Matthew, or whoever was the author of the first Gospel, had a rare eye (or nose) for portents and prodigies. He seems also to have had exclusive sources of information. Several of the wonderful things he relates were quite unknown to the other evangelists. They were ignorant of the wholesale resurrection of saints at the crucifixion, and also of the watch at the sepulchre, with all the pretty circumstantial story depending upon it. At the other end of Christ's career they never heard of the visit of the wise men of the east to his cradle, or of Herod's massacre of the innocents, or of the star which guided those wise men to the birthplace of the little king of the Jews. That star is the sole property of Matthew, and the other evangelists took care not to infringe his copyright. Indeed, it is surprising how well they did with the remnants he left them.
Matthew was not a Jules Verne. He had no knowledge of astronomy. Consequently he did not make the most of that travelling star. It was seen by wise men "in the east." This is not very exact, but it is precise enough for a fairy tale. Those wise men happened to be "in the east" at the same time. They were really "Magi"—as may be seen in the Revised Version; that is, priests of the religion of Persia; and it requires a lot of faith to see what concern they could possibly have with the bantling of Bethlehem. However, they saw "his star," and they appear to have followed it. They must have slept by day and journeyed by night, when the star was visible. At the end of their expedition this star "stood over" the house where little Jesus was lying. Truly, it was a very accommodating star. Of course it was specially provided for the occasion. Real stars, rolling afar in the infinite ether, are too distant to "stand over" a particular spot on this planet This was an ideal star. It travelled through the earth's atmosphere, and moved according to the requirements of the gospel Munchausen. What became of it afterwards we are not informed. Probably it was born and died in Matthew's imagination. He blew it out when he had done with it, and thus it has escaped the attention of Sir Robert Ball.
Those star-gazing magi went into "the house," which, according to Luke, was an inn; Jesus Christ having been born in the stable, because the "pub" was full, and no gentleman would go outside to oblige a lady: They opened their Gladstone bags, and displayed the presents they had brought for the little king of the Jews. These were gold, frankincense, and myrrh. No doubt the perfumes were very welcome—in a stable; and very likely Joseph took care of the gold till Jesus was old enough to spend it on his own account, by which time it appears to have vanished, perhaps owing to the expenses of bringing up the numerous progeny of the Virgin Mother. Then the Mahatmas—we beg pardon, the Magi—went home. Perhaps they are there still. But no matter. We leave that to the Christian Evidence Society, or the Theosophists.
Candid students will see at a glance that the whole of this story is mythological. Like other distinguished persons, the Prophet of Nazareth had to make a fuss, not only in the world, but in the universe; and his biographers (especially Matthew) duly provided him with extraordinary incidents. Not only was he born, like so many other "saviors," without the assistance of a human father, but his birth was heralded by a celestial marvel. There was a star of his nativity. The wise men from the east called it "his star." This puts him in the category of heroes, and bars the idea of his being a god. It also shows that the Christians, amongst whom this story originated, were devotees of astrology. Fortune-tellers still decide your "nativity" before they cast your "horoscope." We are aware that many commentators have discussed the star of Christ's birth from various points of view. Some have thought it a real star; others have had enough astronomy to see that this was impossible, and have argued that it was a big will-o'-the-wisp, created and directed by supernatural power, like the pillar of day-cloud and night-fire that led the Jews in the wilderness; while still others have favored the idea of a supernatural illusion, which was confined to the wise men—and thus it was that the "star" was not seen or mentioned by any of their contemporaries. But all this is the usual mixture of Bible commentators. There is really no need to waste time in that fashion. The Star of Bethlehem belongs to the realm of poetry, as much as the Star of Caesar, to which the mighty Julius ascended in his apotheosis.
Thousands of sermons have been preached on that Star of Bethlehem, and these also have been works of imagination. We have been told, for instance, that it was the morning star of a new day for humanity. But this is a falsehood, which the clergy palmed off on ignorant congregations. The world was happier under the government of the great Pagan emperors than it has ever been under the dominion of Christianity. For a thousand years the triumph of the Cross was the annihilation of everything that makes life pleasant and dignified. The Star of Bethlehem shone in a sky of utter blackness. All the constellations of science, art, philosophy, and literature were in disastrous eclipse. Cruelty and hypocrisy abounded on earth, toil and misery were the lot of the people, and bloodshed was as common as rain.
Religions, said Schopenhauer, are like glow-worms; they require darkness to shine in. This was quite true of Christianity. It was splendid when it had no competitor. To be visible—above all, to be worshipped—it needed the sky to itself.
One by one, during the past three hundred years, the stars of civilisation have emerged from their long eclipse, and now the sky of humanity is full of countless hosts of throbbing glories. The Star of Bethlehem is no longer even a star of the first magnitude. It pales and dwindles every year. In another century it will be a very minor light. Meanwhile it is drawn big on the maps of faith. But that little trick is being seen through. Once it was the Star of Bethlehem first, and the rest nowhere; now it takes millions of money, and endless special pleading, to keep its name on the list.
Christ himself is coming more and more to be regarded as a fanciful figure; not God, not even a man, but a construction of early Christian imagination. "Why," asked a Unitarian of a Positivist, "why is not Christ in your Positivist calendar?" "Because," was the reply, "the calendar is for men, not for gods."