“In the East” or “In Its Rising?”

The Star of the Magi and How Trendy New Versions Distort Matthew’s Gospel

In this article, we address the question whether magi saw the star “in the east” according to traditional translations, or, according to modern, trendy translations, the magi saw the star “in its rising?” We will conclude that the traditional, historical translation is correct, and that modern translations distort the meaning of Matthew’s Gospel.

According to Matthew,

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying Where is he that is born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. Matt. 2:1, 2

There are two references to the “east” in this passage: the first occurs in a clause pertaining to the wise men or magi; the second occurs in a clause spoken by the magi about themselves and also includes reference to the star. The first is clear and unambiguous, and identifies the magi’s place of origin: “magi came from the east.” However, the second is ambiguous and can be understood either in reference to the magi or the star. If to the magi, it refers (as before) to the region or country where the magi were when they saw the star before travelling to Jerusalem. If to the star, it can refer either to 1) the place or quarter of the sky in which the star was viewed or seen, or (if new versions are credited) to 2) the time and manner of its appearing; viz., it’s heliacal or acronychal “rising.” Translations which have it that the star is referred to typically opt for the latter, and render the passage “For we have seen his star in its rising, and are come to worship him.” This requires explanation.

Heliacal and Acronychal Risings

All stars, as the earth makes its annual orbit around the sun, appear to migrate across the sky, rising first in the east, then moving slowly toward the west, where they disappear below the horizon, only to reappear sometime later in what is termed their heliacal rising – the first day, after being invisible, when they appear again on the eastern horizon in advance of the morning sun. Due to their proximity to the sun at their heliacal rising, stars disappear at sun-rise due to the sun’s overwhelming brightness. However, with each passing day the star rises earlier and earlier, gradually rising several hours before dawn, then at midnight, until finally it is seen to rise in the evening twilight. This is called its acronychal rising - the last day when a star, after being visible at night, rises in the evening following sunset, the sun being far enough below the western horizon to allow the star to be seen on the eastern horizon in the evening twilight. This is the point at which the star is visible the longest duration in the night sky. Thereafter, with each passing day the star’s duration in the night sky will grow shorter. Each day the star will rise earlier and earlier, the sun still being in the sky, the star becoming visible only after sunset where it appears progressively higher above the eastern horizon advancing toward the western sky. This process will go on until the star’s heliacal setting, which is the last day after being visible that it appears briefly in the western sky just after sunset before dipping below the western horizon. Thereafter, it will not be seen again until its heliacal rising, when it appears briefly in the morning sky just before dawn, and the process begins again.

Versions that translate Matthew 2:2 (cf. v. 9) “in its rising,” have the above astronomical phenomena in mind.

Historically “In the East” is Favored Two-to-One

Historical accident has it that the Greek term for “east” is “the rising” (singular - ַὰνατολή / plural - ὰνατολῶν) and for “west” is “the setting” (δυσμή/δυσμῶν).  Latin is similar, “east” being oriens (“rising”) and “west” being occidens (“setting”). It is from the Latin that we get our English terms “oriental” and “occidental” to refer to the respective regions of the globe; viz., the east where the sun rises and the west where it sets. However, we do ַnot translate the Greek (or Latin) literally when we encounter these terms because it would be bad English to say there came “wise men from the rising [of the sun],” or “many shall come from the setting [of the sun]” (Matt. 8:11). Instead, we translate these terms according to their common English names “east” and “west.” This is historically true.

A survey of over 50 English translations shows that the preferred rendering is “in the east” better than two-to-one over “in its rising.”[1] Translations opting for the latter are largely newer paraphrastic or dynamic equivalence translations that are less conscientious about reflecting the actual Greek of the inspired New Testament, the majority of which were published in the last ten to twenty years. Older editions such as the Wycliff Bible (1400), the Tyndale (Matthews) Bible (1537), the Great Bible (1540), the Bishop’s Bible (1568), the Geneva Bible (1560), the Authorized (King James) Version (1611), the Rhemes New Testament (1621), the Challoner New Testament (1749), Young’s Literal Translation (1862), the Revised Version (1881), the Douay-Rheims (1899), and the American Standard Version (1901), to name but a few, uniformly render the phrase “in the east.” To these may be added the ancient and venerable Syriac Peshitta (AD 180),[2] and Jerome’s Vulgate (AD 382), and doubtless many, many more. It is therefore clear that from the dawn of Christianity most scholars have rendered the phrase “in the east.” “In its rising” does not turn up until modern times (1961), and then only in trendy, less reliable, commercially produced translations.

