The Star of Bethlehem: Rebuttal to the Zeitgeist Argument

The Star of Bethlehem: Rebuttal to the Zeitgeist Argument November 28, 2018

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.

Virgo

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.

Next time: we’ll conclude the critique by looking at the astrology behind the Jesus story.

Christianity is ultimately self-worship:
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

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Image from MabelAmber, public domain

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  • Michael Neville

    The Syriac Christian tradition is 12 magi. Incidentally the Greek magos (μάγος) is derived from Old Persian maguŝ from the Avestan magâunô, i.e., the Zoroastrian priestly caste.

    • eric

      AIUI Armenian, Coptic, and Russian Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on the 6th (or 7th?) of January. And if you ask them, they’ll tell you that was the original day and that the Roman Empire changed it in the fourth or fifth century, in order to co-opt/outcompete the Sol Invictus festival of Roman pagans…which had been held on December 25 for a century or so before the Christians decided to make Christmas a thing. The non-Roman branches of the church, OTOH, didn’t feel the need to change the date, because in their lands they didn’t have a pagan festival happening two weeks beforehand to compete with.

      IIRC there’s actual, documentary proof of Aurelian (third century) decreeing the Sol Invictus festival as an official state holiday, to be held on 25 December. And some additional documentary evidence that some Roman emperor after Constantine reassigned the date to Christmas in the fourth century. But I may be wrong about that.

      • Cozmo the Magician

        Hmm, just had a thought. On the one hand, it sucks getting old so I wonder if I could just change my birthday and make me 20 years younger. On the other hand, I’m just a few years away from being able to collect social security. But on the gripping hand, I never claimed to be divine* so I guess it can’t be done.

        * I have had a few lovers say “OH MY GOD” during sex, but that probably don’t count.

        • Kevin K

          Qualifying for Medicare was the only “real” benefit I could discern from turning 65.

        • eric

          When I organize the first Carousel, be assured you will gain the additional benefit of being a special invitee. 🙂

        • Michael Neville

          At 65 you become eligible for Social Security payouts. Depending on your wage history, that can be a nice sum (mine is over $1000 per month).

        • Kevin K

          My “full retirement” age is 66. My brother’s was 65 — meaning I got screwed out of a year by Congress. In any event, if you delay getting benefits, you get a substantial bump each year up until age 70.

          I’m not gonna wait.

        • Michael Neville

          I waited until I was 68. The increased benefit was noticeable.

        • Greg G.

          If you can afford to retire and not take SSI until later, I think you should take it anyway and bank it at interest. My theory is that it is an inducement to delay so most people will die before they get ahead. It would be like a life insurance plan for your spouse where the money comes in first and you pay the premium after age 66. If you die at age 66, your wife gets four years of SSI at no cost. What a deal!

        • Kevin K

          That’s pretty much the advice I got from my financial advisor.

        • Greg G.

          I get a 10% senior discount on donuts. That’s the best thing about being over 60.

        • Kevin K

          I got a senior discount at the local golf course when I turned 55. Then I stopped playing golf (bad shoulder/back/hip/knee/ankle/neck).

      • Taneli Huuskonen

        The explanation I’ve heard is that those churches celebrate Christmas on Dec 25 like everyone else, but they still use the Julian calendar for religious purposes.

    • Pofarmer

      Just out of principle, I would fact check you on that, but, I honestly don’t have any idea where to start. Lol.

    • MartinL

      Ok, German wikipedia confirmes, that there have been originally 12 (syrian-arianisme) magoi. The number of three is probably first “invented” around the year 250 from Origenes of Alexandria (wikipedia.de).. Furthermore, the Swiss author and proven astrologer Dieter Koch has developed a very profound theorie, based on the exact wording of Mathew… That the birth of Jesus(legend) shows on a heliacle first rise of the planet venus after temporary invisibility. At early morning of 1st september 2 b.c. Venus rose form the “head” of the zodiac virgin-constellation (and not from its “womb”)! “http://www.lulu.com/shop/dieter-koch/the-star-of-bethlehem/paperback/product-23191553.html “On careful and unprejudiced reading, the legend of the Star of Bethlehem
      (Matthew 2) seems to report a rather unspectacular heliacal rising of
      Venus. This suggestion is supported by Revelation 22:16, where Jesus
      calls himself “the shining morning star”. John’s vision of the
      apocalyptic woman in Revelation 12 indicates that the rising of the
      morning star took place during the time of Virgo (the virgin), close to a
      new moon, and, if possible, on the day of the Jewish New Year.

