The Star and the Skeptical Christmas–The Star of Bethlehem

The holidays are approaching fast, and the first snows are coming over the United States. The ever-expanding day of Christmas will truly be here soon. And all around the world, both preachers and even some scientists will be talking about a perennial subject: the Star of Bethlehem and what it could have been. Since the 1930s, planetaria the globe over have had presentations of what planet or exploding star could have been the famed light that brought wise men from the East to a lowly crib in a tiny town in Judea.

But can science really explain this celebrated celestial event? Is it something actually miraculous or a literary artifice? How can someone tell? Moreover, why is this a subject that draws both astronomers and theologians to ask these sorts of questions?

All that and more is considered in The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View. Not only covering all of the major and minor hypotheses to explain the meaning and motions of the Star, including the extraterrestrial, it investigates what was possibly on the mind of the ancient author of the Gospel story and what is in mind for many others that continue to pursue this subject. The Star of Bethlehem was also the subject of a major conference at the University of Groningen, and the major conclusions of SoB: ASV find support by experts in many fields.

So this holiday, learn about fascinating astronomical science, history, religion, cultures from the Romans to the Persians to the ancient Jews, and also understand a bit more about how science and religion interact through history and today.

Author: Dr. Aaron Adair is a professor of physics at Merrimack College, where he both teaches and conducts education research, along with continuing investigations of ancient religions and the heavens. He received his PhD from Ohio State University and worked as a planetarium show presenter at Michigan State University. He has previously published on the subject of the Star in Zygon and was an invited speaker to the University of Groningen’s conference on the Star.

Praise for SoB: ASV:
“Well researched, scientifically reasoned, elegantly concise, this book will long be required reading on the ‘Star of Bethlehem’. Full of fascinating historical facts, and better informed and more careful than any other book on the subject, this should be on the shelf of everyone interested in that legendary celestial event.” Richard Carrier, Ph.D., author of Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus.

“A fascinating and readable feat of hardcore historical legwork and keen scientific analysis.” David Fitzgerald, author of The Complete Heretic’s Guide to Western Religion: The Mormons.

“…tightly-argued, well-reasoned…. Adair masterfully demonstrates why every effort to rationalize the Star thus far has failed…. A concise and rigorous must-read for anyone interested in religion, history, and modern efforts to understand the past.” Jason Colavito, author of The Cult of Alien Gods.

 

Dr. Aaron Adair, Star of Bethlehem Press Kit

My Talk for Skeptics in the Pub, Cologne on the Star of Bethlehem

Along with the big Star of Bethlehem conference in Groningen, I was in Cologne before that to give a talk about the same subject to Skeptics in the Pub. That talk was also recorded and edited nicely by the folks there, and that is now up on YouTube. (Note: the intro is in German, but my talk is in English.)

Only downside with this was that I did not do my best to stay close to the microphone, and that means my voice goes in and out a fair bit. I’m used to talking with my voice picked up by different devices, so I’ll need to remember that for the future. Still, you can get all the contents of my talk reasonably well, and the presentation went really smoothly. Plus, great folks at SiTP Koeln. They had some really good questions, but it doesn’t look like the Q&A was recorded.

I also didn’t know this before I went there, but Cologne is the city were, allegedly, the bodies of the Three Kings/Magi are kept; the city’s coat of arms reflects this, and the cathedral with those bodies is a UNESCO site, and it is a lovely building. 2014-10-22 10.22.50

A bit of review of me and my talk can be found here and here (auf Deutch). Hopefully I can find an excuse and go again to this group.

Also, the holidays are approaching, so if your group needs a speaker on a timely subject, let me know.

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. Continue reading

Review of #TheUniverse: Ancient Mysteries Solved(?) — The Star of Bethlehem

A few weeks ago on the History Channel’s sister station, H2, the astronomy-based series The Universe went on a quest to solve an ancient mystery. Previous episodes in the previous few weeks had covered the construction and purpose of the pyramids (which was pretty good), Stonehenge, and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The first two certainly have an astronomical connection, such as the solstice alignment of Stonehenge, but explaining Sodom’s ruin via astronomical body begs the very serious question: was this simply a theological story or etiological myth? Apparently that skepticism couldn’t find its way to the heart of the show.

