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.