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Dec 24 2011

Gospel Disproof #23: The Star of Bethlehem

John Loftus has an interesting post up about the various inconsistencies in Gospel stories about Jesus’ alleged birth at Bethlehem. I’m going to piggyback on just one part of that story: the bit about the “wise men” from the East who followed a star to the place where Jesus was born. According to Matthew, their first stop was Jerusalem, where they asked King Herod where the next king was going to be coming from. Herod sent them to Bethlehem, based on a prophecy in Micah, so they went back to following the star.

After hearing the king, they went their way; and the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him.

Let’s do just a quick reality check here: the next time there’s a clear night, go outside, pick any star you can see, and tell me which house it’s over. Kind of hard, right? Now wait 10 or 15 minutes. Which house is it over now?

The problem with this story is that the earth is round, and rotates on its axis once every 24 hours or so. Even if there was a star moving in the heavens, and even if it did stop over one particular house (or inn or stable) in Bethlehem, the earth itself would not stop moving, so the apparent position of the star would shift. In order to stop over any particular spot on earth, a star would have to assume a circular orbit around the earth, and fly around the circumference of that circle fast enough to maintain the same relative position above it.

The fastest the star could go would be the speed of light, so the maximum circumference of the circle would be limited to one light-day—the distance light could travel in the time it takes the earth to complete one revolution. That means that the distance from the earth to the star would be no greater than the radius of this circle, so no more than roughly 4-5 billion kilometers away. That’s roughly as far as Neptune is from the sun, so we’re talking about a star sweeping through our solar system at the speed of light. Think that really happened?

Ok, let’s change the story slightly. Let’s say it was a comet instead of a star. You’d think a professional astrologer would know the difference between a star and a comet, but let’s suppose they just called them all “stars” anyway. Now we no longer have the problem of a massive stellar body hurtling at light speed through our solar system, but we have other problems, like the fact that Herod needed to ask the magi what time the star appeared. This is long before telescopes were invented, so we’re talking about a comet bright enough to be seen by the naked eye, not to mention bright enough to convince a bunch of foreign astrologers that they were seeing some kind of marvelous portent worth leaving home for. That would be an unusually striking comet, which makes it seem rather unlikely that Herod would be *ahem* in the dark about it.

Then of course there’s the problem we initially looked at: how can a star move across the sky in such a way as to direct a group of astrologers from Jerusalem to a specific house in Bethlehem? Even supposing that God could just grab a comet and move it around the sky like a pawn careening across a chess board, how would anybody on the ground know which house the star was supposed to be over?

Top that off with the theological question: Astrology is a branch of the occult practice of divination, which is strictly forbidden by the Law of Moses in Deut. 18 and other places. Even after we come up with some kind of rationalization for all the astronomical problems Matthew’s story raises, we still end up appealing to the idea that God was doing the devil’s work for him, by forcing the heavenly bodies to move around in ways that would vindicate the validity of pagan practices He Himself had expressly forbidden. Otherwise, if astrology were not a valid form of magical divination, then what use would the astrologers endorsement be? “Ah yes, Jesus of Nazareth, the official Messiah of the frauds and pagans.” That’s a validation?

You can choose to believe Matthew anyway, if you want to, but the facts are a lot more consistent with the other possibility: that Matthew is reporting a fanciful and romanticized story made up by a layman who didn’t fully appreciate the theological implications of endorsing astrology, and who also failed to understand that the earth is round and that there are laws dictating the movements of the stars and planets. Priests have long had the problem of people believing in occult ideas and practices that their religion technically denounces as false, so it’s not improbable that an ignorant and superstitious layman might think that Jesus would be helped, rather than compromised, by having an auspicious horoscope. And likewise, if a layman had heard of “navigation by following the stars,” but had only a vague and unrealistic understanding about how stars actually guide you, he might well have made up an account as garbled and implausible as the one Matthew reports.

So the bottom line is that you can make Matthew’s story sound less improbable if you throw enough rationalizations at it. But even then, it will never be as consistent with observable fact as the skeptical alternative.

17 comments

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  1. 1
    sailor1031

    “…The problem with this story is that the earth is round, and rotates on its axis once every 24 hours or so. Even if there was a star moving in the heavens, and even if it did stop over one particular house (or inn or stable) in Bethlehem, the earth itself would not stop moving, so the apparent position of the star would shift…”

    Well yes, you are correct according to today’s state of knowledge. But you have forgotten that back then the earth was flat and the sun and moon revolved around it. Besides the whole thing was a one-off miracle, with the star being self-guided, so normal rules don’t apply. What I have always wondered is if the star was that close that they could see it over a single house/barn/stable/whatever, it didn’t just incinerate the whole nativity scene wise men and all. Hard on the donkey though – not fair.

  2. 2
    sailor1031

    Also you’d think it would have made page 1 of the Jerusalem papers along with choirs of angels, voices from space and big lights in the sky. All these fantastic goings on and nobody seems to have noticed any of it……

  3. 3
    Marty

    It seems to me there’s an easy answer to this. What the wise men saw may not have been an actual star or comet. It could have been a unique light, made by God just for this special occasion. There could have been an invisible angel flying ahead of the wise men holding a sparkler, a sparkler that only the wise men could see. Given a belief in God who is all-powerful and can do miracles outside of the laws of physics, I don’t think evidence for a literal star is necessary to explain the biblical account.
    (For myself I assume it was just a fanciful story though.)