Perhaps then it is no wonder that the same appears in this recent episode on the Star of Bethlehem. Already Jason Colavito has put up a good review of the episode, as well as previous ones of the same series. Before reading my review, you will likely enjoy his. But there are some details I caught, and they further wish they had called upon someone who, I don’t know, wrote a well-researched book on it. 🙂 Now to get into this episode.

Continue reading

Astrology News on the Radio in Canada with Me

Yesterday while I was working on things, my phone went off, saying I had a call from Alberta. I’m pretty sure this is the first time I’ve received any calls from Canada on my phone, so it was surprising. But more importantly it wasn’t a crank call; rather, it was a radio station in Calgary that was going to be talking about a new study on how many people in the US think astrology is legit science. You can look at this study here.

It is part of a larger science literacy study by the National Science Foundation, and they ask about astrology as a benchmark for the acceptance of pseudo-scientific beliefs. Why astrology? In part because it is very much bunk, and numerous studies show that astrologers cannot predict personal characteristics better than chance, and the agreement between astrologers, even using the same astrological methods, agree little more than at the level of chance. (I discuss this a bit in my book, The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View). In part also because the idea of astrology is nearly omnipresent; a horoscope is found in just about every major newspaper, it’s on the front pages of other news sites, and it has a fair bit of popular press because of celebrity endorsement, such as pop singer Katy Perry. So belief in astrology as scientific or a useful practice can be a good barometer for non-scientific belief acceptance.

The recent study shows that still a small majority of Americans think that astrology is “not at all scientific”, but it is at a recent low. Over at Mother Jones, Chris Mooney provides these graphs for how rejection of astrology has changed over the years and how acceptance of astrology appears among different age demographics.

The thing to note is that astrology has a far greater acceptance among millennials verses other age demographics.

So, what is going on here?

Back to that phone call, I was invited onto 770 AM CHQR for a chat with hosts Angela Kokott and Dave Taylor about this new finding, why people buy into astrology, and why it seems to be growing. You can listen to the whole show by going to this website and picking the date of Feb 13 and at 3 PM to listen to the right show. I get on the air about 11.5 minutes in, give or take. The audio file will not be up for long, so go get it now!

To explain the growth, especially among young people, I said that it may partially be explained by the changing religious demographics. Millennials are more willing to reject traditional forms of religion, and branches of evangelical Christianity usually have only bad things to say about astrology, keeping their flocks away from it. Another factor, that I didn’t mention on the air, was that there has been recent economic and political stress, and such things often cause people to look for answers in domains that are outside what is mainstream or accepted by the elites (i.e., scientists). Compare the data from the late 1970s/early 1980s. The US had gone through the terrible Vietnam War, the Nixon resignation, stagflation, and failures of foreign policy under Carter in both Iran and Afghanistan. No wonder it was boom times for pseudo-science in that period, not to mention the counter culture movement that grew up in the 1960s. So, with the current issues of the sluggish economy after a world-wide banking debacle, the bailout of the super-rich, the continuing flat wages of most workers who can even get work, and a gridlock federal government, it isn’t looking like the elites of the country can do anything right. That makes things rife for pseudo-scientific ideas to gain a foothold.

This is also frightening because the decline in belief in astrology through the 1980s and 1990s was in part because of the organizing of skeptical groups to show it doesn’t work. In Nature, there was a paper published showing astrology didn’t work, and other well-designed studies showed similar results. The group CSICOP (now CSI) was getting well-organized after earlier issues dealing with astrology. But now a lot of that progress seems to have been reversed. This certainly will require a lot of work on the part of skeptic groups, but it won’t be easy considering that there is usually not the best amount of communication between believers in astrology and its detractors.

