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

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Faith-Based Initiatives for the Star of Bethlehem in Secular Places

One of the points I have tried to drive home with my research on the various hypotheses about what was the Star of Bethlehem has been that it is more a religious rather than scientific exercise. In my 2012 article for Zygon I showed how naturalistic explanations for the Star only started when miracles were becoming ridiculous to the scholarly and had to mad-dash for anything to save face. Now the project is in the hands almost exclusively of those that are not Bible scholars or historians. I also showed examples of how such research was directly said to be used for apologetic of faith-based ends.

In my book, The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View, I expanded a bit on this when I also looked at the use of the UFO explanation for the Star. An additional point was made by the author of my preface, Bob Berman. He noted how planetaria had been pushing this show for decades and either didn’t care or knew that it was impossible. It was popular and traditional, so that seems to be enough reason for these things to last.

I haven’t stopped looking for sources, and I just came across another one where the director of a major US museum states rather clearly that the presentations are, in part, to renew the faith in those watching or listening. The location in question is the Franklin Institute, a notable museum in Philadelphia named after its famous resident, Ben “100 Dollar” Franklin. The Institute has had a journal since a very early point in its history, going back to the 1820s and continues today. As is normal, the director of the museum can have some space to editorialize and the like.

In a Dec 1954 issue of the Journal of the Franklin Institute, director A.C. Carlton provided a note about the museum’s Star of Bethlehem presentation. Among other things, he said

To those who see the demonstration for the first time there comes the awed realization that here is a new method for replenishing faith by reviving old traditions and investing them with new vigor.

Carlton noted that for those who had seen the show before only need to be reminded of its December traditional presentation. In other words, it is a show that brings in an audience and it does so because it “replenish[es] faith” in old traditions. That is hardly a secular goal, let alone a scientific one.

That it strikes a popular chord may also be a clue as to how this show became a part of the standard planetary curriculum since the 1930s. Instead of an astronomer or historian of science, it appears to be that the first planetarium show about the Star of Bethlehem came from a certain James Stokley (1900-1989). Educated with a bachelors in education and a masters in psychology from U Penn, Stokley became a science news reporter in DC for a while before visiting planetaria around the world and being inspired to become a director of such a place. The planetarium was hot and new in the 1920s in Europe and America, and considering how massive and amazing the Zeiss projectors were, no wonder it captured his imagination.

In the 1930s, it seems his dreams came true as he was a major presenter in planetaria such as the Fels Planetarium of the Franklin Institute and later the Buhl Planetarium. According to his obit he had a column in Science News for over 50 years and spent most of the 1930s working at Fels. It seems there he developed the first Star of Bethlehem show, which proved to be very popular, as noted by the Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers and in Theaters of Time and Space: American Planetaria, 1930-1970. It seems that Stokley, because of his journalism background, knew what chords would strike with an audience and how to be a good showman, so it seems that it takes someone of such background to present something that would be controversial to experts but great for laymen.

(Also of note, Stokley gave the first planetarium show even viewed by Albert Einstein, and Stokley later became a professor at my alma mater, Michigan State.)

You can read this good article on Buhl Planetarium’s Star of Bethlehem show and its history, again noting the influence of Stokley. I think I have a new line in researching the influence of the content of planetarium shows and how religion has become such a big part of what is seen during the holidays. At this time though, it seems that a significant reason why the Star of Bethlehem has become such as big part of early and recent holiday science shows is because it proved to grab an audience, especially when the show is well-crafted and pulls on the faithful heartstrings.

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

Does Matthew’s Gospel Pre-Suppose a Supernatural Star of Bethlehem?

A few days ago at the National Catholic Register, a blog post was put up about the Yuletide star that I have been so interested in. The author of the piece, Jimmy Akin, wrote up about how the text of the Gospel of Matthew does not necessarily talk about a Star that moves around in such a way that it can only be supernatural. Akin, who besides having a cool red beard, is a Catholic apologist, and he categorizes his efforts here about the Star under apologetics (as seen on the blogs tag). I read the blog entry after I saw it come up in a search on Twitter, and the first thing I noted was that he said that the text does not support the supernatural reading, but he never actually cited the Greek text! I left a responses in the comments there, and I was invited to participate more there. My main comment on the Greek was then picked up, along with my book, by Akin, who then wrote another blog post on this subject. There he looks at my arguments about the Greek terminology and tries to show that I am forcing the text too much. To that, I wish to respond.

