Aaron Adair, who in the past has contributed widely to ATP, a few years ago wrote the “go-to book” about the Star of Bethlehem, looking critically at the phenomenon. The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View really is a very good book. Aaron, together with myself, has recently decided to produce a second, updated edition of the work on Onus Books. To remind people of the sort of things contained within the original book, I will run some pieces relevant to the topic. This was an argument I was having with Vincent Torley (who some might know from Uncommon Descent) which first brought me into contact with Adair.
Here it is:
To coincide with the recent release of my book The Nativity: A Critical Examination, I wrote a couple of posts concerning issues with the nativity accounts in Luke and Matthew. One Christian commentator, Vincent, made replies to many of my points, all of which I rebutted. There was one point on which he pushed and that was a thesis by Christian physicist Frank Tipler that sets out to defend the Star of Bethlehem from a naturalistic standpoint. Tipler hypothesises that the Star of Bethlehem could have been a supernova or hypernova. Frank Tipler is a physicist who once seemed to produce decent work but who has since adopted his work to a Christian outlook, attempting to find physical and scientific evidence for the miracles of Jesus and the workings of the Bible. Many know him from the strong anthropic principle he developed with John Barrow (himself a deistic member of the United Reformed Church). Vincent’s points on Tipler can be summed up with this quote:
(a) Why did no-one else report the star? Physicist Frank Tipler (an ex-atheist, by the way) has a very carefully thought-out answer in his article, “The Star of Bethlehem: a Type Ia/Ic Supernova in the Andromeda Galaxy” at http://188.8.131.52/~tipler/starofbethlehem.pdf . I strongly suggest that you read it – it really does cover all bases. According to Tipler, because the star was a supernova in the Andromeda galaxy, it was extremely faint and could only be observed by professional astronomers, such as the Magi. That’s why nobody else recorded it at the time: it was too dim. Tipler dates Jesus’ birth to 8 B.C. Tipler also explains how the star could have stood over Bethlehem, and to cap it all, he even proposes an experimental test for his Star of Bethlehem hypothesis, which could be performed by scientists today. He also has some interesting things to say about the solar and lunar eclipses around the time of Jesus’ death.
Not being a astronomer, my focus was more on Tipler’s methodology:
So Tipler concludes that the Star of Bethlehem was either a Type Ic hypernova located in the Andromeda Galaxy, or a Type Ia supernova located in a globular cluster of our own Milky Way Galaxy. This prompts the question that if he was so sure of his hypothesis, why does he provide two competing ones? Although supernovae have been detected in Andromeda, it is extremely difficult to detect a supernova remnant in another galaxy, let alone obtain an accurate date of when it occurred. Supernova are properly amazing events. Tippler comes acropper because this WOULD have been recorded by someone. But, in a time of very astrologically aware people, we have nothing.
It is a shame that so many of his contemporaries don’t rate him any more (as cosmologist Sean Carroll says in the Discovery magazine “Frank Tipler is a crackpot. At one point in his life, he did very good technical work in general
relativity; he was the first to prove theorems that closed timelike curves could not be constructed in local regions of spacetime without either violating the weak energy condition or creating a singularity. But alas, since then he has pretty much gone off the deep end”). He’s jumped on the whole Christian conservative bandwagon of denying
Global Warming too. But back to his article (which essentially comes from the supposedly dire offering of “The Physics of Christianity”).
For starters, it falls foul of Axiom 8 in historical analysis, as Carrier sets out in Proving History: Axiom 8 talks about a conclusion only being as strong as its weakest premise. Tipler’s article is littered with them. Just a little sentence on page 3 tells us much:
A SN will rapidly dim, and if the Magi took two weeks to reach Bethlehem, as Edwards  has pointed out is physically possible, this could be easily explained.
This means that Tipler’s FINAL conclusion can only be as strong as ‘physically possible’ and ‘could’ (there were 8 coulds, 5 possibles, 5 mays, 4 mays and so on). To have a thesis depend on something which is ‘physically possible’ because one only says this when at the zero end of probability. If I ask “Can Jim do X?” and the answer is “well, it’s physically possible”, then I know that the idea inferred is that although it is highly improbable in reality, it is, however, physically possible. The problem is compounded. Literally. With the overall supernova thesis relying on so many coulds and mights, and with the physical possibility probability being, I imagine, less than 1%, one must factor the compound probability of all of these mights and coulds. Even if we assign arbitrary amounts, we get the idea. 20% x 1% x 20% x…x…= a statistical null.