It’s not something that needs more study. Astrology has been shown by dozens of well-designed studies to not work better than what is expected by chance. Moreover, the apparent successes of horoscope “predictions” can be seen as either using statements that fit anyone (called Barnum statements, see the Forer Effect), or there is the use of cold reading, where the participant is asked by the astrologer vague or leading questions for the participant to place their answer in such a way as it appears that the astrologer knew the answer from the horoscope. And let’s not forget that for astrology to work you have to break the fundamental laws of physics, a non-trivial issue. But for someone that really believes, that won’t change things. Just like with creationists, it isn’t the evidence for astrology that attracts people but some other need it apparently fulfills, such as telling you something about yourself or your purpose. I recommended some ways of talking to people to get them to reason out of astrology before, but I may need to do something more in depth to really make it work. And it looks like of people my age and younger, they need to hear it.

(Also note: one of the authors of the study is John Besley of Michigan State University, my alma mater. Go Green!)

The Exposing Pseudoastronomy Podcast takes on the Star of Bethlehem … with Me!

As part of the continuing efforts to get the message out about the Star of Bethlehem and the failure to explain it with astronomy, I was interviewed on the Exposing Pseudoastronomy podcast, run by Stuart Robbins, an young planetary scientist and skeptic. In the past, the podcast has tackled lots of material from Coast to Coast AM and some of their top guests, such as Richard Hoagland, in great but comfortable detail. That should be enough reason to subscribe to this skeptical outlet.

If you want to hear the podcast with me, you can go to the blog page, find the show notes, or listen right here .

Quick notes: my voice wasn’t in the best of conditions, apparently due to some acid coming up in the night to burn my vocal chords. And I made a small gaff in a place or two. For example, I talked about commentary on the Star by “Saint Augustus.” While Augustus is important to Christian history, he’s not a saint, let alone with the standing of Satin Augustine. But otherwise, this came out really well.

Video Discussion about the Star of Bethlehem

The fabulous editor of my book, The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View, Jonathan MS Pearce (aka A Tippling Philosopher), had a chat with me that we did over Google Hangout. We talk about how I came to write the book, what it demonstrates, and what its conclusions should mean. Give it a watch.

Comments are open on this blog as well as on YouTube.

Richard Carrier Reviews my Star of Bethlehem Book & Talks About the Problems with Astrotheology

9780956694867- Font CoverWith my book out for about a month, I have now received a great review/blog post about The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View. And it comes from Richard Carrier, who also provided a very positive blurb for the book. He was very supportive in my researching this topic, and I’m sure my book would have been much inferior without his help.

In his review, Carrier brings up a point that I hadn’t actually consciously gone for, but it is a valid expansion. In the book, I point out how ancient astrologers did not have some well-defined method of interpretation of the skies, and there were significant differences between Babylonian/Assyrian methods and the Hellenistic form that has become dominant in the West and India. And because there is such massive discord among the ancients, it makes it very dubious to create an astrotheological interpretation of early Christianity and the Gospels.

For example, I showed that the system of astrological geography–that is, how different regions of the world were under the influence of different constellations or signs–were completely different from astrologer to astrologer. I even quoted from the most famous of the ancient astrologers, Ptolemy, about how astrological interpretation is even nigh-impossible or at least very difficult even by experts, let along the charlatans of the age. With this and other points I make, I prove that a modern scholar cannot look at a horoscope and know how it would have been interpreted; I even use an example of one of the horoscopes created for Jesus by Michael Molnar and show you can either get the King of Kings or a misshapen sex slave. Oops.

But when I think of astrotheology, what comes to mind is the work of Acharya S/D.M. Murdock and its use in part 1 of Zeitgeist. There are two major things that I will consider here from that work: the astrotheological version of the Star of Bethlehem, and the importance of the precession of the equinoxes.

Now, I did consider looking at this idea about the Star in the book, and perhaps I should have. Then again, it hasn’t been put into any peer-review journal or book unlike even the bad Star of Bethlehem theories that I disprove. Also, I have talked about this in some previous videos I made, including in the talk I gave a couple of weeks ago (video jumps to where I start to talk about it at 37:20).

