I am flying back home now from the amazing conference on the Star of Bethlehem at the University of Groningen. It was quite the success of collecting experts and scheduling events, including a trip to the oldest working planetarium in the world. This was also my first academic conference in the area of history and biblical studies, and I was surrounded by scholars in Iranian studies, Jewish astrology, Latin literature, ancient science, and of course New Testament studies. And it looks like I did well among this august group. Heck, after my talk a few whispered to me that it seemed like I already answered all the questions about the subject!
Not everyone could be at such an event, so I want to give my take on the various talks, not to mention the overall impression of the event. (There was a complete audio recording of all the talks and conversations in the conference room, but I don’t know if or when that will be public record.) It is also interesting that I bring this up now since this conference was in part focused on the thesis of Michael Molnar, and just the day after the conference his review of my book was published. So I will refer to this summary of the conference when discussing his review, since a lot of the same points were brought up by the various experts.
The first event took place on Wednesday night in one of the local churches in the city, one of the few without a spire, so I missed it first time around even when I had it on my map. There at the church all of the guests were treated to coffee and sweets, and soon a variety of classical works were played as they could find harmony with the subject of the conference. All beautiful performances, but between every other piece was a chance to drink a glass of wine and chat with the guests. This allowed me to make first introductions to a variety of people, including David Hughes, often considered the expert on the Star because of his article in Nature and his book from the late 1970s. I also talked with Bradley Schaefer of Luisiana State, an astronomer with much interest in the history of astronomy. He is also an alumnus of Ohio State, so we shared a “Go Buckeyes” together. I also had a little bit of chat with Owen Gingerich, one of the top experts in the history of astronomy, but I introduced myself to him at the hotel earlier. Along with these esteemed experts who I knew of before, I conversed with a few of the interested guests who were not giving talks. They may have written books on the subject or just drawn to the subject, but they may not have been considered experts in the fields of interest. All of my conversations were cordial and enjoyable.
But of course the real fun began in the morning of the next day. I had breakfast in the hotel along with David Hughes and his wife who works at the Greenwich Observatory and does research there. In the main room I sat across from expert in ancient technology, Alexander Jones. The conference started properly at 9 in the morning with a few introductory notes, including Pliny the Elder’s opinion of the Groningen area. It was also stated that the only other case the organizers knew where there was this sort of cross-disciplinary work happened for classical studies was concerning the comet of 44 BCE, the one seen at the funeral games of Julius Caesar. It is good to be a part of something unique.
The first talks in the morning included my own, but the very first was by Owen Gingerich, focusing on the work of Johannes Kepler since it was his publication in 1614 that coincided with the founding of Groningen Uni, thus the impetus for this conference this year (and on James Ussher’s date of Creation of the World). It was also in this work that Kepler argued for a new chronology that changed the date of Jesus’ birth. One of the interesting things I learned from the talk was that Kepler didn’t think he was great for astronomy since it was where he got his lowest grade, an A-. But a fair bit of what was said was brought up in my article I wrote for Zygon back in 2012, though without nearly as much detail or context.
After Gingerich there was a paper read from Molnar, who did not attend the meeting. I have heard two different pieces of gossip on why this was: he had a physical injury that made the trip impossible or at least very difficult, or that because he didn’t want to deal with me. No matter. The paper was just a summary of his thesis and how he came to it. One observer later noted to me that she had never heard so many claims of certainty by a scholar. It would also come to contrast with the facts presented later in the conference.
Next came my talk, 30 minutes to give a critical look at all of the hypotheses out there. I focused on Molnar’s, but I also gave focus to the literary theories and what issues they may have. I also presented my suggestion that there may be an underlying star source for Matthew based on the mention of the morning star in several our Christian sources. In the Q&A immediately after my talk, no one attacked that idea, and in conversations with others after the fact it seemed like they thought I may have something to my idea. In that Q&A a few details were also brought up and clarified when it came to the conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn and how they were not associated with the Star of Bethlehem before Kepler.
The last talk of the morning was from Brad Schaefer, who noted issues with most of the astronomical theories about the Star, argued how Molnar’s theory can be compatible with all theological points of view (including none), and he cited my book to bring up some criticisms. On that, he thought I didn’t do my probability calculations correctly and instead used a method that could have made anything in history improbable. In the plenary discussion I brought up how using probability calculations incorrectly like he described could make anything seem impossible, but that I did not do that sort of thing. I didn’t seem to convince him in our maybe two minute back-and-forth, but I did get out there that I was using a Bayesian approach based on that illustrated by Richard Carrier’s Proving History. It didn’t seem like this probability discussion mattered much to the other attendees, but I hope I did get out there some points of methodology. One other thing that did happen because of Schaefer bringing up my book is that a copy of it got passed around and a few bought copies and wanted to reference it! Most importantly, afterward Schaefer and I had some friendly conversation. We didn’t resolve our argument, but all were happy times.
