Signs and Wonders of His Birth
by Shirley R Heater
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One of the greatest events recorded in the Scriptures is the birth of our Savior heralded by many signs and wonders, including what has come to be known as the Star of Bethlehem. Numerous theories have been suggested to explain the phenomenon, such as a comet, nova, supernova, great meteor, the planet Venus, planetary conjunctions and even a UFO. Some readers may be asking, was the star a natural occurrence orchestrated by God or a miraculous, supernatural event? I definitely believe that God can use naturalistic means that may appear to be miraculous, but there are also miraculous events that defy even a “natural” explanation.
After reading various (scientific) sources, I still had unanswered questions. I noticed that little consideration has been given other signs which might contribute to understanding the overall picture. Rather than seek for understanding from external sources, I turned to the best primary sources of all—the Bible and The Book of Mormon. I found three distinct events: the shepherds, Book of Mormon signs, and the wise men and the star. We will consider each of the three events, reconstruct the timelines and compare details to see if we can discern a clearer understanding.
The first event is found in the book of Luke. Joseph and Mary must journey to Bethlehem to be taxed, but found no room in the inn (Luke 2:1-7). Where they stayed is not specifically identified, but some suggestions include a stable, a cave, a barn, or even the tower of the flock (Micah 4:8); others suggest there was no tax or census and He was actually born in Nazareth.
An angel appeared to shepherds while watching their flock by night, “and the glory of the Lord shone round about them” (Luke 2:8-9). They were told a Savior “is born this day in the city of David” (Bethlehem) (v. 11). There, as a sign, they would “find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger” (v. 12). Biblical scholarship reveals that these shepherds were priests in Shepherd’s Fields just outside Bethlehem. They tended thousands of lambs used for daily sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem, by families and for other rituals. These lambs had to be without spot or blemish, and newborn lambs were wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger (a depression carved into limestone rock in the Shepherd’s Tower, or Tower of the Flock) until examined. Thus, the shepherds understood the significance of the sign described by the angel and went “with haste” to see the Child, and found Him wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger as prophesied (vv. 8-16).
The visit by the shepherds apparently took place very close in time to the birth, because it was after their visit that Jesus was circumcised at eight days old. Following the days of Mary’s purification, forty days total according to the Law, Mary and Joseph took Jesus to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord. There Simeon blessed and prophesied over Him (vv. 21-34), then they returned to Bethlehem.
Jesus is the Lamb without spot or blemish—
slain from the foundation of the world
Book of Mormon
The second event in the signs of His birth consists of signs and wonders in the New World, recorded in The Book of Mormon. As in the Old Testament, there were numerous prophecies of this event, one in particular by Samuel the Lamanite five years earlier (Helaman 5:56-60 [14:1-6]). As the time of fulfillment drew near, unbelievers were preparing, should the sign not appear, to put to death those who believed. In answer to Nephi’s mighty cry the Lord spoke to him, saying: “on this night shall the sign be given, and on the morrow come I into the world” (3 Nephi 1:12-13 [1:12-13]). The sign was given that very night—a night with no darkness from the going down of the sun to its rising in the morning (vv. 15-22 [14-19]). After the account of the night that was “as light as though it was midday” (v. 21 ), “the sun did rise in the morning … and they knew that it was the day that the Lord should be born (v. 22 ). It is then stated that “it came to pass also that a new star did appear” (v. 24  emphasis added). Samuel the Lamanite had prophesied, “And behold, there shall be a new star arise, such an one as ye never have beheld” (Helaman 5:59 [14:4]). The events are summed up in verse 25  as “signs and wonders” (see also v. 38 [2:1]). These signs were so powerful as to cause all the people to fall to the earth as if they were dead (vv. 18-19 ) and they began to fear (v. 20 ).
Following the events in Luke and Third Nephi, both which occurred the night of the birth, let’s turn to the chronology and characteristics of the account of the wise men in the book of Matthew.
“I Am the Light of the world”—Jesus
The third event in the signs of His birth is the wise men following the star to Bethlehem. Wise men arrived first in Jerusalem, having followed “His” star in the east, seeking where to find the newborn king of the Jews. King Herod inquired of his chief priests and scribes who answered “in Bethlehem” (Matthew 2:1-6 [3:1-6 IV]; Micah 5:2).
When the wise men resumed their journey, they again followed the star, now leading them south to Bethlehem. It stopped and stood over the house where the young child was (Matthew 2:9 [3:9 IV]). He was no longer in the manger, the shepherds were gone, Jesus had already been circumcised at eight days, and taken to the Temple in Jerusalem following the completion of Mary’s forty days of purification. After the wise men departed, Joseph was warned by an angel in a dream to flee to Egypt and when he arose they departed by night into Egypt. “Herod was exceeding wroth … and slew all the children in Bethlehem and all coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently enquired of the wise men” (Matthew 2:7, 13-16 [3:7, 13-16 IV]). Following Herod’s death, the angel informed them it was safe to return to Israel, where they then made their residence in Nazareth (2:19-23 [3:19-23 IV]).
