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Was the Star of Bethlehem Real?: Responding to the Go-To Skeptic

FV star of bethlehem

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.

Various Proposals

 

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 herehere, 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.

Going Greek

 

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.

Some Examples

 

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.

Adair states:

"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 forwardlead, 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.

Therefore...

 

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.

What do the commenters here at Strange Notions think?
 
 
Originally posted at National Catholic Register. Used with permission.
(Image credit: Sott)

Jimmy Akin

Written by

Jimmy Akin is a Senior Apologist at Catholic Answers, a member on the Catholic Answers Speakers Bureau, a weekly guest on the global radio program, Catholic Answers LIVE, and a contributing editor for Catholic Answers Magazine. He's the author of numerous publications, including the books The Fathers Know Best (Catholic Answers, 2010); The Salvation Controversy (Catholic Answers, 2001); and Mass Confusion: The Do's & Don'ts of Catholic Worship (Catholic Answers, 1999). Many of Jimmy's books are also integrated into the Logos software. Follow Jimmy's writing at JimmyAkin.com.

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  • I know Aaron from OSU! I didn't know he was writing about this sort of thing. I am surprised he goes into such detail in the Greek. I wonder, are there any starcharts or recordings of the time about supernovae? I remember talking with you, Jimmy, about the possibility of planets coming near each other, Jupiter and Saturn, around 7 BC I think. Would this have led someone in the direction it led the magi, and why that direction and not another?

    • Gilgamesh42

      Hi Paul! Glad to be remembered.

      As for the subject at hand, I already responded to Mr Akin's post a while back when he posted the same in another venue. Interested readers may like to compare https://gilgamesh42.wordpress.com/2014/02/27/does-matthews-gospel-pre-suppose-a-supernatural-star-of-bethlehem/

      • Thanks for the link. If you don't mind my asking, how did you get so interested in this topic that you ended up writing and publishing a book about it?

        • Gilgamesh42

          I first learned about these ideas when I worked at a planetarium. Sounded fascinating, and then I learned that there are about as many Star of Bethlehem (or SoB) hypotheses as there are proponents. I also got interested in biblical studies, in part because it seemed to be such a fascinating puzzle about something so important in American culture yet hardly something easy to understand. Curiosity and wanting to correct something in my own area of studies (science education) has given me the impetus to look into this and try to figure out what is really going on.

  • d5

    So far the most compelling explanation I've heard for the star is Rick Larson's proposal about it actually being Jupiter during an instance of retrograde motion (or something like that).

    From http://www.reasons.org/articles/review-of-the-star-of-bethlehem

    A key component of Larson’s model is that King Herod died around 1 BC (historians date Herod’s death around 4 BC).1 Assuming this date is correct, Larson then uses the Starry Night software to search for astronomical events that occurred above the ancient Near East around 3–2 BC. He found a conjunction of Jupiter (the “king planet”) and Regulus (the “king star”) in 3 BC, which he claims would have announced the conception of Jesus to the magi. Following this model, roughly nine months later a conjunction of Jupiter and Venus formed the “star” of Bethlehem that led the magi from the east to Jerusalem. Finally, a few months later as the magi arrive in Jerusalem, Jupiter enters retrograde motion. According to Larson, it stops right over Bethlehem to lead the magi to Jesus’ location.

    I also happened to find the individual reasons for his conclusion interesting, such as this snippet from the presentation:

    When the wise men said "we saw his star in the east," they didn't mean "we saw his star while we were in the East." The Greek text here says the Star was "en anatole," meaning they saw his star rising in the east. That's what all but polar stars do, because of the rotation of the Earth. Stars rise in the east, but not all celestial objects do that. So, that's another qualification for the Star: 4) it must rise in the east like most other stars. (From http://www.breakingchristiannews.com/articles/display_art.html?ID=1771 )

    Are you familiar with any of that by chance? And if so, what is your take on it?

    • This sounds like a great theory, except for the last part. How would Jupiter stop right over Bethlehem?

      • Planets appear to stop in the sky, the appear to retrograde etc, because of our vantage point.

        • I could imagine a planet being (more or less) over Bethlehem at a certain time of night each night for a few nights, but how would it be directly over Bethlehem throughout a single night?

