Star and city of Bethlehem hold theological significance

| December 15, 2010 | 1 Comment

Although the Star of Bethlehem can be examined from a scientific perspective, it also has theological significance, as does the city itself. The Catholic Spirit recently interviewed Father Scott Carl, assistant professor of Sacred Scripture at St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity, about Bethlehem and the star.

Q: How often is Bethlehem mentioned in the Scriptures? What’s said about it?

About 45 times in the Old Testament; eight times in the New Testament (all in the Gospels).

In the Old Testament Bethlehem is the place of burial for Rachel (Jacob’s wife) (Genesis 35:19; 48:7); the site of the tomb is thus sacred to the Jewish people.

Bethlehem is also important in the book of Ruth (named after the great-grandmother of David) (Ruth 1; 2:4; 4:11), but its most prominent reference is in regard to King David. It was the home of his family (1 Samuel 16:1; 17:12) and the place where he was anointed king (1 Samuel 16:4-13).

Significantly, the New Testament makes one reference to Bethlehem in the Old Testament. The Gospel of Matthew (2:6) makes reference to Micah 5:1 saying that, though small, Bethlehem would be of great significance because a ruler was to come from there to rule Israel.

In the New Testament, the use of Bethlehem is always in regard to the place of Jesus’ birth.  It is, then, the place of the manger (Luke 2:7).

Q: What is the significance of Bethlehem being the place of Jesus’ birth? Is this an important city at that time?

Think of an important city: New York, Mexico City, London, Tokyo. Did Tovar cross your mind? Not likely; we usually associate the importance of a city with its size. (Tovar is the Venezuelan hometown of former Twins pitcher Johan Santana with a population of about 17,000.)

The significance of Bethlehem is more like Tovar than New York; its importance is not in its size as the prophecy of Micah demonstrates (Micah 5:1; cf. Mt 2:6). Rather its importance is that it was the city of David. Moreover, God promised that David would always have a descendent on the throne. But, by the time Jesus came, the waters of that promise became pretty muddy.

Being born in Bethlehem, Jesus fulfilled the prophecy of Micah that a ruler of Israel would come from there.  Jesus was then the newborn, and long-awaited, king and Messiah. David put Bethlehem on the map, and Jesus made sure it would never be forgotten.

Q: Do you think there is some theological significance to the Gospel account that a star signaled the birth of Jesus?

Definitely! First, Matthew tells us that the Magi have seen “his star at its rising” (Matthew 2:2). His readers would have made a connection to the promise made to Abraham that his descendents would be like the stars of heaven (Genesis 15:5; 22:17); Jesus is one of these descendents who surely stands out.

Second, Numbers 24:17 says that “a star shall advance from Jacob.” This verse was seen as a prophecy about the Messiah who was to come.

Jesus, being a descendent of Abraham, thus, comes from the line of Jacob, and so the star of Bethlehem fulfills this Old Testament prophecy.

Third, the fact that the Magi, astrologers from the East, seeing the star, come looking for the newborn king shows that the Gospel message is not just for those of Jesus’ race but for all people. The star, therefore, helps to communicate the universal significance to Jesus’ birth.

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Category: The Lesson Plan

  • Deacon Tom

    Additionally, in Hebrew, the very word "Bethlehem" means "house of bread." It certainly was the house of the Bread of Life!