New Book Gazes Skeptically at the Star of Bethlehem

The Star of Bethlehem, as told in the Bible and other myths, did some impressive things that stars don’t normally do, moving in different directions, hovering in one spot, oh, and heralding the birth of the messiah. But what, if anything, was really going on?

Kimberly Winston of the Religion News Service recently interviewed Aaron Adair, the author of a new book on the subject, The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View, and they run through some of the theories, ruling many of them out. Comets and supernovae, for example, don’t fit the picture. But one idea that sticks out to me, and also to Winston, is that the “star” may have been something a little more mechanical in nature:

Q: My favorite is that the star was actually a UFO. Why would anyone believe this theory?

A: It actually fits the description of the star in the Gospels. A UFO can move around and look like anything it wants to, given sufficient technology. It could lead people to a location and hover over a particular spot and say, for example, “Eat at Joe’s.” And sufficiently advanced aliens could have communicated with the Magi. But all this just means it is imaginable. Of course the problem is, we don’t know if there are intelligent aliens out there or whether they traveled to Earth to mess around with a few local Palestinians.

I just love that from a skeptical perspective, aliens can’t be ruled out entirely. But can they ever be??? Ahem.

Anyway, just in case you’re worried, Adair says he’s not trying to overthrow Christianity with his book. But I think Fox News would likely see right through that ruse. And Answers in Genesis has it all cleared up anyway. Not happy with the violation of basic physics? No worries:

[N]o known natural phenomenon would be able to stand over Bethlehem since all “natural” stars continually move due to the rotation of the earth.1 They appear to rise in the east and set in the west, or circle around the celestial poles. However, the Bible does not say that this star was a natural phenomenon. . . . Of course, God can use natural law to accomplish His will. In fact, a biblical definition of natural law is the way that God normally upholds the universe and accomplishes His will, but God is not bound by the laws He created; He may (and does on occasion) temporarily suspend those laws when He has an important reason to do so.

Q.E.D.

Read the whole interview here, and the book is here.

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  • http://www.dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

    As an astronomer, I’ve seen many attempts to explain the Star of Bethlehem. Finding natural explanations seems particularly popular among astronomers, professional and amateur alike. And as noted, no natural object or phenomenon really fits the bill. But there is a very good answer: there was no star, there was nothing at all. Like the rest of the Jesus mythology, the stories were invented long after they were purported to occur. Astrology was a big deal: people looked to the sky for all sorts of portents, and an astrological sign is precisely the sort of thing we’d expect a storyteller to invent.

    That’s an explanation consistent with the astronomical record, with the historical record, and with known cultural and historical mechanisms.

  • Mario Strada

    My take on it is that we see what we want to see. Who hasn’t traveled in a car and looked at the moon thinking it was chasing us through the countryside?

    Not saying the 3 magis actually existed and traveled sight unseen to welcome some poor illegitimate Palestinian kid, but any writer of the era was probably familiar with the effect and simply used it to strengthen the narrative. At the time any luminous star would have been much brighter than what we can observe today unless we live at the top of the Andes someplace.

  • Pofarmer

    My understanding is that it was common for their to be thought to be a new star at the birth or death of great people. This even gets played out in Thor 2 when the Asgaurdians let go miniature stars and planets at the Queens funeral like balloons at an oriental funeral. I thought that was a nice touch.

  • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

    Exactly. If you give the story any thought at all it makes no sense. how could any light in the sky lead people to a specific town much less to a specific house?

  • Malcolm McLean

    You’d do various esoteric calculations to get roughly the region of Bethlehem. If it appeared in Leo, which represents the lion of Judah, for example, so that might tell you Judea. From its position in the constellation you might narrow it down to Bethlehem. Then you know that it first appeared at exactly midnight, December 25th (or Jan 6th). So you ask around, which baby boy in Bethlehem was born at midnight December 25th?.There’s likely only to be one candidate, so that;s your messiah.

  • GubbaBumpkin

    If it appeared in Leo, which represents the lion of Judah, for example, so that might tell you Judea.

    It is extremely unlikely that “wise men from the East” would have the same table of symbolism as the locals.

  • Bob Jase

    Even less likely that Zoroastrian priests would give a damn about another religion’s messiah.

  • Malcolm McLean

    I’m just giving you the general idea of how they might have done it. We don’t know what type of astrological calculations they employed.

  • http://www.dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

    Who is “they”? There were no “wise men” traveling to Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus (assuming he was a real person). So the only astrological analysis I can see might have come from the writers of the subsequent mythology. But there’s no evidence of any analysis, just a broad concept of heavenly portent.