First off, there are a couple of minor mistakes or almost mistakes he does correctly notice. For example, I said that the Magi were the “direction object” of the verb prago, but that should be “direct object”. Strangely enough, the very next line in my book I get it right, so my fingers are the problem here in creating this typo. In fact, while writing this paragraph, I made the same mistake, and it’s one I have noticed doing several other times. My fingers are possessed by Legion, for my letters are many! Now, it’s a minor error and doesn’t affect my argument, and it doesn’t even demonstrate a lack of knowledge of Greek (it’s just a typo), but such corrections are good for me to know. Another one is how I say after the preposition epano that the noun/adjective/pronoun should be ‘declined’ in the genitive. The more precise way of saying anything should have been that it should be in the ‘case’ of the genitive. It’s not quite an error since cases are a subset of how nouns/pronouns/etc. are declined. Inflexive languages decline nouns/adjectives/etc. to indicate number, gender, and case. But I should have been more precise. Again, these things don’t affect my arguments at all, and Akin is clear on that as well.

Now, before getting into the issues that Akin has with my use of the Greek that would undermine my translation and interpretation of the text, I think there are some serious issues with Akin’s conclusions even without any refutation. In other words, even if I grant Akin’s points, his conclusions that the Star was something naturalistic or scientifically explicable does not follow. Because of that, I will focus on that first, and then I will show that his refutation of my interpretation of the Greek doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

First, he still translates the verb proago as to mean ‘to go before’, and in this case that is going before the Magi. His own sources say that it means “to lead ahead, go before, lead the way, precede”. And the root verb here, ago, is a verb of leading and motion. In fact, it even means to carry something away to a certain destination. As such, the Star is still traveling, even supposing my translation of the term is wrong. This is further confirmed by the use of the verb erchomai (used in 2:9 as a participle) that says the Star ‘arrived’. And lastly, the movement has a termination, as proven by the use of the proposition ‘until’ (heos) and then the verb meaning ‘to stop/stand’ (histemi). Most importantly, this motion in in the direction that the Magi travel, and that is south. But, as I noted in my book, all stars and planets move east to west in the sky and could not in any reasonable sense be said to move in the direction of Bethlehem as seen from Jerusalem.

In an attempt to counter this, Akin uses the example of being lost on a camping trip, seeing the Moon to the south, and using it for directions. As such, saying the Moon “led” you anywhere doesn’t imply anything supernatural. But this is quite odd considering I don’t know of anyone that even said the Moon leads you any place. If the Moon (or any other object, for that matter) is being used as a directional guidepost, then no one talks about that in terms of leading or ‘going before’. The example is one that doesn’t fit even English diction, and I would be impressed to find an example in Koine Greek. Moreover, even this attempt does not fit the context of Matthew, again because of the term ‘until’. In Akin’s example, the Moon acted as a guide post and led him home “until it stopped”. Huh? This makes no sense to me.

The only way for Matthew to have avoided saying the Star was moving to the south, he should have used a term indicating position, such as the verb ‘to be’ and the preposition meaning ‘before, in front of’. In English, then the text would be rendered as “the Star was before them”. But this again will not make sense because of the use of ‘until’. This same preposition has the same thing pointed out by David Strauss all the way back in 1835 when he showed the scholars of his time that they couldn’t consistently re-translate the text to get a naturalistic version of the Star.

However, what I find the most damaging is what Akin left out in his response: he never discusses the the verbiage used to say that the Star stood over a single house. It is strange considering I thought it was the point that did the most to show the unusual nature of the Star, and it is the point I provided the most evidence to support. But Akin didn’t address it at all. What I argued was that the use of the preposition epano, followed by a noun/adjective/etc. in the genitive case — I got it this time 😉 — indicates close proximity or being right on top of an object. I provide many examples of this construction from Matthew’s Gospel, other NT writings, and I also point out how it is totally inconsistent with how Greek texts talk of astronomical phenomena.

Another point to consider on top of all the syntactical evidence I provided, I also showed how my interpretation is consistent with everyone else with an opinion on the subject from antiquity up to 1800, and now one is hard pressed to find a NT scholar that diverges from the supernatural interpretation. Particularly in my comment on Akin’s first blog on the subject, I cited the following from the Oxford Bible Commentary on the Star (p. 849): “This is no ordinary star, and attempts to identify it with a planetary conjunction, comet, or super-nova are futile”, and all of the ancient commentators “rightly recognize that the so-called star does not stay on high but moves as a guide and indeed comes to rest very near the infant Jesus.” In my book, I particularly cited St. Augustine (someone a Catholic would probably find authoritative on a lot of things) and Johannes Kepler. In my article for Zygon, I provided lots of sources all indicating the same thing for nearly 2000 years (see also Allison, Studies in Matthew, pp. 17-22.) One is hard pressed to find a recognized NT scholar, Catholic or Protestant, that differs from saying that the Star is described as supernatural. As such, this hardly rests on my authority, but instead on virtually everyone that has read the story in the original Greek.

Given that Akin’s arguments against me, if unrefuted, do not lead to his conclusion, that he does not deal with the most difficult aspect of saying the Star was not supernatural, and he must go up against just about every authority on the subject, that leaves his position untenable. And this is without me even arguing against my supposed refutation.

