Can the Star of Bethlehem Be Scientifically Verified? (2 of 2)

WISE MEN

This is the conclusion of a summary of the video The Star of Bethlehem by Rick Larson. See part 1 for the preliminaries.

In part 1, I listed the nine points Larson pulled from the magi/star story in Matthew 2. He claims that Jupiter is the key player in a story that the magi would’ve been able to interpret for its symbolic meaning. He identifies four events in his Bethlehem star scenario that extend for a little over a year beginning in 3 BCE.

1. Jupiter/Regulus conjunction

From a human standpoint, the stars in the sky seem fixed. Planets, however, gradually move against the fixed background of stars (the word “planet” comes from the Greek for “wanderers”). While they do move, and the magi would’ve known this, the motion is subtle. Only by looking night after night is this motion apparent.

Jupiter had not one but three conjunctions with Regulus (September of 3 BCE, then February the next year, and finally in May). Regulus is actually a four-star system, but the magi would have known it as a single, bright star in the constellation Leo.

Planets farther from the sun than earth (Mars and beyond) sometimes move backwards against the background stars. This is called retrograde motion. For example, Jupiter moves forward for nine months, backward for four months, and then forward again.

The three Jupiter/Regulus conjunctions are because of Jupiter’s retrograde motion. Looking at the symbolic meaning, the king planet Jupiter moved past the king star Regulus three times. Larson sees this as Jupiter crowning Regulus. And this happened in the constellation of the lion, the symbol of Judah (for example, “Like a lion [Judah] crouches and lies down, like a lioness—who dares to rouse him?” [Genesis 49:9–10]). He says that the magi would’ve known that Judah was getting a new king.

2. Revelation and the woman “clothed with the sun”

Revelation is full of unfamiliar symbolism, and Christians argue about precisely what it means. We’ll go with Larson’s interpretation.

A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon. . . . The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.” (Revelation 12:1–5)

The woman is Mary, the child is Jesus, and the dragon is Herod (or Satan in the guise of Herod). On September 11 of 3 BCE, during the Jupiter/Regulus conjunction, the sun and moon are both in the constellation of Virgo. In other words, Virgo the virgin is clothed with the sun and has the moon at her feet (as mentioned in Revelation) at the same time that the king planet is crowning the king star in Judah’s constellation.

3. Jupiter/Venus conjunction

Next on the calendar was a very close Jupiter/Venus conjunction on June 17 of 2 BCE, so close that the distance separating them was about the apparent width of either planet. Specifically, they were about 40 seconds apart. (There are 60 seconds in a minute and 60 minutes in a degree and 360 degrees in a full circle. For comparison, a full moon is 30 minutes in diameter.)

The magi would’ve been familiar with conjunctions, and the remarkable thing about this conjunction wasn’t the brightness but the closeness. Conjunctions this close aren’t that rare astronomically, but they would’ve been unusual or unique in the lifetimes of these men.

4. The star stops over Bethlehem

The last element in this lightshow was the stopping of the star (Jupiter) over Bethlehem. Larson says that Jupiter’s switching directions from regular motion to retrograde or vice versa (there are two such switches every 13 months) counts as “stopping.” One of those “stopping” points was December 25 of 2 BCE (though he’s quick to state that this being Christmas day is just a coincidence, since the magi aren’t thought to have visited Jesus as a newborn).

Critique

This is an interesting set of facts, but Larson has 20/20 hindsight. He knows what he wants to find, so he scans the possibilities (moving Herod’s death as necessary) to find what he wants. The nativity story is feeble evidence that any magi could or did draw the conclusions Larson would like.

Perhaps you’ve had some questions as you read along. Here are some that come to mind for me.

  • Revelation was written a century after the Jesus’s birth. Who would marvel about seeing a fulfilled prophecy from Revelation before Revelation had ever been written?
  • How could the magi make the Leo = Judah connection and care enough about the tiny state of Judah to make a difficult trip but not know the Old Testament enough to know about the Bethlehem reference in Micah 5:2?
  • How can Jupiter be deliberately be over anything on earth? It moves across the sky each night. From a vantage point in the Middle East, it’s “over” lots of things—pretty much everything to the south of you, depending on the time. Matthew says that “[the star] stopped over the place where the child was.” This could apply to Jupiter only if you had a precise moment at which to take its position. And only if the star were like Tinker Bell (rather than something that might as well be infinitely far away like Jupiter) could you identify “the place where the child was.”