          • I could not find a verse referring to a single night. If you inferred it from the star "coming to rest", I think that just means its motion (in whatever direction) stopped. It came to rest.

          • I was referring to:

            d5: According to Larson, it stops right over Bethlehem to lead the magi to Jesus’ location.

            How could it do that?

          • When the motion of a "wandering star" stopped with respect to other stars, it must also have had an ecliptic plane somewhere on the horizon, or if it was not yet dark, then its first appearance at twilight. Either could have provided a vector to Bethlehem for an observer.

          • What you describe doesn't sound anything like "stopping right over Bethelehem". I suppose then that it could have given a general direction (like 'to the east' or 'to the west'). That direction would continue past Bethelehem, wouldn't it? Or maybe I don't understand what you are talking about.

          • [---
            What you describe doesn't sound anything like "stopping right over Bethelehem".
            ---]
            If the planet comes over the horizon at a specific point. And that point on the horizon is a heading. We should recognize that everything in the sky/heavens is referred to as being "over/above" us, even when on the horizon. So if I continue on that heading until the planet stops its motion(with respect to other stars, not its transit across the night time sky), you could easily say it came to rest over where you are standing.

          • Why should we say all stars are over us? I'd say anything on the horizon is to the side of me, and any stars beneath me aren't over me, but they're still in the sky. Just not the part of the sky I'm looking at. And, although some stars are over us, none of them are stopping over anything on Earth. They just don't do that, as far as I know. They can't, not without overcoming the rotation of the Earth, which at any appreciable distance will involve unrealistic speeds.

            But the more interesting part is where you try to get a heading out of retrograde motion. It would be possible that someone would decide, as a totally arbitrary convention "I will go in the direction that a planet intersects with the horizon, where it rises (or sets)" That could lead you all sorts of interesting places, mostly East (or West). Did astrologers of old plan walking trips this way?

          • Ignorant Amos

            And, although some stars are over us, none of them are stopping over anything on Earth. They just don't do that, as far as I know. They can't, not without overcoming the rotation of the Earth, which at any appreciable distance will involve unrealistic speeds.

            C'mon now. It happened all the time back in the day of the book. It is no big deal. God did it in Joshua 10...

            13 So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, Until the nation avenged themselves of their enemies. Is it not written in the book of Jashar? And the sun stopped in the middle of the sky and did not hasten to go down for about a whole day.

            God did it in Isaiah 38, witnessed in 2 Kings...

            7 "This shall be the sign to you from the LORD, that the LORD will do this thing that He has spoken: 8 "Behold, I will cause the shadow on the stairway, which has gone down with the sun on the stairway of Ahaz, to go back ten steps." So the sun's shadow went back ten steps on the stairway on which it had gone down.

            God did it as recently as 1917 at Fatima in Portugal, very well attested by all accounts...even the Pope at the time claimed to have seen it from the Vatican gardens.

            So a single solitary account from a non eye witness to the event that happened sometime around 4 BC doesn't seem that incredible all things considering. Or does it?}80)~</

          • Well, I'm convinced! ;)

          • David Nickol

            In biblical times, to the best of my knowledge, it was not known that the sun was a star. In fact, it was not even known what stars were. So the author of the Gospel of Matthew didn't know the "rules" for the motions of stars.

            It would be interesting to know how much Matthew could have known about navigating by the stars (that is, what was known in his time and location) and how much he actually knew. Would he even have stopped to think about practical questions such as how a star could move, be followed, and stop over a particular house?

            Probably the majority of "serious" biblical scholars (that is, the ones who agree with me!) would take Matthew's account of the Star of Bethlehem to be theological. If they are right, its pointless to try to account for the movement of the Star of Bethlehem and the manner in which the Magi used it as a guide.

          • David, the learned Egyptians and Greeks of the day knew how to predict eclipses. The ancients knew much more about the nature of the sky than you think.

          • David Nickol

            The ancients knew much more about the nature of the sky than you think.

            I made no statement about how much or how little "the ancients" knew about the nature of the sky. How do you know "the ancients" knew more than I think? I was talking about Matthew, not "the ancients," and I was speculating about whether Matthew knew what a star was. Almost certainly, he didn't.