  • Malcolm McLean

    We have an account, which may or may not be based on a real incident.The fact that you can’t be certain that the magi actually existed doesn’t create a certainty in the other direction. They’re not obviously adaptations of another myth.

  • http://www.dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

    We have no historical account. It is beyond reasonable doubt that the story is a fiction.

  • Malcolm McLean

    Of course it’s not. It’s attached to a narrative the bulk of which is clearly non-fiction, if not a modern academic biography. But the infancy narratives are set about thirty years before the rest of the events, so that;s thirty more years for memories to fade and stories grow up. It’s reasonable to suppose that they might be pure myth. But that’s a million miles from supposing that it;s unreasonable to assume they might not be more or less factual.

  • http://www.dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

    There’s not even any compelling evidence that Jesus was real. To the extent he might have been, there’s no reason to believe that much if any of what is found in the gospels represents reality. Certainly, miracles are impossible. There is no reason that anybody would have been expecting the birth of Jesus and showed up for it.

    My beliefs are evidence based. As such, I recognize that the wise men story was invented as the myths were being written.

  • Malcolm McLean

    The atheist equivalent of a creationist is a Jesus Myther.

    A real “star” appearing in the sky isn’t necessarily miraculous. It would be if it led to Jesus directly and on its own, because the coincidence is too great to simply dismiss. But if there were other reasons for regard Jesus as a “special” baby, maybe because His ancestry made Him a legitimate claimant to high office, then a star appearing at about the time of His birth could have been associated with Him. Since objects appear in the sky fairly regularly, it’s not too much of a coincidence.

    When you’ve just got one account, and no corroborating information, you just don’t know whether it is true or not. There’s a perfectly plausible motive for fabrication, but that’s not the same thing at all as saying that you know that the account is fabricated.

  • http://www.dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

    The atheist equivalent of a creationist is a Jesus Myther.

    You go ahead and tell yourself that. It simply reveals your ignorance about what it means to base ideas on actual evidence.

    You clearly come to this discussion with ideas derived from dogma, not reason, and attempt to justify those irrational beliefs any way you can. If you learn to think clearly, however, you’ll realize that it’s the beliefs themselves that are the problem. Get rid of those, and the crazy justifications are no longer necessary.

  • Pofarmer

    Cmon malcolm. We have two contradictory birth narratives, four crucifiction narratives that don’t agree, and a bunch of various filler in the middle. We can know very little about Jesus historically. To suppose the star narrative was made up later to belp secure Jesus divinity isn’t really a very far stretch.

  • Gilgamesh42

    Actually, what we don know about the astrological traditions of the magi will surprise you. Those details are considered in the book.

  • Malcolm McLean

    It’s all conjecture. Presumably they were Persians, but we don’t know that for sure. Persia is one of many countries to the East of Palestine, but it did have an astronomical tradition we know something about. We don’t even know that the account is factual, unlike Jesus Mythism itself, which is a nonsense theory, there’s a perfectly respectable scholarly opinion that the infancy narratives are accretions.

    But even if they were Zoroastrians, I don’t think we know enough about their detailed astrological methods to know how they might have calculated that an astronomical phenomenon occurred “over Bethlehem”. How would a modern astrologer handle a similar phenomenon, say a supernova in Leo? Can you tell me offhand? But you’re much closer to a modern American astrologer than we are to 1st century Zoroastrians.

  • Gilgamesh42

    In horoscopes, it’s rare to include comets or novae. There are some medieval Arabic horoscopes that consider comets, but that’s late. However, as noted above, the book does look at what we do know about astrological practices at the magi, as well as astrological methods and the earlier Babylonians. In fact, our records allow us to follow the transmission of methods over the centuries.

    But I should distinguish between methods and interpretations. We know a lot about the methods used by astrologers over the century, but how an interpretation comes out is not guessable better than about chance. And that’s the result of how mess up astrology is. Again, that issue is considered in the book.

  • Pofarmer

    If we can believe the rest of the birth narratives(which we can’t for other reasons due to their, uhm, lack of verifiable facts) then Jesus wouldn’t have been born anywhere near December 25th.

  • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

    LOL. Even if a star could tell us the latitude, how it would it tell us the longitude? At exactly what moment would it be directly overhead. Of course no one actually thinks Jesus was born in December. That doesn’t go with the story of shepherds being out watching their flocks. Also, according to which ancient zodiac system does Leo equal Judea?

  • http://www.dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

    Well, at the simplest, it’s easy enough to imagine a planet or bright star on the horizon shortly after sunset, acting as a simple compass for travelers. People have used such tools forever. Useful for traveling long distances, although obviously not for finding a house! And there’s an element of this usage in the story. But more broadly, an astrological explanation makes more sense than an astronomical one.

