Critique of “The Star of Bethlehem” Video (3 of 3)

I summarized the video The Star of Bethlehem by Rick Larson here. We’ll finish up our critique by examining the last claim, that the “star” stopped over Bethlehem (part 1 of the critique here).

As a final example to illustrate that compelling stories don’t always have substance, let’s remember Harold Camping. He was an engineer, and while fiddling with some biblical calculations, he stumbled across the fact that there were 722,500 days between the death of Jesus and May 21, 2011, a date (at that time) in the near future. Things become more interesting when you realize that 722,500 factors into 5² × 10² × 17². Biblical numerology assigns traits to those numbers: 5 = atonement, 10 = completion, and 17 = heaven. So that date was the day of (Atonement × Completeness × Heaven) squared. Armageddon, here we come!

I’ve written more about Brother Camping’s ridiculous project here.

And there are other intriguing stories that can’t support their weight. Procter and Gamble’s moon-and-stars logo had a Satanic meaning. Velikovsky’s Worlds in Collision (1950) presented an imaginative natural cause for the ten plagues. The Beatles dropped hints that Paul was dead. Popular rock music contained hidden satanic messages, revealed when played backwards. John Hagee invented the idea of four blood moons.

Let’s return to Larson’s star-of-Bethlehem theory.

4. The star stops over Bethlehem

The magi visited Herod, who was surprised to hear of the astrological signs and worried about a potential rival for his throne. The magi expected to find the new Jewish king in Jerusalem, but Herod’s priests showed the Bible reference with Bethlehem as the prophesied birthplace. The magi were directed to Bethlehem, five miles south, and the star “went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.”

Micah prophecy

Micah chapter 5 has the Bethlehem reference: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel.” As usual with claims that see Jesus behind every rock in the Old Testament, when you look at the context, the prophesied ruler doesn’t sound at all like Jesus.

Micah was written after Assyria had conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, and little Judah might be next. During these troubled times, Micah predicts that there will be a king from Bethlehem (since King David was born here, this may simply mean “a king in the line of David” rather than a literal birth in Bethlehem). God will abandon Israel, but then countrymen (presumably scattered Israelites from the aftermath of the conquest) will return to support the new king. With God’s renewed support, the king will bring peace to Judah, defeat any invasion by Assyria, and be celebrated worldwide.

This doesn’t sound like the career of Jesus.

What actually happened was that the Babylonians conquered Judah in the sixth century, so Micah’s prophecy was wrong.

(The composition of the book of Micah is complicated. Part appears to have been written just after the Assyrian conquest of Israel, but it was likely put into final form after the return of exiles from the Babylonian conquest of Judah. The king narrative in Micah 5 may date to an earlier time because it refers to Assyria, which hadn’t existed for a century when the exiles returned from Babylon.)

The perspectives of the magi and Herod

Let’s think about the magi. Who were they, and what was their motivation? They knew enough about Judaism to make the lion = Judah connection and cared enough to make an expensive, dangerous, and time-consuming trip. Nothing says that they were ambassadors from a royal court, so they funded this trip themselves. However, if magi from the east didn’t visit Herod or any other Judean ruler on their ascension to the throne, why (besides literary reasons) is it plausible that they would visit this time?

If they were knowledgeable about Judaism, why did they have to be told about Bethlehem? Perhaps they only knew of a Jewish canon with no Micah, but the book of Micah would’ve been over 500 years old at this point. They might have been isolated from mainstream Judaism, and then we’re back to the question of why they would make the difficult trip to connect with a Judaism they were isolated from.

Since God spoke to the magi directly when he warned them in a dream to avoid Herod on their return, why couldn’t he just have told them, “Go to Bethlehem by date X to visit the new king of the Jews”? Why would ambiguous motion of Jupiter be preferable? Avoiding a visit to Herod would’ve also avoided tipping him off to the rival king, which caused the Massacre of the Innocents (not that avoiding bloodshed is much of a priority in the Bible).

Of course, if we’re questioning God’s motivation, we could ask why he created a vague light show celebrating the most important event on the earth since creation that would be understood by a few strangers rather than something grand that would alert the world. God could’ve told everyone or he could’ve told no one, but instead he gave just a hint to a few men hundreds of miles away from the birthplace of Jesus. I guess God moves in mysterious ways.