            Can you predict the date of an eclipse without looking it up?

            Are you implying that "the ancients" predicted eclipses without data or calculations? Without looking anything up?

          • [---
            Why should we say all stars are over us?
            ---]
            Because they are the heavens no matter where they appear in the sky. The ancients never referred to the heavens being below them. That was Hades.

            [---
            And, although some stars are over us, none of them are stopping over anything on Earth.
            ---]
            You are right to say it didn't stop over anything on earth in the modern context. But, I don't think that is the meaning of the text. Why? Because even if a star stopping in transit across the night sky was normal, you still could never say it was directly over anything terrestrial. So it doesn't make sense if we read it the way you are reading it (even supernaturally it doesn't make sense in the modern context). It probably meant something different by the same words.

            I think you have to divide the sentence into two distinct observations. First, I think its an expression for describing "wandering stars" a.k.a planets, that stop in the field of stars. Second, all stars are above us, so its just a figure of speech to describe the end of a journey for a group of people who were following a heading guided by that very object. When the planet stopped, then they halted their movement. So to describe it, it was said 'when the star came to rest over' the place they reached. Maybe it took a few days to confirm the planet stopped, so they overshot bethlehem. So looking back, they said planet came to rest over Bethlehem.

            [---
            But the more interesting part is where you try to get a heading out of retrograde motion.
            ---]
            I don't. I get it from where the planet crosses the horizon.
            I stop moving in that direction when the planet stops moving in the field of stars.

          • I don't. I get it from where the planet crosses the horizon.I stop moving in that direction when the planet stops moving in the field of stars.

            It sounds like you are describing the rule for getting headings that I also described. You go toward the horizon until the planet seems to move backwards compared to fixed stars. Did ancient astrologers use this arbitrary rule?

          • I don't know. It's just my conjecture, starting from a premise that it described a natural event. It just got me wondering how a person would use a planet to be guided to a terrestrial location. I watched a program on TV where they said the Egyptians looked at the sky as a map where the Nile was the "river" in milky way. So much so that the pyramids on earth align perfectly with the higher magnitude stars along it. So maybe i am completely off, and it was used like a map.

          • Have you ever read "Longitude", by Dava Sobel? I think you could be right about using the latitude of planets as a travel guide for wandering astrologers, but I wonder how they know whether to move East or West and when to stop. The retrograde for when to stop is an interesting guess, although it will get different astrologers stopping in different places.

          • No, I haven't read it. I will look it up.

            I don't think the result from this method needed to be deterministic across different groups. My understanding was the wise men came as one group from Persia, so they would have stopped in the same place. In any case, I suspect there would be some kind of randomness to it, that at least made it feel like it was not completely in their control, and instead that of providence.

          • Ok. I now am satisfied that I understand the method. Thanks for being patient with me.

          • Gilgamesh42

            You may want to read what I have to say on the subject. Your speculations about what the words could have meant are interesting, but you will want to see what the words actually meant in antiquity and how others have interpreted this passage over the millennia.

          • But how could this tell them to stop at Bethlehem, much less a specific location in Bethlehem.?

          • Brian,Perhaps, once the "star" was no longer at rest, they stop advancing along the heading, which is where the "star" comes over the horizon.

          • The movement we see in stars in the night sky is caused by the rotation of the earth. They all appear to move in the same direction at the same rate. The same goes for planets and comets. The retrograde motion of the planets is imperceptible in the course of a single night or a fortnight. Planets seem to stop in their motion because either we or the other planet is being overtaken in its celestial orbit. You can easily test this for yourself, Venus and Jupiter are otter visible in the night sky. See if you can detect any difference in their motion compared to the stars in a given night or over a few nights. Find out when they are "stopping" in the sense you mean and see if this is noticeable. It is not.

            In other words for the movement of one star or planet to be singled out in a single night would mean some sort of supernatural intervention, which this piece argues against. Ot would mean that a star, light years away was moved an enormous distance at an enormous rate. Or the same for a planet, being moved thousands of miles. Either god used his powers to make this happen or it didn't happen. It simply makes no sense as a natural phenomena.