The key points are that the astronomy does not stand up (Orion already set before sunrise, and the alignment doesn’t happen on Dec 25 under the most favorable of interpretations), the symbolism is based on no ancient sources (i.e. belt of Orion called the 3 kings), it tries to explain things that have nothing to do with the original story from the Gospels (i.e. birth on Dec 25, 3 kings), and it doesn’t explain details from the Gospel of Matthew (i.e. a star hanging over a particular location). In fact, the alignment being talked of has nothing to do with how astrologers did their work. The sorts of alignments done back in the day used horoscopes, and then only concerned the planets and the zodiac constellations. That would exclude Orion and Sirius which is so important to Murdock’s hypothesis. And there are no records that show the (non-existent) alignment was important to Egyptians in antiquity. The whole thing is modern invention.

Another major component is the belief that people were interested in the coming of astrological ages. These shifts happen when the vernal equinox (the location of the Sun on the first day of spring) slowly moves from one zodiac constellation to another, forever immortalized in the song “Aquarius” from the musical Hair. Now, the very idea of astrological ages cannot go back farther than its discovery, and that is usually credited to Hipparchus of Rhodes in the 2nd century BCE. That is pre-Christian, but it’s not so early that it could explain other religions, such as Egyptian or Babylonian. And considering most people were not exactly astronomers, it isn’t safe to assume that the discovery by Hipparchus was known by the masses. The best evidence I know of is the hypothesis that the Mithras religion based based on this discovery, which is argued by David Ulansey. However, his hypothesis has long favor after the work done by Roger Beck, the top scholar in the field of Mithraic studies (and whom I hope to meet next year at the Star of Bethlehem conference).

But even if we allow this to be common knowledge for the early Christians to use, there is still a significant problem: When was the astrological age to change? At the beginning of the 1st century, as shown by Otto Neugebauer and referenced by Michael Molnar, the vernal equinox was at about 5 degrees in Aries. Based on the calculations of how quickly precession was believed to have happened, it would have been 500 years in the future. Hardly coming “coming soon” as seen in the authentic letters of Paul and the Book of Revelation. And since we can’t even know if people back then would have given this a sort of amazing status as Murdock would suppose, we can’t make this work.

But if you look at the Wikipedia page, it says that some calculate that the Age of Pisces (after Aries) began around the time of Jesus’s birth. How is that so? It’s based on back calculations from modern astrologers to fit their own spiritual views. It’s a modern contrivance. It also was such to get it that the Age of Aquarius was something in the near future for Baby Boomers; things like the Vietnam war were the last throes of the age of Pisces. This is hardly relevant to reconstructing religious beliefs from 2000 years ago, and that shows how much astrotheology is a modern creation. (Then again, medieval astrologers did the same things for their own times, so there really isn’t anything new under the Sun.)

Now, there is one bit of argumentation I have seen that has the greatest plausibility of looking at the Jesus story in terms of solar symbolism, something that has been brought up by a commenter on this blog (his paper is here). The points are that in Luke 1:26 and the context there has Jesus being conceived six months after John the Baptist was. And in the Gospel of John 3:30 the Baptist says how he must decrease so that the other may increase. Now, if one views Jesus and John acting as the Sun and different times of year, John is the dying sun in winter, while Jesus is the rising sun of summer. In other words, the six months is about the solstices.

However, this doesn’t really work well given what we know about how literature was written back then. Suppose you only had the Gospel of Luke and not John, which would have been the case for Luke’s first readers. All you have is the six-month time difference between the conceptions of Jesus and John. How does a reader get solar myth out of just that? There aren’t any other details in the story from Luke to support that. There just aren’t enough narrative clues to the reader.

Let’s compare this time issue with a more recent literary example: Frankenstein. (It’s after Halloween, but it’s still a great book.) According to the novel, Dr. Frankenstein worked for nine months to create his cadaver-man, which he then rejected because he (it?) was hideous. Because the story is about a man giving life, the nine-month period has a symbolic role by relating the creation of the Monster to child-bearing, a nine-month process. It is because the context of the story in the novel (and not by reading a later novel) as well as the cultural assumptions that would go into reading it by the audience, we can see what Mary Shelly was doing. Modern scholars also compare it to Shelly’s own troubles with having children, but that is besides the point to consider here.