So even if we agreed that all of Tipler’s coulds and mights actually could and might happen (ie that we don’t fundamentally disagree with his thesis) then its probabilityof actually happening is close to zero.
However, what he claims is ludicrous. While I could disagree with a number of things he says, this much is all that is necessary. There are two issues with the supernova. The first is that supernovas are, if we take the one discovered in the Pinwheel Galaxy, a long way away – to the tune in this case of 21 million light years. Which means that the supernova has been and gone – 21 million years ago. So for God to makes sure that the supernova coincides with the magi, he has to micromanage the universe for the 21 million years before the magi existed in order to ensure the correlation. As I set out in “Free Will?”, this would mean ensuring the micromanaging of the universe to every last detail. Everything that happened would be written in stone and we would have no free will. It is not knowing the future; it is ensuring the future – a fundamental difference.
There is the issue of locating a place using a SN. You cannot use a point so incredibly far into the distance to pinpoint something in front of you. If the supernova was in the sky above Bethlehem, you could not tell if it signified Bethlehem OR ANY LOCATION PAST BETHLEHEM. There would be absolutely no way of knowing where to stop. This is a fundamental issue with any star or supernova explanation. The only way to allow for this is to have the star ‘come out of the sky to rest on the location’. You only have to imagine being in Bethlehem. What would you see? The supernova equally as far off in the night sky. There would be nothing in the supernova telling you to stop and not to carry on.
Tipler, though, thinks he has got round this by assigning the position of Bethlehem to the Zenith of a supernova as it is directly above the observer. This starts to sound, to Vincent, plausible. However, one of the issues is that he claims
exactitude with the use of plomb bobs and what-have-you to within a nautical mile. But he shoots himself in the foot by claiming:
This position in the ﬁrst decade B.C. is far away from the galactic plane (the likely location of a galactic nova/supernova), but it is very close to the Andromeda Galaxy
So that within the claimed accuracy of the calculations is a “very close”. Whoah. All those calculations and the supernova would only be very close to where it should be? What hypocrisy of accuracy. They would also have to BE at the point of the zenith at the time of the zenith. To give you accuracy to the nautical mile. But he cannot have this with a supernova that is simply ‘”very close” to where it should be. And when you realise that this must then pinpoint A HOUSE, well, you stop taking such nonsense seriously.
2. Your arguments against Tipler suggest that you do not have a strong background in astronomy. (I’m not blaming you for that; I’m just making an observation.) You write:
“Supernova are properly amazing events. Tippler comes acropper because this WOULD have been recorded by someone. But, in a time of very astrologically aware people, we have nothing.”
As Tipler points out in his article, the supernova he is describing would have been very faint, when seen from Earth, owing to its great distance. For that reason, few people would have noticed it:
“We would expect naked eye observers to notice a ﬁfth magnitude star … only if they happened to be concentrating on that part of the sky… Also, such a faint star would likely be seen only if it was in the east well up in the sky at dawn.”
You then criticize Tipler for the following remark:
“This position in the ﬁrst decade B.C. is far away from the galactic plane (the likely location of a galactic nova/supernova), but it is very close to the Andromeda Galaxy.”
All that Tipler is attempting to argue here is that IF there was a supernova observed at that time which the magi would have taken as referring to the King of the Jews, then it certainly wasn’t in the plane of the Milky Way. The most likely galaxy that it would have been in (if it existed) was the Andromeda galaxy. Tipler is simply trying to reconstruct an historical event, supposing it to have occurred.
Tipler then argues that the magi would have been able to work out the zenith of the supernova to within a nautical mile, using instruments at their disposal (a dioptra and a plumb bob). You try to discredit him by quoting the words “very close” from his statement about the Andromeda Galaxy, but his point there was simply to show that IF there was a supernova relating to the Jews in Palestine, then it was most likely in that galaxy. You have misunderstood his point.