In the interim, there was a tea break between Schaefer’s talk and the plenary discussion, and after a talk by Peter Barthel we had lunch. Barthel’s talk was mostly to say that we should at least consider an astronomical root to the story, especially the one presented by Molnar, but he didn’t know what the answer was.
After lunch was a talk on issues of chronology by Rob van Gent. Van Gent was known to me because of his great bibliography of Star of Bethlehem references online, and that is in the process of being updated. His talk brought up the major issues and sources on the issue of when things happened, and van Gent passed out a document that put together all of the calendars and events of interest as best as he could. There were a few issues that I picked up, since I have devoted a lot of time to investigating the attempted reconciliations between the chronologies of Matthew and Luke, especially things about the death of King Herod. I brought up one or two of those points in the Q&A after, though I did say one thing incorrectly about an inscription–I corrected myself to van Gent later. Nonetheless, van Gent was impressed with me and asked for my sources and if I would take a look at his paper before submitting it to the conference proceeding editors.
Up next was Alexander Jones, who presented on the nature of antique and later Greek astrology. His talk had a lot of fascinating details, including something I had never known about the Antikythera mechanism. Apparently it has a weather prediction system, based on the eclipses of the Moon! That assumes a mechanical astrology of sorts, and that existed in the old days, so you did astronomy in part to predict the weather. I think methods have improved since then. Jones also says he doesn’t think horoscopes or astrology really can explain the Star, and no one in antiquity was using horoscopes to predict the birth of kings, a point I made in my talk as well.
After some questions and tea time, John Steele talks about ancient Mesopotamian astrology and what they could have predicted for Judea. The answer: probably nothing since Palestine is never mentioned and the regions it did prognosticate for are large regions with direct effect on the Babylonian Empire. The best you may connect with is the region called Amurru, the Westlands, and according to ancient sources that could mean Syria, the Hittite kingdom, Chaldea, or even Arabia. But Judea or anything Jewish doesn’t come up at all. Key point then is there is no evidence that Mesopotamian astrology could have had an omen for a king of the Jews, let alone his birth.
The next presentation brought up what I think might be one of he few, new hypotheses for the Star based on a literary connection. Mattieu Ossendrijver believes the story of the Star to be fiction, but it was built on the idea of coopting the stories about Alexander the Great and his interactions with astrologers in and around Babylon. It is a fascinating idea, though I don’t think it will be ultimately persuasive. Still, the stories of Alexander have Chaldean astrologers bring him gifts as he was their new king, and it even has astrologers giving him warnings. I will want to see the final draft of this proposal, and I will need to fully consider it in my next book on the subject. Oh, did I mention I will be writing more in this subject?
The final two talks of the day I found to be spectacular, given by Antonio Panaino and Ab de Jong. Panaino specializes in studies of ancient Persia and its religious literature, namely that of the Zoroastrians. And he knows that the magi were not astronomers or astrologers, that they thought the planets and their erratic motions were corrupted beings, unlike the stars, Sun, and Moon. He also brings up a lot of information that established some interesting background context and facts. When he gets to talking about the Star and Molnar’s work, Panaino went no holds barred. He cited the work of Franz Boll almost 100 years ago showing that so much that is said and done in Star research is rubbish, and Panaino compared Molnar to Dan Brown and his novels. Ouch! I was critical of Molnar in my talk, but I must have looked nice by comparison. As for de Jong, he admitted he couldn’t be as rhetorically powerful as was Panaino, but he also brought up devastating points. He brought up the Mandean Book of John the Baptist which included a star at the birth of John, and if we were Mandeans we would have a conference instead about that Star. A wonderful way of taking down the credibility of the entire enterprise! De Jong also demonstrated that the magi were not hellenized astrologers, or hellenized at all for at matter, so the use of western astrology to approach the Star story seems wrong-headed. So both of these scholars confirmed major premises of my book as well as my ultimate conclusion, and forcefully so. I also discovered Panaino has written a fair amount on the Star as well, though mostly in Italian, so that is why I didn’t already know of it. In particular, I need to get a copy of I Magi e la loro stella (2012).