But this is not the case with the six months in the Gospel of Luke. We have to mix it up with a later work with details from a different story (adult Jesus and John rather than their nativities). And it’s this sort of mixing and matching of details that brought ridicule to the history of religions school of the turn of the 20th century. Moreover, the use of some solar symbolism doesn’t mean the whole story is about the sun. After all, King Louis XIV of France was known as the Sun King; that use of a symbolic name doesn’t mean he was a sun god. In fact, this sort of ridicule against this sort of arguing is old; it was done against Charles François Dupuis by using his methods to “prove” Napoleon was just a solar myth and not some general worthy of being feared. The same was repeated with Max Muller in the late 19th century.

Now, I won’t pretend to know necessarily why Luke says there was a six month difference between the conceptions of Jesus and John. Perhaps six months is when it’s obvious to anyone in antiquity that a woman is pregnant and so for Mary on her visit to Elizabeth (John’s elderly mother-to-be) it was clear to her that Elizabeth had had a miraculous birth as well. Or perhaps there were other traditions involved worth considering. When looking at Borg and Crossan’s The First Christmas (pp. 108-109), they bring up a targum that talks of a story of a man of the tribe of Levi (the priestly tribe) returning to be with his wife, a woman well over 100 years in age. But upon the man’s return to her she became young and gave birth to a son in just six months. Considering that John’s father, Zechariah, was a priest, and Elizabeth was an old woman beyond her child-bearing years, then perhaps this is the background for what we see in Luke.

Now, that is only a speculation of mine. But it explains the evidence at least as well as a solar myth explanation, and unless one can show how the solar myth can explain the story in the Gospel of Luke better, then we don’t actually have evidence in favor of the solar myth hypothesis. And since this seems to be one of the best cases out there, I have to say there isn’t much of a case to be made.

So I do agree with Carrier that the nature of astrology in antiquity doesn’t allow for much confidence in astrotheological explanations for Christianity or Christian literature. And the particular ideas out there don’t stand up to scrutiny and are really modern inventions. Astrotheological explanations have little or nothing in common with the diverse (but still not infinitely malleable) methods of ancient astrology. This isn’t to say there aren’t any astrological elements in Christianity (the Book of Revelation has some notable ones), but there is nothing even close to the explanatory power needed to make sense of the Gospels or the origins of the religion.

The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View — My Upcoming Book

Nearly two millennia ago, a story was told of a wondrous star in the heavens, beaming forth to proclaim the birth of an infant, destined to rule. Coaxing priests from an eastern kingdom to travel in search of this infant, the object led them to their destination and allow for the worship of the savior of the world.

Or so the story goes. But did it really happen, and if so, what was this magnificent star? A comet? An exploding star? An astrological portent? Something more bizarre? These theories and more have been put forward to explain the legend of the Star of Bethlehem, perhaps the most famous celestial light in all of religious literature. Inspiring scientists and theologians to search and fiction authors to write, including the great Sir Arthur C. Clarke, the Star of Bethlehem has been the perennial science story of the holidays. It is a project that finds its roots in the work of the influential astrophysicist Johannes Kepler, and numerous other astronomers have written about the Star over decades and up to today, such as David Hughes, Michael Molnar, Mark Kidger, and the late Sir Patrick Moore. Every year or so a supposedly new explanation is released to the press. Was it Jupiter and Venus or Jupiter and Saturn this time? Or how about the discovery of Uranus? Perhaps a variable star? The zodiacal lights? What other speculation will come about to show that there was a light guiding magi from the East to the birthplace of Jesus?

9780956694867- Font Cover

These speculation should begin to find its end in the newest book on the subject: The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View (Amazon: US, UK, FR, DE; B&N; PDF). Based on nearly a decade of contemplation and research, this volume seeks to prove that no natural phenomenon, no astrological alignment, no physical interpretation of the Star of Bethlehem is plausible and comports to the story as told in the Gospel of Matthew. In fact, the story likely isn’t historical at all.

Published by Onus Books and including a foreword by astronomer and columnist at Astronomy magazine, Bob BermanThe Star of Bethlehem goes through all of the major theories for the Star as something in nature, including the astronomical, the astrological, and even the alien. The volume also explores the history of these sorts of interpretations and the motivations behind them. Lastly, it is demonstrated that the legend is a literary artifice, one that shows the author of the Gospel to be gifted as a story-teller but not someone interested in science and history as modern researchers are. To continue to look for the Star in the skies is to misunderstand the story.

