Review of my Star of Bethlehem Book by Michael Molnar–The Shark has been Jumped

As I mentioned in my last post about the big Star of Bethlehem conference at the University of Groningen, there is a new review of my book on the subject that was published online just after the conference. At least that is when it first appeared on Twitter through the journal’s account. The journal, Science, Religion & Culture, has a review by Michael Molnar, author of the most sophisticated attempt at explaining the Star through ancient astrology. His thesis was the one most focused on at the conference, and so it received considerable analysis and criticism. Molnar did not attend the meeting for reasons unclear to me, but if he had he may have realized that his work is highly problematic and unconvincing to experts in the field.

His review of my book on the Star of Bethlehem is even more problematic. Not only does it repeat many factual errors examined at the conference, but it is filled with logical issues, changing stances from his published work, and even deceptive characterizations of what I wrote, not to mention the facts. He denies the very existence of contrary evidence he doesn’t like, accuses me of logical fallacies I did not commit, and at times writes so unclearly I don’t know if he gave what he wrote a second-read. There is a laundry list of things I can point to, but I will start with a few points that show that Molnar simply cannot be trusted on this subject; he is too invested to learn from mistakes or even understand the arguments.

Before I do that though, I want to be upfront about something that Molnar has correctly criticized me for. I accused him of having a circular argument concerning Nero’s horoscope as it related to Aries and possibility why he was said to come to power again in Judea. His argument, though problematic, was not circular. I stand corrected. How unfortunate that that is the only relevant thing he gets right.

How bad is this review? Molnar at times literally makes things up and ignores an entire chapter of my book that proves him wrong. When Molnar talks about the Greek of the Gospel of Matthew and compared it to astrological and astronomical writings of antiquity, he claims that the verb proago (προαγω, to lead) and proagountai (in astro, to retrograde) are homophones to a Greek listener. You do not even need to know Greek to realize that is absurd; the words can’t be homophones because they don’t even have the same number of syllables. But it’s worse than that. Not only is Molnar comparing proago in first person singular to a verb in third person plural (Molnar doesn’t seem to know that Greek is a reflexive language), but the verb form proagountai does not exist! What I think Molnar is trying to do is transliterate the word proegeomai/proegoumai (προηγεομαι/προηγουμαι, 1st person singular), which is used in astronomical texts to describe retrograde motion. But look at what Molnar has done; he chose the form of the verb unlike the verb he compares, thus showing he hasn’t learning basic Greek grammar, and he has transliterated an eta (η) with an ‘a’ as if it were an alpha (α) to make it more closely match proago. The similarities between the words is, in part, faked. And on top of all that, he is doing this in contradiction of what he says in his own book; there Molnar claimed that proago was of the same root verb as that used for retrograde motion (also false), but now he is claiming they just sound similar. Well, at least I think so. Molnar’s statements seems like he is simultaneously claiming that the words are merely homophones or from the same root verb. Those are contradictory notions, of course; homophones are two words that sound the same but have different meanings, so they cannot have the same root and mean the same thing. I have a hard time deciding what is his point, given that both contradictory arguments are absurd.

It is worth noting that no school boy in antiquity would have confused these verbs (a point strongly expressed by Antonio Panaino at the conference), and almost all of the similarity is from the prefix, pro. The underlying verbs are ago and hegeomai, the latter a deponent verb and thus clearly different to anyone (a deponent verb has a passive form but active in meaning); Matthew’s verb is in active form, so there is not even a chance that a reader or listener could have thought these were similar sounding. On top of that, hegeomai takes the genitive for a direct object, while in Matt 2:9 the direct object is in the accusative case with proago. Again, no way a Greek listener would have mixed this up. This is all basic information to anyone that spoke or wrote in the language. And on top of this, Molnar is still making this argument after a New Testament textual critic (J. Neville Birdsall) showed him he was wrong (starting at p. 391) about his arguments on this very verb, and more; this makes Molnar’s current claims all the more bizarre and demonstrates he does not incorporate criticism of his work, even by experts.

