As I had been informed before several months ago, the editors of Sky & Telescope have allowed Dr. Michael Molnar to write a short article pertaining to the Star of Bethlehem, largely because of his response to my article written in the 2007 December issue of the magazine. In my article, I mentioned his book, The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi (Rutgers: 2001), comparing his belief that the occultation of Jupiter by the Moon was a positive sign to an ancient Babylonian astrological treatise that said this signified the death of a king. I probably didn’t spill more than 50 words on his work in particular, though I did effectively “spit in the face” of theories such as comets, novae, and a later death for King Herod, along with any natural hypothesis for the Star–respectfully in my opinion.
There was already plenty of back and forth on the subject on the Talk Back page for my article on the S&T web page, to which Dr. Molnar participated in. Rather, we had some statements written to each other, carbon-copied to the editors of the magazine, though I suspect they were not reading these exchanges completely–they have jobs, you know. In the end, the conversation was not terribly profitable and Dr. Molnar stopped responding to emails I sent to him. Perhaps things can change now.
I have not read his new article, and it is not mentioned on the cover image of the newest S&T magazine, but appears to be the last page. I suspect he had about 500 words of space given to his response. Plus, the editors told me that his article was not going to be a reply to my article, per se. So, I don’t really know the content until I read what he has. That may be a few weeks until the newest issue arrives where I am.
If he says something that I think is worth while responding to publicly, I may post that here. More likely, I will do some private conversing, which I think would be more respectful. Besides, a 500-word essay isn’t going to be something earth-shattering.
In the mean time, I wish to make one point clear. In a letter reprinted in the May 2008 issue of S&T, Molnar says that I mischaracterized his position on the Star. I said that in Molnar’s view, the occultation of Jupiter by the Moon was a positive sign that may have constituted the Star of Bethlehem. Molnar’s response to me was that he did not say the Star of Bethlehem was this occultation.
And that is not what I said. Again, I said that this was a positive sign (in Molnar’s opinion) that may have constituted the Star. Constitute is not the same as is. Besides, in Molnar’s own book, he said the following “if the heliacal rising and lunar occultation of Jupiter constitute the Star of Bethlehem . . .” (p. 96). Molnar himself says that the occultation constituted, or was a part of, the Star. In fact, my version of what Molnar said is more cautious, as I say it was a positive sign that may have been part of what was the Star of Bethlehem. I was doubly-cautious in this use of terms, and without much loss of precision as I see it. As such, I did nothing to set up a strawman of Molnar’s arguments at all.
This was Molnar’s chief beef with my article, but as we conversed other things came up, which I will not get into here. In those conversations, however, it seemed that Molnar failed to take on my key points and made statements that mischaracterized my position and statements. Now, that may sound like I am the pot calling the kettle black, but I must say that hypocrisy was avoided the best I could.
Let me say though, that the most important point that I tried to make, to which Dr. Molnar made no response, was that his Star’s movements would have been observationally impossible for naked-eye observers, not only at the rising of the Star, but, more importantly, in the way it moved from the time of the Magi left Jerusalem until they reached Bethlehem, a distance of several kilometers, at most a two-hour trip on foot. It would seem that if you have a hypothesis for what the Magi saw, and what you describe could not have been seen, that should be the kiss of death to such a hypothesis. I see this as the most important problem with Dr. Molnar’s, and most every other’s, estimation for what the Star of Bethlehem was–the biggest problem assuming that this is reliable testimony of events.
Should one not make that assumption, and should one observe the critical issues of historicity, it should be realized just how silly it is to try to explain something naturally where there is no reason to think such a thing is there. After all, is it not a waste of time to figure out the preferred type of pizza is consumed by the Flying Spaghetti Monster (if he/she/it eats pizza at all)? With this story, we don’t know who the author was, the document itself was written at least post-70 CE (2nd century according to more radical scholars), not independently attested, contradicted by other accounts (including the account given by the only gospel writer claiming to write history), of questionable genre (was the gospel even meant to be history/biography?), the author is generally willing to tell tales that are almost certainly unreliable (such as in ch 27 where the dead saints come to life and enter Jerusalem, which no historian or other gospel writer claims happened–how could that have missed that!?!), and the very town Jesus was said to be born in was uninhabited for centuries before, during, and after the time of Jesus (A. Oshri, “Where Was Jesus Born?” Archaeology 58, 6 (2005)). So, this alone should make the search a fool’s errand, to sift through the sands of time for an event that didn’t happen (if there was no Bethlehem, how could there have been a Star of Bethlehem?).
Well, until I read Dr. Molnar’s response, I wouldn’t say more on his thesis.
On the other hand of scholarship, I am really getting excited about Richard Carrier’s work on his book on the historicity of Jesus as well as the first meeting of The Jesus Project, started by R. Joseph Hoffmann and CSER. As for my research, I hope to send an article out of the Journal of Higher Criticism in the near future about my own investigation into the meaning of the Star of Bethlehem and its source-critical implications.