Was the Star of Bethlehem Real?: Responding to the Go-To Skeptic
Among skeptics, Dr. Aaron Adair is sometimes hailed as the “go to” guy on the Star of Bethlehem.
He’s even written a book arguing that the Star didn’t exist.
Recently, he engaged a post I wrote about the Star of Bethlehem. I'd like to offer a reply to Dr. Adair in this post.
First Things First
First, you can read our previous interaction in the comments box on this post.
I want to thank Dr. Adair for striving to maintain a positive tone, both in the combox and in his book, The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View. Although he has occasional lapses (who doesn’t?), it’s clear that he is striving to avoid the kind of snark and venom that are often found in works by some skeptics. As a non-fan of snark and venom (including when it is used by Catholics), I appreciate that.
In his book, Adair rightly argues against a number of interpretations of what the Star was, and this is to be expected. The Star can’t have been all of the different things that have been proposed, and some of the proposals are easier to rule out than others.
Sometimes part of his argument is based on the erroneous (but popular) idea that Jesus was born sometime before 4 B.C. I’ve argued why that was not the case before, on grounds completely unrelated to the Star (see here, here, and here).
Because Adair uses the more popular dating, he too quickly discounts some possible understandings of the Star, but even in these cases, he has an argument to fall back on.
Adair’s Ultimate Argument
For Adair, the ultimate argument against any understanding of the Star as a natural (but providential) phenomenon, is based on the alleged motion of the Star as described by Matthew.
This argument is found in chapter 7 of his book, a chapter titled “Failure of All Natural Hypotheses,” and it is regularly presented as the “clincher” for why any particular view of the Star as a natural phenomenon cannot be true.
Adair summarizes the argument this way:
"Matthew talks about a Star that travels south towards a particular destination, leading on eastern sages, until it comes to its destination, stops and hangs over a particular hovel in the small town of Bethlehem. No object in the sky can do such a thing, not by a long shot."
Although I had not read Adair’s book when I wrote my original post, this was precisely the view I was arguing against. The text of Matthew does not, in fact, require the star to move in an abnormal manner.
So in the combox, I asked Adair how he would respond, and he provided a brief response. Since he has more length to argue his view in his book, however, I will reply to what is found there.
In my original post, I did not discuss the Greek text of Matthew because I try to keep my blog posts as accessible as possible and because 95%+ of the time, there is no need to appeal to the original language (or, at least, no reason to get into the details). Adair, however, does rely on the Greek text, and so I’ll need to discuss that here.
Upon reading Adair’s argument concerning the Greek, it became apparent that this was not an area he had full command of. Indeed, the Acknowledgements of his book state:
"In order to engage in the texts, I needed to learn the Greek language, in which Carl Anderson and William Blake Tyrell have helped me, though I dare not claim proficiency as they can."
Adair is to be credited for making this admission, and he’s trying to do the best he can with the knowledge of Greek he has. But it is clear that his handling of the Greek is problematic.
To put it briefly, Adair uses incorrect grammatical terminology, does not understand the way a major Greek verb tense works, and overtaxes the language to support his conclusion, not recognizing the degree of flexibility it contains.
As an example of the first problem (incorrect grammatical terminology), he at one point refers to Greek prepositions taking certain “declinations.” He also identifies the genitive as a “declination.”
This is inaccurate. Greek prepositions do not take “declinations.” They take “cases” (e.g., genitive, dative, accusative), and the genitive is a case. (This will be familiar if you’ve had Latin, German, or other languages that use cases.)
This is a small matter, though. These could just be slips of the tongue, and we all have those. What is more serious is his misunderstanding of the way a major Greek verb tense works.
In an Instant?
A key part of Adair’s argument depends on a Greek tense known as the “aorist.” We don’t have this tense in English, but it is the single most common tense in the Greek New Testament. It is even more frequently used than the present tense, and so understanding it correctly is very important.
Adair notes that two Greek verbs used for the Star (erchomai = “come/go” and histami = “stand”) are both in the aorist tense. He claims that the aorist tense means that the Star, in an instant, came and stopped its motion in the sky.
Here’s what Adair argues:
"As the verb [erchomai] is here conjugated (as a participle), it means that in an instant (the aorist tense) it came to its destination..."
The verb [histami] is again conjugated like erchomai to indicate that the Star came to a standstill in an instant using the aorist tense."
This is false, and here's why:
The Abused Aorist
Adair is wrong about the meaning of the aorist tense since Greek does not have a tense devoted to things that happen instantaneously. Neither does English, nor does any language I am aware of.
In English, if you want to signify that something happened instantly, you need to modify the verb with an adverb, like “instantly” or “immediately.”
The same thing is true in Greek. You need to use an adverb like euthus (“immediately,” “at once,” “straight away,” “directly”). In fact, the Gospel of Mark is renown for using euthus regularly just for dramatic effect.
But the aorist means something else. In fact, it tells you very little about the event it is describing.
What This Tense Means
The aorist tense is usually (though not always) used to refer to an event in the past. That means it tells you very little about that event. In particular, it does not tell you whether the event was finished or ongoing at the time you are speaking of. It leaves this matter undefined, which is why it is called the “aorist” tense.