Exploring the science of supernovae, the mechanical computers of the ancient Greeks, the astrological beliefs and practices of the Persians, and the nature of ancient religious texts, The Star of Bethlehem presents science and history without the need to fit to an apologetic goal.

Praise for The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View:

A fascinating and readable feat of hardcore historical legwork and keen scientific analysis.
—David Fitzgerald, author of The Complete Heretic’s Guide to Western Religion: The Mormons.

Well researched, scientifically reasoned, elegantly concise, this book will long be required reading on the ‘Star of Bethlehem’. Full of fascinating historical facts, and better informed and more careful than any other book on the subject, this should be on the shelf of everyone interested in that legendary celestial event.
—Richard Carrier, Ph.D., author of Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus.

The Star of Bethlehem is a concise and rigorous must-read for anyone interested in religion, history, and modern efforts to understand the past.
—Jason Colavito, author of The Cult of Alien Gods.

While the argument that the ‘Star of Bethlehem’ story is a myth isn’t a new one, Aaron Adair—an astronomer and physicist at The Ohio State University—offers a look into the past through the eyes of a scientist, while not once ignoring the value of New Testament scholarship. This is a must-read, and perhaps the definitive, book on this subject.
—Thomas Verenna, co-editor of ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ The Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus and undergraduate student at Rutgers University

If you enjoy The Star of Bethlehem, you may also enjoy another skeptical look at the Nativity story of Jesus: The Nativity: A Critical Examination by Jonathan Pearce.

About the author:

Aaron Adair is a soon-to-be PhD in physics education from the Ohio State University and holds three degrees in science and mathematics from Michigan State University. He has previously worked as a planetarium show presenter, a SETI researcher, and a part of the ATLAS detector collaboration at CERN. He has written on the Star of Bethlehem previously in Sky & Telescope and Zygon: Journal of Science & Religion, and has been invited to participate in a conference about the Star at the University of Groningen. This is his first book. Adair may be contacted through his book’s Facebook page and through email.

Bill O’Reilly is #killingjesus Scholarship–A Short Review

This week the next big book in Jesus scholarship hit the stores. Well, I guess it’s big in the sense that it is attached to a well-known name, Fox News’ host/anchor/pundit Bill O’Reilly. Earlier I had heard about his book, Killing Jesuswhich was a bit easy to make fun with since the artwork for the cover suggested who the murder was, and his previous major book with a similar title, Killing Lincoln, was considered so riddled with factual errors that Lincoln-connected museums were not willing to sell it.

But now the book is out, written with Martin Dugard (who was also responsible for O’Reilly’s other Killing books). I don’t have the book itself (I’m cheap), but Google allows for searching the volume and previewing, so I could look at the materials related to the early years of JC, or so as Bill believed them to be. I had expected the authors to not be very critical of the historicity of what the Gospels say, but there were some surprises. I’m also just going to focus on the Nativity story as related by Bill. In other words, it’s only September and I am beginning the War on Christmas!

First thing to note is that there is not a lot of reference to modern scholarship on the points of the natal accounts. While Raymond Brown’s 2-volume work The Death of the Messiah receives an honorary mention, his even more famous Birth of the Messiah is not mentioned. Odd considering that O’Reilly and Dugard are both Catholics, as was Brown. The notes for the first chapter contain almost no scholarly records, save one related to the Star of Bethlehem (more on that below). So it seems the authors have not engaged in the sorts of works that would have been need to understand a 2000 year old book. I’m not going to read Homer without some help understanding its cultural background, so why do the Gospels get a pass?

The background info that the authors establish is also not great. For example, they claim that the Magi “stud[ied] the world’s great religious texts”. How do they know this to be true in the time of Jesus? Besides, why would Zoroastrian priests care so much about Jewish scripture? Seems that because there is a story of Magi coming to a Jewish king/messiah means that they must have had such an interest; without evidence, all I see is circularity. Bill also says that the Magi had stopped by to see Herod and pay their respects to him before finding Jesus. Well, I don’t know where he gets that. It’s not in my Bible, and I can’t think of an apocryphal tradition that suggests this either.