After these last talks there was some discussion, but again much of it confirming points about an astrological basis for the Star, at least on historicity of Matthew’s story. That night I had dinner with a few conference members, including a member of the Center for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) in Belgium, and Willam Drees, the editor of the journal that published my history of interpretation of the Star article. I learned from him that I was on the list of invited guests before his suggestion, which was a little surprising since I figured it must have been his mention that would have had me noticed. We talked a good bit, and it looks like we had a rather similar view of the subject matter and how to approach ancient stories like that of the Star. But when it came to true history, there was a public lecture given by Alexander Jones about ancient science and especially the Antikythera mechanism. That was a great talk, though it had a few PowerPoint hiccups. It looks like there is still a lot to learn about the device, and I am impressed with all of the different strategies of investigating it, including using computer algorithms to extrapolate the possible gear configurations to getting the planets to move as an ancient astronomer would have predicted.
So that was day 1. My head was racing with all of the information running through it and I got almost no sleep. Thank goodness for the generous amounts of coffee durning the day.
Day 2 started at about the same time, but I was a bit quieter at breakfast. Still, I had some nice conversation with the Hughes couple. The first talk was another paper read in absence, this time from Roger Beck. Beck is the foremost expert in the Roman cult of Mithras, and I wish he could have attended in person. Still, his paper gave his views on the origins of Mithraism, how it both did and did not relate to sophisticated astrology in antiquity, and what could be said of Molnar’s view. Beck seemed skeptical that the Star could be explained, but at best it could be that a late first century astrologer could have looked back in time to come up with a royal horoscope for Jesus. That is also a possibility sort of put forward by the historian of science, Lynn Thorndike, many decades ago. At the very least, it is something that needs to be considered, though if that is what happened, Matthew’s description is so erroneous for such a thing it makes it a difficult explanation, a point later made this day by Stephan Heilen.
At it was Heilen who next spoke about astrological geographies, the belief that certain signs or parts of signs had some association or influence for different parts of the world. He first says some nice things about the approach Molnar makes, all points that I complete agree with, such as the unprejudiced look at ancient astrology and his willingness to go back to primary sources. But that is about where the niceness ends. Heilen shows that Molnar skipped most astrological geographies, including the oldest ones, and almost all of them don’t even mention Judea. Heilen also notes how Molnar elides from Ptolemy that Aries does not just associate with Judea and the neighboring lands but also with parts of Western Europe. That elision is not looked on too kindly, nor is the fact that so many other sources are not considered by Molnar. It was very much music to my ears, since I said much the same in my book. However, Heilen did give me a correction in that I had seen the astrological geographies as almost random in their assignments when comparing them, but it looks like there is variation upon the oldest forms from Hellenized Egypt. Heilen also notes that what the astrological geographies are consistent on would suggest that Aries was the sign for Persia, so the Magi could have just stayed home. This is also devastating to Molnar’s thesis. In addition, Heilen points out how Ptolemy’s astrology work is a rationalized version of earlier forms, not simply a transmission of old methods, and no one was actively using horoscopes to find kings in the future; retroactive looks are possible, as was done for Romulus, but that would only make the Star story fiction.
Next was Jan-Willem van Henton who looked at the expectations of a world leader out of Judea at around the first century CE. A little is said to counteract Molnar, namely that there was no evidence of a desire for messianism in the days of Herod the Great. That seems to come around more toward the middle of the 1st century. Why this is is not understood. An oracle is mentioned by Josephus, Tacitus, and Suetonius, but the source is not really known. I was surprised at this uncertainty, since it seemed that so many scholars had said it was the prophecy from Num 24:17. But it looks like there is no clear evidence for that, and other suggestions also exist. I am glad to have learned this, else I may make the same mistake in my own works. Van Henton also mentioned how there is no good evidence that there are multiple oral sources behind the story of the Star in Matthew, which is an argument I remember seeing in Raymond Brown’s Birth of the Messiah. I was happy to see van Henton come to a similar conclusion as I had.
After this talk was some tea time. I was able to chat some with Panaino, and as few had asked me why this topic is considered historical by astronomers and Americans.
Returning to the conference room, a talk was given by Kochu von Stuckrad about ancient astrological beliefs and their effects on Jewish history. This largely reflected what he said in his thesis and book, though this time the talk was in English, while his book was in German. That was good for me, since I wanted to make sure I did not misinterpret his work. I find his hypothesis that triple conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn were important to the Jews to be speculative, but he is absolutely right that there were plenty of Jews in the first century that had astrological interests. However, true astrology was an elite interest and area of discourse. Von Stuckrad also contended with a point I made in my talk about how arbitrary a horoscope interpretation was. In the Q&A I agreed that there were objective (that is, agreed onto by astrologers) aspect meanings; my point was that in any given horoscope there will be both good and bad, so you get to pick and chose. We didn’t seem to come to complete agreement on this point, but I think we agreed more than disagreed. I should also point out that von Stuckrad doesn’t think a horoscope can explain the Star in Matthew. He put it in stronger terms, but I didn’t write a quote of what exactly he said.
