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!

Atwill’s Cranked-up Jesus

Joseph Atwill is one of those crank mythers I often get conflated with. Mythicists like him make the job of serious scholars like me so much harder, because people see, hear, or read them and think their nonsense is what mythicism is. They make mythicism look ridiculous. So I have to waste time (oh by the gods, so much time) explaining how I am not arguing anything like their theories or using anything like their terrible methods, and unlike them I actually know what I am talking about, and have an actual Ph.D. in a relevant subject from a real university.

Note that I have divided this article into two parts, the second (titled “Our Long Conversation”) is something you can easily skip (see the intro there for whether reading it will be of any interest to you). So although this post looks extraordinarily long, it’s really that second part that gives it such length. You can just read up to the beginning of that section though. You don’t have to continue beyond that to get the overall point. [Read more…]

Heroic Values in Classical Literary Depictions of the Soul: Greece, Rome, China

Something unusual for today. Rummaging through my old papers it returned to my attention that I had never published my senior thesis. So I have put it on my website and am making it available: Richard Carrier, “Heroic Values in Classical Literary Depictions of the Soul: Heroes and Ghosts in Virgil, Homer, and Tso Ch’iu-ming,” Senior Honors Thesis UCB (1997; rev. ed. 2004). For the entry at my publications page at Academia.edu I wrote this description:

Compares the language, depictions, and explanations relating to ghosts (as souls of the dead) in ancient Greek, Roman, and Chinese classics and finds connections between them and those cultures’ respective understandings of the ideal hero.

[BTW, anyone not already aware of my Academia.edu page might want to bookmark it, as it has become my main collection of entries for my more formal work online and in print; although just print publications I keep updated on my cv and publications list, which is the same list but without the rest of the cv. And all new publications I always announce, of course, here on my blog.]

In the paper itself, I explain the text now online with this leading remark:

The following essay was my senior honors thesis at UC Berkeley for the awarding of the Bachelor’s degree in History (minor in Classical Civilizations). It was originally written in 1997. In 2004 I reorganized and numbered its sections, updated its references, revised some sentences, and added some paragraphs, all with the intent to consider publication, but decided I was no longer confident in its core thesis. There are interesting insights and information here, but ultimately the evidence of afterlife beliefs and heroic ideals in ancient Greece, Rome, and China is a little more complicated than this. I am publishing it now only for the sake of what utility and interest in may have. But I no longer fully endorse all of its conclusions, and its treatment of the evidence is not adequately broad to be considered thorough. It’s quite good as an undergraduate thesis. It probably won me my doctoral fellowship. But it meets only minimum standards for graduate level work. — Richard Carrier, Ph.D.

To give you an idea of what’s in it, I will produce here a table of contents and some excerpts: [Read more…]

The Testimonium Flavianum

Now that Fox News has shot itself in the foot again and inadvertently made a Muslim scholar’s book about Jesus a bestseller and the talk of every town (which one can only assume from their interview of Reza Aslan is exactly the opposite of what they were hoping for), common concepts and terminology in the Jesus historicity debate are going mainstream and becoming familiar to ordinary people everywhere (even more so than after the best-selling release of Bart Ehrman’s book Did Jesus Exist?, which I demonstrated to be terrible; although that, too, has primed the pump of popular discourse in this matter).

The experts have weighed in and found Aslan’s book Zealot to be, well, basically bad. From a historical perspective. As a writer everyone agrees he’s top notch. And even as history he’s not wholly wrong. But there’s a lot wrong. From mistakenly not knowing the Sea of Galilee is a fresh water lake and not, ahem, an actual saltwater sea, to misinforming the public on the status of certain debates in the field, to engaging in scholarship of convenience (ignoring evidence against his case or conveniently declaring it forged or fabricated…without any reason other than that it contradicts his hypothesis–although to be fair, even the experts who criticize him do this…a lot), to oversimplifying facts, and other common foibles, he makes his case look stronger than it really is. (See the reviews of Dale Martin [service intermittent], Stephen Prothero, Joseph Loconte, and Anthony Le Donne.)

This is a bit like the pot calling the kettle black (see chapter 1 of my book Proving History), but even then the kettle is still black.

But I’m here to talk about one particular issue his book has popularized: the Testimonium Flavianum. [Read more…]

Skeptical Humanities

I’ve found several websites dedicated to applying the principles of rational and evidence-based skepticism to subjects in the humanities. I’m looking for more. I’d like to expand the following list with any website that is worth bookmarking in this area, so everyone, please feel free to make recommendations in comments. I’m only looking for sites that regularly do this, and meet roughly the same criteria of utility and standards as those in the following list, and that are broader than single-issue sites.