Table of Translations

In the east


Rising in the east


In its rising

1. Wycliff - 1400





2. Tyndale - 1537





3. Great Bible – 1540





4. Bishops – 1568





5. Geneva - 1560





6. AV (KJV) - 1611





7. Rhemes - 1621





8. Challoner - 1749





9. Young’s Literal - 1862





10. Darby - 1890





11. Revised - 1889





12.Douray-Rheims - 1899





13. ASV - 1901





14. RSV - 1946





15. Phillips - 1958





16. Amplified - 1965





17. TLB - 1971





18. NKJV – 1982


1. GNT - 1976



19. NLV - 1986


2. ETRV - 1987


1. NET - 1961

20. NCV - 1987




2. AMPC - 1965

21. ICB - 1991




3. WE - 1969

22. NASV – 1991




4. NIV - 1978

23. MSG - 1993




5. NRSV - 1989

24. NIRV - 1996




6. GW - 1995

25. CJB - 1998




7. NLT - 1996

26. KJ21 - 1998




8.  ESV - 2001

27. JUB - 2000




9. CSB – 2003

28. WEB - 2000




10. Mounce - 2008

29. OJB - 2002




11. LEB - 2010

30. DLNT - 2002




12. NOG - 2011

31. HCSB – 2003




13. NABRE - 2011

32. Voice - 2012




14.  EXB – 2011

33. CEB - 2011




15. EHV 2014

34. MEV - 2014




16. TPT - 2015


Greek Points to the Magi, Not the Star

So much for English translations, let us look at the Greek. There are two references to the east in Matthew 2:1, 2. The first describes the magi coming from the east and is plural; the second, refers to the place where the star was seen or viewed and is singular. Here are the relevant phrases in Greek, followed by their English translation, as they appear in Matthew. Naturally, in translating to English the word order will normally need to be corrected, but are preserved here in their original order, the words numbered to match the Greek with their respective English equivalents:

1 μγοι 2 π 3 ὰνατολῶν - 1 magi 2 from 3 the east (plural)

1 εδομεν 2 γρ 3 ατο 4 τν 5 στρα 6 ν 7 τ 8 νατολ - 1 we saw 2 for 3 his 4 the 5 star 6 in 7 the 8 east (singular)

The two terms for “east” in the passage above are anatolwn (plural) and anatole (singular). The first reflects the perspective of those in the west or other region as they view the vast expanse of eastern lands and peoples; hence the plural. “Magi came from the east;” viz., from lands and peoples toward the rising of the sun. Use of the plural in this context is clear and understandable and makes perfect sense. Indeed, although English does not have plural forms for north, south, east, and west, the plural is sometimes implied, as when we speak of the “far east,” which implies a vast area encompassing many nations, or the “west,” referring to the nations of western Europe, etc.

The second occurrence appears to reflect the perspective of individuals as they view themselves or an object in or facing a particular place in the east; hence the singular. “We saw his star in the east;” viz., while the magi were in their homeland. Since, from the magi’s point of view they are referring to a particular place in the east, use of the singular is quite understandable. A comparable case for speakers of English might be to say in reference to the British Isles, “there came men from the Isles” (plural). But the men explaining why they had come from their particular island would say “we saw his star from the isle and have come hither” (singular). Here are several additional examples from the Greek New Testament and Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) to demonstrate the point:


·         1 πολλο 2 π 3 νατολν 4 κα 5 δυσμν  – 1 many 2 from 3 the east 4 and 5 the west (Matt. 8:11).

·         1 π 2 νατολν 3 κα 4 φανεται 5 ως 6 δυσμν – 1 from 2 the east 3 and 4 shines 5 unto 6 the west (Matt. 24:27)

·         1 βασιλων 2 τν 3 πο 4 νατολν 5 ήλίου – 1 kings 2 the 3 from 4 rising 5 of the sun (Rev. 16:12)

These examples show that where the eastern expanse embracing many lands and peoples toward the sunrise (or sunset) is in view, the plural is used.


