“Who do you say I am?” Bad Commentary Research on the SoB

In my previous post [also here] on a recent attempt at defending an astronomical Star of Bethlehem, I highlighted a number of issues with the writing of Dave Armstrong. In the time between writing that blog and now, Dave has made several more posts, along with comment exchanges. As I highlighted in my old post, Dave failed to understand the underlying text and quote mined one authority of the subject, undermining his credibility to do the sort of research to challenge the conesus position about what the Star was (and wasn’t). Now, with several new posts up, Dave is trying to fix things. Only one of those pages is relevant for today in which he against tries to defend an naturalistic interpretation of the Star of Bethlehem.

However, in the process, Dave proves that he is not an honest researcher, but the worst form of apologist, including hiding relevant information and even straight-up knowingly lying. I don’t like to make this latter accusation, but it is provably so, as I will demonstrate.

What Mr. Armstrong has done in his efforts is to marshall as many scholars as he can to support his position, in particular proving that there is reasonable debate among scholars about how to view the Star as either natural or supernatural. However, it is worth noting a few features of his list of scholars before delving into the issues with them. First off, it has no commentators prior to the 19th century–no Augustine, no Aquinas, no Luther, none of the Church Fathers or other famous interpreters. No Kepler either. Heck, no non-English sources! So he is missing out on a huge swath of commentators. Also note that most of his sources come from the 19th century. It’s almost as if there is little in the way of modern support, let alone traditional confirmation. I could have supplied many dozens of authorities in favor of my position, just like I did with St. Augustine (Against Faustus 2.5), but I’d rather avoid the tedium and look instead at Dave’s citations.

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Recent Takes on the Star of Bethlehem in Catholic News

Every holiday season there will be articles repeating the theories of what the Star of Bethlehem really was. Or could have been. It definitely was real, and it could have been any of a dozen things. Or so the articles go on, and each year it’s much the same. A few times I will see something a little bit new, or something that tries to directly address points I have brought up in my writings.

In particular, I noticed a flurry of articles that popped up on the National Catholic Register, in particular from a certain Dave Armstrong, who also writes on Patheos. There are some remarkable differences in tone between the articles written in both places, but the more important thing is to address the, frankly, strained arguments that it’s perfectly natural to read the Christmas Star tale as astronomical rather than supernatural.

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The Star of Bethlehem Returns After 800 Years? Jupiter & Saturn To Appear As One

While I am currently looking at fog and clouds in New England, I hope that the sky will clear up in a week to see a marvelous site in the western sky after sunset.

But, is it the same perfect light that was westward-leading to the birthplace of Jesus?

Image from The Sky at Night.
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A Christmas Comet and Mythical Merriness with the Star of Bethlehem

‘Tis the season yet again, and snow has finally begun to fall in New England. The holidays are upon us, and the skies have been filled with celestial wonders. Last week the Geminid meteor shower came, with meteors appearing out of the constellation of the twins about once a minute. Just the other night we had the close approach of the brightest comet of the year, 46P/Wirtanen. A beautiful sight… if you can see it. I had the wonderful luck of thick cloud-cover for both the peak of the Geminids and for 46P’s best viewing date. However, many others have taken lovely photos of the comet, including this one (link here):

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As the image makes it out, the comet here is a tree topper, and very often you will find a star atop a Christmas Tree. This tradition of the stellar tree topper goes back perhaps only to the 19th century as it is first mentioned in a story by Hans Christian Andersen, The Fir Tree (1844). This year, the comet has also been called a Christmas Comet as it is close to the holiday.

It is also this time of year that people wonder if a comet or anything else in the sky was the Star of Bethlehem, the light that somehow sent wise men across the Middle East to worship a babe in a manger. This is not merely a story of the birth of Jesus, but it is now a story of how science and religion fit together. Every year, planetaria around the United States and even the world present ideas of what the Star might have been, a tradition that began in the 1930s and has yet to stop. The candidates are presented, and sometimes a best guess is provided in holiday shows, TV specials, or sermons to the devout. But every year, what does get passed out as a part of the figgy pudding and gift-wrapped surprises is questionable history and failed theology.