          • [---
            The retrograde motion of the planets is imperceptible in the course of a single night or a fortnight.
            ---]

            No, it would not take nearly a fortnight. Even for Jupiter. Today it would take three nights to be observable. But it could be less or more depending on the relative positions in orbit. The reason I could tell is that Jupiter has the context of being surrounded by many stars at any given time (more so in the pollution/light free past). I confirmed this with Starry Night. Its an application i have which gives first person perspective of the sky at any time or place.

          • Michael Murray

            I think they had a system of Global Prophet Stars for locating things back then.

          • What a beautiful etymology. Celestial wanderers.

    • His probably the most reasonable theory I have heard so far. There was nothing supernatural about it.

    • Ignorant Amos

      The book deals with it at "Chapter 5: The Planets and their Positions"

    • Gilgamesh42

      Larson's hypothesis has a number of serious issues, not least of which chronological. You can see a thorough review I did of its ideas here: http://gilgamesh42.wordpress.com/2013/02/13/the-star-of-bethlehem-documentary-a-critiical-view-index/

  • David Nickol

    In Matthew 2:2, the Magi are quoted as saying, "Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.” A footnote explains:

    We saw his star: it was a common ancient belief that a new star appeared at the time of a ruler’s birth. Matthew also draws upon the Old Testament story of Balaam, who had prophesied that “A star shall advance from Jacob” (Nm 24:17), though there the star means not an astral phenomenon but the king himself.

    The "Star of Bethlehem" is presented by Matthew not as some miraculous proof the Jesus is somehow extraordinary. No one in the Gospel says, "A star? Why, that is miraculous! It's unheard of!" So it seems to me that what we get from Matthew can be summed up basically along the lines of, "New stars appear at the time of a ruler's birth, and Jesus was destined to be a ruler, and so as with other rulers, a new star appeared at his birth.

    But do we believe today that a new star appears at the time of a ruler's birth? Or do we believe new stars used to appear at the time of a ruler's birth in ancient times? I certainly don't. So the old belief about a star appearing at the time of a ruler's birth was a false belief, and today we might even consider it a superstition. So why should we believe that this false belief was true in the case of the birth of Jesus? Why should we believe that God worked a miracle that took advantage of the false beliefs of the Magi and Herod that a new star was a sign of the birth of a ruler. It was a false belief. So why would God chose to make a false belief true, just once, to herald the birth of Jesus?

    It seems to me the fact that a false belief (or superstition) is incorporated in the story of the birth of Jesus—a belief that would have lent the story credibility at the time people believed stars heralded the birth of rulers—should make us skeptical of the story. That a belief known to be false determines events in this story should cause reasonable people to say, "New stars never did herald the birth of leaders, and so the fact that a new star heralds the birth of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew should lead us the the conclusion that the story about the star is false—or, one might argue, theologically true. Matthew was not a journalist of a biographer. He was a devout believer in Jesus. Matthew believed that a star heralded the birth of a leader, and he knew Jesus was a leader, therefore writing that a star heralded the birth of Jesus, to Matthew, is something that must have happened, not something he invented out of whole cloth.

    A number of commentaries I have checked make the same point is the NAB I have quoted above about a possible connection between the "star" in the story of Balaam and the Star of Bethlehem. But note that there really is no star in Numbers. The "star" is actually a person.

  • wayne stahre

    Trying to explain The Star of Bethlehem as a natural object is a waste of time. It was not a natural object of any sort. It was a supernatural object only visible to the Magi to guide them to Jesus. The Zoroastorians anticipated The King' s Star which would announce the birth of the Sayoshant. Instead it led them to the true King. For more see; Flower, A Story of the Nativity by Wayne Stahre.

    • David Nickol

      Trying to explain The Star of Bethlehem as a natural object is a waste of time.

      That is something many of us might agree on, although for different reasons! :)

      It was a supernatural object only visible to the Magi to guide them to Jesus.

      I see no evidence of that in Matthew. The Magi didn't seem to think the star was visible only to them. The note I quoted from the New American Bible says it was the belief in ancient times that a star heralded the birth of a leader. This seems to be exactly what the Magi think, based on their saying, "We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.” Although it is a good question to ask why nobody else is reported as seeing the star, on the other hand, astrology was forbidden to the Jews, which is why Herod doesn't consult his own astrologers (that is, because he didn't have any).