Those questions and more discussed next in the critique.

It takes a certain maturity of mind
to accept that nature works
as steadily in rust
as in rose petals.
— Esther Warner Dendel

 Image credit: Morning Star, flickr, CC

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • RichardSRussell

    This is pretty much typical of apologists. Start with what you’d like to demonstrate, then contort the facts as much as necessary to make them arrive at your pre-conceived destination.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      if they presented this as, “Hey, look at this curious coincidence I found!” that’d be one thing. But this is apparently yet more evidence that the heavens declare the glory of God.

      • Pofarmer

        To be fair, they think everything declares the Glory of God, one way or the other. Babies births and childhood bone cancer. It’s all glorious.

      • Pofarmer

        To be fair, they think everything declares the Glory of God, one way or the other. Babies births and childhood bone cancer. It’s all glorious.

  • Tony D’Arcy

    Smells to me much like the so-called ‘fine tuning ‘ argument for a god. Instead of the ‘fine tuning’ of the mass of the electron, and all the others, in this case, it’s the orbit of Jupiter and Venus which announce the Saviour ! Creator of the universe, carpenter Jesus Christ who also hated fig wood.

  • epicurus

    I must be missing something obvious in the idea that a star could point to a house or even a town. It’s too far away to be over anything, you could walk forever and it would always look the same. And since it’s actually a sun, it would be huge so if it got closer, really close, It would be “over” half the earth (not to mention burning us up). It must be like a flash light, as in the Blog post title picture here Bob has used.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      When you find that obvious thing, let me know. I’m also missing it. To go from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, you just ask someone, and they say, “You must be from out of town, buddy. It’s just 5 miles down that road.”

      But if you want to do it God’s way and use a star, it needs to tell you azimuth (left/right angle) and distance. If you had a precise time reference (9:35pm), you could look at the star/planet at that moment and find the azimuth, but then you’d still need the distance. (And you don’t have a time reference, precise or otherwise.)

      The Tinker Bell metaphor would work far better.

      • Kevin K

        You know, I didn’t realize it until I looked it up before commenting on your first post … but the two towns are really, really close, aren’t they? Which makes the story all that less credible — especially the part where Herod sends assassins to kill all of the children under the age of 2. If they were sent to some remote outpost — that could make some sense. But this is basically a commuter suburb. Keeping something like that secret would be impossible under those circumstances. Which is what theists claim as to why no one besides Matthew seems to have heard about it.

        Edited to add: And why didn’t Herod send his own men along with the wise guys if it was just down the road? It’s not even an afternoon’s camel ride. All he would have to do is say “my men will go along with you to help you in your search” … and then slaughter the little beast when they found him — and the wise guys along with him. No witnesses. Herod did WAY worse during his reign.

        • Pofarmer

          It’s religious fiction. It’s as credible as Die Hard 4.

        • Kevin K

          No doubt. But I had never realized just how not-credible that particular version of the story was until just now. The way it’s told, somehow I had it in my head that Bethlehem was some days distant from Jerusalem, in a remote outpost. Instead, it’s just about as far away from where Herod was as my closest grocery store is from me today.

        • Michael Neville

          I see hear Herod now: “Yippie-ki-yay, motherfucker!” Only in Aramaic.

        • Kodie
        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          I saw it as such this Christmas for the first time. I’ll have to make it a tradition.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          Yeah, you’d think that the birth of God’s son would cause more of a stir. Wouldn’t the shepherds and magi have told people?

          why didn’t Herod send his own men along with the wise guys if it was just down the road?

          Great point.

        • carbonUnit

          Yeah, you’d think that the birth of God’s son would cause more of a stir.
          Not to mention the killing of all infants under the age of two!

