More than a year ago I came across the webpage of a researcher on the Star of Bethlehem (SoB), James Sentell. I had written a bit in response to him, and we had some email exchanges. In particular I found fault in his efforts to explain the language of Matthew using the work of a Jesuit astronomer, Gustav Teres. This source was a problem because he said things that were just linguistically absurd, such as the verb proago in Matt 2:9 was in the aorist imperfect tense, a conflation to two different past tenses that is logically impossible. After some back and forth, he had shut down his website because he was helping in create a planetarium show in Europe and had signed off the rights to his work. By the looks of it he had been researching the subject for some time and had been in contact with various researchers concerning the Star.
Recently it appears that Mr. Sentell has started a new website on the subject (he also on another page discusses the Red Sirius mystery), and he emailed me for two things. One was permission to quote a couple of paragraphs from my S&T article (okay by me) and if I wanted to make any critical remarks in some sort of open forum. I wish to make my comments here.
While there are plenty of things I will want to discuss, for this post I will stick to one point, and in a later post will examine other aspects of the issue and why I disagree with Mr. Sentell’s conclusions. I think it is worth-while to do this back-and-forth with this particular person because he has shown to be both welcoming of criticism and responsive. For example, though he still sights Teres in his bibliography, he does not rely on his linguistic “arguments”. As such, I know I am talking to a person, not a wall or dogma. Some of his rhetoric may be a bit cutting, but this is the Internet; without drama, all we would have is E-bay and porn.
In this post, I want to talk about the idea that the Star of Bethlehem could have been a comet. There are probably three major contenders for the Star that use physical or astronomical theories: the planetary conjunction/alignment hypothesis; the nova/supernova hypothesis, and the comet hypothesis. There are various versions of each of these ideas. There are several conjunctions that some scholar has pointed to (Saturn-Jupiter in 7 BCE; Jupiter-Venus in 3/2 BCE; etc.), and novae have been speculated to have been in both this galaxy and the next major one. There are also multiple comets that researchers have considered: Halley’s in 12 BCE, and two different ones recorded by the Chinese in 5 and 4 BCE.
Of the three major hypotheses, the comet has probably been the least popular because there are many, many examples of where comets are interpreted by ancient peoples as evil omens. Such a notion is not foreign even in the modern era. This is becomes difficult why it would make eastern sages come to worship a foreign king all due to an object that gave them “great joy” (Matt 2:10). All those that consider the comet hypothesis know this, but they speculate that perhaps the eastern Magi would have interpreted things differently in this one case.
I have seen two ways this benevolent interpreted has been argued, and one I have only seen with Mr. Sentell. His is this: the records of comets as evil come primarily from Greco-Roman sources, but the Magi were Zoroastrians. In their theology, light was good, darkness evil, so a shining object in the sky would have been a positive sign. What are his sources for this argument that Zoroastrians would have seen comets as positive signs? Nothing. He cited neither primary nor secondary sources to back up his claim, and not a single piece of scholarship is noted to support him. It is a speculation based on his understanding of the philosophy of Zoroastrian priesthood, a religion that he is cannot be said to have expert knowledge–he’s no Mary Boyce.
Since Sentell provides no evidence for the proposition it is extremely vulnerable to contrary evidence. Already it is problematic that virtually all ancient sources take a negative view that comets are evil signs (see Carl Sagan, Comet, pp. 15-25). Sagan provides source not just from the West, but also from China and the Americas, so this view is hardly restricted to Greeks and Romans. We may also add to this Jewish literature which also had comets as omens (Josephus, Jewish War 6.288-91, 314-5; Sibylline Oracles 3.796-800). Moreover, much of the astrological traditions of the west were absorbed from eastern astronomers and astrologers–the Babylonians. That the Greeks would have had such a negative view of comets while the Chaldaeans thought differently would be most odd. Moreover, Babylonian texts such as the Enuma Anu Enlil and MUL.APIN and reports to Middle Eastern kings depict comets as evil signs. Later traditions in the same part of the world are also negative; in Islam, a comet was called al-Kaid, which means “the one that bring rancor”. Again, such a context, even without any direct evidence, would make Sentell’s assumptions worthless. His claim becomes extraordinarily, and thus requires extraordinary evidence.
But in fact there is Zoroastrian evidence, and it doesn’t bode well for Sentell. Bundahishn 5 A.6-7 and Yasnas 16.8; 68.8 show the same fear of comets as these other cultures had done. In the first work, a comet named Mush Parig brings much fear and destruction; the Yasnas (or Yashnas) include prayers to counteract the evils of comets. As such, the very same concept of what comets signify is found in this most important culture. (See also Jivanji Jamshedji Modi, “An Account of Comets as given by Mahomedan Historians and as contained in the books of the Pishinigan or the Ancient Persians referred to by Abul Fazl”, Asiatic Papers 2 (1917): 101f.; Encyclopedia Iranica 2.867)
Even though we had every epistemic right to discount Sentell’s speculation without further analysis, we see that he is completely falsified, and thus his stance that the comet would have been a good sign is unjustified. Without a justification, that means all the other speculations concerning the comet, as well as his ephemeris for the comet of 5 BCE, fail to support his case that there was a Star of Bethlehem. This does not disprove the other theories for the Star, but there is a similar flaw: what made the Magi think that nova or conjunction was a good sign and meant “king of the Jews”?