Now consider Herod’s motivation. He was so concerned about being replaced by this new “king” that, after the magi returned home secretly to avoid telling Herod where Jesus was, an enraged Herod ordered all boys two years old and under in Bethlehem area to be killed to make sure he eliminated his rival. A guy that ruthless would’ve simply had guards escort the magi to Bethlehem and then kill the boy once they found him. Sure, you could imagine a miracle that kept Herod in check, but then you could imagine a miracle behind the star, and Larson wants a natural argument.

How could Jupiter stop?

Finally, let’s consider how Jupiter “went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.” Since Jupiter moved across the sky east to west each night, it was over Bethlehem for just a moment. When was that moment? And how far must you go in that direction? “[The star] stopped over the place where the child was” is not something Jupiter could ever do.

Larson’s attempt to salvage his theory uses one of Jupiter’s switches between forward and retrograde motion (it switches directions twice a year) as a “stopping” point. Yes, Jupiter’s motion relative to the fixed background of stars would apparently stop for several days, but this does nothing to get us to “it stopped over the place where the child was.”

Remember the Bible’s cosmology. Stars weren’t light years away but were close enough to fall to the ground after the tribulation. Perhaps it was easy for the author of Matthew to imagine those little twinkly things moving like Tinker Bell to direct the magi to the house (no, not a stable—that was Luke) where Jesus lived. Don’t forget that they already knew that “stars” could move since they were familiar with planets.

Fun with interpretations

So where does this leave us? We have the king planet crowning the king star in the constellation of Judah and then a remarkable conjunction between the king planet and the Mother Planet.

Alternatively, we could use similar logic but pick different data. Remember that Satan is personified as a lion in 1 Peter 5:8 (this may be an allusion to “roaring lions that tear their prey” in Psalm 22). Now we have the king star crowned in the constellation of Satan followed by a conjunction between the king planet and the morning star Lucifer.

One interpretation might give you “a new king is born in Judah,” but the other gives you “Satan is the new king.” Sure, I forced the facts into a conclusion—I could’ve instead picked equally plausible facts such as, “the constellation of Babylon” or “the king is in the lion’s den” or “a Jupiter/Venus conjunction means war.” But if I forced the facts, so did Larson. If one interpretation is biased, so is the other.

Another interpretation

North Korean legend says that the birth of “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il was celebrated by the appearance of a new star. Was there an agenda here? Of course, but Matthew might’ve had one as well, and the decay of time has blurred Matthew’s story far more. Is the historical credibility of the North Korean tale any less than Matthew’s?

Matthew was written in roughly 80 CE. That’s 80 years after the supposed visit of the magi. Suppose the conjunctions Larson mentions were noted at the time. After many decades of oral history, the author of Matthew (who wasn’t an eyewitness to the conjunctions) wrote a garbled prescientific account through a Christian lens.

Or, suppose that the magi story was entirely fiction, an opportunity to show praise for Jesus from foreign dignitaries while creating a threat from Herod. This sets up the flight to Egypt and the Moses-like fulfillment of “out of Egypt I have called my son” (from Hosea 11:1). In this case, Matthew is writing literature, not history.

We find precedents for Matthew’s nativity story. In Virgil’s Aeneid, Aeneas is a Trojan hero whose mother is the goddess Venus. He escaped Troy after its defeat by the Greeks in the Trojan War and was guided to Italy by his mother’s star, the planet Venus.

A precedent for the trip of the magi took place shortly before Matthew was written. The king of Armenia and his magi traveled to Rome in 66 CE to pay homage to Emperor Nero.

There is plenty of room to make a plausible skeptical case against Matthew’s nativity story. Enjoy Larson’s video as a clever tale, not an adequate explanation.

Pertness and ignorance may ask a question in three lines,

which it will cost learning and ingenuity thirty pages to answer.
When this is done, the same question shall be
triumphantly asked again the next year,
as if nothing had ever been written upon the subject.
— George Horne

Image credit: Wikipedia

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  • RichardSRussell

    Yes, the whole pile of tripe is utterly ridiculous, and Bob’s summary points out just how ludicrous and far-fetched most of it is. But for my money, the one thing that seems more conclusive than anything else is the blatant contradiction at the end of the very 1st chapter of the very 1st book in the New Testament:

    (23) Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name IMMANU-EL, which being interpreted is, God with us. …
    (25) and … she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name JESUS.

    —Matthew 1:23,25

    This sequence gets read aloud from every pulpit in the world around Xmas time every year, and every year none of the sheep in the audience ever notices that it unmistakably demonstrates that Jesus was definitely not the messiah the prophecy predicted.

    • Steven Watson

      Paul has that covered – the name Jesus was given by God on his Resurrection, see Philippians 2:9.

