger Hellenistic world where astrologers wielded powerful influences. The Biblical account fulfills not only the Jewish prophesy of Balaam, but the birth of the King of the Jews was validated by non-Jews practicing the art of astrology.
There are several beliefs as to the home of the magi visitors to Judea. The magi could have journeyed from Babylonia in Parthia. Here in the first century they practiced a new, more sophisticated form of astrology than the early Babylonians. Greek mathematics, measurements, and observations enabled the magi to calculate positions of celestial bodies and issue predictions based on their calculations. Physical observations were used to verify their validity.
Another belief is that the wise men were kings from differing countries who came to pay homage to Jesus. A sixth century A.D. tradition placed the number of wise men at three, probably, because of the three gifts given to the Christ child. The names given to the three were Gaspard, Melchior, and Balthazar. The following are reproductions of coins representing the Wise Men.
With great thanks to Dr. Michael Molnar and his book, The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi; New Brunswick: 2000.