Of course everyone knows Snopes.com. You might not think of it as a skeptical humanities site, but what Barbara and David Mikkelson do there is address journalism and urban folklore and history, which are solidly in the humanities.

And everyone knows FactCheck.org and PolitiFact.com (and its related PunditFact). They apply skepticism to journalism and advertising and propaganda, which is again skepticism in the humanities, yet often overlooked because we tend to compartmentalize politics as its own animal.

But fewer know about BadArchaeology.com. Run by archaeologists Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews and James Doeser, they also have an affiliated blog. I don’t consider this a single-issue site, since archaeology is broad enough in scope to make bookmarking the site in general worthwhile.

Similar to that is PaleoBabble, a prolific blog by Mike Heiser (a doctor of Hebrew and Semitic Studies) addressing bogus claims in archaeology and ancient history, mostly in relation to ancient aliens and other conspiracy theories about antiquity, but it ranges widely in that area. [Be aware that Heiser’s position on traditional biblical religion might be less skeptical, though he does write skeptically about such fringe subjects as bible codes and apocalypticism.]

And in a different vein is Jourdemayne, by Skeptic magazine UK’s current editor Deborah Hyde, which applies skeptical analysis to folklore and legends (from vampires and werewolves to witches and whatnot).

But even broader is SkepticalHumanities.com. This ranges all over the humanities, from linguistics to art, philosophy, history, literature, rhetoric, aesthetics, literary criticism, pop culture, folklore, and cultural studies. Its many contributors (currently Bob Blaskiewicz, Eve Siebert, Mark Newbrook, and Jenna Marie Griffith) are doctors in English, Linguistics, and Visual Arts (or almost a doctor in that last case).

Are there more out there like this that I’m missing? Let me know!

Since my original post, here are my favorite additions from commenter recommendations:

Slate Star Codex. Applies skepticism to claims in and about “cognitive science, psychology, history, politics, medicine, religion, statistics, transhumanism” but also subjects like feminism and sociology. Which reminds me to also add our own…

Heteronormative Patriarchy for Men. Applies skepticism to both feminist and anti-feminist claims and rhetoric, and to claims about sociology, economics, and other related subjects in the study of gender, culture and justice.

Evidence Based EFL. Applies skepticism to all kinds of claims about language, education and the use of words. (See a recent post there about the reason for the blog. The author remains anonymous, but is clearly an expert in language instruction, and if I were to guess, they are an English teacher in Japan.)

JasonColavito. Applies skepticism to claims in history and folklore, from ancient aliens to psychic history to other fringe claims about the bible (like “Was Noah a Merman?” which is a really good example of the depth of historical context Colavito provides in his analysis of these fringe claims). Colavito is an author and a distinguished double-major in anthropology and journalism, and uses this background expertly to explore “the connections between science, pseudoscience, and speculative fiction.”

The Renaissance Mathematicus. Applies skepticism to claims in the history of science and mathematics (mainly 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, but occasionally ranging more widely). This blog is full of great skeptical writing on a large range of subjects and claims within its purview.

New at LacusCurius & Livius. Applies skepticism to claims about ancient history (principally Western, sometimes biblical). Has a handy list of common errors well worth exploring. But everything there should be used with caution. I found problems with some of the entries I looked at, generally key information is omitted that would qualify what is claimed. For example, on the flat earth myth, it’s true most educated elites in antiquity knew the earth was a sphere, but the masses often did not or even rejected the idea, and some of the most highly educated elites, like Lactantius, outright opposed the idea, calling it ridiculous (and Lactantius was and remained a revered Christian author throughout the Middle Ages). Accordingly, it’s entirely plausible that the illiterate crew of Columbus thought the earth was flat, but not likely that his financial backers did. This is the kind of information this site should be including. But as long as you are aware that its entries might not be complete, they have a lot of useful discussion and sourcing.

FiveThirtyEight. Nate Silver’s column for the New York Times online, which has many contributors besides himself, a decent example of explaining mathematical results to humanities folk, often applying fact-based “mathematical” skepticism to topics in politics, journalism, and economics, with a touch of history. Good one for dissecting opinion polls and their use and abuse.

