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Oct 30 2013

The Star of Bethlehem: The Definitive Takedown

Cover of Aaron Adair's book The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View, showing a star to the left, the milky way as viewed from earth to the right, part of an astrological horoscope to the bottom right, and the stock bible image of the magi on camels in shadow at the bottom.An astrophysicist has just done a bang-up job debunking the Star of Bethlehem and its affiliated fawning scholarship. All in just 155 pages (in fact, really only 128 if you skip the appendix, glossary, and bibliography). The author is Dr. Aaron Adair. The book is The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View (also available on kindle). Like any responsible amateur, he sought the help of historians, classicists, and specialists for composing his sections on the literary and historical arguments, and for translating the original Greek (even though he has some competence in the language himself). His research was exhaustive. His key arguments fairly conclusive. He explicitly sets aside many eye-rolling side-debates like dating the death of Herod the Great, yet even then he mentions them and his reasons for not delving further into them. And his command of the astronomical arguments is, of course, unmatched, being directly in his field of expertise.

I was one of the experts who advised him on the project and I got to read an advance draft and was very impressed with the result. Hence you’ll see my promotional blurb on the book’s cover. I wrote:

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.

True that. His bibliography alone is of great value. Scientists will find the book especially heartwarming. Historians will as well. It even taught me a few things. In the foreword by astronomer and science writer Bob Berman, for example, I learned something I hadn’t even thought of, an example of Christianity seeping its way even into popular astronomy education. Berman writes…

[The Star of Bethlehem] has been a staple of holiday planetarium shows since the 1930s…[and my] very first column, published in Discover in December 1989, was a two-page spread about the Star of Bethlehem. Basically I summarized the various “explanations” shown to the public during planetariums’ annual “Star of Wonder” shows, then noted that Planetarium Directors–I’d interviewed quite a few–were well aware that each was impossible. Nonetheless, the shows remain popular, and have become such a tradition in and of themselves that no one seems bothered by such make-believe science being annually offered to the public.

Indeed.

Beyond that, however, I find this book of value not just because it will teach you a lot of cool things about history and astronomy with an economy of words, nor only because it has a great bibliography and is the go-to resource now for discussing this subject, but also because in the process of addressing astrological theories of the Star account, Adair deftly demonstrates a point I had long made myself but never had the time to demonstrate: ancient astrology was so wildly inconsistent and diverse that any astrological theory of either Christian origins or biblical accounts is probably beyond any possibility of demonstrating.

And this is relevant to the historicity debate. Not because proving the star account was a wholesale myth (and was inspired by no actual natural or supernatural event), as Adair does, entails or even implies Jesus didn’t exist (a historical man can have such myths spun around him easily enough), but because it shows why every Jesus mythicist who attempts to make an astrotheological argument for the origins of Christianity and (especially) the construction of the Gospels is just engaging in a Rorschach inkblot test. There was no consistent symbolism or system of allusions in ancient astrology, so any attempt to use one (or cobble one together) is just another multiple comparisons fallacy run amok.

That doesn’t mean astrotheological theories are necessarily false. But it does mean none can be proved even probable on present evidence, so the whole attempt should be abandoned.

To understand why, Adair’s book is a must-read. And that’s on top of all the other reasons I’ve summarized. So if any of this is your thing, check it out!

24 comments

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  1. 1
    brucegee1962

    My impression is that astrologers (both then and now) make pronouncements pretty regularly along the lines of “a child born during such and such a month will achieve greatness” — usually around the time when an important king or rich person is having a child. The reasons for this are pretty obvious — parents like hearing this sort of thing, and are likely to reward any astrologer who makes such a statement.

    So if you were interested in building up a myth around a real or imaginary individual a few decades after that individual’s death, it would be very simple to dig up a prophecy or two from the general region, within a decade or so of the time when the person you’re writing about was born. They were awash with prophecies, so you could take their pick. Your readers might even think, “Oh yeah, I remember that prophecy. Back then we all thought it was about X, but now I know that it was really about Y. It all makes sense now.”

    1. 1.1
      Richard Carrier

      Sure. It’s just that “possibly, therefore probably” is a fallacy. (Axiom 5, Proving History, pp. 26-29.)