But now to get into what Akins thinks I did wrong that does affect my arguments–that is, if you are still awake. Because if you are, the rest of this can get really dry and boring and is all about linguistics and grammar… but grammar can be fun.

On the use of the aorist tense of the verb histemi, Akin says that the aorist does not indicate an instantaneous action, but rather it leaves the matter “undefined”. However, it seems that Akin is not being careful in his usage of how the aorist term is defined and used. What his sources indicate is that the aorist tense does not indicate if the action is continuing or still affecting things. However, the aorist is used to give an action in a snapshot. This can be compared to another major past tense used in Greek, the imperfect. As my intro to Greek textbook put it, and Akin’s cited paper, not to mention other authoritative sources, the imperfect is like a movie film strip, while the aorist is a picture. To get a simplified grasp on this in English, at least with respect to the verb histemi, it is the difference between “it stopped/stood” (aorist) and “it was stopping/standing” (imperfect). The latter we sometimes call the past progressive.

In linguistics, the aorist is said to have perfective aspect, meaning it is a unit without any subdivisions or internal complexity. It is complete in itself. For an example in English with something progressive happening to compare, observe this sentence:

While the boy was walking down the sidewalk on his way home, he saw a large bird.

The verb form of ‘was walking’ is progressive and imperfect, while the verb form ‘saw’ has perfective aspect. The first moment of seeing the bird in question is an instant. Now, the seeing may continue on after that first moment, and that is usually the case, but the seeing had an instant it started. What the aorist captures is a moment in this walk.

In Akin’s example of the built fire, the use of the aorist indicates that the building of the fire had been finished; there is an instant that you can say the fire is built. Akin says that in this example you don’t know if the fire was only starting to be built, but that’s not true in this context; if someone said something was ‘built’ then I would think it was done. Akin has confused things, but it can be rectified. Using the aorist of ‘built’ does not indicate on its own that the fire had just been built or if its building has simply been completed in the past; it also doesn’t tell us if the fire still exists.  Again, it’s the snapshot. If we were considering the process, we would say that the fire ‘was being built’. In the case of ‘to stand’, the use of the aorist doesn’t clarify if the situation of standing had just started or if we were just considering a moment when someone was standing. For example, you see someone has “stood at attention”. That person could have already been standing at attention, and so we are looking at an instant of the time when that person was standing. This doesn’t make sense in the case of building something; we don’t say a building has been built before its completion. So if Akin used my example or corrected his, his point would have more strength.

Coming back to Matthew’s text, in 2:9, the Star ‘going before’ the Magi until ‘it stood’ in place. The use of the aorist here indicates that it came to a stop; that there was an instant it had stopped or stood in place. If the imperfect had been used, it could indicate that the Star had been standing in place for a while and never had to have been moving. But the use of terms that indicate motion, not to mention the use of the word ‘until’ (heos), this stopping or standing begins in an instant. It is the context with the aorist that indicates a sudden change in verb action. The use of the aorist indicates the completion of the movement of the Star and the beginning of it being stopped in place. In this context of motion verbs and the preposition ‘until’ makes clear that the stopping happened in an instant. And that is consistent with what is said by Akin’s source paper on the abuse of the aorist:

“The aorist is well suited to action which in itself is punctiliar whereas some other tenses, e.g., the imperfect, are not. But the aorist is also suited to actions which are in themselves linear, unless one wants to stress its linear nature. It follows, then, that the action covered by the aorist may or may not be punctiliar, and the presence of the aorist does not in itself give any hint as to the nature of the action behind it. Contextual factors are primary for any attempt to go behind the aorist to the nature of the action itself.”

The context with the aorist in Matt 2:9 clearly indicates the moment the Star stopped.

Now, all of this is rather beside the point because, even in Akin’s reading, the Star was ahead of the Magi until they arrived. In other words, the stopping of the Star in place is still in a moment in time. He thinks that that moment is when the Magi reach the house of the Holy Family. Never mind if that is what the text actually says; he is still having the Star stop at a particular time. Just as I do. Which makes his whole grammar lesson, which he doesn’t quite do right, entirely pointless.

Now, on to proago. In the commonly used Bauer Greek-English lexicon, it states that the verb was intransitive in the case of the Star and Magi. That is, it did not take a direct object. This is a bit strange, considering that the word ‘them’ is in the accusative case before a verb that is normally transitive. If you have a direct object and transitive verb, that indicates the verb is doing something to the object. For example: “I threw the ball”; ‘threw is the transitive verb, and it affects the direct object, ‘the ball’. Reading the Greek, because ‘them’ is in the accusative case, which usually indicates a direct object, one would expect that it means the Star is proago-ing the Magi. And this is how it is rendered in several translations, which I cited in my book.