        • carbonUnit

          why didn’t Herod send his own men along with the wise guys
          Or just have a spy or two follow them discreetly, then call in the soldiers once they had the target?

        • Kevin K

          Yeah, good point. One could see three possible scenarios.

          1. Herod brings the entire court to meet this new “king”, and then the kid has an unfortunate accident with a sword. Oppsie!
          2. Herod sends some goons along to “protect” the wise guys in their hunt, and when they find the kid — they whack them all.
          3. As you say, just have a spy tail them. And then whack the kid (and the parents, of course) after the wise guys have left.

          What isn’t credible is Herod saying “come back when you’ve found him” and then just leaving it at that; being forced to kill an entire town’s worth of children because of his incompetence. One thing Herod wasn’t, and that’s incompetent.

        • carbonUnit

          This is a common pattern in the Bible: People acting implausibly stupid, as if their actions are scripted/compelled, necessary to fulfill some role in the bigger story. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SKRma7PDW10

      • Michael Neville

        If you had a precise time reference

        Chronometers and nautical almanacs hadn’t been invented yet.

  • http://musingsfromacorneroftheuniverse.blogspot.com/ Michael

    Why don’t they just declare it a miracle?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      And use the Tinker Bell metaphor? Yes, that would be far better. But then you’re back to just using faith.

      • http://musingsfromacorneroftheuniverse.blogspot.com/ Michael

        At least then one could simply prove them wrong this way. I wonder why they even try to find a natural explanation. I guess it’s good for us they did though.

      • Kodie

        They are also back to faith when they say there is no other way for the tomb to be empty than if Jesus ascended bodily to heaven. They are not looking for a rational explanation for that.

        • MNb

          And even if some other way is demonstrated they Always have something like “God wanted it that way”.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          They are also back to faith when they say there is no other way for the tomb to be empty in the story than if Jesus ascended bodily to heaven in reality.

          FTFY

  • Michael Neville

    Herod the Great’s death date is controversial. It’s anywhere from 4 BCE to 1 CE with most scholars tending towards 4 BCE. Herod’s sons, between whom his kingdom was divided after his death, either dated or antedated their rule from 4 BCE. Josephus wrote that Herod died after a lunar eclipse. He gives an account of events between this eclipse and Herod’s death, and between his death and Passover. An eclipse took place on 13 March 4 BCE, about 29 days before Passover, and this eclipse may be the one referred to by Josephus. However lunar eclipses are fairly common, occurring two to four times per year, so it’s not a clear indicator of the date of Herod’s death.

    • birgerjohansson

      Aron Adair mentions that the rule of the governor of Syria mentioned by name in Luke did not overlap with the reign of Herod.
      This should be a big red flag right there.

      • Tommy

        Apologists are aware of this, that’s why they propose two terms for the governor of Syria. There’s zero evidence that Quirinius served two terms instead of one but hey, that’s apologetics for you.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      The apologist who argues against the consensus date for Herod (possibly following an agenda?) will likely denigrate Christ mythicists because the consensus view is against them.

      And yeah, Larson’s argument fails completely if he can’t move that date.

  • Paul D.

    People like Rick Larson are stuck in the philosophical dead end street of rationalism. They know that miracles are worthless explanations, but they also need to adhere to the inerrancy of scripture, so they seek answers, however contrived, in science. The star of Bethlehem was a conjunction of the planets, the plagues of Egypt were algae blooms and volcanic eruptions, and so on. But the actual details of the story contradict their claims at every turn.

    • Kevin K

      Yeah, it is kinda interesting how on the one hand, “miracles” are supposed to be iron-clad proof of GAWD’s existence, as well as its powers to bend the laws of physics to its will … but they were perfectly natural events that we can study.

      That, I think, is probably the best definition for “cognitive dissonance” I’ve seen yet. Being able to hold both of those positions simultaneously.

    • Doubting Thomas

      Don’t forget that the parting of the Red Sea was actually just a windy day in the swamp.

