Critique of “The Star of Bethlehem” Video

On Epiphany, the Christian celebration of the visit of the magi to Jesus, I wrote about the video The Star of Bethlehem by Rick Larson here. That post was an uncritical summary of his argument that the conjunctions of Jupiter with Regulus and Venus during the years 3 and 2 BCE explain the story of the magi following the star in Matthew chapter 2. Volumes have been written with many other attempts to explain the star, but this video is a popular explanation, and I will use it as a representation of the field.

It’s time for a critique. The video makes a clever and intriguing argument, but an intriguing argument isn’t necessarily that big a deal. Let me illustrate that with a recent online question, why is the mathematical constant e = 2.718281828459045…? One answer:

It has a lot to do with a $20 bill.

Note that Andrew Jackson’s picture is on a twenty. He served two terms, hence the 2. He was the seventh president, now giving us “2.7”. He was elected by a vote that was held in 1828 and since he served two terms we will repeat this, giving us “2.718281828”. If you fold the bill in half then fold it corner-to-corner you end up with a 45–90–45 degree triangle. Append that sequence and you get “2.718281828459045”. That makes the answer to your question pretty clear, doesn’t it?

Of course, the author of this ingenious answer wasn’t being serious, but it does illustrate how it may not be that remarkable to weave an interesting argument when you’re not following evidence but selecting it to pave a path to a conclusion you’re determined to reach.

Larson knows that he wants to find celestial fireworks at the time of the birth of Jesus to map onto Matthew’s Bethlehem star story, so he sifts and shoehorns the data to reach that conclusion. The result is an interesting argument, but it ultimately fails under the weight of many questions.

The New Testament contains two nativity stories, but Larson, without apology, doesn’t bother to reconcile them. He ignores Luke and focuses on Matthew. And like the zombies stumbling through the streets of Jerusalem in Matthew 27:52–3, we’re left to wonder why the star and magi are also only in Matthew. If it was important enough for Matthew and it actually happened, why wasn’t it reported in the other gospels?

When was Jesus born?

Matthew’s nativity account says that Jesus was born before King Herod died. 4 BCE is the traditional date of Herod’s death, but this prevents Larson from using the celestial events of 3 and 2 BCE to make his story. Larson tries to salvage his theory by arguing that Herod died in 1 BCE.

4 BCE is the scholarly consensus, and the defense of that date sounds convincing to me (Wikipedia summary here). A summary of the debate is tangential to the purpose of this post, but I do want to highlight one point. I have no problem considering minority views in religious scholarship, but the people who want to reject the consensus view here are probably the ones who ridicule those who challenge the consensus view of the historicity of Jesus. For example, “Aside from a very small [handful] of mythicists who don’t hold professorship in any relevant fields, the consensus [that Jesus was a historical figure] is just as universal among historians as the theory of evolution is among biologists.” I’m just asking for consistency.

Herod dying in 4 BCE defeats Larson’s argument, but let’s ignore that and continue.

Astronomy vs. astrology

Larson says that the Bible’s warnings against astrology gave him pause, and we can see why. For example,

If a man or woman . . . has worshiped other gods, bowing down to them or to the sun or the moon or the stars in the sky, . . . take the man or woman who has done this evil deed to your city gate and stone that person to death. (Deuteronomy 17:2–5; see also Isaiah 47:13–15, Job 31:26–8, Deut. 4:19 and 18:9–14, Jeremiah 10:1–3)

The constellations come from the Babylonians, the civilization that conquered Judah in the sixth century BCE. God’s rejection of astrology built on Babylonian constellations is understandable, and yet Larson imagines God using that invention to communicate Jesus’s birth.

We’ll ignore the Bible’s protests as well and move on.

Continued with the astronomical phenomena in part 2.

When the facts change, I change my mind.
What do you do, sir?
— attributed to John Maynard Keynes
(probably falsely)

 Image credit: Florian Lehmuth, flickr, CC

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • RichardSRussell

    This would be a fine time for folx to read the Hugo Award–winning short story “The Star”, by Arthur C. Clarke. It’s one of the all-time greats in the field of science fiction. And that’s not just me saying so; it’s in many “world’s best” and “hall of fame” anthologies.

  • Bob Jase

    Hisotrians have a concensus about Jesus existing? Then why isn’t his life, with historical citations, mentioned in any history text I’ve ever read? Only the Babble says anything about him.

  • Kevin K

    Aside from a very small [handful] of mythicists who don’t hold professorship in any relevant fields, the consensus [that Jesus was a historical figure] is just as universal among historians as the theory of evolution is among biologists.” I’m just asking for consistency.

    Sorry, I can’t let this slide, even though it’s not the point of the post. The difference between the two things — Jesus’ corporeal existence and the biological theory of evolution boils down to one simple thing — EVIDENCE.

    We have EVIDENCE aplenty that the biological theory of evolution is true. We have zero EVIDENCE which supports the notion that there actually lived a Messianic lunatic-revolutionary in that part of the world at that time. None. Nada. Zip. Not even a little bit.

    This is the logical fallacy of False Equivalence, and I hope the person who continues to insist upon it reads this and shuts the fuck up about it … or, alternatively … provides EVIDENCE that there was such a person.

    /end digression. Sorry for the shouting.