      • wayne stahre

        Read Mathew 2 again. It is obvious that only the Magi saw the Star.

        • David Nickol

          It is not obvious to me.

          • wayne stahre

            Then I am afraid that I cannot help you.

          • Also, it shows you were imprecise when you stated it was obvious. It was obvious to you. But that's a fact about you, not about the text. So rather than bragging about how smart you think you are, a more fruitful way to dialogue toward mutual understanding would be to give reasons for believing that only the Magi saw the star.

    • What kind of supernatural object was it? Did it put off heat as well as light? How far was it from the Earth? How long did it last, how did it come into existence and where did it go?

      • wayne stahre

        Buy my book. It explains it.

        • Sorry I have no money right now for books on the nativity. We can talk about it here if you like.

          • wayne stahre

            Start saving your money.

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            And why should we buy your self-published book?

        • BTW, hawking your wares is against the commenting rules here. Plus lots of people read the comments here to see what others have to say. Enlighten us! :)

          • wayne stahre

            You may term it 'hawking' if you wish but I was just explaining where you could find answers to not only The Star but where Jesus was actually born and its significance. I devote a significant number of pages to explaining what the Star was, when and how it appeared to the Magi, who it took them two years to get to Bethlehem, the significance of the star to the Magi in the context of their religion and much more. It is not possible to cover that in the comments section of a blog. Oh, and Flower was published by a publishing house which has published authors other than me. As for there being something wrong with self publishing I point out that John Grisham, Jack Canfield, Beatrice Potter, and Tom Clancy were all self published and Charles Sickens self published A Christmas Carol. Self publishing allows an author to retain full editorial control and reduces expenses allowing authors to achieve higher margins. As for whether Flower is a scholarly work or not, I discussed it with a professor of theology at Dallas Theological Seminary and he agreed with my presentation.

          • It is a disappointment, then, that you seem to lack either the intellectual ability or the willingness to summarize your scholarly thoughts here for us. As I said before, there are other books I'd rather spend my money on. Unless you talk about your ideas more fully here, it may well be that I will never come to know your thoughts on the star of bethelehem. What a shame.

          • Oh, I have nothing against self publishing. It's a great option these days. And "hawking" is just fine in the right place.

            You don't have to repeat your whole book here. Internet commenters don't have time to learn from a conversation that long! But you can certainly pick one of the most important points and summarize it here.

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            Discussing a book that you weren't able to interest a significant publisher in with a unnamed professor of theology hardly demonstrates that the work answers any of the questions about the star and nativity story. Either you can explain your position, or you can't. In any event, hawking your book - however disguised - would seem to be against policy on this website.

            If you want to discuss this issue, then do so. But trying to get people to give you money in order to understand your position is not worthy of response.

          • wayne stahre

            What rule or policy are you referring to?

          • M. Solange O’Brien

            Try reading the comment policy.

            6. Stay on topic.
            The comment boxes are for discussing the corresponding posts, videos, and comments. They're not a forum for voicing one’s opinion on irrelevant topics, expressing oneself, or driving traffic to your own product or website. While it’s true one topic often leads to another, some comments veer too far from the original idea and may be removed.

    • Michael Murray

      Flower is a formidable woman who, along with her husband Mordecai, runs the most respected inn in all of Judea. She loves her husband, friends, all children and babies. But she has problems; the angels Gabriel and Michael are visiting her, thieves are plotting her murder, Romans are invading her beloved Bethlehem, she has the reputation of being the strongest 'man' in the city, and with the census in full swing, traffic is gridlocked and parking is difficult at the market. Flower, a Story of the Nativity, is not the typical Nativity Story. It is a gritty, exciting, and realistic adventure story. While some of the characters are fictitious the people and events are patterned as realistically as possible after what we know of the circumstances. With that in mind, this book is true to the Biblical accounts. Additionally, it addresses many questions; Who were the Wise Men, Where were they from and what became of them? What was the Star of Bethlehem? How did Gabriel and Michael interact with people? Why was there a census? Why did God allow the innocents to be murdered? Why are the genealogies in Matthew and Luke different? Why does Luke say Jesus was taken to Nazareth after his birth but Matthew says he fled to Egypt, and many more.