·         1 άπ 2 νατολς 3 πυλνες 4 τρες – 1 on 2 the east 3 gates 4 three (Rev. 21:13)

·         1 καὶ 2 τὸ 3 κλίτος 4 τὸ 5 πρὸς 6 ἀνατολὰς – 1 and 2 the 3 side 4 the 5 toward 6 the east (Ex.37:11)

·         1 παρὰ 2 τὸ 3 θυσιαστήριον 4 κατὰ 5 ἀνατολάς – 1 by 2 the 3 altar 4 against 5 the east (Lev. 1:16)

·         1 πρὸς 2 ἀνατολὰς 3 κατέναντι – 1 toward 2 the east 3 facing (II Chron. 4:10)

·         1 τὸ 2 κλῖτος 3 τὸ 4 πρὸς 5 ἀνατολὰς  1 the 2 side 3 the 4 to 5 the east (II Chron. 29:4)

·         1 τῆς 2 πύλης 3 τῆς 4 ἀνατολῆς – 1 the 2 gate 3 the 4 east (Neh. 3:29)

·         1 πύλην 2 τὴν 3 πρὸς 4 ἀνατολάς. – 1 gate 2 the 3 toward 4 the east (Ezek. 8:5)[3]

These examples show that where a specific location is contemplated, such as the curtains of the tabernacle (Ex. 37:11), or the side of the altar (Lev. 1:16), or the place of the brazen sea (II Chron. 4:10), or a particular gate, the singular occurs.

If this is correct, since anatole is singular, the magi’s statement they had seen the star en te anatole would not mean they saw the star in the vast expanse of eastern sky, for here we would expect the plural. Rather, the magi saw the star while they themselves were en te anatole; that is, in their own eastern country. In other words, en te anatole describes the origin and location of the magi, not the star!

Context Favors Traditional Rendering

That this is correct is apparent from the context and the fact that the magi were explaining why they came to Jerusalem from the east. The magi saw a star in the east but have travelled west to Judea. Why? Their explanation only makes sense if they were in effect saying, “we, being in the east, saw his star here in the west, and therefore have come hither.” That they saw the star in the west again when they departed from Herod (Matt. 2:9) tends to confirm that this is so and that the star is never referred to as having been the eastern sky at all.

Note also, that had it been Matthew’s purpose to indicate the magi saw the star helically rising, there were ways he could have unambiguously conveyed this idea. For example, Mark 16:2 mentions the “rising of the sun” (νατείλαντος το λου). If Mark can say “rising of the sun,” certainly Matthew can say “rising of the star” in language that is comparably unambiguous. Similarly, John says “And I saw another angel ascending from the east” (ναβάντα άπὸ ὰνατολῆς ήλίου) - literally, “having ascended from the rising of the sun” (Rev. 7:2). If John can say he saw an angel ascending from the rising of the sun, Matthew is capable of saying the magi saw a star rising from the sun. Since Matthew does not use comparable terminology, we may safely conclude the heliacal rising of the star was not mind.

Incentive to Create a New Translation

If the Greek and translational history weigh against “in its rising,” why create a new translation of the passage at all? First, there is a proprietary incentive in creating new translations. Commercialization of God’s word is an unavoidable and unhappy product of the freedom of the press, and is certainly one of the driving forces behind new translations; every publishing house wants a piece of the action and require distinctive readings to make their product unique and attractive. Second, students and scholars tend to adopt the conclusions of their peers as being the safest choice regarding a question they have not personally studied themselves. We cannot all be experts on every question confronted with, so we follow prevailing trends under the assumption they represent the most up-to-date scholarship. This is why other historically correct translations such as “only begotten” (μονογενὴς) tend to be left behind by new versions in favor of incorrect, modern translations like “one and only” or “one of a kind,” etc.[4] “Monkey see, monkey do.” Others are using that translation, so we do too, as risk of appearing uninformed. Third, and perhaps more to the point, among astrologers the heliacal rising of a star had a certain predictive value used in constructing horoscopes and interpreting the stars and sky. Since magi were associated with astrology from Babylonian times, some suppose pagan astrological traditions should be inferred from the magi’s presence in the narrative. They then impose this supposition upon the passage and translate the text accordingly.[5] However, the premise underlying this supposition is unsound.

Were the Magi Pagan?