The authors also claim that there are five prophecies that the messiah’s birth was attached to: a great star, born in Bethlehem, a descendant of David, men from afar would come to worship him, his mama’s a virgin. Again, how does Bill know these are the prophecies that people expected? For example, there were messiahs believed to come about that weren’t Davidic (i.e. the Messiah Ben Joseph). And the virgin birth prophecy has been such a headache for scholars, and there isn’t any clear indications that it was expected of a Jewish hero. That the messiah was expected to be from Bethlehem is also thin on evidence from 2nd Temple Judaism. Instead, it looks like Bill read ahead in the Gospel of Matthew and retrojected its claims into “expected prophecies to be fulfilled”. The authors of this book also seem to allow imagination to become history when they describe how Herod looked from the window of his palace (Billo calls it a castle, which is anachronistic) at the Temple and frets over baby Jesus. The way it is written seems like a novel, especially with the use of the present tense, so I suspect that the authors aren’t up on genre theory and practice. You are supposed to keep the fiction and history separate. What are you guys writing, a gospel? 😈

But the bit of meat in this chapter that got my attention was how the Star of Bethlehem and its relation to the Magi were described.

The wealthy foreigners travel almost a thousand miles over rugged desert, following an extraordinary light that shines in the sky each morning before dawn.

In a note, O’Reilly & Dugard refer to a 1991 paper by Colin Humphreys in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society (here) which argues that the Star was a comet in March of 5 BCE.

Due to the earth’s orbital motion, the comet’s light would have been directly in front of the Magi during their journey–hence they would have truly followed the star.

First off, these guys aren’t reading their Bibles. There is the popular notion that the Star led the Magi all the way from Persia to Jerusalem, but the Gospel of Matthew only describes the Star doing this from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Looks like Bill based his knowledge of the Bible on the song We Three Kings. Now, the Humphreys paper doesn’t make this mistake, so I don’t know if they even read it. Also, the orbital movements of the Earth are not the cause of the “leading” of the Star; the comet moves from east to west because of the rotation of the planet, not its revolution about the Sun. This basic point of astronomy is off.

Moreover, how can the comet lead the Magi to Jerusalem? As the authors themselves say, it appeared each morning before dawn in the east. How could they then follow it west towards Jerusalem from Persia? Eventually in the night or day it would be in the west, but this means that the now rather confused Magi are making all sorts of weird paths as demonstrated by xkcd. Again, basic astronomy is simply not understood here. I wish to highlight that Humphreys did not make this mistake; it’s all on Bill and Martin.

But a comet doesn’t explain the motions and other aspects of the Star of Bethlehem. It cannot lead anyone, including for the journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem (as Matt 2:9 actually describes), nor can a comet stop over a particular locale. Moreover, comets were considered the most evil of celestial omens to the Romans and Persians. Had O’Reilly read Brown’s Birth of the Messiah, he probably wouldn’t have made these mistakes.

9780956694867- Font CoverTo get the complete take-down of the comet hypothesis and all naturalistic explanations of the Star as well as its historicity, you will want to check out my upcoming book The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View. I sent it to the printers today, so it should be available online in the near future. So if you already bought Bill’s book, I’m sorry. But you can at least get a companion volume to make yourself and others feel better, not to mention learn some correct astronomy and history.

Now, I have hardly scratched the surface of the historical problems this book has. I could mention how Bill says that Herod was a secular man (he was Jewish; he rebuilt the Temple, after all; cf. Josephus, BJ 2.13), the Magi on their own decided not to return to Herod (Matthew says an angel told them not to go back, hardly a sign of the wise men’s initiative), how Judea was a part of the province of Syria (it was a client kingdom in the days of Herod), and so much more. Joel Watts has given the book a read-through and has seen a horde of issues, great and small (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), and I won’t be surprised to find other critical scholars finding problems with this volume. In the end, it’s Billo killing Jesus scholarship, and in part to forward his political and theological ideology.