      Not an academic historical work then.

      • M. Solange O’Brien

        Purely a work of fiction, so far as I can see.

  • Michael Murray

    I thought Arthur C Clarke explained all this

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Star_(Clarke_short_story)

  • Arthur Jeffries

    Why would a Catholic spend time defending the historicity of the Star of Bethlehem? What purpose does it serve for Catholics and atheists to "dialogue" about something so utterly inconsequential to the Catholic faith?

  • I must say I am utterly confused. If you are trying to use stars for navigation, you would use Polaris as it barely moves at all in the night sky. Is Mr Akin suggesting that the magi were just following a regular star? How could this possible tell them where the manger was in Bethlehem? Say I am on the outskirts of a town and say I am using Polaris and I am so lucky as to be exactly south of the house I am trying to get to. And I follow Polaris and arrive at a house. Do I stop? Polaris is still north and will continue to be north of me until I reach the North Pole. If the star was directly above the manger it would have been directly above all of Bethlehem and pretty much directly above them when they set out.

    I mean if they know they are going to Bethlehem they don't need astronomical navigation. They need a beacon at the manger, not a speck light years away.

    • David Nickol

      I am just as confused as you are. Matthew 2:9 is translated in the RSV as

      When they had heard the king they went their way; and lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest
      over the place where the child was.

      The Anchor Bible (volume 26) Matthew translates it

      Having listened to the king, they went on their way. The star which they had seen at its rising went before them until it came to rest over the place where the little child was.

      I don't think there is any justification in the text for accepting Wayne Stahre's assertion that the "star" was a supernatural object, visible only to the Magi, and (I presume) capable of hovering directly over the house.

      I also share Arthur Jeffries' bewilderment when he asks:

      Why would a Catholic spend time defending the historicity of the Star of Bethlehem? What purpose does it serve for Catholics and atheists to "dialogue" about something so utterly inconsequential to the Catholic faith?

      BTW, there is no manger in Matthew. It's Luke's Gospel that has Mary and Joseph traveling, unable to get lodging at an inn, staying in a stable, and placing the newborn Jesus in a manger. There is no hint of this at all in Matthew's Gospel, although Christmas cards routinely conflate the two stories and incorrectly show the Magi visiting the infant Jesus lying in a manger.

  • Not to mention that if they set out from Jerusalem following any celestial object including a planet or comet or supernova, if it drifts 30 degrees (a two hour walk) they will be off course about 4 km.

    Also Bethlehem is directly south of Jerusalem. Bible seems to say they were following it east to Jerusalem. The how could they follow it south.

    And the big question is while the stars or other celestial objects can give you a direction they can't tell you when to stop following that direction.

    None of this makes sense unless this star is some form of supernatural thing, which also makes no sense.

  • David Nickol

    Of course, if this weren't a biblical text, a perfectly reasonable assumption (it seems to me) is that in an account written perhaps 70 years after the events described, it would be almost foolish to analyze the passage syllable by syllable and try to make something out of every imaginable shade or nuance of each Greek word. Who would expect any author writing such an account to write with such exquisite precision that his description of a 70-year-old event, handed down by oral tradition, could profitably be subjected to such deep analysis? A reasonable "conservative" believer would probably accept that something happened very roughly along the lines of what Matthew says, but the nature of exactly how the Magi found their way to Jesus would be unknowable. A reasonable nonbeliever (and many reasonable "liberal" believers) would assume the account was theological in nature).

    But no! Conservative believers feel compelled to prove that there's no reason to question that there was a star exactly as described. And others, taking the account in many ways as seriously as the conservative believers, feel compelled to treat it as something that can be logically disproved, as if the Magi (if they even existed) had left behind detailed notes of exactly what they thought they observed, and 21st-century astronomers could subject the work of the Magi to peer review and decided whether it was worthy of publication.

    Both nonbelievers and "conservative" believers, in other words, are approaching the text as fundamentalists. To the "conservative" believer, the text is true in every detail. To the nonbeliever, the text is treated as if it were either inerrant—true in every detail—and any objection is enough to shoot the whole story down.