Several years ago, I published one of the very few books out there that critically examines the alleged science behind the Star of Bethlehem, and using primary sources, philological analysis, and expert consensus in numerous areas, I showed how all of the attempts to explain the Star with astronomy or astrology are deeply erroneous. This year, another round of promulgations of the same tired ideas will be trotted out, and they are just as flawed as when I first began to investigate the attempt to explain the story with science.

However, the real, scientific explanations of the Star are not done by the astronomers. We can show, with rigorous analysis and use of evidence, that the Star was no comet, nova, or planetary alignment. Knowing what all of those things are, how they are alleged to fit the story of the Nativity, and what is wrong with those ideas and the very approach are all discussed in my book, The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View. If you haven’t already, pick up a copy or give it to a friend, enemy, or random person on the street so we can all learn a little more science, and little more history, and a little more critical thinking as we explore the time of year where we celebrate the season of merry myths.

Lovecraft and the Christmas Star

In preparation for a new book on the Star of Bethlehem, I have been exploring popular culture and how it has been affected by astronomical theories of what the Star “really” was. In my studies, I have been down plenty of interesting rabbit holes, but I thought to share one I don’t think will make it into the book. That will be unfortunate, since it connects to the 20th century’s most influential horror author: H.P. Lovecraft.

There isn’t too much in the was for Christmas cheer in the Cthulhu Mythos, but one of Lovecraft’s early stories takes place (sort of) at Christmas. Published in 1925, The Festival has little in the way of traditional Yule-tide trappings, but it has plenty of Lovecratian adjectival utterances along with his creepy imagery. This was written and published before Lovecraft composed The Call of Cthulhu, so The Festival is very early in the history of him rendering his larger mythology. The themes of madness, a constant of his work, is the entire conceit of the story in which the entire tale is a fever dream based on a reading of the dreaded Necronomicon. However, there are a few interesting details from the story that are suggestive of the nature of Christmas.

 

First, the story begins by noting that what we call Christmas is “older than Bethlehem and Babylon, older than Memphis and mankind.” (He suggests much the same in his earlier poem, “Old Christmas.”) But what about it that we associate with Bethlehem goes back so far in time? A clue may be the earlier mention of the star Aldebaran, the eye of the constellation, Taurus the Bull. We are introduced to Aldebaran in the story with it shining at the end of a snowy road to the the town our protagonist was traveling to. After he arrives, he becomes a part of a dark ceremony, part of which is a procession to a church. When the procession reaches the house of worship, Aldebaran is seen above just on the spire of the church roof, a sight that made our first-person narrator shiver.

Consider now: Aldebaran was first seen ahead on the trail to a town, and then it is again seen just above the place he was going to in an unholy procession. Was Aldebaran leading the way as the Bethlehem Star led the Magi? It seems to be more than a coincidence given the Christmas season of the tale and the earlier reference to Bethlehem itself. But if so, why would Lovecraft choose Aldebaran of all stars?

As an avid reader of science, especially astronomy, Lovecraft almost certainly knew the Richard Allen’s Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning (1899), a book that is still referenced today because of its rich collection of myths and stories about the constellations. This source book has a good, long discussion about Taurus and Aldebaran. Of particular note, Allen says that the Babylonians called Aldebaran “the leading star of stars.” So here then we have a leading star known as such since Babylon and now apparently like the light of Bethlehem. That seems purposeful. Additionally, the Dog Star (Sirius) is mentioned as ‘leering’ at the procession on its way to the church; Allen’s book says that Sirius was also known as “the Leader”. So the two named stars in Lovecraft’s story were known as leader stars, and Aldebaran in particular appears to act in that fashion.

The play on this part of the Christmas story is subtle, and so far as I can find no one in Lovecraft studies has made this connection. But I admit I an not enough of a scholar to know all the places to look. Nonetheless, it seems that H.P. was looking to make the rite of this festival an imitation and terrifying mockery of Nativity celebrations.

A New Source for the Star of Bethlehem? The Ragnarok Connection

As I continue to pursue as many connections as I can with my work on science, history, religion, and Christmas, I keep coming across new little things on the Star of Bethlehem. Years ago, I was told by a Mormon that the book from Joseph Smith includes two allusions to the Christmas Star (i.e., 3 Nephi 1:19–20). That usually isn’t considered an independent source, since most folks believe the Book of Mormon is a 19th century creation, not an ancient document.