 

Zindler-Price Anthology: Contra Ehrman

Frank Zindler and Bob Price have edited their own anthology of “responses” to Bart Ehrman’s book Did Jesus Exist? For this project Zindler bought the rights from me to include a special summary edition of my blogging on the same subject (see Ehrman on Historicity Recap). This anthology is now available through American Atheist Press as Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth: An Evaluation of Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? (also available on kindle).

The rights to my contribution were procured through a single-payment contract, so I won’t be getting any royalties from the sale of this book (if you want to buy it and still want me to get a cut, then you can buy it through the above link, which is to the respective sales page in my Amazon store, where I get a kickback on any sale). I also had (and have) no editorial control over this book or its publication. My contribution does contain some new material not included in my blogging, but the most important addition (quotations from the Egyptian Pyramid Texts) will be included in my next book, On the Historicity of Jesus Christ, and the rest is pretty much already what’s available online (either in or linked from Recap), although I made various improvements in wording throughout.

I required a disclaimer to be included (in the Foreword generally and in the first paragraph of my chapter specifically), since I do not endorse much of what gets said elsewhere in this book. I was sure of this even before I read it, but having at last read it I can now confirm my expectation was correct. In fact, I consider much of it terrible. But it is fair enough to say that each chapter represents the best of what you can expect from each contributor of late. So if you want to see what each mythicist author is most often like in their manner of argumentation and quality of research, this is the anthology for you, although at 567 pages from disparate authors, it can be a challenge to get through.

That’s the sum of it. But those who want to know more can read on… [Read more…]

Miracles & Historical Method

Fan photo of Dr. Carrier in shadow before stage screen showing slide that says 'Conclusion: Christians Were Big Ass Liars'Video of my talk for this year’s Skepticon is now available on YouTube. See Miracles and Historical Method. Description:

Carrier talks about how to think critically about history generally, using miracles as an entertaining example. Builds on his talk last year on Bayes’ Theorem, but this time it’s more about method than math, and surveys a lot of real-world examples of miracles from the ancient world (pagan, Jewish and Christian). Summarizes some of what is covered in much more detail in his book.

Glorious Smackdown of the 10/42 Apologetic

Have you heard the argument that Jesus must have existed because “42 ancient sources record Jesus 150 years within his lifetime, whereas only 10 mention the contemporary Roman emperor Tiberius,” and since we consider that enough to believe Tiberius existed, we should conclude Jesus existed? I know, you are already detecting umteen things wrong with that argument. But sometimes someone comes along who so gloriously destroys an argument like this you just have to sit back in awe and smile. [Read more…]

Understanding Bayesian History

So far I know of only two critiques of my argument in Proving History that actually exhibit signs of having read the book (all other critiques can be rebutted with three words: read the book; although in all honesty, even the two critiques that engage the book can be refuted with five words: read the book more carefully).

As to the first of those two, I have already shown why the criticisms of James McGrath are off the mark (in McGrath on Proving History), but they at least engage with some of the content of my book and are thus helpful to address. I was then directed to a series of posts at Irreducible Complexity, a blog written by an atheist and evolutionary scientist named Ian who specializes in applying mathematical analyses to evolution, but who also has a background and avid interest in New Testament studies.

Ian’s critiques have been summarized and critiqued in turn by MalcolmS in comments on my reply to McGrath, an effort I appreciate greatly. I have added my own observations to those in that same thread. All of that is a bit clunky and out of order, however, so I will here replicate it all in a more linear way. (If anyone knows of any other critiques of Proving History besides these two, which actually engage the content of the book, please post links in comments here. But only articles and blog posts. I haven’t time to wade through remarks buried in comment threads; although you are welcome to pose questions here, which may be inspired by comments elsewhere.)

Ian’s posts (there are now two, A Mathematical Review of “Proving History” by Richard Carrier and An Introduction to Probability Theory and Why Bayes’s Theorem is Unhelpful in History; he has promised a third) are useful at least in covering a lot of the underlying basics of probability theory, although in terms that might lose a humanities major. But when he gets to discussing the argument of my book, he ignores key sections of Proving History where I actually already refute his arguments (since they aren’t original; I was already well aware of these kinds of arguments and addressed them in the book).

[Read more…]

McGrath on Proving History

James McGrath has reviewed my book Proving History. We’ve argued before (e.g. over claims Bart Ehrman made), so there is backstory. But his review is unexpectedly kind and praising at points, and he likes the overall project of explaining the underlying logic of history as fundamentally Bayesian and making productive use of that fact. He does conclude with some select criticism, though, and that is what I will respond to here. [Read more…]