  • Kevin K

    I mentioned somewhere on Patheos that I recently watched a “documentary” that was all about how September 23, 2017 was going to be the Big Event™…there was a lot of pointing to the Revelation passage you mention. So, apparently, those verses can look both backward and forward in time! Impressive.

    Of course, nothing happened on September 23, 2017 (the predictions in the “documentary” included a nuclear-fuck war, and Nibiru). I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that 2000 years ago, nothing happened as well.

  • Pofarmer

    Aaron Adair pretty well tears this one apart till there’s nothing left of it. He hits on the Magi story, as well.

    https://www.amazon.com/Star-Bethlehem-Skeptical-View/dp/0956694861/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1515288780&sr=8-1&keywords=aaron+adair

    • birgerjohansson

      I also read the book by Adair. It was Babylonians, not the magi of Persia who were interested in astrology.
      Persia only took to astrology well after the Roman empire had collapsed.
      Nor did anyone in the East care about the local religion of Palestine. Different gods.
      The clincher is the star in Virgil’s story “The Aeneid” where Aeneas follows a star from Troy to Italy were he founds Rome.
      This story was well- known and served as a template to the person who wrote down and embellished the oral tradition attributed to Luke.

      • Pofarmer

        The clincher is the star in Virgil’s story “The Aeneid” where Aeneas follows a star from Troy to Italy were he founds Rome.
        This
        story was well- known and served as a template to the person who wrote
        down and embellished the oral tradition attributed to Luke.

        That’s new. Thanks. It’s just amazing all the existing tropes that were woven together into the whole Jesus mythology.

        • sandy

          If you take a look at “The legend of Hercules” on netflix, which I did last night, Zeus choosing to have a child with a human mother is exactly like the legend of Jesus story. Quite amusing to see the reaction by the human husband when he hears Zeus under the sheets. That’s as far as I got.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          And what does the chivalrous husband do in a situation like that? “Come out from under there, you bastard, and face me like a man!” may be unwise when it’s a god.

        • sandy

          The husband hears his wife Queen Alcmeme moaning with Zeus, who is only portrayed as wind under the sheets, (probably what the holy ghost would have done) and yes there are a few jokes in there for sure. The king is furious swinging his sword around but obviously can’t find the bastard. Funny how the gospels left that part out. BTW, it’s a bad movie.

        • Cozmo the Magician

          “face me like a man” what a sexist comment (; I think Aphrodite might object.

        • Adrian

          Well, considering the shape-shifting abilities of the Olympians, she might just grow a dick or turn into a guy. It would probably end up in a threesome in any case 😛

        • Cozmo the Magician

          Hmm… I recall that many of that pantheon liked to morph into various animals and stuff (and have sex in those shapes.. kinky.. very kinky). But I don’t recall about any gender changes. OTOH, most of my knowledge of those tales comes from reading while back in school.. so was probably sanitized to meet the times. But they DID not exclude the kinky animal sex… go figure.

        • Adrian

          Well, now that I think about it, the ancient Greeks had some very strict gender roles, so they may have been unwilling to imagine their gods having some gender-bending fun. But yeah, apparently they were OK with gods in animal shape having (often non-consensual) sex with mortals.

        • Tommy

          Your comment reminds me of this scene from The Family Guy

          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2g6Yud8Edt0

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      Given infinite time, I’d want to read that before writing my response. That won’t happen, I’m afraid, but thanks for the link.

    • G.Shelley

      Definitely worth reading

  • lady_black

    The “magi” (astrologers) followed a heavenly sign to a home in Jerusalem, where Jesus is said to have been “a young child.” They did not appear at the stable in Bethlehem on the night of the birth. Only nearby shepherds are said to have come.
    Such a long journey by camel would have taken months. Even up to a year.
    Further, Jesus (if he even existed) would have been taken to the temple in Jerusalem for dedication via circumcision at the age of eight days, as the law required.
    The story of the so-called “slaughter of innocents” likely never happened. The “wise men” had not yet visited Herod. Jesus was no longer in Bethlehem, and probably returned with his family to Nazareth, not fled to Egypt. Those dates do not add up.