  2. 2
    hexidecima

    What a wonderful sounding book. I had to give planetarium shows about this nonsense when I had a work/study job in college. Church groups would come all sure that now they had “proof”. So much for faith, eh?

  3. 3
    Jonathan MS Pearce

    Awesome review, Richard. Thanks for this!

  4. 4
    Reginald Selkirk

    The book sounds impressive, but it seems overkill to me. The star and the wise men story doesn’t pass even the most basic standards for needing to be taken seriously. Wise men in the east saw a star in the east, so of course they travel west (Matt 2:1-2)? That doesn’t even make sense.

    1. 4.1
      Richard Carrier

      Well, that’s true of most bible studies (hence Hector Avalos had to write The End of Biblical Studies to call that out). That’s why this stuff has to be written. Creationism is stupid, too. Yet there are tons of quasi-sophisticated papers and books defending it. Necessitating tons of great books debunking it. This is one claim that’s been largely neglected (or inadequately dealt with) in the debunking literature, yet has a large body of “pro” literature, even by scientists, waiting to be directly answered.

      Plus, like most debunking efforts like this, in the process you will learn tons of cool shit about science and ancient history. And you get the data in one place to win debates with Christians who try citing this or that peer reviewed book or article “proving” this or that claim they think (or pretend) supports the truth of the event.

      And you get to laugh at the silly ideas Christians came up with to try and salvage this nonsense (some of which you probably have not yet heard).

      So it’s a win all the way around, IMO.

  5. 5
    Randall Johnson

    Richard- sorry if I missed it but what is the eye-rolling debate on Herod’s death? Have I been accepting 4 BCE based on a fallacy or the untrustworthiness of Josephus?

    1. 5.1
      Richard Carrier

      Oh, no. That’s why it’s an “eye-rolling” debate. It’s silly. Like most creationist/fundie bullshit, Herod’s date of death is fatally inconvenient for them, so they have to come up with any silly desperate thing they can to argue it’s wrong, which leads to that eye-rolling debate I mentioned. More here (summary here).

  6. 6
    Jonathan MS Pearce

    “Sure. It’s just that “possibly, therefore probably” is a fallacy.”

    I can’t stop using the term ‘possibiliter ergo probabiliter’ – I am trying to make it an officially termed fallacy.

  7. 7
    gshelley

    Sounds interesting, so I added to my Wish list, but I have several other books related to historicity/bible studies/development of religions to go through first, mostly the ones you have recommended, I don’t really have the time to go through the dozens of suggestions Amazon has come up with for me to read the synopsis and reviews so that I can tell if it is an attempt to do serious research, or just poorly reasoned and cherry picked Christian propaganda.

  8. 8
    Gregory in Seattle

    What’s always gotten me is, if this was such a significant, dramatic occurrence, why was there no independent corroboration? Surely, someone in Alexandria or Rome or Palmyra would have noted it. It’s noted in only the Gospel of Matthew: not even Luke, who has a similar nativity narrative, included it.

    The absence of mention seems significant.

    1. 8.1
      Richard Carrier

      Indeed.

  9. 9
    Childermass

    Anyone with even the crudest understanding of the sky who has thought it through for a half minutes knows that no astronomical explanation is possible. The only place that “star” could have been is just a little bit into the sky (i.e. where the birds are) and just in front of the kings leading their way and stopping right above baby Jesus.

    Indeed I dare anyone to come up with an explanation of just how the Kings could use an astronomical star of any sort to navigate to their way precisely enough to find a single human baby both in terms of where the baby is and how to navigate to the baby. And give them unlimited resources using the astronomical observatories that exist in 2013, modern communications, and GPS. The answer is that they can’t. And the allegedly-real kings would not have been able to tell longitude accurately because of their lack of portable clocks. Certainly any measurement of latitude without an astronomical telescope would been off by many, many miles. Also remember the only places on Earth were a star will ever stay above are the North and South Poles, otherwise they will stay above a line of latitude the wraps around the entire planet.

