The Claimed Mummy Gospel Fragment

As has been all over the news recently, there is an alleged scrap of the first written Gospel from the Bible, the Gospel of Mark, as found inside of a papier-mache mummy. This has the potential to be a boon for New Testament studies, but there has been significant controversy about how this discovery has been revealed and how it was done. Even the mummy mask that is the source for this scrap of papyrus looks uncomfortable with how things are going.

A bit of background. Continue reading

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 #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

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.

The Star of Bethlehem in the News

It’s been a while since I have posted, but I have been super-busy with getting my PhD and other research-related activities. But there has been some great news when it comes to my work on The Star of Bethlehem. Over on Amazon, the reviews have been very positive, with one exception–though that person has proven to not be a charitable reader to put it nicely.

Another review went up today over at Astro Guyz. It is very positive and it is done in the light of the book by Michael Molnar on the same subject. Great to see others comparing the two and thinking I had the better argument. Speaking of arguments, a post went up over at Debunking Christianity that included my book as something worth buying for the holidays, and the comments have led to some interesting engagements. Yes, there is a comment section I think worth reading. It’s a Christmas miracles?

The biggest news for today is that an article has been published in the Columbus Dispatch, on of Ohio’s biggest newspapers. It includes a picture of me as well as bits from an interview I did with the reporter, JoAnne Viviano, a few weeks ago.

fv-star-of-bethlehem-art-gsjpvdkr-1fv-star-of-bethlehem-b-jpg

You can see my ugly mug here. It’s right next to the computer.

There has been a lot of twitter traffic for this article, and I won’t mind if it brings me more attention. Repeating bits of the post, Doubtful News also talks about the subject and promotes my book. Thank you for that, Sharon Hill.

Also coming soon, the podcast Exposing Pseudoastronomy should be putting out an interview with me (probably tomorrow). That went well, except my voice was going bad since I burned my vocal chords a couple of days before. And I am planning another interview very soon about the same subject.

So, lots of things happening about this story. Stay tuned for more as it happens on my Facebook page for the book.

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.

Mike Licona’s Talk on the Resurrection of Jesus

This last week had a fair bit of talks, including mine, and they got into some issues of historical argument and explanation that I think are worthwhile. To start though, I want to look at the first talk.

Last Tuesday night I attended an event run by the college campus apologetics group, Ratio Christi, concerning how historically plausible it is that Jesus was resurrected bodily from the dead. The talk was given by one of the best of the Christian apologists on this topic, Mike Licona, who has written a large tome on the subject based on his doctoral work. Licona doesn’t have the same sort of attitude or approach that I see in other apologists such as William Lane Craig, and his presentation was very enjoyable (though he made a few digs at the state of Michigan, which was mostly safe for him doing this at Ohio State). While he has to talk about all the evidence from all the sources from the first couple of centuries of Christianity in his book, Licona focused only on the materials from the authentic letters of Paul.

Licona argued that from the facts of earliest Christianity believing that Jesus rose from the dead that the best explanation of those facts was that Jesus really was resurrected supernaturally. After the talk was Q&A, apparently the first person to ask Licona questions was Frank Zindler, one person that argues Jesus was a myth and, as was apparent from the questioning, he doubts the historicity of Paul and other early Christians. While I find the possibility of Jesus not being historical worth investigating, that case doesn’t stand up well with it comes to Paul and Peter.

Now, you will probably imagine that I didn’t find Licona’s arguments convincing, and there were plenty of things I would like to discuss with him (one point that I only touched upon in Q&A). But for here, let me focus on the plausibility arguments he made with respect to supernatural resurrection events.

When Licona brought up the methods of the historian, he talked about the points of ad hocness, how much evidence a given hypothesis can explain, etc. The last of the points was that of plausibility. Now, when addressing the evidence of the claims of Jesus being resurrected bodily from the dead, Licona stated that this is actually plausible. Wait, what? Why? Because while a resurrection may be impossible naturally, it fits perfectly supernaturally. We cannot say God was not involved, or any other supernatural entity (and we might as well include ETs with this), and since this is possible for God then the hypothesis is perfectly plausible.

Now, do you notice the mistake being made here? It is one of logic and is subtle, but figuring it out is necessary otherwise anything can be claimed to be plausible using this sort of logic (and the point of method is useless). As I noted, Licona was describing how well the actuality of the resurrection explains the evidence of the claims that Jesus rose from the dead. The claims. We don’t have direct evidence for the resurrection of Jesus (we didn’t see it ourselves or have video recordings of it), so we are asking not to explain the resurrection but the claims of resurrection. So when addressing plausibility, the question should not be about how plausible is a resurrection given God exists, but how plausible is it that the claims of resurrection are caused by an actual resurrection. And this is the sort of question that should be asked given supernatural events–that is, what sorts of things are the most likely cause of people claiming something supernatural happened.

