Critique of “The Star of Bethlehem” Video (2 of 3)

I summarized the video The Star of Bethlehem by Rick Larson here. Let’s continue the critique of the logic behind the claims by moving on to the four astronomical phenomena that were visible in 3 BCE and 2 BCE (part 1 here).

Let me just warm up the crowd with another example of a plausible argument like Larson’s star of Bethlehem. Here’s a viral video from 2014 of an earnest Christian woman who wants to expose the satanic forces behind Monster energy drink.

Monster_energy_drink_featureFirst, look at the green M. Those aren’t three scratch marks. No, that’s three separate instances of the Hebrew letter vav (ו), which is used to represent the numeral 6. That’s right—it proudly says 666. The 32-ounce can says “BFC,” which stands for “Big F-ing Can.” It says “MILFs love it” on the side of the carton. None of this sounds very Christian, and the slogan “Unleash the beast” sounds positively Satanic.

The word “Monster” has a cross in the letter O. Tip up the can to drink, and the Christian cross is inverted, which is just what Satanists like to do. (“Bottoms up, and the devil laughs,” she says)

Some of these elements may be deliberate, edgy appeals to a young audience, but some may have had unintended satanic meanings. With much patient effort, an innocent thing can seem like a conspiracy.

1. Jupiter/Regulus conjunction

The first astronomical phenomenon in the star-of-Bethlehem argument is Jupiter making three passes above Regulus, a star in the constellation of Leo, beginning in 3 BCE. That is, the king planet Jupiter “crowned” the king star Regulus in the constellation of the lion, the sign of Judah.

The first concern is pairing Judah with any Babylonian constellation, given the Bible’s prohibitions against astrology, but Larson pushes ahead. He gives verses such as “Like a lion [Judah] crouches and lies down” (Genesis 49:9) to make his case that “lion” means Judah, but Judah is also personified in other ways. It’s a wild ox in Numbers 23:22 and a scattered flock chased by lions in Jeremiah 50:17.

Lions are often personified as the adversary: “The Lord [rescued] me from the paw of the lion” (1 Samuel 17:37); “Rescue me from the mouth of the lions” (Psalms 22:21); “Rescue me from their ravages, my precious life from these lions” (Ps. 35:17); and Daniel in the lion’s den. Babylon is a lion (Daniel 7:4); God is a lion when he punishes Israel and Judah (Hosea 5:14); and Satan is a lion (1 Peter 5:8).

Countries were often identified with animals in antiquity, but the lion for Judah wasn’t one of the associations.

Jupiter in the constellation of Leo isn’t that big a deal. Jupiter makes one orbit of the sun every twelve years, and there are twelve constellations in the zodiac, so Jupiter is in Leo for roughly one year every twelve years. And the three Jupiter/Regulus conjunctions—the “crowning” of Regulus—wasn’t like fireworks. This was a slow-motion event that took close to a year. It’s not like you could’ve gone outside and seen the event over the course of hours, like a lunar eclipse. It might even have seemed quite mundane: the magi could’ve known enough about Jupiter’s movements that they could anticipate how the entire retrograde phase would play out, or they could’ve tracked it night after night to gradually piece together its movements over months.

Seeing the motion with a modern computer simulation, as Larson talks about doing, is a very different experience, but seeing it in (glacial) real time may not have been noteworthy.

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

Revelation 12:1–5 speaks of a heavenly sign, “a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head.” The woman is usually interpreted as Mary giving birth to Jesus.

At the beginning of the Jupiter/Regulus series of conjunctions, the sun and moon were both in Virgo. That is, the virgin was clothed in the sun with the moon at her feet, as predicted by Revelation. (Larson has nothing for the “twelve stars on her head.”)

The obvious question is why the magi would care about a prophecy in Revelation, a book that wouldn’t be written for another century.

Another issue is that the sun in Virgo is something that you could deduce, but you couldn’t see it since the background stars that form the constellation aren’t visible during the day. Like the “crowning” of Regulus in painfully slow motion, Virgo “clothed in the sun and moon” wouldn’t have been a stunning visual display but an intellectual conclusion.

Note also that the sun is in Virgo for one month out of twelve, and the moon joins it in Virgo for a few days. This isn’t a rare event; it happens every year.

3. Jupiter/Venus conjunction

Next up was an unusually close planetary conjunction. Jupiter and Venus were less than one minute (1/60 degree) apart on June 17 of 2 BCE.