In any case, he goes on to clarify:
“The galactic halo of the Andromeda Galaxy would have deﬁnitely included the declination ofthe zenith of Bethlehem… A supernova in M31 could indeed have ‘stood over’ Bethlehem.”
You then attempt to refute Tipler by saying that the Star of Bethlehem would have had to pinpoint a HOUSE. But the Bible doesn’t say that. It says that the star stood over “the place where the child was” (Matthew 2:9). Place could mean “town.” The population of Bethlehem in Jesus’ time was only 300 to 1,000 (see http://www.bobmay.info/dec1420… ). In such a small town, it wouldn’t be hard for the magi to ask, “Has anyone around here had a baby in the past two weeks?” and thus find the house where Jesus was.
You also balk at “the overall supernova thesis relying on so many coulds and mights” in Tipler’s article, but when you actually examine Tipler’s thesis, it’s simple enough. A supernova appeared in the Andromeda galaxy, was visible for about two weeks (as supernovas usually are) and stood over Bethlehem at its zenith. So much for your vanishing probabilities.
To which I replied:
I don’t think you quite realise how ad hoc Tipler’s thesis is, and how extremely improbable. You claim that the supernova is very dim. And then claim that at least three magi from different areas of the world notice this but no one else does (enough to note it down). BUT THEN you claim that, even though it is faint, it is strangely enough for three disparate men to stop their lives, up and travel weeks and weeks to Bethlehem because this faint star somehow heralds a new God being born. And they all realise this. If you saw a new, but faint star in the sky, even as an astrologer, would you do this? They quite probably noticed many new stars throughout their lives. And a supposedly faint one makes them do all of that.
The probability thing is still problematic. Tipler relies on many contingent probabilities. These must be compounded for the eventual probability.
As pointed out “A SN will rapidly dim, and if the Magi took two weeks to reach Bethlehem, as Edwards  has pointed out is physically possible, this could be easily explained.”
includes an ‘if’ which is dependent on it being not probable but “physically possible” which means that the conclusion is already contingent on an incerdibly small percentage, and that is from that one sentence.
Tipler also posits a “possible astronomical meaning of the Greek phrase translated “in the east.” meaning that a further less probable outcome is desired. His hypernova hypothesis is even more unlikely. But here’s the rub. Aside from all the physical inlikelihodds of the SN / HN hypothesis, the human aspects make it utterly implausible. In order for Tipler’s thesis to have been true, this must have happened:1) The SN must have existed, and traversed the sky in such a way as to be exactly as Tipler had suggested – itself unlikely and for which there is, as yet, absolutely no evidence (no evidenced remnant observations etc).
2) The magi must all have observed this faint star from far away from each other.
3) They must all have realised that this one faint star in the sky heralded the birth of a Messiah in whose religion they did not believe
4) This faint star itself alone must have caused them to change their entire lives, and immediately leave their homeland
5) These magi must have been able to accurately follow this star with absolutely no fault
6) This star led them to Jerusalem
7) This star suddenly picked up again and led them in a different direction back towards Bethlehem.
8) Now moving IN A DIFFERENT DIRECTION from their original direction of Westerly to South-South-Westerly!!!!
9) The faint star, which already has allowed for a change in direction now crosses billions of miles above a village, and this zenith must be interpreted by the Magi as the end of their destination, even though the star is still moving.
10) Most importantly, even though these magi see this faint star as the most important star in human memory, no one else sees it important enough to even mention it in what was a very astronomically literate time. This is a case of special pleading for the magi
11) the faint star’s path was just enough time from start to zenith to allow the magi to get from start to finish of their travel
When one looks at the human factors, one realises the whole thing is very implausible. Tipler’s thesis is about an SN being physically possible. I do not know enough about astronomical issues to be able to appraise it accordingly. But it is a tentative hypothesis by his own reckoning.
“Seeing such a SN under these conditions would immediately suggest to an astrologer a connection with aKing of the Jews” – these magi must also have known, according to Tipler, about Judaism and that this star referred to the King of the Jews.
But if you really object to Tipler’s thesis, then you should consider the possibility that the Star of Bethlehem was a supernatural phenomenon. As such, it may have been visible to the Magi only – which would explain why nobody else saw it. We don’t know. But in that case, there would be nothing to prevent it from resting over a house.
that is the best and soundest thing you have said. I don’t know why Christians bother with trying to find naturalistic explanations for something so clearly supernaturalists. The Bible is full of supernaturalism – why plead this is naturalistic and then look for an incredibly ad hoc and uncorroborated naturlaistic explanation!
