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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My Upcoming Talk about Science, Religion, the Star of Bethlehem in Cologne (Köln)

Several months ago I was asked to participate on a conference about the Star of Bethlehem at the University of Groningen. But before I get there, I will be stopping in Cologne (Köln) in Germany to give a lecture for the Skeptics in the Pub group there. My lecture will be in English, if for no other reason than my German is nothing to listen to (one can say ein Bier, bitte only so many times). Besides the links above see the Post by The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View book page.

Hope you can come and check it all out! And if you are in Germany, Denmark, or the Netherlands (and maybe France) and have a skeptic/humanist/atheist/religious studies group, contact me ASAP if you want me to make a tour stop. I need to buy plane tickets really soon.
 

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.

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.

The Star of Bethlehem Documentary–A Critical View Index

As I have pointed out in my last post about the famed Star of Bethlehem, apparently one of the most popular versions of the theory of what the Star could have been is that put forward in the documentary of the same name. The website breaks down the claims, though the film is the more enjoyable format. It has great production qualities, as it is produced by Stephen McEveety who also produced movies with Mel Gibson, namely Braveheart and (more important to this) The Passion of the Christ.

However, the presentation is the child of Rick Larson, a lawyer and amateur Bible scholar. Actually, that doesn’t fully explain him. Larson is a student of one of the most influential evangelical apologists of the 20th century, Francis Schaeffer,  who had his own little community in Switzerland for his ministry. According to Larson’s bio, he actually studied under Schaeffer in Switzerland, so his interest in the Bible and the Star is hardly a passing interest but a part of his evangelism.

But even though the presentation is his, the heavy lifting in doing the scholarly work really should go to Ernest Martin, a former meteorologist but turned amateur Bible scholar and archaeologist. Martin was a member of Hebert Armstrong’s Radio Church of God (which keeps changing its name), which was one of the oldest televangelist ministries using radio and television. Armstrong comes from an Adventist background, though not strictly so. That is a good thing, because if Armstrong and (transitively) Martin were Adventists through-and-through, then they would have to take everything said by the sect’s prophetess Ellen G. White as divine revelation, and she said the Star was not a planet but more like an angel (The Desire of Ages, p. 60). But this is no matter to the truth of any of the claims about the Star of Bethlehem, but an interesting aside.

What I want to do here, and in several more posts, is provide a resource for those searching for critical issues with the ideas put forward in the documentary. While it focuses on the birth of Jesus, there are also astronomical aspects that are considered at the death of Jesus, namely the eclipse of the sun at the crucifixion. There is also some revision of history in the documentary because the particular Star theory requires that King Herod of Judea have a different year of death than is normally considered by historians.

With those preliminaries out of the way, here is the order posts I have planned for dealing with the claims in the Star of Bethlehem documentary. Note that this will not be a complete debunking of naturalistic theories of the Star, but simply a critical look at the unique premises of the hypothesis presented by Martin, McEveety, and Larson (call it the MMEL hypothesis).

  1. The Death of Herod and Josephus’ Account
  2. Textual criticism and Josephus
  3. The constellation Leo as the sign of the Jews
  4. The movement of the planets and the Star
  5. The eclipse and Jesus’ crucifixion

These resources should be sufficient on their own to demonstrate the weaknesses in the hypothesis, but the definitive refutation of all naturalistic explanations of the Star will have to be found in my upcoming book on the subject.

Reviews of Larson’s documentary and website by Christians:

  1. Answers in Genesis
  2. Creation Today
  3. Reasons to Believe
  4. Christianity Today
  5. Bible Film Blogs
  6. Christian Cinema
  7. The Old Schoolhouse
  8. Ethics Daily
  9. Probe Ministries

(Believe it or not, but the AiG one is the most thorough and useful of the bunch.)

The War on Christmas Heats Up

Not only are there my attempts to attack the Happy Holiday, but other fronts are opening up as well (via Mrs. Betty Bowers).

Entertaining, but the number of gods having a birthday on Dec 25 is something I already argued (in part) is probably not the case (and it doesn’t go back to Sumeria best I can tell). The calculation I propose and others have argued seem more persuasive. Otherwise, the War of Christmas continues to roll on, and the casualties are mounting.

Calculating Christmas

Continuing from previous discussion about the date of Christmas, let us take a look into another hypothesis that has been in the scholarly literature for some time but hasn’t been receiving the same popular treatment as the Sol Invictus connection. The idea here has one feature all on its own that makes it attractive, that being that it will explain both the Dec 25 as well as the Jan 6 date for Jesus’ birth in various traditions. It can even explain some of the other dates noted by Clement of Alexandria at the beginning of the 3rd century (as discussed before). And it’s all about the numbers and another important day in Christendom.

To find the birthday, consider the day Jesus is supposed to have died. As the canonical Gospels tell, Jesus dies on a Friday around Passover (the Gospels disagree on what day of Passover week it was). The Passover itself requires calculation to determine. The Jewish calendar is supposed to be set such that the Passover happens on a full moon, and the first full moon after the vernal equinox is supposed to be the date of Nisan 15, Passover. The vernal equinox sets the first day of string, and in antiquity it was about March 25. By the turn of the third century, Tertullian (Adversus Judaeos 8) tells us that Jesus was crucified on Nisan 14, which he specified further with the year via Roman consuls and a date in the Roman calendar, the 8th day before the Kalends of April, that is the first day of April. The back calculation gives us March 25, the vernal equinox, as the date Jesus died.

This volume has a great discussion of the hypothesis being presented here.

Now, why does this matter for figuring out when Jesus was born? There appears to be a Jewish traditional belief that the date of a person’s birth was also that of their death. This is apparently the running assumption in an argument found in the Talmud between rabbis Joshua and Eliezer about the date of Creation and thus the date of the New Year (Rosh Hashanah 10-12). One would think that this means the Christians, following in this tradition, would place Jesus’ birth on March 25 instead. However, we have sources that place the Annunciation to Mary and the conception of Jesus to that March date (1). Nine months later and you get Dec 25. Continue reading