    • Matthew was just so gosh-darn determined to slip in a fulfilled prophecy that perhaps even he didn’t notice.

    • Scooter

      If you do a little research Richard you would note that the name “Jesus”, the Greek equivalent of “Joshua”, has the meaning, “Yahweh is salvation”, or “Yahweh saves.” Now understand that the name “Immanuel” is not a personal name. In Isaiah 7:14 it is seen as fulfilled, not in the naming of Jesus, but in the whole account of His origin and naming. It is not that Jesus ever bore the name Immanuel but that it indicates His role, bringing God’s presence to man. Matthew explains what this phrase means. It is actually a transliteration of the Hebrew into Greek-making a new Greek word from the sound of the Hebrew phrase “God is with us.”

      • Doubting Thomas

        Yeah Bob. Tisk, tisk.

        If only you’d do a little research on the subject. And learn some Greek. And some Hebrew. And a smattering of Aramaic wouldn’t hurt. And study a bit of historic nomenclature. And gospel exegesis. And Old Testament interpretation.

        Then you’d understand how the Bible makes perfect sense.

    • RichardSRussell

      Not surprisingly, apologists have all sorts of ways of twisting the plain meaning of the words “he called his name” something other than what he actually was named, but these are all just the same post-hoc rationalizations they always have to trot out in their strained attempts to ignore the plain meaning of the words supposedly inspired by their omniscient deity. This is no different than “It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.” If you have to resort to that kind of weaseling, it just paints you as a weasel, that’s all.

      • Reminds me of a bit from Lewis Carroll about a song. In summary:

        The song’s name is called Haddocks’ Eyes
        The song’s name is The Aged Aged Man
        The song is called Ways and Means
        The song is A-sitting on a Gate

  • Tony D’Arcy

    Waiting For Godot.

    ” Is he here yet ? “

    • grasshopper

      “Godot?”
      “Yes, it’s me, Vlad”.
      “No, we haven’t started without you.”
      “No.”
      “No.”
      “Yes, we’ll wait.”
      “What? Yes, he’s fine.”
      “Can you see the big tall building with the cell-phone tower on top?”
      “Good. You are very close. I guess you will be here soon. Can you pick up a bottle of Rosencrantz Shiraz on the way? Thanks.”
      “That was Godot. He will be here soon. How are your feet?”

  • You mean Paul is not dead, there is no satanic messages when playing popular music in the 70’s and 80’s backwards and Proctor and Gamble’s logo is not satanic?

    Boy that killed a large part of my young adult hood. I was actually taught this during that time and unfortunately fell for it. I ended up burning my records and started listening too contemporary Christian Music as a compromise. Yes I was a child of the satanic panic and trusted that Mike Warnke was an ex-satanist. See http://www.answers.org/satan/warnke1.html and http://wilcfry.com/blogs/verily/archives/1708

    • Steven Watson

      Ah, the Beatles… bigger dickheads than Jesus.

      • Michael Neville

        How can you say that? Ringo was the narrator on “Thomas the Tank Engine” and Mr. Conductor on “Shining Time Station”.

        • Steven Watson

          He was an ex-Beatle by then and growed up a bit, 🙂

        • Kodie

          Can you imagine George Carlin of 7 dirty words you can’t say on tv, and Alec Baldwin, of punching photographers, were also Mr. Conductors?

        • Kodie

          Aren’t those the same people?

        • Kodie

          George Carlin and Alec Baldwin also were Mr. Conductor. Now there is no more Mr. Conductor…. I fall asleep with the tv on PBS sometimes.

  • Steven Watson

    And we have to trot out the same old answers every year? The Aeneid is the Roman OT to Augustus, whose Euangellion/GoodNews Xtians hijacked and transvalued. Augustus claimed descent from Venus through Aeneas. Your citing Aeneas following the planet in the Aeneid I didn’t know of, but isn’t surprising if you know the work of Dennis MacDonald. Good spot; this moves things on and puts another brick in the wall.

    • “Dennis Ronald MacDonald is the John Wesley Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Claremont School of Theology in California. MacDonald proposes a theory wherein the earliest books of the New Testament were responses to the Homeric Epics, including the Gospel of Mark and the Acts of the Apostles.”

      You mean that Denis MacDonald? Yes, that’s interesting work.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dennis_MacDonald

      • Steven Watson

        That’s the badger. 🙂

    • Susan

      we have to trot out the same old answers every year?

      Sadly, yes. On every subject.