“Undefined” is what the word “aorist” means (this is a case where word origins do point to the meaning of a word).
For example, suppose I was speaking of a particular time last night and I said, “Bob built a fire.” If I used the aorist tense to say this, you would not be able to tell whether Bob had finished building the fire at the time I was speaking of or whether he was still building it then. The aorist leaves those matters undefined, and if you want to know the answer to them, you have to look to something other than the verb tense.
Thus William Mounce summarizes the aorist this way:
"The aorist indicates an undefined action normally occurring in the past [p. 194]."
(For introductory-level presentations of what the aorist does and doesn’t mean, see William Mounce’s Basics of Biblical Greek and D. A. Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies. For more advanced discussions, see Daniel Wallace’s Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics and Frank Stagg’s classic article The Abused Aorist).
The Bottom Line
The bottom line for our purposes is that the aorist tense is not devoted to actions that happen in an instant, and so Adair is wrong to infer from its use in Matthew that the Star “instantly” came and stood at a particular place in the sky.
It is true that the Star came to stand above the house where Jesus was, but the use of the aorist does not tell us that this happened through a sudden, instantaneous arresting of its motion. It may have moved in an entirely normal manner to arrive above the house for the magi to see.
Which leads to another question...
A Question of Leadership
Another key part of Adair’s argument concerns another verb that Matthew uses.
"The word that describes how the Star 'went before' the Magi is the verb proago, which means to lead forward.
But in the context of Matthew, it is even more specific because the verb takes a direction object—that which the verb is acting on—and that direct object is clearly the Magi.
As such, the Star was leading the Magi, bringing them forth to their destination; the Star is doing more than standing in a certain direction or even moving about, but it is actually leading the Magi on."
Here we have another incorrect use of grammatical terminology. Verbs do not “take a direction object.” They can have a direct object. That’s normal with any verb that is being used transitively.
Adair is correct that the verb proago can mean “lead,” when it is used transitively. Even supposing that this is the meaning here, does it imply an unusual motion on the part of the star?
No, and here's why...
Overtaxing the Language
Suppose I am speaking about a camping trip in which I and my companions got lost at night. Fortunately for us, we realized that the moon was in the southern sky that night, and so we were able to determine our directions. It also provided light for us as we walked south for a few miles until we got back to our camp.
If I said, “The moon led us back to camp,” am I implying that the moon moved in an unusual way?
Of course not.
The moon moved entirely in the expected way, arcing from east to west at a rate of about 15 degrees per hour, but still staying ahead of us in the southern sky as we walked the short distance back to camp. There was nothing unusual about its motion at all.
Of course the moon is not an intelligent being and so, literally speaking, it does not lead anybody. But we still speak in this way in English, and Greek has the same flexibility.
I could say the same thing about a star that was in the sky in front of us and moved normally.
As a result, Adair is overtaxing the language—trying to get more out of it than one fairly can.
And that’s even granting his preferred translation of proago as “lead.”
Even More Flexibility
Most words have more than one meaning, and proago is no exception.
One of the most prestigious Greek dictionaries is the Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich-Danker A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. It’s so famous that people just call it “Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich-Danker” or even “BAGD.”
In addition to listing the transitive use of proago and noting that it means “to take or lead from one position to another by taking charge, lead forward, lead, or bring out”, BAGD notes that proago also has an intransitive usage.
It gives the meaning of the intransitive usage as “to move ahead or in front of, go before, lead the way, precede.”
BAGD gives two examples of this usage, both of them from Matthew.
One is Matthew 21:9, where the crowds go before Jesus during his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. They obviously are not leading Jesus. He is going into Jerusalem anyway, but the crowds precede him on his journey.
The second instance is Matthew 2:9, where the star precedes the magi. The situation is the same: They are going to Bethlehem anyway (based on what they learned in Herod’s court). The star just happens to precede them on their journey.
The recognition of other meanings for proago is not unique to BAGD but will be found in any standard Greek dictionary.
This means there is even more flexibility to the language than mentioned in the previous section of this post, and so Adair is overtaxing the language to an even greater degree.
We see that Adair’s argument from the Greek is flawed and does not prove what he wishes it to.
Whether you take proago to mean “lead” or simply “go before,” we do not have any indication that the star moved in an unusual way.
Neither does the use of the aorist tense indicate that a rapidly moving star instantly came to a stop.
Given the fact that we are told it is a star implies that we should first seek to understand it as moving in the normal way that stars do, and only if this effort fails should we resort to another hypothesis.
It Doesn’t Fail
The trip to Bethlehem likely took between one and four hours (depending on things like whether they were mounted, the darkness, and the unevenness of the terrain), so the star would have moved between 15 and 60 degrees in the night sky. They might have left before it got dark, so the actual motion may have been even less.
There is no reason why the star could not have been in the southern sky, moved in a normal east-west arc, remaining in the same basic part of the sky as they journeyed.
Then, 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. Nothing in the text of Matthew—in English or in Greek—requires the star to move in an abnormal way.
I’d like to thank Dr. Adair for engaging in the comments box on this issue, and I look forward to any further response he would like to make.
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