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!

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...]

Bad Science Proves Demigods Exist!

Scientists prove Beowulf and the Iliad are true stories! Not. Sometimes scientists can be so clueless, you just want to pat them on the head and go “Aw, that’s so sad.” To get up to speed on this new silliness, check out John Bohannon’s article for Science Now: Is Mythology Like Facebook?, which summarizes this scientific paper: Ralph Kenna and Pádraig Mac Carron, “Universal Properties of Mythological Networks,” Europhysics Letters 99.2 (July 2012) #28002. To be fair, they only claim to have evidence “the societies” and “some of the events” in them are true, not the entire stories as wrote. But really they don’t.

Kenna and Mac Carron mapped out the social networks in three myths (Beowulf, the Iliad, and the Táin, a lesser-known Irish epic) and tested those networks for the properties of real networks. Then they used as “controls” four works of modern fiction (Les Misérables, Shakespeare’s Richard III, The Fellowship of the Ring, and the first book in the Harry Potter series). (If you are noticing a fatal flaw here already, you get ten bonus points. Fifty points if you already notice more than one fatal flaw.)

Facebook is a real network that’s been well-studied this way (hence the title of Bohannon’s article). And real networks have certain properties. As Bohannon explains: [Read more...]