      It is intriguing that around 2 BCE there actually was a date that
      fulfilled all these conditions. The author studies the symbolism of this
      celestial configuration in ancient religions and astrology and works
      out its connection with the birth of the Messiah.

      It is to be debated whether this date for his birth is realistic, or
      whether early Christian writers chose it because of its symbolism.”

      • Greg G.

        The story comes from Matthew. It doesn’t say how many Magi there were. It only says they brought three items as gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

        Matthew seems to have created the story based on Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews. In AJ 2, there is the story of Moses’ nativity where the Pharaoh was having baby boys killed. In Exodus, it was to stem the population growth of the Jews but in Josephus, it is because of fear of a prophecy. Matthew has the father receiving warnings in dreams but Exodus does not, while AJ 2 does have Moses’ father being warned in a dream. AJ 17 has King Herod having his own son put to death because of fear of a prophecy he heard from the Pharisees who were believed to have the power or foresight, which may have been the inspiration for the Magi.

        The gifts of the Magi are described as items used in Tabernacle rituals in Exodus 30. Josephus describes them in AJ 3. Matthew lists those three items in the order that Josephus describes them which is different than in Exodus 30.

        Antiquities of the Jews can be internally dated to about 94 AD. If Matthew used Antiquities of the Jews, then it must be dated in the very late first century or the second century. There is no reason to date it before the Gospel of John. I think a passage from John inspired Matthew to come up with the genealogy and the nativity story to solve the conundrum presented by:

        John 7:40-43 (NRSV)40 When they heard these words, some in the crowd said, “This is really the prophet.” 41 Others said, “This is the Messiah.” But some asked, “Surely the Messiah does not come from Galilee, does he? 42 Has not the scripture said that the Messiah is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?” 43 So there was a division in the crowd because of him.

        I think Luke used Matthew but disagreed with major parts. Matthew’s genealogy emphasizes that there are three sets of 14 generations but the second set omits four names from OT genealogy and the third set has only thirteen names. Luke may have rejected the idea of a loving God saving Jesus while allowing all the other babies to be murdered. Luke’s genealogy is more elegant with 77 generations and no baby killing for the genealogy. Luke just turned to the beginning of Antiquities of the Jews 18 which describes the census.

        ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
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        ETA: This is not to argue against an astrological event for the idea. Josephus describes the Temple Veil as having a lot of astronomical features. He also says the Jews were triggered by astronomical signs to believe the Messiah was coming and that the Messiah would come at anytime to defeat the Jews. Josephus eventually thought that the prophecy didn’t mean that the world leader would be born in Judea, just that he would come from that region, so he told Vespasian that he was the answer to the prophecy. It worked out well for him, as Vespasian soon became Emperor of Rome and he took care of Josephus. No wonder Josephus had so many references to prophecy in Antiquities of the Jews,

  • Cozmo the Magician

    I saw a shooting star the other night. That means I am now a profit puppet PROPHET so everybody listen what I says and let me have sex with your wominz. Oh, and gimme lotsa money too.

    • Kevin K

      The check is in the mail.

  • gtolle

    On the nature of the Star of Bethlehem, I personally look to a theology that I call Polymorphic Christ. I won’t bore folks with too many details but there ancient tales (including the gospels) in which the resurrected Jesus (now the Christ?) is polymorphic – appearing differently to different viewers and not being recognized at first (see the walking on water, the Doubting Thomas, and the Paul on the Road to Damascus stories for NT examples). One of those forms is a star (also, by the way, the form of many of the ‘elohim / angelos). This is most clearly depicted in the tale “Revelation of the Magi” (a great, inexpensive, and infomative book. Buy it!) where the Christ appears in a number of forms including the star that leads the magi to the cave in which the Christ then manifested as the infant Jesus. This theology can be found in Ignatius’ “Star Hymn” and in an unexpected source, the “Greek Magical Papyri” (PGM 1, starting at around line 74).

    “Zeitgeist” built an unnecessarily complicated theory because they insisted in providing a unified multi-religious background.