Molnar knows nothing of Greek, contradicts what he has otherwise said in his book to make me look like I am attacking a strawman, claims blatantly wrong and contradictory things, and deceptively alters the transliteration to support his groundless assertions proven wrong more than a decade ago. This is wrong at every level and should be an embarrassment to him and anyone that takes this claim seriously. On top of this, his own look at the Greek is done while ignoring the entire chapter of discussion I devoted to analyzing the words used in the Gospel of Matthew, where I argue at length about the miraculous nature as described for the Star. He has ignored the whole thing, perhaps because he cannot possibly gainsay it since he obviously doesn’t know the language at all and may realize that every Greek authority is on my side, not to mention all ancient and medieval Christian commentators.

It is also worth noting another contradiction between the claims Molnar makes in his book and in this review article, which again seems to try and suggest I was attacking a strawman. Molnar says that I “belabor” why the constellation of Aries is on coins from Antioch and it had nothing to do with Judea, and it was just these sorts of coins that got Molnar interested in searching for the Star in the first place. Except that he said so much more than that in his book. He claimed that the sign was possibly used on these coins because of the annexation of Judea in 6 CE into Syria (pp. 53, 120-1), so he was using these coins as support for his contention that Aries was the sign of the Jews and/or their territory. Heck, Molnar speculated that the Romans may have put Aries on these coins knowing it was depicting the Star of Bethlehem (p. 120)! These coins were not just a curiosity but a part of Molnar’s thesis. It was only necessary that I showed there was another, equal or more likely hypothesis for the use of Aries on the coins: it was part of the horoscope of Antioch’s foundation. I have no problem with Molnar changing his views on the subject, but to pretend they had nothing to do with his published case is simply to obfuscate.

This is hardly the only time in the review that Molnar is deceptive. I was galled when I saw how he misrepresented my argument about how the lack of mention of the Magi story outside of Matthew was strong evidence against the historicity of the story. First, Molnar says the argument was based on a logical fallacy of the argument from silence; rather, I lay out, in detail, a valid form of the argument and cite two references about the valid use of it. So besides not knowing the facts, Molnar is not secure in logical argumentation, even when it is carefully explained to him and backed up by other philosophers on historical reasoning. But he amazingly strawmans my argument, saying that because Josephus doesn’t mention the Magi story then it didn’t happen. I went, again at length, to note that what Matthew described should have created an international incident and perhaps a war between the Roman and Parthian Empires–something people would have noticed even outside of Judea, something that would have been mentioned by numerous sources and would certainly have been preserved by Christian copyists in the centuries after if it had been mentioned by anyone in antiquity. I also compared this to the case of Armenia and how there are numerous sources about comparable political situations concerning that region and by whom the Romans and Parthians wanted to have it governed. To have this argument, its context, its logic, all garbled as the pathetically weak form of the argument from silence that Molnar provides means he does not understand the argument at all or he will not correctly render it for readers to decide its merits.