However, I happen to come across a truly amazing, cosmic source I had not expected. By Odin’s beard! It was nay expected. For what was shown to have been was revealed by the Eye of Odin, overpowered by the Mighty Thor!

According to the ever-seeing Eye, there was a tremendous event that shook Asgard to its complete destruction, the unspeakable Ragnarok. What was shown by the eye was reproduced by the visionary master of art, Jack Kirby, in The Mighty Thor, Vol 1, No. 293 and the following issue. For the fiery destruction of heavenly Asgard was seen in the night sky 2000 years ago, producing the Christmas Star.

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But… of course that is how it happened!

After all, it was shown to the Thunderer twice.

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How could there be any doubt now? One would have to be a skeptic to not believe based on this testimony. Then again, I know of a good book on the subject…

MIT Talk on Miracle Stories and the Star of Bethlehem

My talk from about a month ago at MIT has been posted online and is available for all the watch. The audio quality is very good, but the video isn’t as great, so I really hope you like my voice! The Q&A is also captured, and it had many good questions for an audience sized I was happy with.

 

If you enjoyed that talk, don’t forget I have a book on the subject 😉

Upcoming talk at MIT

This Monday, February 27th, I will be giving a talk for the Secular Society of MIT as part of a lecture series they are starting called Course 0. This will be a part of helping people engage in critical thinking on the subjects of science, religion, secularism, and many intersecting cultural areas.

As is usual for me, this talk will highlight my research on the Star of Bethlehem, and because of that Christmas theme, that means people will be wearing the ugliest Christmas sweaters they can. I encourage it! This does appear to be a public event, so let’s see who all in the Greater Boston area wants to come. I’ll also have my book available. Details in the FB link here.

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Star of Bethlehem Skepticism in the News

As per my yearly tradition of pushing my work on the Star of Bethlehem (as if it were some War on Christmas or something), I was able to get my message out and how it is presented in my book. This year, I had the chance to be on podcast-style forums.

First up is Slooh, an astronomy webcast that combines live telescope feeds and astronomically-informed guests. Just a few days before Christmas they had a show (well-promoted at Space.com) on about the Bethlehem Star and had a few guests, including Fr. James Kurzynski from the Vatican Observatory and Bob Berman from Slooh (and the person who wrote the foreword to my book). I make a good appearance on the show as well in the latter third. I recommend listening/watching the whole broadcast.

In addition, Bob Berman used his own podcast, Strange Universe, to promote my book.

And that’s just the promotions in the US! In German, my research and appearances on Slooh at my previous talk at Cologne are all up for reading/viewing thanks to Daniel Fischer. He makes me feel like a traveling wise man 🙂

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Blood Moons, the End of the World, and the Star of Bethlehem

Tonight I hope you can get the chance to look up and see a very good lunar eclipse, where the Moon will be in the shadow of the Earth and take on a dreadful hue of orange and red. It will also be during a so-called “super moon” in that the Moon is at the closest point of its normal orbit to the Earth and will appear somewhat larger. While not necessarily rare, it is surely going to be a good show for the night.

And this lunar eclipse is going to top off a tetrad of lunar eclipses, that is where you have four lunar eclipses in a row that are about six months apart. This is also an uncommon astronomical coincidence, but it has happened numerous times in the past. Some centuries have had eight such tetrads, while others have had none.

But in numerous religious circles, in particular evangelical ones, this has been getting associated with the End Times. It seems that just about anything can be said to herald the apocalypse, from the fuzzy math of Harold Camping back in 2011, the abominable abuse of the Maya calendar for 2012, and so on, and so on, and so on… Perhaps then it shouldn’t be surprising that the Bloom Moon Prophecy of folks like pastor John Hagee are making the rounds. Fortunately, astronomer and skeptic Stuart Robbins has done the hard work of looking into these tetrads and how they are not so special, nor have they really related well to previous end times or bad times predictions (see here and here). The connection to the Jewish calendar is also not that surprising or special because the Jewish calendar is based on the phases of the moon (technically, a luni-solar calendar), so being surprised of having a lunar eclipse during a Jewish holiday is like being surprised of having the solstice near the 21st of December–it’s a feature, not a bug.

But what I was more surprised about was that now the Star of Bethlehem has been getting roped into this prophecy. How can a star from over 2000 years ago (and a magical one at that) have anything to do with what is happening in the skies today? Continue reading