If Tipler is going to argue such a star for Jesus, and go to such lengths to show it is possible, why not all the other great figures in history with astronomical connections?
There are loads of examples, some of which I list in the book. However, in order to believe the Star of Bethlehem (SOB) existed, I assume you have to denounce all the other claims of great men and stars at their births? Jesus was just one in a long line of these. They were either false or incorrectly attributed (ie around that time).
Vincent’s final point on the matter is as follows:
As I’ve said before, I’m not claiming that Tipler is right, or even probably correct; I’m merely suggesting that his scenario is plausible.
I would now like to bring in Aaron Adair. Aaron is someone who was passed my book by author David Fitzgerald who wrote the foreword to my book. Aaron is working on writing concerning this very subject and I was very interested in what he had to say on Tipler’s thesis. What he shows is that Tipler’s scenario is not, in fact, plausible, as Vincent claims:
Greetings DC readers. My name is Aaron, a graduate student of physics education and dabbler in things that shouldn’t concern me. [You can find me on Twitter @adair_aaron as well as on Facebook and Google++, and my blog is here.] I was invited to post on a subject I have been studying for some time, though it may not be ready for this season; consider it a Christmas in August gift. For several years, I have been investigating the various naturalistic explanations of the Star of Bethlehem (Matt 2:2, 9), and I have made a few publications along the way. I first made a short summary of my findings in the December 2007 issue of Sky & Telescope, and recently I gave a more scholarly summary in the March issues of Zygon: Journal of Science & Religion (link here). In the future, I plan a book on the subject which has been in the works now for some time. Here I will not be recapping all of that research, but instead I will be more focused.
Frequent blogger Jonathan Pearce wanted me to comment on a particular hypothesis that came up in the comments of an earlier posting concerning the Nativity stories of Jesus. The subject was the hypernova suggestion of cosmologist Frank Tipler.
Who is Dr. Tipler? He is a professor of physics at Tulane University, and he did some pioneering work in solutions to general relativity in the past, including work related to time travel. He has also been a contributor to discussion of the anthropic principle, which he has taken to amazing lengths in his own books, his most recent being The Physics of Christianity. There he exposits on neutrino propulsion for Jesus when he walked on water, all humans being Borged by centuries end, all resurrected at the collapse of the universe, and physics proves the Trinity because of the singularities at the beginning and end of the universe and somewhere in-between. Laurence Krauss put it best in his review: “I am tempted to describe Tipler’s new book as nonsense – but that would be unfair to the concept of nonsense.” (It seems that Frank Tipler has become to physics as Frank Miller has become to comics: started out great, but went off the rails.) Perhaps it is no wonder he is a supporter of the Intelligent Design movement. Nonetheless, this matters little to his particular musing about the Star of Bethlehem, other than the fact that Tipler is not a historian, theologian, or knowledgeable in the languages or scholarship of the Bible.
Now, Dr. Tipler is hardly the first to suggest the nova/supernova hypothesis for the Star, though he is the first to suggest the more recently uncovered hypernova which as the name suggests is even greater than a supernova—a exploding star that can be a bright as a galaxy. The general supernova hypothesis has some popularity because it would be a spectacular way to announce a child messiah, and because it would not be excluded by predictive models of where the planets would have been; it could have happened at any time to fit Matthew’s story.
Now, I will not go through here all the issues that a general supernova hypothesis needs to contend with, save one: we have Greek, Roman, and extensive Chinese records of comets and novae, and there were no plausible sightings before the death of King Herod in 5/4 BCE. There was a comet in March of 5 BCE, but it is described as having a tail, so we know it was not a nova/supernova/hypernova; another comet in 4 BCE could be a nova, but it comes after Passover, and the account of Josephus ensures that Herod was very dead at this point (see Cullen, QJRAS 20 (1979): 153-9). Thus, any supernova hypothesis becomes highly speculative because there is no data but that which is invented.