Molnar also denies evidence against his propositions as he wills it. For example, when I cite evidence that the astrological geographies he wants to use to say that Aries was the sign of the Jews or Judea, he claims that Dorotheus of Sidon (whom I cited as placing the Holy Land under Gemini, given that Phoenicia mentioned by Dorotheus best corresponds to that territory) had no astrological geography and my source said no such thing. Molnar obviously did not check, because it is there, and Dorotheus did have an astrological geography. It is among the fragments of his work preserved by Hephaestion of Thebes (the fragments are in Pingree’s book on the subject from 1976, not the English translation that Molnar seems to be relying on) and is referenced by every major scholarly work on astrological geographies of the 20th and 21st centuries. Molnar did not honestly look to see he was wrong. Moreover, Molnar did not even mention my discussion of Manilius, a 1st century astrologer he first cited to support his arguments but which I showed completely contradicted what he said (Manilius put the Holy Land under Aquarius). Once again, Molnar cannot honestly represent the scholarship on the subject or what I cited against him. Instead, avoiding that problem, he makes a lot of huff about my treatment of Vettius Valens on the subject, who still says nothing of Judea and thus Molnar requires bluster rather than fact to get his conclusions anyways. I pointed out that Valens could have had his astrological geography altered to fit with the province reforms of Septimus Severus in the 190s, so Valens mention of Coele Syria may be referring to northern Syria rather than modern-day Lebanon as most geographies of the period would have placed it. Molnar declares that Valens did his work in the 150s to 170s so he couldn’t possibly have been thinking of Severus’ reforms, but this again poorly represents the subject. Most of Valen’s work was done in that period, but clearly not all of it. The last datable item in Valen’s books is from 188 CE, as calculated by Neugebauer and van Hoesen (p. 130), and the astrological geography materials cannot be dated using astronomy. So the composition or any editing by Valens of other parts of his tome could have happened in the 190s; I don’t know that, and I leave it as a possibility, not a fact. Molnar cannot seem to stand or understand uncertainty in historical documents, so he has to claim as fact things that are simply not so. And this fluster disguises a fact I make about Valen’s geography, that instead of Coele Syria absorbing the territory of the Holy Land, a better fit may be with Phoenicia as it did for Manilius. Molnar doesn’t even mention this, because again he can do nothing to undermine my point. All his fuss disguises the fact that Molnar has simply ignored all the sources that contradict him and instead claims all sources favor his position, something contradicted at the conference by Stephan Heilen and agreeing with my general assessment. Also, Molnar’s claim that Ptolemy’s astrological geography, the only one that actually provides any support to his case, goes back centuries is something proposed in the 19th century and has been refuted before he was even born, something he would have known if had read the very sources he uses in his book, such as Neugebauer, A History of Ancient Mathematical Astronomy, p. 897 n. 10. (See also Long, “Astrology: Arguments Pro and Contra” in Barnes, Brunschwig, Burnyeat, Schofield, Science and Speculation, pp. 183-4.)

To sum up the paragraph above, Molnar claims sources against his position do not exist even when they do (i.e., Dorotheus), ignores sources I brought up that show he is wrong (i.e., Manilius, Valens), tries to deny things and claim I am being deceptive by claiming things as fact which are not so (i.e., Valens did all his work between 150 and 180), and he relies on one source using scholarship refuted nearly a century ago (i.e., regarding Ptolemy’s astrological geography). You cannot be this wrong at all levels and still say you are doing scholarship worth taking seriously.

The last example of how poor a scholar Molnar I shall provide is how he will not learn things that every classicist learns before graduation. When discussing the astrologers’ predictions to Nero about his possible return to rule in Jerusalem, I notes that most historians who have analyzed this source consider this piece of history unreliable. I then cite four different commentaries on the subject. Molnar says I “only cite[…] some references without explaining” how they support me. I guess he couldn’t be bothered to read, nor to learn the fact that historians have issues with Suetonius on Nero, let alone what issues they have with this particular account. This is such basic knowledge of anyone that studies Latin history and literature; it is a well-known conclusion that Suetonius had lost access to the imperial archives before researching this emperor and relied more on gossip-like sources than the most reliable ones. I even provided such an example of issues with Suetonius on Nero in my book, so obviously Molnar has taken no opportunity to learn even from a book in hand, let alone by a trip to the library.

Molnar tries to get past this by noting other ancient historians say that there was a prediction of the return of Nero from the East; that is something I never said was in doubt, only the particulars of that prediction and if it had anything to do with Nero’s astrologers. And none of those other historians say that prediction of returning to power in the East had anything to do with horoscopes or the like, so Molnar’s citations are in fact missing the point. The problem is that Molnar needs the tale and prophecy to be based on statements from Nero’s astrologers, but these conversations are likely to be in private, not publicly known and causing all the empire to be worried. Moreover, the details seem unlikely; Nero had one astrological adviser, Balbilus, so this plurality of unnamed astrologers looks more like the gossip of the populace rather than historical record. That and more is considered by the various modern historians I cited, but Molnar figured he could ignore all that because it didn’t suit his purposes and thus be ignorant of basic knowledge among classicists.

I could go on and cite all of his mistakes, his failures of logic, his contradictions in his own review as well as between his review and what he says in his book, and so on. But that isn’t useful anymore. I have demonstrated to all knowledgeable people that Molnar simply cannot be trusted on this subject; he refuses the learn the basic facts of ancient history and cannot fairly present arguments or evidence against him. Given that a similar conclusion seemed to have been reached by many of the conference speakers at Groningen, I find myself in good company.

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