Continuing with Jewish astrology, Mladen Popovic brought up the sources that showed there was an interest in astrology and/or astral mythology before the time of Jesus. He focuses in particular on the Book of Enoch and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Some of this I had known before, but in the Q&A I was corrected about the document called the Treatise of Shem; I remembered it being dated to shortly after 31 BCE, the year of the Battle of Actium, but there is a lot of scholarship, much of it in Italian, that contradictions this certainty. I was glad to learn that, else I be misinformed. Also, Popovic notes that the planets do not get any mention in the Dead Sea Scrolls, even though they have other elements of horoscopes.
The last two talks before tea time were from New Testament scholars. The first was from Annette Merz who discussed the Star of Bethlehem in the context of historical Jesus studies. In many ways it was similar to an Intro to the New Testament class, focused on the birth stories of Jesus and why most such scholars do not consider the story historical. She pointed out the issues of chronology, if Jesus was even born in Bethlehem, and if Jesus was declared King so early in his life. It was all very clearly laid out and was all exactly the mainstream as I knew it. I did ask her in the Q&A what she thought of a particular way of making Luke at least self-consistent (if the Herod mentioned in chapter 1 wasn’t Herod the Great but his son Herod Archelaeus). She didn’t think it plausible that a reader in antiquity would have made that connection, but she did come over later to talk to me about the idea and where I had heard it.
After Merz’s talk was George van Kooten on an idea from Molnar’s book that Nero and the general populace thought he would return to power in Judea, even specifically Jerusalem. Van Kooten wasn’t sure how reliable was the source on this, the historian Suetonius, so he wanted to get some input from the local Suetonius expert in the audience. It’s good to have friends in high places. Van Kooten also believes that there are other veiled references to Nero in other New Testament works, besides that of the Book of Revelation. I don’t know how much I agree about those allusions being toward Nero, but I will need to investigate them. Also in the talk and the Q&A after, it was noted that there is the issue in how Molnar tried to use a horoscope to show why people thought he would come to Jerusalem to rule. Molnar sets up a horoscope for when Nero was born and then uses the an astrological technique for finding lost items. Problem is that for the technique you are supposed to use the time when the question is asked, not the time of birth. There is no way of knowing when Nero asked, so the entire method is kaput.
Next was some tea time, again, and I had a nice chat with the Suetonius expert about a few things, including an anecdote about the legendary figure in classical studies, Theodor Mommsen.
The final talk of the day, and the conference, was by David Hughes. Hughes had given some interesting comments and questions along the way, but here he had his chance to shine. Much of his talk was how he got into this subject and what he researched and concluded in his book. The PowerPoint also reused a number of the figures and graphs for that book–one that I had him and his wife sign for me while I was at the conference. While Hughes didn’t necessary present anything new, he did say there was a lot for him to think about from this conference, and that we all should or it was a waste. So perhaps his mind will be coming to some new conclusions in the future. We will see. Though from later correspondence, I learned he did upset some of the attendees when he referred to the scholars as theologians, as though they were not trained in the matters or Hughes doesn’t understand what they do. I doubt anything so negative was meant by that, but we all need to be cautious of how to talk to and interpret another’s profession and work.
With all of this done, most of the attendees got on a bus to go to Franeker where the oldest working planetarium resides, built by Eise Eisinga in the late 18th century. It is a fascinating machine, a modern sort of Antikythera mechanism, though this one was heliocentric and much, much larger. It also had the added feature of showing normal folks how the solar system worked and it wouldn’t fly apart as one local religious figure had announced around the time of Eisinga. The machine is amazing to look at, though because everything is moving in real time it will be a while until you notice the Saturn cog to have moved a degree. Throughout the visit, the tea before, the dinner after, and the bus rides, I had some lovely conversations with a variety of the speakers, many whom I didn’t talk to so much before but glad that I did. The same in the morning before I left Groningen to head back home.
Overall, I think the conference was a big success. I met a lot of excellent scholars, rubbed shoulders in the right ways, helped establish myself to some degree in the guild, and by the looks of it came out on the right with the majority view. My impression was that most did not think the story of the Star of Bethlehem was historical, and at there were serious issues with Molnar’s hypothesis even assuming nothing about the historicity of the story it sought to explain. I am very glad that I went.
As for their next conference, what do you think that should be? The Higgs Boson and the historical Jesus?
Seated are, on the left, David Hughes & Bradley Schaefer. On the right are Peter Barthel and Rob van Gent. A few others are too obscured for me to be sure.