  • skl

    If anyone thought this “The Star of Bethlehem” video wasn’t
    important, the 3,500 words in this three-part series should tell them otherwise.

    • You’re always confusing, given your supposed atheism. So you’re saying that it’s high time someone responded to the Christian argument about the Star of Bethlehem (or at least one small facet of it)?

      Thanks, I guess.

      • Joe

        We’ve all seen through his fake-atheist persona, so this is what he’s reduced to now.

      • Susan

        You’re always confusing

        HIs strategy is weaselly potshots. Like a creationist.

        Attempt to have an honest discussion. ask him to engage in the points he brings up and he gets more weaselly.

        After many attempts, you point out that he has nothing but weaselly potshots and his panties go into full knot and he blocks you for suggesting it.

        He is the black mold of apologetics.

        Send us an honest christian.

        • He is the black mold of apologetics.

          !

        • Susan

          !

          ?

        • That was a thumbs-up for your metaphor.

        • Susan

          That was a thumbs-up

          Oh. Thanks.

          Sorry for making you say it twice just because I didn’t get it the first time.

        • Kevin K

          I’m just going to meme him from now on. It’s not worth the strain on my fingers to type something.

        • Kodie

          What happened to adam?

        • Bob Jase

          no such animal.

    • Kevin K
    • Kodie

      I guess now you’re a Christian.

    • Jim Jones

      How many books have been written on Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong and others of their ilk? Millions of words, offering incredibly detailed information on the subjects..

      And yet you claim that the mythical Jesus was more important than them all, while offering only anonymous books of vague stories written 100 years after and nearly 3,000 Km away from the supposed events.

  • Kevin K

    If the magi were real and indeed “wise” — how come they didn’t write down their Adventures in Wonderland? One would think that taking the time to do this undertaking would at least prompt them to write an account of the court of Herod, their visitation to Bethlehem, what they saw there, and why they didn’t return to Jerusalem. Especially if an “angel of the Lord” spoke to them. Inquiring minds want to know — just how did that little visitation happen?

    Absence of evidence is often evidence of absence.

    • I hadn’t thought of that. And then, like Josephus, Christians could pick up the burden of copying their work to preserve it until our day.

      • Kevin K

        Seriously, this remains the continuing issue with the position that there was a single corporeal Jesus. This is yet-another touchpoint where, if the stories were real, there should be documentary evidence.

        There should be evidence of magi visiting Herod. There should be evidence that the “entire city was disturbed” by their visit. There should be evidence that Herod sent assassins to Bethlehem. Herod was known to be a despot; his evil deeds were well chronicled at that time. And yet, nothing. Not a word. Almost as if the incident never happened.

        Absence of evidence is evidence of absence.

        • Bob Jase

          The magi in the NT are like the pharoahs in the OT – nameless, traceless NPCs.

        • Kevin K

          I’ve likened them to MacGuffins. But NPCs is probably more accurate. Moving the story along without really affecting it.

        • Jim Jones

          You’d think Philo of Alexandria would have noted something, no matter how obliquely.

          Even a reference to Jesus as the ‘other’ “King of the Jews” would have been something.

          Philo of Alexandria was born: 25 BCE in Alexandria, Egypt. He died: 47-50 CE. He wrote an account of the Jews covering the entire time that Jesus is said to have existed on earth. He was living in or near Jerusalem when Jesus’ miraculous birth and the Herodian massacre occurred. Philo spent time in Jerusalem where he had intimate connections with the royal house of Judaea. One of Alexander’s sons (and Philo’s nephews, Marcus) was married to Berenice, daughter of Herod Agrippa, tetrarch of Galilee and Peraea, 39-40. After the exile of Herod Antipas – villain of the Jesus saga – Marcus ruled as “King of the Jews”, 41-44 AD. But nothing from Philo on Jesus, the other ‘King of the Jews’.

          Philo was there when Jesus made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. He was there when the crucifixion with an earthquake, daytime darkness, and resurrection of the dead ‘saints’ took place and when Jesus rose from the dead after 3 days. He was there when Jesus ascended into heaven. About thirty manuscripts and at least 850,000 words by Philo are extant. It was Philo who developed the doctrine of the Logos, or Word, and although Jesus, this Word incarnate, was walking around giving speeches and performing miracles, Philo wrote not one word about him or any of this.

  • Bob Jase

    “A precedent for the trip of the magi took place shortly before Matthew was written.”

    Well, seems more likely that Matthew was inspired by the historical trip in 66 CE.