Zeitgeist: The Movie (2007) has an intriguing section that talks about an astrological interpretation of the star of Bethlehem and the life of Jesus (my summary here). My goal was to show that with some effort, you can weave together lots of semi-plausible explanations that look good at first glance. Just as Zeitgeist makes a plausible-at-first-glance case, so did Rick Larson with his conjunction-based explanation of the Star, and so do Christian apologists make for the Bible’s accuracy.
But let’s return to Zeitgeist. I can’t let it go without listing some of the holes in the argument. If those errors annoyed you as well, play along at home and see if you spotted some errors that I missed. (This will make more sense if you’ve read the argument outlined in the previous post here.)
The star of Bethlehem
Zeitgeist tells us that Matthew’s story of magi coming from the east (perhaps Babylon) to visit baby Jesus is a metaphor for (or was inspired by) the “three kings” (the three stars in Orion’s belt) following “the star in the east” (Sirius, the brightest star). These four stars make a line in the sky that points to the sunrise on December 25, just after the winter solstice, when the sun begins to gradually strengthen.
- (I’ll give objections as bullets.) It’s true that Sirius is the brightest star in our night sky, Sirius and Orion’s belt are somewhat in a line, and that line intersects the sun (more or less) in late December, but this is too fuzzy to imagine that it goes through the sun precisely on (and only on) December 25. Also, this lineup has nothing to do with sunrise. The imaginary connecting line would still be there throughout the day, it’s just that the conditions would only be right to notice it—dark enough to see the stars but bright enough to see where the sun is below the horizon—shortly before dawn.
- Who called Orion’s Belt “the three kings” and when was that label applied? The originator of the argument used by the movie argues that this name was used by Christians, but that would’ve been plausible after Matthew’s magi story. That is, the story came first and inspired the name for the stars. If the reverse is true and this astrology was the inspiration for Matthew’s story, you need to show that these stars were called “the three kings” (1) in that region and (2) before Matthew. The movie doesn’t do this.
- The word in Matthew is not kings but magos, meaning wise men, teachers, or sorcerers. And Matthew doesn’t say that there were three of them. There were three gifts, from which tradition inferred three magi. Since the three came from Matthew, it sounds likely that Matthew came first, then the tradition of three visitors, then the visitors get upgraded to become kings, and finally, the label of “three kings” for Orion’s belt. The movie does nothing to argue that this plausible interpretation is wrong.
Next, Zeitgeist says that the constellation of Virgo the Virgin represents Mary. Virgo was known as “the house of bread,” which is also with Bethlehem means. This puts the entire quest in the sky: three kings on December 25 weren’t searching for Bethlehem the town, but the celestial “house of bread,” the Virgin.
- The magi were searching for Jesus, not his mother. And how does the trek fit into the star story? The supposed three kings in the sky are immobile. How do they search for the Virgin?
- Bethlehem does means “house of bread,” but I can find no such label for Virgo. The closest I can find is “the barley stalk” as the Babylonian name for the constellation.
- And this naming difference raises another problem: we have familiar names for the constellations, but that doesn’t mean that all cultures through all times used them. For example, do you say Big Dipper or Plough or Ursa Major (Great Bear)? All names are in use. This is true for the signs of the zodiac as well: the Babylonian name for Aries the ram was “the hired man.” Is Aquarius the water bearer or the eagle? Is Virgo the virgin or the barley stalk? The book of Job also has different names for constellations. We need proof that magi came from a culture that would’ve seen a virgin in one of the zodiac constellations.
- December 25 had no special significance for the author of Matthew. The story doesn’t say it was Jesus’s birthday.
We’ll conclude the critique by looking at the astrology behind the Jesus story in part 2.
A deity made in the image of man;
a long lineage of church leaders and ordinary believers
hearing their own thoughts and calling them the voice of God;
the idolizing of belief itself (and by implication,
the human brains that generate beliefs).
The whole thing is utter narcissism
with humility layered on top
like chocolate icing on a dirt cake.
— Valerie Tarico
Image from MabelAmber, public domain