  • severalspeciesof

    Forget the star... a better inquiry would be "Did the Magi actually exist, or was the story a literary device?" My money's on the latter...

    Glen

    • Empress St. Helena (A.D. 250-330) had their bodies located and transferred from Persia. They are currently interred at a cathedral in Cologne

      • Ignorant Amos

        Really? You believe that? Helena located three bodies of three Kings of eastern origin and transported them back to the west?

        There are several traditions on where the remains of the Magi are located, although none of the traditions is considered as an established fact or even as particularly likely by secular history.

        I suppose you believe the three were named Melchoir, Casper and Balthazar, the black one? Three hundred years after the story she did this? From 12 short verses in a story no one else seems to have heard of, and appears to have been invented to support an OT reference?

        Maybe you should read the book at the centre of the OP, it answers and explains a lot of the issues you are struggling with. The magi and the star are undoubtedly literary devices, that's all.

        • [---
          Really? You believe that?
          ---]

          Yes, I do.

          • Ignorant Amos

            Science save us all from harm.

          • Ignorant Amos

            In that case, can I ask are there any bits of the scripture which you don't believe to be an actual event and your reasons why?

            I also wonder what the consensus among your fellow Catholics is on such things?

        • David Nickol

          Helena located three bodies of three Kings of eastern origin and transported them back to the west?

          This is the same St. Helena who is said to have discovered, approximately three hundred years after the crucifixion, what remained of the cross on which Jesus was crucified (as well as the crosses on which the two criminals executed with Jesus were hung).

          The parish church owned a splinter of the "true cross" among its relic collection, and I remember one of the nuns from the parish school saying, with the obvious implication that it was a wondrous miracle, that if all of the relics of the true cross were collected in one spot, they would add up to a mass much greater than that of the cross on which Jesus was crucified. I was a fairly credulous kid when it came to many of these kinds of things, but I remember thinking there was a more plausible reason why what people believed to be relics of the true cross far outweighed the cross the Romans would have used to crucify Jesus.

          • [---
            This is the same St. Helena who is said to have discovered, approximately three hundred years after the crucifixion
            ---]

            And I personally know a person who can trace their roots to the Mayflower voyage several hundred years ago, and we know where many of the graves are from that event. The things of great historical importance that people do, do not always fade away from history that quickly. The early church held their traditions like precious heirlooms. Christendom was still intact in the time of Helena. So were the religions and cultures of the Medes and Persians which were queried by the empire.

          • David Nickol

            It seems to me that a number of the viewpoints you espouse and much of what you consider historical is a matter of "popular devotion," and in many ways irrelevant or tangential to Catholicism at its core. I cited Pope Benedict quite recently quoting another author, approvingly, to the effect that nothing in the story of the Adoration of the Magi is essential to Catholicism. It does not matter to Catholicism whether the story of the Magi is historical or purely theological. Consequently, it really does not matter whether St. Helena discovered the remains of the Magi.

            Of course, you have a perfect right to believe these things and to argue in this forum (or anywhere you like) that they are true. But there is something strange—it seems to me—to be defending—in a forum devoted to Catholic-atheist dialogue—as anything resembling part of the Catholic religion "small-t traditions" that quite likely the majority of Catholic scholars don't accept.

            To those believing Catholics who seriously doubt the historicity of the story of the Magi, the idea that St. Helena could have discovered their graves three centuries late must surely be classified as myth, or legend, or "popular devotion," not Catholicism. I know these are flawed question, but one can't help asking them—What are the odds that someone in the fourth century would discover the graves of the Magi? What are the odds that someone in the fourth century would discover the true cross? And what are the odds that the same person would discover the graves of the Magi and the true cross? I say "flawed questions" because, on the one hand, I think it makes little sense to calculate the odds on something that has already happened or allegedly happened. But on the other hand, stories have to have some semblance of plausibility. Who would have had the foresight—or even the idea—of keeping as "relics" the cross on which Jesus was crucified and would have kept the other two crosses as well? Did the Romans give away crosses as souvenirs?