Although magi were historically involved in astrology and similar mystic arts, no pagan would have made the long journey from the east to Jerusalem to worship the new-born Christ unless he was also a worshiper of God. The magi therefore were almost certainly proselytes of the Jewish religion. It will be recalled that, during the captivity, the prophet Daniel was made master of the Chaldeans and magi by Nebuchadnezzar (Dan. 2:48; 4:8, 9; 5:11), and Nebuchadnezzar himself became a worshipper of God (Dan. 4:37). Given Daniel’s prominence in the Babylonian court and Nebuchadnezzar’s conversion, it is likely that at least some of the magi also became proselytes of Judaism. If so, it is possible that the magi here represent a tradition tracing to the time of Daniel. Moreover, since the law of Moses forbade involvement in the mystic arts, including expressly astrology (e.g., “observing times,” Lev. 19:26; Deut. 18:14; II Kng. 21:6; Isa. 47:13-14), the inference would normally be against these magi practicing or giving credence to such things.

Were the magi taught by Daniel to look for a star announcing the birth of the Messiah based upon Old Testament passages like the oracle of Balaam or the book of Isaiah or the Psalms? (Num. 24:17; Isa. 60:1-3; Ps. 72:10, 11). This seems very unlikely. Balaam’s reference to a “Star” that would arise out of Jacob (Israel) is to Christ himself, not an astronomical phenomenon (cf. Rev. 22:16). Similarly, when Isaiah said the “Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising,” he refers to the spiritual light of the gospel and to the glory that would envelope God’s people, the church, over against the spiritual darkness enshrouding unbelieving Jews and Gentiles (cf. Isa. 9: 1, 2; Matt. 4:12-15). That the magi were studying the stars in expectation of Christ’s birth based upon these passages of scripture is therefore highly improbable. In the ancient world, lunar calendars were the norm and required constant observation of the sky to regulate their rhythm. It is far more likely that the magi’s interest in the stars was originally exclusively scientific and calendrical and had nothing to do with either pagan traditions or shadowy scriptural allusions.

Divine Revelation or Human Perspicuity?

What does seem clear, however, is that no astronomical phenomenon could have communicated the birth of Christ to the magi in any convincing way apart from divine revelation of God. Otherwise, how could it be known with certainty what, if any, significance the star possessed? So far as we know and can tell from Matthew’s account, no one other than the magi even saw the star, and certainly no one understood its meaning if they did (Matt. 2:1-3). We know from Matthew that the magi received divine revelation in a dream not to return to Herod (Matt. 2:12). It is therefore likely that in the two-year period from the star’s first appearance until Christ’s birth, the magi were divinely instructed by God regarding both its fact and significance and that it is this, not astrology, that prompted the magi’s journey. If so, the heliacal rising of stars would have been irrelevant to the magi and should not enter into translation of the text. Doing so distorts the narrative, giving undue glory to the perspicuity of men, rather than the work and revelation of God.


The historic translation of Matt. 2:1, 2, 9 is the correct translation: the magi saw the star while they were in the east and so travelled west to Jerusalem seeking the newborn Christ, and that almost certainly based upon divine revelation from God, and not human perspicuity or pagan traditions regarding the heliacal rising of stars.

[1] See https://www.biblegateway.com, accessed Jan. 7, 2018, for searchable English translations currently in print. See https://www.originalbibles.com, accessed Jan. 7, 2018, for historical editions like the Wycliff Bible now out of print.

[3] A searchable copy of the Septuagint is available online at https://www.ellopos.net/elpenor/greek-texts/septuagint/default.asp; accessed 1/3/2018.

[4] The Syriac Peshitta and Latin Vulgate (“unigenitum”), two of the most ancient translations we possess, both have “only begotten” at John 3:16.  https://www.originalbibles.com/english-version-of-the-syriac-peshitta-1915-pdf/; https://www.originalbibles.com/a-literal-translation-of-the-four-gospels-from-the-peschito-pdf/. “One and only” or “one of a kind” does not appear until modern times.

[5] See for example, Colin R. Nicholl, The Great Christ Comet (Wheaton, IL, 2015)49-51: “Heliacal rising could be perceived to have great astrological significance…Particularly if the Star was within the zodiac, it was natural for the Magi to consider the possibility that it might be communicating something of a natal significance against the backdrop of the heliacally rising constellation…We suggest therefore that the Magi were convinced that the Messiah’s birth was taking place when they saw the Star at or around the time of its heliacal rising. Evidently, the Magi perceived significance in the Star’s location within the constellations, its form, and/or its behavior, and/or in the time of the heavenly wonder…To that extent, what they saw was reminiscent of a horoscope.”



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