Which leads us to Tipler’s solution. What he posits, along with some astrological considerations, is that a hypernova in the Andromeda galaxy would have called to the Magi (while all other astrologers in the world happened to miss out) and the “star” itself would have appeared overhead as observed in Bethlehem—hence the Star being “over where the child was.”
However, this solution already leads to its first major problem: it doesn’t even attempt to fit all the facts about the Star, especially the most important descriptive factors. What Matthew mentions in verse 9 is that the Star “went before” the Magi “until” it reached its destination. With the hypernova, it never appears ahead of the Persian wise guys, nor does it stop when it reaches some locale. For Tipler’s hypothesis to work, we have to jettison half of what we are told about the Star.
But even ignoring this textual issue (can we really do that?!?), there are concerns with the science of the observation Tipler wants. The maximum brightness given for a hypernova would mean that it would have barely been noticeable on earth, but his calculation has two problems. One, the distance to the Andromeda galaxy has progressively gotten farther and farther away, though it seems to have settled around 2.5 million light-years. This means the apparent brightness of even the brightest exploding star (4.9 mag.) would be no greater than the background galaxy itself (4.4 mag.; note, smaller numbers means brighter). That means it would not have been noticed by any ancient observers without telescopic resolution. Moreover, the brightness calculation does not include the effects of dust and gas (called extinction or reddening), which would further reduce the apparent brightness by perhaps another half a magnitude. This means the galaxy would be about ten times brighter, making this one star nearly impossible to see by the naked eye.
How hard is it to see a supernova in Andromeda? Well, history gives some indication. To date, there has been only one supernova seen to go off in that galaxy, and that was in 1885. And the explosion was only seen via telescopes. Now, supernovae will go off in a large galaxy about once a century (this is a standard order of magnitude approximation amongst astronomers), so there have been at least a dozen times before the age of the telescope but when there was proper astronomy and observers that supernovae could have been seen in that galaxy. However, history is even worse on our hypothesis because the ancients did not know of the Andromeda galaxy. Not simply that they didn’t know what a galaxy was, but there are no observations of it in our records until the 10th century by Azophi in his Book of Fixed Stars. Europeans would not “discover” this object in the sky until centuries later.
(Tipler also suggests, but without much consideration [in part due to lack of astrological weight], a supernova in a more local globular cluster, but this again runs into the issue of no ancient observations of such supernovae [and being much closer to the Earth, such supernovae would have been very notable], and, like the Andromeda galaxy, these clusters were not observed until well after antiquity when telescopes were invented.)
Already this means that Tipler wants the Magi to have seen something that could not have been viewed in an object no one had noticed, while leaving no record of the star or the strange cloud it was seen in, all the while not fitting most of what the Evangelist describes. Already the hypothesis ought to be disqualified, but there is an issue even with the fit that Tipler has between the hypernova at zenith and the Star “over where the child was.” The Greek used by Matthew is unfortunately too strict to allow the Star to simply be high up above in the sky. Rather, the preposition used means something with much closer proximity. The preposition epan¬¬o (επανο) when followed by the genitive (as it is in this case) means to be on top or hovering above; compare this to the sign above Jesus on the cross, or the angel that sits upon the stone of the tomb (both examples from Matthew). The preposition for something being above in the sky would have been huper (υπηρ), such as the comet described by Josephus that was seen above the city of Jerusalem at the beginning of the Jewish Revolt. (In my future publications, I will prove this extensively, including a comparison with astronomical and astrological works of this time period.) This is actually a serious problem for all nova hypotheses for the Star, as well as other guesses, but it’s enough to say it undercuts what Tipler was trying to do.
We could add to this the suspect astrological considerations that Tipler includes for choosing Andromeda and 8 BCE, but it is sufficient to look at the above and see that in fact Tipler’s hypothesis is a complete failure. There is no evidence to support his claims, and the facts of history, science, and the text are all decisively against him.
But if you want astrological details, that I have saved. And boy is there a mess there for all would-be Star of Bethlehem hunters!
A huge thanks to Aaron Adair for his expertise in the area. I’ll let him get back to his excitement over the Mars landing which is admittedly very cool indeed. Hopefully, this goes a long way to putting to bed some of the various defences apologists offer for the Nativity accounts, especially for the star – a ridiculous notion at best.