Consideration of the Signs
My first consideration of the signs is timing. It is nighttime when the angel appeared to the shepherds and said “this day” a Savior has been born. The Hebrew day began at sunset—and since they went with haste, they could have arrived sometime during the daytime, at the earliest, the same day of His birth, being nearby Bethlehem. Note that this timing corresponds to the events in New World when the people were told “this night shall the sign be given” which began at sunset and “on the morrow come I into the world.” Samuel had prophesied that the sign “shall be the night before He is born” (Helaman 5:58). It is easy to see that these two events occurred the same night, keeping in mind Israel is eight hours ahead of the area we equate with Book of Mormon lands.
It should also be noted that contrary to customary manger scenes, no star was over the manger, nor were the wise men present when the shepherds visited Him. The arrival of the wise men in Jerusalem, following His star in the east, was some time after the birth. It is unknown when they first saw the star or how they knew it was leading them to the King of the Jews (Footnote 1). They turned south from Jerusalem, following the star until the star stopped and stood over the house in Bethlehem—they had reached their destination. This is further indication that by the time the wise men arrived in Bethlehem, Jesus was not a newborn and He and his parents were then living in a house. After the wise men departed, Joseph was warned to flee and they left immediately for Egypt—time had already passed since the circumcision and journey to the Temple in Jerusalem, at least a minimum of forty days, but less than two years, the age of the children Herod had killed.
A second aspect in the consideration of timing is the year of the birth. Dates range from 2 BC to as early as 8 BC (based on the current Gregorian system; see Footnote 2). A key reference is Josephus in Antiquities of the Jews which ties Herod’s death following an eclipse to the equivalent of 4 BC; however, Josephus manuscripts before 1544 infer 1 BC! A sign at the crucifixion actually helps confirm the later date by projecting backwards. Peter in Acts 2:20 quotes the prophet Joel: “The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood” as fulfilled (v. 22). A moon which appears as blood (red) refers to the red-shift when the earth comes between the moon and the sun. Only one such eclipse occurred at Passover visible from Jerusalem during Pilate’s rule—April 3, 33 AD, at 3 pm!
My second consideration of the signs is the commonality of the characteristics. The first indication comes from Luke 2:9: “and the glory of the Lord shone round about them” (the shepherds). Throughout the Old Testament, the glory of the Lord is, by definition, the visible manifestation of the presence of God, from the Hebrew word Shechinah. Manifestations took the forms of light, fire, or cloud, or a combination. The Old Testament word conveys in its various forms both the appearance, as well as the meaning “to dwell” or “to tabernacle.”
The New Testament Greek word Doxa “means ‘brightness,’ ‘brilliance,’ or ‘splendor,’ and it depicts how the Shechinah Glory appears….The Greek word skeinei, which is similar in sound as the Hebrew Shechinah (Greek has no ‘sh’ sound), means ‘to tabernacle’” (Fruchtenbaum 2004:591 emphasis in original). The first appearance in the New Testament is the glory surrounding the shepherds. Coming in the form of a light or radiance, this event was “the reappearance of the Shechinah Glory. It announced the birth of the Messiah to Jewish shepherds” (p. 607).
The appearance of the star is also the visible manifestation of God’s glory, “announcing the birth of the Messiah to Gentiles” (p. 608). Its characteristics are not-so-ordinary: (1) The star was visible to the wise men, but not visible to others, or Herod could have had his servants follow the star. (2) They called it His star. (3) The star disappeared at times. (4) The star led them east-to-west to Jerusalem, disappeared, then changed direction and led them north-to-south to Bethlehem (south of Jerusalem). (5) The star stopped over the house where Mary, Joseph and Jesus were then living. A quote from an article in Biblical Astronomer reads:
[It] could not have been a natural apparition, nor an astrological or spiritual sign alone, or even an angel. The unique geometry of its movement in the sky and its ability to stand over and mark a single ... point, such as the house where the Christ child dwelt, indicates that it was a literal visible supernatural sign given from on High and one that modern science or any other extra-biblical discipline will never be able to explain (Unruh 2002:130).