There is a Jupiter/Venus conjunction roughly once per year. In 2016, there was a Jupiter/Venus conjunction just four minutes apart, and there are 17 conjunctions less than 30 minutes apart in the seventy years 1990–2060. Add in conjunctions between other planets, and surprising conjunctions aren’t that unusual. Close conjunctions appear to be little more than opportunities to observe, “Oh, cool—look at that. You don’t see that every day!”

Larson calls Venus the “Mother Planet,” but the Bible has another interpretation.

How you have fallen from heaven, O morning star, son of the dawn! You have been cast down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations! (Isaiah 14:12)

This is a reference to Lucifer, the morning star (another name for Venus). A Lucifer/Venus connection is probably not what Larson was hoping for, but it’s no less valid.

Larson opted for a planetary conjunction as the Bethlehem star because he says that comets and novas were often seen by the ancients as bad omens. Unfortunately, the same might’ve been true for Jupiter/Venus conjunctions. In Assyria, this was considered a sign of war or danger to the king. Assyria was a long-time neighbor of Babylon, the region where the magi might’ve come from.

Concluded in part 3 with the last claim plus some final thoughts. 

In the last 3500 years, what do we absolutely know

about God and the supernatural realm
that wasn’t supposedly known by the shepherds and fishermen
who claimed to be in contact with the divine then?
Think about that.
Within religion, is there any information there
that we can act on with any degree of certainty,
knowing and seeing that a given result will follow?
— Mr. Deity video @5:05

Image credit: wetribe, flickr, CC

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  • Doubting Thomas

    This is apologetics in a nutshell. Start with your conclusion then look for ANYTHING that might support it.

    • RichardSRussell

      And they’re not even embarrassed that it’s actually called “apologetics”.

      • Doubting Thomas

        They’ll be quick to tell you that apologia means “to make a defense of” or something like that. This, of course, doesn’t make it any better. The correct method isn’t to defend your beliefs. It’s trying to prove your beliefs wrong that is the correct epistemological methodology.

        When your aim is to defend your beliefs you end up believing and saying dumb shit, like apologists.

        • Yet we defend our beliefs all the time. I think it is the content that matters.

        • Doubting Thomas

          I understand that we defend our beliefs. It’s just that it’s the entire methodology of apologetics.

        • Doubting Thomas

          The difference is best shown between science and apologetics. The scientific method is the attempt to prove a hypothesis wrong despite personal bias.

          Apologetics is the opposite of that.

          One method works. One doesn’t.

        • Tommy

          Right. Apologetics doesn’t provide reasons to believe. It only provides excuses to keep believing.

        • I’m not sure what’s inherently wrong with defending your beliefs. What is the specific methodology of apologetics?

        • Doubting Thomas

          Apologetics starts with the conclusion and tries to work backwards. Do you ever think and apologist would announce that they found a way to test their god hypothesis and were going to run the test?

        • Doubting Thomas

          For example, the Templeton Foundation funded the biggest test of prayer. The test found no difference between prayer and no prayer. Do you think any apologist responded that, due to the result, this means prayer doesn’t work?

        • Not that I know of.

        • Jim Jones

          IIRC, if the subjects knew they were prayed for they did worse in terms of medical outcomes.

        • correct.

        • Is that inherently the case? Not that I doubt it is for many (Craig admits it). I don’t think most of their claims are testable (assuming you mean by science).

        • Doubting Thomas

          Which religious claims aren’t testable? If a claim isn’t testable (at least in principle) then I see no reason to believe it.

        • I’m not sure even God’s existence is scientifically testable. Note however that a lot of things aren’t by definition (not that this means God exists).

        • Doubting Thomas

          If god interacts with reality, then his existence should be testable.

        • Well, is everything real testable with science? That said I do think some scientific findings go against God.

        • Giauz Ragnarock

          The existence of any Gods of religious texts is readily testable. The Gods simply have to read their own text aloud- at which point an ideal world with functioning irony meters wonders what the point of having the religious texts was followed by lots of exploding meters and a second sun in our solar system. The idea of Gods as we have in religious texts actually being real beings breaks itself!

        • True, you could have the existence of gods tested. Of course, the problem is getting them to cooperate (if any existed).