  • GubbaBumpkin

    Well, at the simplest, it’s easy enough to imagine a planet or bright
    star on the horizon shortly after sunset, acting as a simple compass for
    travelers.

    Which is already at variance with the narrative in Matt 2:2:

    Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.

  • http://www.dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

    Well, I don’t take any of the gospels as anything other than myth. They’re obviously nonsense as historical references. I just meant that people from that time were very comfortable and accustomed to the idea of navigation by looking at the sky, which plays well with the astrological concept. The tale resonates with the mindset of the time, a star with supernatural significance simultaneously acting as a tangible guide.

  • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

    Yes, and we still do (when not relying on gps) look for the north star or the sun in the east or west to get a sense of direction. I can imagine an astronomical phenomenon giving you a sense of which direction to go. How they knew to stop in Bethlehem (or wherever Jesus was supposedly living when the wise men arrived which was later).

    I think we agree that none of it holds up to any objective questioning.

  • MNb

    “But there is a very good answer: there was no star, there was nothing at all. Like the rest of the Jesus mythology, the stories were invented long after they were purported to occur.”

    That’s consensus among historians of Antiquity as well.

    http://mainzerbeobachter.com/2013/12/26/de-ster-van-betlehem/

    “Eén ding staat daarbij vast: wat je ook leest, een Bijbeltekst verwijst minstens even vaak naar een andere Bijbeltekst als naar iets wat feitelijk het geval is geweest.”

    “So much is certain: whatever you read, a quote from the Bible refers equally often to another Bible quote as to a factual event.”

    Here are a few candidates for those who are foolishly enough to take the story of the Star of Bethlehem literally:

    http://www.bijbelaantekeningen.nl/bn/#View=Subjects&action=762&Vers=2&Chap=2&Book=40&Version=SV
    Section IV.

  • LesterBallard

    My hero.

  • ChiTownEdge

    You beat me to it… damn you.

  • http://lady-die.deviantart.com/ LizzyJessie

    My only surprise is that this isn’t the first comment.

  • onamission5

    Five dollar foot long.. aliens?

  • L.Long

    Since 99% of the whole jebus story is make believe, having the star shown as myth does not really surprise anyone.

  • LesterBallard

    “The Conservative Bible” says it was Jupiter. I don’t want to find out exactly what they say, because I hate Conservapedia and don’t want to give them the traffic.

  • Jeff

    Swamp gas….

  • Pofarmer

    Is this like the sun (not) moving around in the sky at Fatima?

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    “A Skeptical View”

    So two skeptical views are:

    It wasn’t a star, it was an interstellar spacecraft piloted by extraterrestrial beings of incomprehensible intelligence, using levels of energy beyond imagination, traveling at speeds that violate our best understanding of the limits of physics, then telepathically communicating with three mages whose names are lost in the mists of time, but could have been Larricus, Moeppi, and Joseph the Curly, to come to a small town in Roman-occupied Judea, following a light from their hovering craft. Oh and bring cash and good smelling stuff. These are the same aliens who two millennia later are in the habit of occasionally abducting people in the Ozarks who go by names like “Bump” and “Hawg,” and after medically examining them, release them many miles away, drunk and naked.

    –OR–

    The L. Ron Hubbard of 100 AD made some shit up.

    Somebody should send Mr. Aaron Adair a case of twin-blade Occam’s razors.

  • Pofarmer

    As someone who is very near the Ozarks I’m, just, -well, nevermind.

  • wtfwjtd

    Great! Now, we have aliens, UFO’s, AND the virgin birth all in one story! Could we find a way to work Big Foot in the plot line please? THEN it’d be perfect!

  • Gilgamesh42

    This is the author of the book here. I should say that I did choose the latter option, more or less 😉 I will have to steal that line, “The L. Ron Hubbard of 100 AD”.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    Be my guest, especially to help further the cause of skepticism. No hard feelings meant in the “razor” line; just having fun. I hope your book is successful.

  • A3Kr0n

    Oh man, you’re not supposed to actually believe all that crap about a magic star. You’re just supposed to pretend, and let it make you feel good.
    For me, there is no magic except Chris Kringle sliding down the hill on a Norelco shaver head. How did he do that?

  • Guest

    Always wondered as a kid, why a man with a full beard had a shaver…

  • randomfactor

    Years ago I read a short SF story about an interplanetary investigative team (think Star Trek Away Team) which comes upon a native having given birth in a rickety structure intended for animals. Despite something like a Prime Directive they leave behind the gold they’d carried as trade goods and bury a high-tech space heater to keep the infant warm through the winter night. Asked why they were late in returning to the ship, they said they’d been delayed by “a matter of no great importance.”