    Meanwhile, stories of new stars announcing the birth of great persons where common at that time including multiple such accounts prior to the First Century. And was not astrology something God demanded death for in the Bible? Yes it is. And today science knows astrology is false anyways.

    There you go. Short and sweet. In three paragraphs, the story is shown to be a myth.

    1. 9.1
      Richard Carrier

      Although do note that a surprisingly large number of people don’t know rudimentary astronomy. In antiquity it was more widely known than today even by the illiterate–ironically–because astronomy was fundamental to everyone’s agricultural and religious lives (and the stars and planets were everywhere more visible).

      However, there is a lot more to the claims than you think. There are a lot of peer reviewed (as well as some not so peer reviewed) articles and monographs attempting to “get around” points like yours. This book explains why those attempts fail, and to do that requires learning a lot more than rudimentary astronomy–it involves ancient astrology and other facts as well.

  10. 10
    Jeff

    I just downloaded it to my Kindle and so far it’s awesome. Thanks for the recommendation.

    On that note, however: I’d love to buy a couple of your books/books you’ve recommended through the ‘Richard Carrier Recommends’ store to support you at least a little bit financially, but as I read most books on the aforementioned Kindle and you don’t have the ebook versions in your store, I’m unable to do so.

    1. 10.1
      Richard Carrier

      Amazon doesn’t give commissions of kindle sales. Alas. I wish they did. And they should, even if they were reduced commissions, and the option should be right in all their associate storefront entries…even if they didn’t give commissions. I find that a significant defect of their associate storefront. But I can’t customize a solution (they allow very little customization).

      I do have a manually constructed store for my own books that has links to all media formats available (and the print option goes to my Amazon store). But it would be an enormous labor to construct and maintain one for my Amazon store, and to no benefit (since I’d get no commissions), although I have considered it (it just gets pushed eternally to the bottom of my list of things).

      Annoying, but it’s actually typical of corporate capitalism to have inefficient and poorly thought out products and marketing machinery. So we shouldn’t be too surprised.

  11. 11
    L.Long

    I’ve always thought the STAR was an allegory for other occurrences. ALso in reality any star is so far up that to look at it and say we will go see what it is hanging over is silly and even ancient star gazers would have known that. As any star hangs over nothing specific on earth.

    Anything that would have hung over a manger would be a miracle so the xtians should STOP insisting it is real and take it on faith only. SO it aint real, they can’t prove it, so deal!

  12. 12
    Reginald Selkirk

    Richard Carrier: Well, that’s true of most bible studies (hence Hector Avalos had to write The End of Biblical Studies to call that out).

    I’m reading that right now.

    1. 12.1
      Jonathan MS Pearce

      A great book, too!

  13. 13
    Steve Rush

    Remember that “star” used to refer to any bright object smaller than the moon. Comets and bright meteors were referred to as stars. It’s still nonsense to speak of an astronomical object pointing to a building, unless the building was struck by a meteorite.

    BTW, at any given moment, every visible star has a precise “geographical position”, the point where the line defined by the center of the earth and that star intersects the surface of the earth. Observers on a circle around that position will all see the star at the same angular altitude. A celestial navigator’s “three-star fix” is the intersection of three such circles of different stars. Of course, the limits of seagoing measurement lead to a position that could be anywhere within a “circle of confusion” about a mile (if you’re careful and lucky) in diameter.

    1. 13.1
      Richard Carrier

      Right. Adair covers all that.

  14. 14
    dean3333

    I recall that DM Murdock researched that celestial announcements were not uncommon in the savior-god motifs. It’s likely that the “star” pronouncement myth has its roots in astrotheology.

    1. 14.1
      Richard Carrier

      That’s tricky because sources are a mess. I haven’t seen good evidence that it was so widely used (like, actual evidence, rather than scholarly conjectures, and evidence pre-dating Christianity…I also haven’t specifically researched it that much, so there might be good sources that just haven’t yet been pointed out to me), but Adair mentions the ones I know are well documented (not for savior gods, but kings and emperors and generals).

  15. 15
    dean3333

    I know that Christopher Hitchens once stated that the legend around the birth of “dear leader” in North Korea was a star announcing his birth.

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