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!

Fincke Is Right: Arguing Jesus Didn’t Exist Should Not Be a Strategy

Philosopher (and FtB alum) Dan Fincke has written a good, concise piece on why atheists need to don a little more sense and humility when claiming Jesus didn’t exist. In his article On Atheists Attempting to Disprove the Existence of the Historical Jesus, Fincke makes a sound case for two basic points: (1) amateurs should not be voicing certitude in a matter still being debated by experts (historicity agnosticism is far more defensible and makes far more sense for amateurs on the sidelines) and (2) criticizing Christianity with a lead of “Jesus didn’t even exist” is strategically ill conceived–it’s bad strategy on many levels, it only makes atheists look illogical, and (counter-intuitively) it can actually make Christians more certain of their faith.

I think his piece is a must-read. I’ll only briefly comment on some of its key arguments here. [Read more…]

Help D.M. Murdock Get Her Facebook Account Reinstated

Jesus mythicist D.M. Murdock (aka Acharya S) has had her Facebook account terminated (permanently, FB claims) merely for posting a picture calling attention to religious child abuse. She documents the story on her own website here. My email box received a request to sign a petition over the weekend, and I signed. I recommend everyone do so. Our own Ophelia Benson has also written about this fiasco. She concurs.

There is no sound reason for Facebook’s action. The most they should have done is requested modification of the image to blur offensive sections of it (which Murdock would have been happy to do). Although even that is childish on their part (unless they are genuinely concerned about privacy issues, which would be a first), it would not be as absurd as killing her entire Facebook account. One might ignorantly argue any picture of naked children being sexually abused in a religious ritual is “child porn” and thus intolerable, but even that (which ignores the distinctions between porn and legitimate journalism and activism and the documenting of crimes against humanity…indeed, the image came from a news magazine) would have been solved by simple modification of the image to satisfy the prudes (as Murdock demonstrates) or victim’s advocates (whom Murdock would likewise be happy to oblige).

Everyone should voice their opposition to Facebook’s action in this case and demand a reversal.

Forgotten Books

I’ve just been given membership to an online research site that you might want to join, too. It’s called Forgotten Books, an online warehouse of over a million books dating back to the 1500s, and all the way up to the 1940s, all image-over-text editions, fully searchable and readable and downloadable in numerous formats. It’s not free, but it is affordable, and superior to Google Books in several respects.

I was given a free lifetime membership if I blogged about the site (no matter what I said, good or bad). But that benefit wouldn’t be worth anything if the site wasn’t worth using. And it definitely is of some use. And that’s worth knowing about. It has some defects that need fixing (and its management is working on those). But it has uses as well. I’ll summarize my thoughts on both counts. [Read more…]

I’m Sort of on TV This Weekend – And in Some New Videos Online

Two new video interviews with me are now available, and another is going live this weekend–almost literally: it will actually be on cable television. (For that, see the last paragraph below.)

First up, I did a video interview with Adam Ford on “the singularity” and related questions in the future of artificial intelligence and human utopias and Bayesian reasoning and all kinds of whatnot. As he describes it:

Just finished doing a fantastic interview with Richard Carrier on Bayesian reasoning, possible futures for AI, the Intelligence Explosion, how to evaluate the possibility of smarter than human level AI coming about, using Bayesian reasoning to determine confidence levels about history and Richard’s book Proving History (and more)… the video will be up on my youtube channel soon.

You can check that interview out here. It’s great because we range over lots of topics I don’t usually get to talk about.

Next, my talk on studying Jesus as a mythical deity at INR3 is now online. It was titled “Imagining the Study of Jesus without Religion” and focused on how we would actually be studying the origins of Christianity if Christianity were just another extinct religion like nearly every other from the same period, and we didn’t have millions of people and million/billion dollar institutions devoted to defending it and a cultural history so invested in it even secular institutions can’t get away from the assumptions only believers originated. For backstory see here. The video is here. (Lighting isn’t good. My hair looks weird in consequence. I have inverted horns like an anti-devil! Apropos?)

And in bigger news, I will actually be on TV. Local cable at least. I participated in a kind of three-way quasi-debate between an atheist (me), a liberal Christian (Rob McQuery), and a Buddhist (Jack Elias), all on the premier episode of the Blind Faith Virus Vaccine show (general promo here), hosted by Mark Gura, based on his book. It airs this Saturday (October 19th) on Comcast Channel 24 Atlanta at 7pm, and on Comcast channel 25 North Fulton County, this Sunday (October 20th) at 7pm, and other cities (not yet announced, but you can check local listings or DVR search just to be sure). Watch Mark Gura’s FB wall for further info (including a webpage for the show, still in development).

Help Skepticon Make Its Budget!

Skepticon dinosaur cartoon, brontosaurus-like, thought-bubbling the money symbol with an exclamation markSkepticon! It’s time to register (whether you’re going for free or not), and donate something if you can (whatever you think a ticket would be worth if it wasn’t free). They are just ten grand short of making their budget. They have some matching donors that will double your donation, and some cool things you can make happen. So check out the details. The full schedule is also now up. And I’ll be there. So help them out. Send a little dosh their way.

Sense and Goodness on Kindle for Three Bucks!

Image from Amazon of the cover of Sense and Goodness without God, kindle edition.Amazon is running a special on my critically acclaimed book Sense and Goodness without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism for kindle. I don’t know how long this special price will last. But it’s something worth taking advantage of. Just three dollars (and three cents). That’s an 88% discount off the print edition list price. Check it out!

And now I’m off to Sacramento for Freethought Day…

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…]

Now You Can Wear Even More Bayes’ Theorem!

Picture of the Odds Form Bayesian mug (white mug with artsy black text) offered at Richard Carrier's Marvelous Amusements shop at Cafe Press.Did you say Odds Form? Shirt? Car Flag? Panties? Hell yeah.

I just finished loading my old Cafe Press store with tons of different shirts and other odds and ends featuring my Bayesian graphic, which uses imaginative rather than standard mathematical notation (as I reported last week, you can get jewelry with it from SurlyRamics).

I also duplicated most items with a cool graphic design of the Odds Form of Bayes’ Theorem (in standard mathematical notation, but artful font). Because a lot of people are fans of the Odds Form. No joke…it has actual vocal fans. It’s also the form I use to run the math in my upcoming book On the Historicity of Jesus. If you want to know what the difference is and what the Odds Form equation means and how to use it, see Proving History (index, “Bayes’ Theorem, Odds Form”). Like with the other graphic (as I explained last week), you have to assume b (background knowledge) is in the givens of every term (a common assumption mathematicians allow).

Picture of women's cap-T shirt with Odds Form Bayesian graphic across the chest. White shirt with black shoulders and neckline.Above right is a pic of the Odds Form mug I’m selling. It actually looks pretty awesome. Likewise the women’s Cap-T (below right).

To check out the full range of products, and help support my work by buying some, visit Richard Carrier’s Marvelous Amusements. Note that many items actually have color options at the purchasing page (so it’s not just all black or white). If you have ideas for other products I could develop and offer there, feel free to recommend them in comments here. Just note that I’m limited by the stock and capabilities of Cafe Press.

I have also included some Solon’s Commandments materials, as some fans requested I do many months ago, after I wrote about them in That Christian Nation Nonsense (Gods Bless Our Pagan Nation). Cafe Press doesn’t offer the option of an inscribed plastic plate, so you would have to get the mini-poster and put it in a hard plastic casement or sheath from a local office supply store–or else buy the expensive framed print option (although that does look quite nice). Junior high and high school students who feel like living dangerously can even bring a Solon’s Commandments lunch bag to school.