Every so often I have to look back and see if there were any new stories or theories published about the Star of Bethlehem. I talked a bit before of its prominence at planetariums, but this isn’t where the newest stuff is coming from. So, with a little bit of Google Power, I looked to see what was happening in the news and in the things Google Scholar can bring up.
First I noted that one Bible scholar, Ben Witherington, had been going through the Pope’s newest book on Jesus, which I had been doing as well (see here, here, and here). In this installment, he talks about how the Pope talks about the Star, and Witherington states how the Star points out the house where Jesus and his family were staying like a big neon light, acting as a GPS or SatNav, which I agree is how it is described. I highlight that because a Christian apologist, David Marshall (the same that debated Richard Carrier the other day as I noted), had put forward that the naturalistic version of the Star was a real possibility, and my citations showing that no professional Bible scholars supported him was not significant because they were almost all liberal Christians. I had mentioned R.T. France, but that was only one. I also then showed that William Lane Craig also agreed that the Star was described as something supernatural. So I can add Witherington to the list. (I will note that the Pope doesn’t state that the Star was that sort of supernatural guide, but instead he seems to be non-committal on the subject.)
As for Witherington’s review, he seems quite happy with the Pope’s book, probably because they both have the same view on the historical authenticity of the Nativity. Something I will be dealing with later this year. (Stay Tune!)
On the other hand, there are a few among the religiously conservative using the Star has a point of apologetics. At the website Thinking in Christ, there was posted a PDF of a paper concerning the lifetime of Jesus and the death of King Herod. The paper is short, but it was part of earning the credit needed for a Masters degree in divinity. The paper was for a class done at Shepherds Theological Seminary, which has a statement of faith that says there is no error in the Bible: “We believe the Bible as originally written was verbally and plenarily [fully] inspired, is the product of Spirit-controlled men, and, therefore, is truth without any mixture of error.” So you already should think this isn’t going to be the best of scholarship if the conclusion cannot even potentially come out a certain way.
The paper favors the conjunction of planets hypothesis of Ernest Martin and promoted by Rick Larson, and the bibliography is devoid of contrary opinions. You won’t see anything by Raymond Brown or the scholars that show Herod was dead by Passover in 4 BCE, yet he has to go against the major scholarly conclusions in the field. It looks like another example of what James Barr noted in his book Fundamentalism: they produce or seek out “safe” literature and discourage their flock and students from seeking after that other, anti-Christian stuff. What other reason is there having to cite Sir William Ramsay who has been dead for generations and surpassed in knowledge and method by a long shot? However, the key problem is relying on Larson and Martin, neither of whom were ever trained biblical scholars, did not publish in peer-reviewed New Testament study journals, and have to go against not just the meaning of the words in Matthew but the history of Judea (namely, when King Herod died).
Now, while this paper was fundamentalist, there was a more strange use of the Star by another author. This one was using the naturalistic version of the Star to help in the process of authenticating the Shroud of Turin. Do I even need to show what’s wrong here?
A less evangelical bit of writing comes from a book by Jane Struthers, The Book of Christmas. It’s all about the history of its traditions, and it goes into what the Star may have been for a few pages. I cannot read the concluding thoughts on the Star on Google, as that page is not visible to me, but what I saw had some points of concern. For example, it said there was argument whether Herod died in 1 BCE or 6 BCE. Not only is the argument for 1 voiced by rather few historians, but it isn’t 6 BCE that is the contender but 4 (or 5) BCE. Perhaps just a typo, but I’m not sure. She also has the odd statement that those that think Jesus didn’t exist or “who refute much of the contents of the Bible” (p. 54) will have no problem thinking the Star was symbolic and not real. That seems a bit unfair that its those skeptics and mythicists that say there was no Star (though they do). The fact is, most scholars don’t give the Star historical value, yet they are Christians. David Strauss when he considered much of the New Testament, including the Star, to not be historical, remained a Christian, and those after him have felt the same (though Strauss did change his mind). Liberal Christians have no problem accepting that the Nativity stories are not historically true (I know because I have asked them), and they don’t take glee in refuting the Bible. So I think the charge is a bit unfair.
However, in a part of the book I only have a snippet of, the author says that we have to make up our own minds. While we do have to do that, we also should be aware of the full extent of the evidence and the difficulties of the naturalistic possibilities before we say “make up your own mind”. There is still plenty you need to know before you can “make” anything.
As for presenting that, one news story talks about a lecture on the subject of the Star comes from Shelbyville, Tennessee. The talk was given by Billy Hix who has been a science educator in the area and professor at a community college. He has been awarded for his teaching abilities, and here he wanted to get people interested in the sciences so that folks would be more interested that rather that career paths in farming as he was encouraged back in his school days. A worthy goal, if I may say, though I am glad there are those that love to farm.
But using the Star of Bethlehem to get people interested in science? That won’t work so well if the Star isn’t really explicable by science and never actually happened. And really, are the sciences so dull and unimportant that we have to rely on things that are not probably true to keep people interested and willing to fund research? We have an amazing robot on Mars and was lowered onto the planet using a sky crane so it can discover if there is or was life on the planet. Every year the Hubble telescope takes jaw-dropping photos of the cosmos. You don’t even need to do any analysis to fall in love with the subject; the beauty of space is itself mesmerizing. At CERN they have discovered a new particle that helps us understand why everything is the way it is rather than just fast-flying particles doing nothing. Do we really need, or want, to rely on the Star of Bethlehem to move society forward?
Now, of all the things brought up here, you will notice none of it was in science or New Testament journals, and it was really all done by non-professionals. In other words, kind of fringy. In a way, I was a bit surprised by the lack of anything being said on the subject. In some ways, the 1970s through the 90s were the big days of new stuff coming out about the Star, though again almost completely outside of New Testament studies. But it’s not at zero, and it is still being used for evangelical and apologetic purposes. On the other hand, perhaps it is moving more into the blogosphere, and traditional ways of getting the message out (journal papers and news reporters) are dying out. I’ll look to the blogosphere more next time.