            I am not an atheist, and I think the New Testament documents are to a certain extent historically reliable. But a huge amount of "small-t tradition" has not been verified historically, and is simply improbable. If these kinds of beliefs look odd to me, someone who was raised to believe them, I can only imagine that when they are presented as if they were tenets of the Catholic religion, which they are not, Catholicism looks like something for the naive and credulous.

          • [---
            Who would have had the foresight—or even the idea—of keeping as "relics" the cross on which Jesus was crucified and would have kept the other two crosses as well? Did the Romans give away crosses as souvenirs?
            ---]
            It is really funny you should say that. I just venerated the cross of St. Didymus(the good theif) last week with my mother.

            In any case, your position that believers would not want to remember and protect the relics associated with God and His passion seems quite ludicrous to me.

          • Paul

            If anyone ever tries to sell you a bridge or Arizona waterfront property, I urge you to resist your instincts and decline.

          • And when a person creates a new account just to insult someone, it says much more about them.

          • severalspeciesof

            And I know a person who's family came over on the Mayflower voyage
            several hundred years ago, and we know where many of the graves are from
            that event. The things of great historical importance that people do, do not always fade away from history that quickly.

            My guess is, you know this (and this knowledge didn't fade away) because a ledger was kept of who went aboard on the Mayflower at the time they boarded. No such ledger exists nor existed (for what reason?) on who visited the child Jesus.

            Glen

          • Ignorant Amos

            Apparently there are enough pieces of wood from the cross In reliquaries to construct an Ark. If only it were all gopher wood...or even one type of wood, say Cypress, Planetree Wood, Olive Wood, Cedar of Lebanon, Dogwood...or even Pine. But as the story doesn't say, everyone is at liberty to assert their own personal preference as usual.

  • wayne stahre

    "7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him. 9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. "

    Babylon was at roughly the same latitude as Jerusalem so stars visible at one would be visible at the other. The fact that Herod had to ask when the star appeared meant that he, and none of his advisors could see it. The Magi were followers of Zoroastrianism. They were waiting for the coming of the Sayoshant who would emerge from Lake Hamun after the appearance of the King' s star which they visualized as what we know as The Star of David. It is also noted that Herod had a model for the murder of the babies in the circumstances surrounding the birth of Augustus.

  • wayne stahre

    The Star of Bethlehem was not a natural object. The account of it from Matthew 2 makes that clear. Babylon and Jerusalem were at roughly me latitude. Any naturally occurring object would have been noted by observers in Jerusalem as well as Babylon. Matthew 2:7 shows that only the Magi saw it. The Magi were followers of Zoroastrianism. They were watching for the coming of a Sayoshiant which would be announced by the appearing of King' s Star. The Sayoshiant would then emerge from Lake Kansava.

  • Doug Shaver

    What do the commenters here at Strange Notions think?

    I think that any skeptic who tries to argue on naturalistic grounds that some event recorded in the Bible couldn't have happened is begging the question. I don't care a lot about any attempt to prove that the star of Bethlehem could not have been a natural phenomenon.

    But neither do I care a lot whether an apologist says it was a miracle or a natural phenomenon. In either case, I will stipulate that for all I know, it could have happened. What I want to know is why I should believe that it actually did happen on this particular occasion. And -- speaking of begging the question -- I need an answer that doesn't presuppose anything about the Bible's historical reliability.

  • Kenneth Heck

    I am on the side of Wayne Stahre, but there is no need for a supernatural object. The star of Bethlehem was seen only by the magi because it came to each of them in a subjective vision. For three or more persons to see the same vision independently is remarkable and they perhaps counted it as a sign or miracle. The magi
    were star gazers and Zoroastrians who would have believed in the Zoroastrian messiah called the saoshyant, which the visions could have connected with Christ's birth. This explains why no else on the planet, even in China or Persia, recorded any new astronomical sight at that time, and why the "star" seemed to disappear at Jerusalem, but reappeared to guide them to Bethlehem.

    We don't see astrologers making long journeys because of unusual planetary or star positions, either now or in ancient times. The connection of stars to angels or deities
    is quite ancient and there is even a reference in Rev. 1:20. The account of the Ven. Anne Catherine Emmerich of the whole episode is quite interesting.

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