    • Rick

      Reference your claim to no evidence for the historic individual “Jesus:” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historicity_of_Jesus

      There are many more sources. Your position is not reasonable nor is it representative of legitimate scholarly thinking.

      • Lark.62

        Did you even read that article?

        There is no evidence. None. Not one independent, factual piece of data.

        The article repeats about once per paragraph some form of “Most scholars of antiquity agree that Jesus existed.” No evidence, just a vague argument from authority.

        It mentions Josephus, but glosses over the implications that the passage is a forgery

        It mentions the argument from embarrassment as if that was proof of anything.

        It does however acknowledge: The historical reliability of the gospels refers to the reliability and historic character of the four New Testament gospels as historical documents. Little in the four canonical gospels is considered to be historically reliable

      • sandy

        “Almost all scholars of antiquity agree that Jesus existed,[7][8][9][10] “….No, there is no evidence supplied here, just 3 of the 4 stating they believe Jesus existed. One could easily provide names stating the opposite. Still no evidence. An honest evaluation of the data on Jesus points to another manmade mythical god.

      • Greg G.

        legitimate scholarly thinking

        Which means “people who were convinced of a historical Jesus as children and now hold jobs that require them to say Jesus was a historical figure.” The consensus of scholars is based on the consensus of scholars that have never seriously considered the evidence of Jesus’ existence.

        The extrabiblical evidence is way too late and seems to be based on reports from people who read the gospels. The gospels appear to be fictional accounts based on the literature of the day. The epistles do not support the gospels and only refer to Jesus in terms of and allusions to the OT, not as a recent first century person.

  • guadalupelavaca

    There is a very good sci-fi short story about the star of Bethlehem by Athur C. Clark. Written through the eyes of a Jesuit whose faith is rocked when he learns the truth about the star.

  • Lerk!

    The thing about this “explanation,” just like with the explanation of the Red Sea Crossing (supposedly there’s a spot where, when the wind blows hard enough for long enough, it really can be crossed on foot), is that if they’re true then the Biblical accounts aren’t miracles! So when Christians come up with this stuff, aren’t they just undermining their own stories?

  • JP415

    The ancients were big on omens. Allegedly, the birth of Alexander the Great occurred in conjunction with the appearance of a mysterious star:

    “His birth was associated with great signs and wonders, such as a bright star gleaming over Macedonia that night and the destruction of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus.”

    — Ancient History Encyclopedia, https://www.ancient.eu/Alexander_the_Great/

    I read this somewhere else, but I can’t find the ancient source for the story. Does anyone know?

    • Pofarmer

      Apparently it was actually a common trope. There was also a beleif that a new stat appeared when a great man died. The funeral scene in Thor for the queen captures this.

      • Hi, Doctor Mike!

        Or when Joker stole Mr Mxyzptlk’s power in the Emperor Joker arc, and turned Harley into a constellation.

  • .
    “Herod dying in 4 BCE defeats Larson’s argument . . . .”, but not just because “Matthew’s nativity account says that Jesus was born before King Herod died”, but even more strongly because Matthew also reports that the Magi actually visited and conferred with Herod, and also because Herod ordered all boy toddlers killed after the Magi’s’ visit, precipitating the Big Crèche 3’s flight to Egypt.
    .

    • sandy

      How can anyone take Mathew serious, about anything, after his description of zombies after the crucifixion, Mathew 27.

      • .
        Just giving Matthew the same consideration as does our host — I’m just a guest here, after all.
        .

        • sandy

          no worries man…we’re are all guests.

    • sandy

      You are right and make a good point to defeat Larson’s argument about the visit and all…it’s just this whole nativity thing is a mess.

  • Greg G.

    Disqus appears to be blocked on home internet connections but it works at public places. I can see the messages and they are threaded but without the date stamp, ratings, reply function and all that. In public places, I’m always with somebody I can’t ignore to read and reply.

    Josephus tells of a light that lit up the Temple in the ninth hour for about a half-hour in Jewish Wats 6.5.4. (It’s the section that tells of Jesus, son of Ananias, who went around saying “Woe to Jerusalem!”) So Matthew may have been inspired by that passage to come up with the star the Magi followed.

    • Joe

      a light that lit up the Temple in the ninth hour for about a half-hour in Jewish Wats

      Probably a typo there. I presume you mean it was Jewish Watts that was powering the light.

      • Greg G.

        Fat thumbs.

    • sandy

      So what are your thoughts Greg on what came first. gMark or Josephus’ Jewish Wars? Josephus has 20 plus parallels to his Jesus, son on Ananias in Jewish Wars compared to the Jesus of Nazareth. Just curious on your thoughts as I see this as a serious point of argument to the historicity of Jesus.

      • Greg G.

        I think aMark used Jewish Wars as a source for material. Many followers of Jesus happen to have the names of the fathers of participants in the war. The names of the four brothers in Mark 6:3 are found in a 13 word span in the Greek in JW. Another verse matches closely with a passage in JW referring to geography. I don’t see enough similarity with Antiquities to think aMark used that.

        I think aMark may have used some of the Jesus bar Ananias passage but I think his Jesus character is based more on Paul’s writing and OT passages. I think Jesus was created from the OT by the early Christians who would be surprised that people would think he was their contemporary.