However, as I mentioned, there is another method of justifying that comets could be seen as positive signs. This attempt does rely on ancient records, so it is this superior attempt that should be considered (Sentell cites Humphreys for justifying a comet as the Star, but for some reason does not give his evidence or argument). In the whole of the ancient Mediterranean, there are two examples of comets that were given a positive interpretation: the comet of 44 BCE at the funeral games of Julius Caesar, and the comet(s) of Mithridates VI Eupator. I will deal with these cases in detail in my future book on the subject, but for now a few things should be said here.
First, that we have a mere two examples that are positive out of the dozens of cases only demonstrates how stacked the deck is against the proposition–we can be very sure that a comet would be considered evil. It would be a logical fallacy to say that because it was possible to interpret a comet as auspicious, then a certain comet was probably so interpreted. Moreover, there are political forces at work that need to be considered. For example, the comet of 44 BCE was actually interpreted differently by the parties in Rome. Those sided with Octavian (later to become Caesar Augustus) said the comet was a positive sign, while his enemies interpreted it as evil and signifying the civil war to come. In fact, the earliest sources that sided with Octavian said the object was a “star” and did not call it a comet. (See Ramsey and Licht, The Comet of 44 B.C. and Caesar’s Funeral Games for discussion.) In other words, it became politically expedient to get the heavens on one’s side, and this led to such a positive interpretation of the comet. Similarly, Mithridates used the comet for propaganda purposes, but as seen on his coins he coaxed the object in other images to control what it could mean (see Ramsey, “Mithridates, the Banner of Ch’ih-Yu, and the Comet Coin”, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 99 (1999): 192-253). Most importantly, these interpretations come post factum, meaning they were seen as positive after the fact and by the side that needed it to be a positive sign. After all, Mithridates isn’t going to let people think a comet seen at his ascension be interpreted that he is tyrant. However, this cannot apply to a comet at Jesus’ birth because the Magi would not have such a political impulse to make such a generally negative sign become that which told them of their own future savior.
As such, from what context we have, comets are almost a certainly negative sign, and the very few times it is seen otherwise is when those in power needed the astrologers to interpret things differently. We have no basis to justify seeing a comet as what would have made the Magi think that a wonderful Jewish king was to be born and was worthy of worship. The only way to save the comet theory is to have actual evidence that the comet of 5 (or 12) BCE was seen in a positive fashion, such as it came with a favorable conjunction. However, to do this requires then showing the conjunction would be so interpreted, and that is a problem all Star theories face. It means that for any comet proponent for the Star, he or she must give a reason why the stars were telling eastern astrologers that a great king was to be born. This means they end up relying on the conjunction hypotheses anyways, such as the the great conjunctions of 7 BCE (even Humphreys needs these conjunctions to make his theory stand).
Sentell probably also realizes this to some degree, so he does try to justify why the sky was saying “Jewish King” to the Magi, but I save such arguments for a later time. However, here is the problem that any Star proponent will have when justifying either a nova or a comet. In order to get the message across that modern astronomers want, the theory will depend on how strong a case they can make for what the sky was “saying” to the Magi. This means a theory can only be as strong as the supporting astrological considerations. However, this work is mostly speculative, so it is initially not probable to be correct. A speculation can be at best 50% likely to be true; if it is consistent with background knowledge such that there is nothing that initially excludes it (i.e. Julius Caesar got his shoulder wet while crossing the Rubicon), but without evidence there is nothing that can compel us to believe its truth. So because so many of the conjunction theories and the like are full of speculations, this has a combined effect of making the theory improbable. Then applying it to another event improbably seen to be good (i.e. a comet), this makes the theory even worse. The only way to make the comet theory possible is if an astrological theory can be made that is well-based on the evidence and so strong it outdoes the initial improbability of a comet as being the Star. (Basically, this is Bayes’ Theorem in action. On its use in this sort of context, see Richard Carrier, “Bayes’s Theorem for Beginners” in Hoffmann, Sources of the Jesus Tradition.)
As such, if Star scholars want to save their theories, they need to focus on making a robust astrological theory, one strong enough to overcome the bias against a comet as a positive sign. Moreover, it must be more than possible, but it has to be shown to be probable, meaning it must be realized on primary records and minimizes speculation. If this can be done will be investigated at another time. Needless to say, no one has done this.
One last thing I would like to consider: the use of Origen. The third century bishop in his Contra Celsum 1.59-60 compared the Star to a comet and is the most popular ancient source used to say the Star was some sort of natural phenomenon. A few things need to be realized:
1. Origen did not say that Star was a comet. His comparison was concerning its newness and significance. In the same sentence, Origen also compared the Star to a meteor. Obviously he could not mean that the Star was a comet and a meteor, but he shows their commonality in appearance and how they can be interpreted. Also, both comets and meteors were believed by most in the ancient world to be atmospheric phenomena.
2. Origen says that there was no prophecy that said a comet would appear to signal the birth of a new king. That means that there probably was no one in the ancient world believing that comets did predict such things since Origen was so widely-read, and such a record would have been in his favor. His statement as well as the inability of any modern scholar to find a record that said something along the lines of “comet = new king” makes a strong argument that there was no such belief or prophecy.
3. In other writings, Origen shows that be believed the Star was supernatural. In his Homily on Numbers 18.3-4 he says the Star came down to the house of the Holy Family much like how the dove came upon Jesus at his baptism by John. This means that Origen did NOT think the Star was a comet, and instead thought it was a miraculous object.
These considerations take the wind out of the sails of those who use Origen to support a nova or comet hypothesis.