And when we talk about this, we are really asking how often are claims such as these actually caused by the supernatural and not how consistent are apparently supernatural events with the supernatural. When we ask how often supernatural claims are truly caused by something preternatural, that sort of scientific assessment is really then what provides the prior probability of the whole thesis.

So, how often are supernatural claims best explained by an encounter with something out of this world? A skeptic would like answer it hasn’t happened yet (a probability of very near zero), and even a believer has to think that most claims out there are not likely true. I don’t think Licona believes Muhammad flew to heaven on a winged horse or the milk-drinking statue miracles from India. Or, at I did think that, but perhaps he is more open to these claims because of other things he mentioned in Q&A. When one of my friends was trying to get at the prior probability of supernatural resurrection, Licona talked about confirmed cases of these things, in particular, a certain Maria’s apparent near-death experience (NDE) was cited as evidence, seeing a shoe in what was claimed to be an impossible to see location unless one was out of their body, an OBE. But this story, which was only told seven years after the fact, has been investigated, and the details don’t fit the way New Agers and Christians think it does. None of the apparent claims were shown to be best explained by the supernatural. For example, it was possible to see the alleged shoe from the hospital room and did not require anyone to leave their body. The details also don’t come from the person that had the NDE (the investigators could find no record of her and presumed her dead at the time of inquiry), so we only had the wishful memories of someone else years after the fact. Perhaps then it is no wonder the claim fell apart under scrutiny.

Licona also talked about some anecdote of someone being taken to the hospital in a coma, had been that way for some time, was laying there with other comatose patients, and when that person’s family had a big prayer group get together to pray for him, then he woke up and so did all the neighboring comatose patients. One may be skeptical of the facts of this claim (and one sees from the NDE/OBE case above), and I cannot find any info on this event, but let’s also consider the logical problem of correlation to necessarily implying causation. Consider one simple point: are we to believe that no one was praying for these other patients in a religious country like the US? Chances are that they were prayer for and remained in comas for a long time. Sounds like evidence against prayer working, not for it. And such anecdotes mean little when systematic studies of the effects of prayer show no positive effect (cf. Cochrane Review). In other words, Licona is trying to argue for something scientifically disproven based on an anecdote and ignoring all background knowledge. And people wonder why skeptics find these sorts of claims dubious.

Now, part of the reason that Licona thinks that claims like these are so good (and yet not) is that he was relying on his mentor, Gary Habermas, another evangelical apologist at Liberty University (though he got his PhD from my alma mater, MSU). But I have seen that in other areas besides claims of NDEs Habermas is not a great source. For example, he still argues that the Shroud of Turin is an authentic artifact from the 1st century and the likely burial shroud of Jesus. The history of how he defended its authenticity over the decades, including after C-14 dating it to the late Middle Ages, are documented by Chris Hallquist in UFOs, Ghosts, and a Rising God. In particular, the Shroud requires the authenticity of Jesus’s letter to King Abgar of Edessa (something only heard of from ever-dubious Eusebius in the 4th century), and the Templar Knights got it from the Holy Land to Europe, very much a la Dan Brown before Brown even wrote his novel. As for the C-14 dating, these sorts of counter-arguments are rather weak, but perhaps expected from someone working at a university that says the universe is less than 10,000 years old. It may also be worth noting that if the Shroud were authentic, it would mean Jesus was microcephalic with a brain the size of a australopithecine or proto-human; on the other hand, he would appear the same as people in Gothic-style images.

So really, there is a general credulity on the part of the defenders of the faith that want to say Jesus’s supernatural resurrection wasn’t all that implausible. But to do that, it required a mistake in the logic of the methods being applied, and it required being unskeptical of claims that have been thoroughly debunked and only supported by additional suppositions or superstitions (like the resurrecting Jesus shot out light to change the carbon ratios in the cloth which just happen to fit a 14th century dating when the Shroud was first documented and looks like a fake from then).

When instead we consider how often supernatural claims turn to be caused by the unnatural, that turns out to be a low as it goes. I have yet to find a supernatural claim that stands up to scrutiny. And given that background knowledge, any anecdote is not sufficient to provide evidence for the supernatural; it is just as explicable on a person being mistaken, fooled, or trying to fool.

But if we try to actually say that this probability is low, we are getting into Bayesian reasoning, something that came up in Licona’s talk and which he dismissed for reasons that should not be convincing. But they were also things brought up in Q&A and further discussion after my talk. To which I will consider later.