But even taking the Bauer lexicon, does it means the Star is not leading them? As Akin’s own citation indicates, the verb in the intransitive case means “to move ahead or in front of, go before, lead the way, precede.” In all of these English equivalents, we still have movement and leading. So in Matt 21:9, the crowds “went ahead”, but they are still traveling in the direction that Jesus will walk. There may not be direct leading, but there is still movement and following of a certain path. Similarly in Matt 26:32, Jesus will “go before” his disciples to Galilee, meaning Jesus travels there; he isn’t teleported and acting as a homing beacon. The only word in the English-Greek lexicon for proago that seems to have wiggle-room is “precede“, since it may just mean being in front of rather than traveling ahead. But considering that it is grouped with several other attempted equivalents, which all indicate motion and leadership, ‘precede’ must also mean to move in the direction that you are leading ahead. It is an abuse to take a translation dictionary, ignore all of the versions that contradict your position, and go with the one that could fit what you want if it was decontextualized from all the rest that indicate a more precise meaning of the word.

Even if we decontextualize as Akin has done, it won’t work. Again, the use of ‘until’ makes this translation implausible. If the Star simply preceded them, it would still have preceded them when they arrived at the house. ‘Precede’ also ignores the participial form of erchomai, which means to come or arrive. Akin has to make nonsense of this passage even when abusing the dictionary of choice (also, the most authoritative Greek-English lexicon for classicists is that of Liddell, Scott, and Jones, or the LSJ, but Bauer’s is a great resource, too).

Lastly, to deal with how Akin talks of the Star stopping over “the place where the child was”, he says “when they approached the house—from whatever angle they approached it—they noted that the star was in the part of the sky above the house.” First off, a star up in the sky is no more over one house than any other. It’s also not clear if Akin means the Star was at zenith or still to the south. If the latter, then the Star would still be preceding them, so ‘until’ makes that senseless, as noted above.

On the other hand, it seems that Akin wants the Star to be at zenith while the Magi were in Bethlehem. But that will not work with his belief that the Star was seen to the south from Jerusalem; the distance between the locations is so small that the Star would have been just as at zenith in Bethlehem as in Jerusalem to naked-eye observers. In other words, the Star can’t both be towards the south and then directly above… unless the Star moved south, which makes it supernatural. In either scenario, there is either a grammatical impossibility or an astronomical one.

And this also fails to fit the Greek anyways, as I note in my book. The Star is not simply up above in the sky. The wrong preposition is used for that (epano instead of huper). This reading by Akin fails at all levels.

So, I will leave the discussion with the reminder that all authorities on this subject, ancient and modern, agree with me on the the supernatural description of the Star. This case hardly rests on just my authority, though my reasons for my reading are very well justified. Considering I am reading the text the same way every other expert does, it is a near-impossible case to argue against without re-doing a lot of ancient Greek semantics. That was already attempted in the early 19th century, and it didn’t work then.

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.

A Supernova in the Milky Way within 50 Years… And it has NOTHING to do with the Star of Bethlehem!

From the press, I learned by a rather interesting new study was published from my university about observing a supernova in the next 50 years. In particular, the researchers figure that there is near a 90+% chance of such an event happening in our own galaxy! This is exciting because the last supernova recorded in the Milky Way was in 1604 by Johannes Kepler. We have been waiting way too long to not have one.

Now, don’t get your telescopes out yet. That near 100% was for seeing a supernova in infrared. There is a much smaller probability of something being notable to us in the visible spectrum. But supernovae are super-bright, producing as much light as an entire galaxy of stars. Why won’t we notice it except in lower frequencies? That’s because most of the area a supernova could go off in the galaxy is far away and there is a lot of dust in the way. Basically, if the supernova happens on the opposite side of the core of the galaxy, we haven’t a chance of seeing it because of all the dust in the way; the distance alone would make it difficult to notice for naked-eye observers. So the researchers are considering detection with modern IR telescopes and methods.

I should also mention one of the researchers, John Beacom, is a former professor of mine. His particular interest is with neutrino astronomy, and that made big gains in the wake of the 1987 supernova seen in the Large Magellanic Cloud. So a detection of supernovae in our galaxy will not only be using IR but potentially also neutrinos. Great stuff.

Not so great is how the media is running with the story. I have seen on Twitter over and over a version of the story from The Register in the UK. It’s a news outlet known for its skewing of climate research, but here they wanted to immediately compare supernovae to the Star of Bethlehem. They also make reference to support for this idea by citing Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

Why is this wrong? Well, the first point is basic: the Gospel doesn’t say the Star was bright, let alone the brightest in the sky. That’s all based on later legend-building. Moreover, as I prove in my book, The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View, there were no visible novae/supernovae around the time of Jesus, and such stellar explosions don’t fit the details of the story at all. But perhaps someone needs to tell the people at The Register that. Then again, they’re probably getting a lot of hits…