    Of course, I also read Clarke’s “The Star,” too.

  • Dan Robinson

    Reminds me of a story by Ray Bradbury where some space travelers from Earth finally made it o a far away planet with intelligent life. They expected to be greeted with awe and be a big deal but nobody cared because they happened to arrive at the same time as…Jesus! The messiah has rounds! Coming soon to a planet (not so) near you!

  • Robster

    Did dear old god hop on the radio to inform the aliens that Baby jesus was about to pop from the awfully confused mary in one of the two different places mentioned in that bible thingy? As there was no electronic broadcasting all those years ago, it couldn’t been Pat Robertson telling them where to go. It’s a myth. The people ‘researching’ this nonsense have too much time on their hands.

  • Keith Roragen

    It was probably just a weather balloon.

  • Bob Jase

    Sand gas.

  • Sara

    Does he address the Star of Bethlehem movie?

  • Gilgamesh42

    Yes! Or more correctly, the sources it relies on. But you can also read a full critique of that documentary here: http://gilgamesh42.wordpress.com/2013/02/13/the-star-of-bethlehem-documentary-a-critiical-view-index/

  • Astro

    For those interested in more on this, I interviewed Aaron on the latest episode of my podcast (“Exposing PseudoAstronomy”): http://podcast.sjrdesign.net/shownotes_096.php

  • Bob Jase

    And a fine interview it is! I’ve really been enjoying the Planet X marathon I downloaded from you.

  • Astro

    Thanks!

  • Stonyground

    The alien take on this was done ages ago, in a Yuletide song by Chris De-Burgh. I’m not going to link to it because it’s utter cack

  • Malcolm McLean

    You’re relying on a absolutely literal reading of Matthew 2:9-10. It says the that wise men saw the star, which told them Judea, then after they went to Jerusalem went ahead and led them to the exact spot. Ordinary aerial objects don’t behave like that, so it must have been either a fabrication, a space ship, or a miracle.

    But if you assume that the wise men used some astrological calculations, which Matthew didn’t understand, then the star could have been almost anything, because we don’t understand the astrological calculations either. Several candidates have been proposed, none completely convincing.

  • Mikey

    Did the star happen to say “Motel 6”?

  • kickinitincrik

    Jupiter the king planet and regulus the king star get close together. Jupiter hits a retrograde motion sending it back west all within the constellation of Leo (lion, king, Judah). Perhaps not. But natural explanations with the slimmest of odds are something that atheists enjoy.

  • Bob Jase

    If we could determine there was a real star of Bethlehem it would probably turn out to be the many-times-great grandmother of the Kardashians.

  • randomfactor

    The star was on a Texaco station. They asked directions there.

  • Nemo

    As I recall, the story of the three kings is only found in Matthew. As such, the book of Matthew is the only source we have claiming that three powerful figures from the east (Persia, most likely) saw a star and randomly decided to see if it led to a kid or not. I think the more likely explanation is that the story of the Bethlehem star is either a myth or a myth based on some actual astronomical event.

  • Wanderer

    So the book starts from the premise that the account in the Bible is accurate – in which case the only sensible explanation is that the star was what the Bible says it was – a sign from God. If one starts from the premise that the account was accurate, why go further and try to find some other explanation? And of course, saying it was a UFO adds nothing – it simply means it hasn’t been identified. Oh well – it will be interesting to see how many sales this one racks up.

  • Gilgamesh42

    Actually, this book is meant to counter the centuries of astronomers thinking the story is accurate and can be accounted for with astronomy. The book shows why they are wrong and the story is almost certainly a fiction.

  • Wanderer

    Got it – it wasn’t clear from the summary above that your book was intended to show the story is fictional. In that case, my apologies.

  • Gilgamesh42

    No problem.

  • Thin-ice

    Well, let’s say there was one star which was far brighter than thousands of others visible to you at that spot, at that point in history. There would be hundreds of villages within a hundred miles of there where that “star” would appear to be exactly overhead as well. So I think there would also need to have been an audible saying, “Stop, Joseph and Mary, this is the right village, forget all the other villages where this star is overhead.”

  • evodevo

    Well, there IS yet another problem with looking for a non-existent star to back up a mythological story (funny, Paul NEVER mentions Bethlehem, stars, virgin births or any of that !!). Jesus had TWO birthdays – if you look at the inconsistencies between Matthew and Luke – he was born 4BC or 6AD !!! And he was a lifelong native of Nazareth (Luke) … or he was born in Bethlehem (Matt) and fled to Egypt. When you take a cultural creation and try to reconcile the differences…. makes looking for a star seem like child’s play.