        • Giauz Ragnarock

          That would show that there are non-human beings claiming to be “Gods”. However, my point in continually bringing up books that purport the existence of Gods is their absurdity. If a human can read it aloud in a church, then so could a God. If a God read it aloud, what was the point of the text (they’re obviously there and can express their own thoughts rather than needing humans to use dishonest arguments and assertions in text and their speech to get people to believe in Gods)? Where do we get the ideas about “Gods”? The texts that hypothetically allow for the absurd situation is where!

        • Yes, ad Thomas Paine said, it’s “hearsay upon hearsay”.

        • Jim Jones

          We can’t even get a definition of ‘god’ that leads to any useful religious claims.

        • epeeist

          Well yeah, that’s why there is such a thing as theological non-cognitivism.

        • Jim Jones

          Pretty much.

        • I wrote a post a long time ago imagining someone saying, “I have in my hands a paper whose argument will completely destroy your worldview!” to either Christians or atheists. The Christians will mostly have little interest or will be afraid of it. The atheists will say, “Lemme see!”

        • They’re quick to say, “Look, apologetics isn’t about apologizing,” but, given the nutty stuff they’re saying, they need quite a bit of apologizing.

          Arguments that I’ve seen lately boil down to, “OK, let’s see how your argument doesn’t disprove God” … as if disproving God were the goal.

        • Joe

          An omnipotent being should be capable of disproving themselves.

  • There are some responses to the Monster argument, and you’ve raised some of them. You’re correct that, Hebrew-wise, the can says “six six six” instead of “six hundred and sixty-six.”

    As for the Greek version, Wikipedia says, “the number of the Beast 666 is written as χξϛ (600 + 60 + 6).”
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greek_numerals#Description

    That might be a better argument if the word was “Munster” rather than “Monster”.

    Munster? I’d never thought of a cheese-flavored energy drink. Perhaps you’ve missed your calling!

    Sure, it could represent a cross. Or maybe I could see Poseidon’s trident if I were so inclined. Or maybe it’s just a trendy symbol.

    Or a Greek phi.

    Even if we assume Satan, God, and spiritual warfare to be real, what harm does it do the Christian if they drink without realising it is a sacred symbol?

    I think this woman had a magical attitude toward this. If Satan gets Christians to invert crosses, then he wins (or something).

    • Kodie

      It’s apparently like satan can just walk in if you accidentally leave the door open, such as not noticing the cross on the can, drink it down to the end, invert the cross, and swallow demons so they’re inside you. You have to be vigilant!

      As of 5:45pm EDT Jan. 14, neither the audio nor the transcripts were up for this story, but I listened to it on NPR This American Life yesterday in the car, and it’s so warped! It’s called “Chip in My Brain” and it’s the story of a boy (coincidentally named *Cody*) who was infected by the basketball coach his parents hired with a severe case of paranoid Christianity and other conspiracies. It’s very disturbing that I would say “trigger warning”.
      https://www.thisamericanlife.org/635/chip-in-my-brain

      • “The audio for this episode will be available on Sunday at 7pm CT.”

        Thanks for the link. I’ll give it a listen.

        • Kodie

          I find the tagline misleading, because it’s about cults and brainwashing.

          “A boy who can’t dribble gets a coach, a new best friend, and something to believe in.” It sounds like a lonely kid who is bad at basketball meets a great coach who happens to be a spectacular life coach also, when it’s as predatory and damaging a relationship as any adult in authority who grooms a minor for sex.

  • Bob Jase

    Why not go for the obvious solution – the star was a chronal inversion visual of the Challenger explosion?

    • Joe

      Ok, you might be onto something here:

      1. The Challenger actually went through a rift in the space time continuum and was transported to 4BCE.
      2. The crew are trapped there with no way of communication to the present day or means of funding.
      3. They use their knowledge of modern day religions to start a religion of their own, so that people give them money to survive and prosper.The “star” heralding their arrival them was “proof” they were divine..
      4. They choose the most popular religion of the their day, and thus Christianity is founded.

  • Michael Neville

    It’s one thing to have an imaginary friend but having an imaginary enemy is going way too far.

    • Kodie

      I’m not totally sure about that. I mean, it’s kinda normal to personify things that aren’t persons. I can assuredly tell you potato chips aren’t out to get me, but if I make the potato chips some kind of demon to defend myself against, metaphorically, I can pretend to fight them instead of conquering them by eating all of them (which never works).

      • Michael Neville

        They make potato chips faster than you can eat them.

        • Kodie

          I really wish they would stop doing that.

    • Pofarmer
  • JustAnotherAtheist2

    Great post, Bob.