    • Kevin K

      Of course, you’re mixing the two separate fables up. Only Luke has the baby born in a stable with the MacGuffin of a census as the impetus of putting them there. Matthew doesn’t declare that at all — in his tale, the family appears to be living in Bethlehem where the baby is born and then visited by the wise guys. You’re correct in that we have no time certain for this visit; anywhere from a few days to 2 years after his birth is implied. The family flees their Bethlehem home when an angel tells them to, and then resettle in Nazareth some years later.

      In addition, there is no way of knowing how long the trip of the wise guys would have taken — because they are not named, and they are only described as coming from the “east”. East of where? East of Jerusalem, no doubt, but how far east? 1 mile, 20, 200? There’s no way to tell from the story. Amman is the closest capital to Israel — it would be just a few days by caravan. Baghdad, just a couple of months. Apologists claim they were from “Persia” — but that’s completely ad hoc — nowhere will you find their country or city of origin.

      The story doesn’t even say how many wise guys there were — three is one of those “by tradition” additions, primarily born of the fact that they gave the baby three gifts — gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Which would have made the family wealthy, FWIW. But it could have been two guys, or 20.

      • lady_black

        Right. That was my point. Too many conflicting stories here to determine time, place, number of Magi, etc. of these alleged events.
        One account does speak of angels telling nearby shepherds they would find the baby lying in a manger (which I imagine wasn’t a common feature of houses meant for human occupancy, but a place where livestock were sheltered).

        • Kevin K

          Yeah, that’s Luke’s account, which is far more sparkly glittery magic than Matthew. The two cannot be reconciled, but every creche scene contains a mish-mash of both accounts.

        • eric

          I am as certain of there being 3 magi as I am that Jesus was white, like in the pictures.

      • Michael Neville

        The Coptic tradition has 12 magi.

        • Kevin K

          That’s a lot of myrrh!! 12 for the number of constellations in night sky, no doubt.

  • skl

    This will really shake Christians up.

    To think that those who doubt Jesus Christ ever even existed
    would also look askance at star stories!

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      You’re an atheist–or at least you play one in blogs. Is your point just to piss on people? Or are you dying to suggest something positive about how to educate Christians but just haven’t seen the opportunity?

      • Kevin K

        If skl is an atheist, I’m center fielder for the Yankees.

        Seriously.

    • Joe

      This post will really shake atheists up.

  • Cozmo the Magician

    OK folks.. time to shed some light here (pun intended). My invisible imaginary pet dragon Fluffy told me that the star was actually his cousin Spotsy. Spotsy sometimes breathed fire out the wrong end when flying and was just kinda hanging out over Bethlehem until his digestion sorted itself out. No mystery, just a bad lunch.

  • quinsha

    Sounds like astrology to me.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      But if it were, that would be forbidden. So therefore it’s not.

      • http://humanistchaplainjourney.blogspot.com/ Mark Landes

        As you explained previously, Larson justified it trying to duplicate what the Magi who supposedly know about Judah getting a king but did not know about the prohibition of astrology but would not apply to them.. . So never mind I can’t follow irrational reasoning.

        • Kevin K

          Astrology is “dark magic”, of course. It’s totally real and works 100% (cuz the magi used it), but it’s prohibited by the bible and therefore Satanic. Of course, Satan led the magi to the spot because he wanted Herod to send his assassins. And it would have worked, if not for those darned kids and that big dog!!

  • wtfwjtd

    So, how can the appearance of a “star” be a miracle of God if it’s just an ordinary astrological event?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      My take is that finding objective astronomical evidence is their goal. But yeah, if it were me, I’d just say it’s Tinker Bell, so therefore it’s a miracle, so praise Jesus.

  • Matt Cavanaugh

    Revelation was written a century after the Jesus’s birth.

    Compelling arguments have been made that Revelation is pre-christian. cf.
    https://jamestabor.com/can-a-pre-christian-version-of-the-book-of-revelation-be-recovered/

    • http://humanistchaplainjourney.blogspot.com/ Mark Landes

      Thank you. That looks interesting and will have to read if fully when I have the time.

  • Jack Baynes

    Now how do you “Follow” a conjunction?