  4. 4
    jakc

    Be careful here – if you start denouncing astrology in the bible, you’re going to wind up denouncing numerology too!

  5. 5
    David Evans

    I really think arguments of this kind do no service to atheism. Of course the object described is no ordinary star or comet. It’s a miraculous object, that’s the point of the story. You may disbelieve in miracles, as do I, but you can’t make that disbelief a premise of an argument against Christianity, you have to justify it.

    1. 5.1
      mikespeir

      What leads you to think it was no ordinary star or comet? (Let’s say, “might have been no ordinary….” I realize you don’t buy the story.) Speculate about what it might have been. How would your guess avoid the mentioned or similar problems so as to make the tale more plausible?

      1. David Evans

        Well, just for fun:

        It’s a small point source of light, close enough to the 3 wise men to be seen only by them. It patiently traces out a Star of David, until one of them guesses that something is going on with the Jews. Then it traces out a crown, till one of them guesses “King of the Jews”. Then it traces an arrow pointing to Bethlehem, over and over.

      2. David Evans

        PS

        Whether it’s generated by God, an alien (anxious to put human history on a new path) or a time traveler (ditto), who can say?

  6. 6
    Jim

    Not only that, there is no evidence of an celestial phenomenon that remotely approaches the fiction in the nt. The Chinese kept records and nothing can be found to corroborate the story. I think I found this in Robin Lane Fox’s, “Truth and Fiction. . .” I think it is in one of Bart Ehrman’s books too, but I’m not sure.

  7. 7
    kraut

    “You may disbelieve in miracles, as do I, but you can’t make that disbelief a premise of an argument against Christianity”

    Christians often pride themselves – as most liberal Christians do – that their god is rational and has set the physical laws of the Universe in motion. Any miracle would violate the rationality of this god and would show him to be a purely arbitrarily acting being.
    For the literalist Christian the problem does not occur, because this god has created the whole universe through a series of miracles – studying physics should then make as little sense as studying biology (with its basis evolutionary theory) because physical laws cannot exist in a universe where its supposed creator can change those laws or break them by a whim.

    If however physical laws exist, and a Christian agrees they exist, then a they cannot be broken. And a god who breaks them does not exist. So yes, those examples are very well an argument against the Christian belief.

    The argument is not about disbelief, is the absence of evidence for those miracles and the violations of a set of laws presumably rational god who wrote those laws. I do not need to disbelieve if the only evidence is the not even eyewitness report by some uneducated inhabitant of some dog forsaken place.
    There is simply no evidence to to do either.
    I might as well “disbelieve” the X-files…..

    1. 7.1
      David Evans

      Oh dear. I do seem to be defending Christianity a lot. Here goes:

      “Any miracle would violate the rationality of this god and would show him to be a purely arbitrarily acting being.”

      There is a difference between occasionally violating one’s own rules and doing so arbitrarily. Google’s search engine is designed to find relevant results from the web, but if you search for “let it snow” or ask it for a walking route from The Shire to Mordor, you won’t get the usual sort of answer. Does that mean the programmers are not rational beings?

      More seriously, if God wants to put right the results of an action by man, just how is he supposed to do it? Anything he does will violate some law of physics and therefore, according to you, convict him of being irrational.

      1. kraut

        “There is a difference between occasionally violating one’s own rules and doing so arbitrarily. Google’s search engine is designed to find relevant results from the web, but if you search for “let it snow” or ask it for a walking route from The Shire to Mordor, you won’t get the usual sort of answer. Does that mean the programmers are not rational beings?”

        We are not talking rules, we are talking laws of physics, or the manual as to how the universe supposedly operates.
        A violation of those is not just an occasional accidental happening, it is arbitrarily a setting aside this manual.
        Which means we might as well shut down all the particle accelerators, fire all biologists and close the telescopes as they do not mean anything anymore.

        “More seriously, if God wants to put right the results of an action by man, just how is he supposed to do it? Anything he does will violate some law of physics and therefore, according to you, convict him of being irrational.”

        Exactly. Miracles cannot happen and any claim by religion that they do occur is wrong and simply a lie. The disproof of miracles through rational investigation is a disproof of the religion who makes such claims. Thanks for making my point.

      2. mikespeir

        I think I’m with David on this one. I can see God implementing physical laws for usual flow of things but poking his finger in on exceedingly rare occasions to tweak things to the contrary. I don’t find any contradiction or philosophical implausibility in that. Now, why he’d need to do a miracle opens a can of worms that I think the theist doesn’t suspect.

  8. 8
    llewelly

    I figure god simply put a big mirror in geosynchronous orbit.

  9. 9
    SAWells

    A fictional star in a fictional story can do anything the author wants, including guide a group of fictional characters to another fictional character. Problem solved :)

    1. 9.1
      sqlrob

      Deus ex machina

  10. 10
    RabidDog

    Umm, didn’t exactly the same thing happen only twenty-odd years ago at the birth of Kim Jong un? And at the birth of his father.

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