The appearance in the New World of the night without darkness, as light as though midday, coupled with the appearance of a new star and other signs and wonders (perhaps some were naturalistic?), also fit the description of the definition of visible manifestations of the glory of God. We are not given any definite information concerning the new star in the New World but it is mentioned after the sign of no darkness announcing the birth—it could have appeared following that night, or even later. The Book of Mormon signs, the glory of God which shown round about the shepherds, as well as the new star in New Testament which guided the wise men—all lead to the conclusion that each of these three distinct events are visible manifestations of the Shechinah glory of God!
My third consideration of the signs is the greater contribution to our understanding of God and His glory. Light appeared the first day of Creation. “It is possible that the first appearance of the Shechinah Glory was the light of the first day of creation in Genesis 1:3-5 [6-8 IV]), since this light was distinct from the sun, which was created on the fourth day” (Genesis 1:14-19 [18-21 IV]) (Fruchtenbaum 2004:592; Unruh 2002:131). The visible manifestation of God appeared to the Israelites in the form of the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night (Exodus 13:21-22). Moses experienced it personally as a flame of fire and a burning bush (Exodus 3:1-5), and the glory shone in his face which he covered with a veil (Exodus 34:29-35). The glory also dwelt in the Tabernacle Holy of Holies (Exodus 29:42-46), and subsequently in the First Temple, built by Solomon (I Kings 8:1-13). Ezekiel related that the glory departed before the Babylonian captivity and the destruction of the temple (Ezekiel 9:3; 10:4, 1-19; 11:22-23). When the Second Temple was built after the return of Judah to Israel, the glory was not present (Haggai 2:3, 9) and did not reappear until the event with the shepherds in the New Testament (Luke 2:8-9).
Concurrent with the departure of the glory of God from the First Temple, Lehi experienced a pillar of fire that dwelt upon a rock (1 Nephi 1:5 [1:6]). He also saw in vision One descending described with luster above that of the sun at noonday (v. 8-9 [9-10]). The face of Abinadi shone “with exceeding luster, even as Moses’ did” (Mosiah 7:106 [13:5]). While Nephi and Lehi were in prison, they were encircled as if by fire on two occasions, overshadowed by a cloud, and their faces shone “even as the face of angels” (Helaman 2:85-114 [5:23-49]). Jesus’ visit in Third Nephi after His resurrection and ascension was filled with experiences that exemplify the glory of God’s presence—a few include: little children were encircled with fire (3 Nephi 8:25-26 [17:24]), His twelve disciples were overshadowed by a cloud when He touched them (3 Nephi 8:73 [18:38]), the twelve were encircled with fire when baptized (3 Nephi 9:14-15 [19:13-14]); and the three Nephites who tarried were transfigured (3 Nephi 13:24-27)
My conclusion from this brief review is that after the departure from the First Temple, the glory of God accompanied Lehi to the New World. The first reappearance to the shepherds in the Old World parallels with the simultaneous sign in New World of the birth of the Savior in a tabernacle of clay (Shechinah = to dwell, to tabernacle): “The Word was made flesh and dwelt [tabernacled] among us” (John 1:14) and “the Lord Omnipotent … shall come down from heaven … and shall dwell in a tabernacle of clay” (Mosiah 1:97 [3:5]) bear witness to the same message! “The Shechinah Glory reappeared in a completely new form . . . in the person of Jesus … the Messiah” (Fruchtenbaum 2004:608-610), the Light of the world (John 8:12; 9:5; 3 Nephi 4:48 [9:18]; 5:12 [11:11])!
This study brings us full circle from the unanswered questions concerning the signs and wonders of His birth to a marvelous understanding—the specific events above which heralded the birth of our Savior were supernatural, divine, miraculous—the Shechinah glory of God!
“The heavens declare the glory of God!”—David
Footnote 1: Verneil Simmons suggests that the wise men were from the New World, possibly Nephi, his brother Lehi and Samuel, the Lamanite prophet (1986:198-199). One clue is found in Helaman 5:125-126 [16:13-14], two years preceding the signs of the birth: “there were great signs given unto the people, and wonders; … And angels did appear unto men—wise men—and did declare unto them glad tidings of great joy.” Both Samuel the Lamanite and Nephi disappear and are never heard from again (Helaman 5:119-120 [16:7-8]; 3 Nephi 1:2-3 [1:2-3]).
Footnote 2: Correlations problems with calendar systems are not addressed here.
Fruchtenbaum, Arnold G.
2005 How Did the Wise Men Know? Or Is Astrology Valid? Ariel Ministries, San Antonio.
2004 The Shechinah Glory in History and Prophecy, Appendix IV, pp. 591-620. In Footsteps of the Messiah. Ariel Ministries, San Antonio.
1986 People, Places and Prophecies. Zarahemla Research Foundation, Independence.
Unruh, J. Timothy
2002 The Star of Bethlehem: What Was It? Biblical Astronomer 12:129-132.