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Bible Commentaries & Matthew 2:9 (Star of Bethlehem)

Bible Commentaries & Matthew 2:9 (Star of Bethlehem) January 13, 2021

Atheist Jonathan MS Pearce takes the position that the star of Bethlehem can only reasonably be interpreted (according to the biblical text, which they of course don’t believe in) as a supernatural occurrence, as opposed to a natural one (conjunction, supernova, or comet being the three most suggested possibilities): as I have argued.

Moreover, he claims that this “star” specifically shone down on (to identify) the “house” where Jesus was, even though the biblical text (Matthew 2:9) never states this and refers (in 19 Bible versions I have found) only to a “place” that can be a large regional area.

I have contended that the star of Bethlehem was the combination of an extraordinary conjunction (when the wise men saw it from Persia) and a very bright Jupiter when the wise men saw that planet between Jerusalem and Bethlehem in December 2 BC, and used it as a guide: my best guess based on many considerations, for their visit to the toddler (not newborn) Jesus.

I decided to undertake a survey of many biblical commentaries to see if — here and there — perhaps one or two (needle in a haystack) might be found that agree with what I am contending about the star of Bethlehem being a natural phenomenon, and not shining specifically on one house in Bethlehem.

For the sake of brevity, I only cite them where they agree with me or when they claim not to know what it was (neutral or agnostic position: II and IV below). I’m not denying at all that these commentators may also disagree on the other major point or additional ones. Readers who want to see their entire comment on Matthew 2:9 can follow the links I provide.

I. Star of Bethlehem Was a Natural Celestial Phenomenon

A) Meteor

[I]t appears to have been a simple luminous meteor in a star-like form, and at a very short distance from the ground . . . (Adam Clarke, 1832)

it appears that the star was a luminous meteor, perhaps at no great distance from the ground. (Albert Barnes, 1832)

 

[Note: Alastair McBeath, in his article, “Meteor Beliefs Project: ‘meteor’ and related terms in English usage” (WGN, Journal of the International Meteor Organization, vol. 32, no.1, p.35-38, 2004) states that formerly there were several different understandings of the word meteor, and four major classes:  airy, watery, luminous, and fiery. He stated that the “luminous” variety were not “the ‘shooting-star’ type, but consist of other phenomena such as the aurora, the rainbow or any of the halo effects seen mainly with the Sun or Moon.” But then the plot thickens, as he explains further:

Looking at mid-19th century information suggests the preferred term for shooting-stars then, in the scientific literature at least, was ‘luminous meteors’, not ‘fiery’ ones, however. . . .

‘Fiery meteors’ was still in use, then, as well as the more general ‘meteor’ for almost anything in the sky . . . However, this seems to have been more among the poetic or philosophical communities.

So it’s difficult to determine with absolute certainty in the two 19th century citations above, which exact sense is in mind. It may be that a sense is being used that is not “natural” per se, and thus would be classified as a supernaturalist explanation. But in Barnes’ case he seems to be expressing what we mean today by “meteor” by stating in his commentary on Matthew 2:2: “meteor, such as we now see sometimes shoot from the sky, which the wise men saw, . . .” (i.e., a “shooting star” in the modern accepted sense. At least that seems to me the most plausible take of what Barnes is contending). ]

B) Comet

Many suggest that it was a natural phenomenon that can be traced back to some known astronomical event, whether a comet, a supernova, or a conjunction of planets. (Michael J. Wilkins, 2009)

C) Conjunction

The astronomical theory thus explains the passage: The most remarkable conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn took place in May, and would be visible before sunrise (i.e., in the east), five months afterwards, a sufficient time to perform the journey; another conjunction took place which would be visible near the meridian shortly after sunset. If then they set out in the early night this phenomenon would be apparent in the direction of Bethlehem. (Philip Schaff, 1890)

The way Matthew narrates the story supports the interpretation that an earlier conjunction started them on their way, and now a major and subsequent conjunction . . . proves that their reading of the stars was correct. (Robert H, Mounce, 2011)

D) Supernova

Many suggest that it was a natural phenomenon that can be traced back to some known astronomical event, whether a comet, a supernova, or a conjunction of planets. (Michael J. Wilkins, 2009)

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II. Unsure Whether it Was Supernatural or Natural

. . . we may not know the exact nature of that star . . . (Coffman Commentaries, 1983-1999)

Many suggest that it was a natural phenomenon that can be traced back to some known astronomical event, whether a comet, a supernova, or a conjunction of planets. (Michael J. Wilkins, 2009)

What they saw remains uncertain . . . [The] supernatural [view] is possible and obviously impossible to falsify, but v. 9 is not as determinative as is often suggested. (D. A. Carson, 2017)

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III. Star Of Bethlehem Did Not Specifically Shine Down on the House Where Jesus Was

It is not said to indicate the precise house, but the general location where the child was. (R. T. France, 1985)

And then Bethlehem came into sight with the star still in front of them and to their delight it appeared as though the star hovered over Bethlehem. There was Bethlehem below them, and the light of the star appeared to be reflecting on the town. It was clear to them from this that the wonder child was indeed there. They had reached the end of their journey. Note the very vague ‘over where the young child was’. It is totally open to interpretation. We may make of it what we want. (Peter Pett, 2013)

The Greek text does not imply that the star pointed out the house where Jesus was or that it led the travelers through twisty streets; it may simply have hovered over Bethlehem as the Magi approached it. (D. A. Carson, 2017)

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IV. Unsure Whether the Star of Bethlehem Specifically Shone Down on the House Where Jesus Was

the manner in which the particular house is indicated is left undetermined. (Heinrich Meyer, 1832)

may mean, ‘over that part of Bethlehem where the young child was,’ which they might have ascertained by enquiry. Or it may even mean, ‘over the whole town of Bethlehem.’ If it is to be understood as standing over the house, and thus indicating to the magi the position of the object of their search, the whole incident must be regarded as miraculous. But this is not necessarily implied, even if the words of the text be literally understood . . . (Henry Alford, 1878)

The expression, where the young child was, may, however, refer to Bethlehem. (Philip Schaff, 1890)

Either over Bethlehem, or over the house where the young child was sheltered. (People’s New Testament, 1891)

Stopped over the place. Either over Bethlehem, or the house where the young child was sheltered. (The Bible Study New Testament, 1974)

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V. Star of Bethlehem “Stopping” as the “Retrograde Motion” or “Stationary Point” of Jupiter

(Whether the star did actually in any way stop, apart from because they were stopping, we do not know. But for any who quibble about whether a star could ‘stop’ we supply the following extract from an article by an expert astronomer, based on the assumption that having seen the conjunction of Jupiter with another star, producing an excessively bright star, they had continued to monitor Jupiter while on their travels, something which must be considered quite likely. They were after all observers of the stars. “The word “stop” was used for what we now call a planet’s “stationary point.” A planet normally moves eastward through the stars from night to night and month to month, but regularly exhibits a “retrograde loop.” As it approaches the opposite point in the sky from the sun, it appears to slow, come to a full stop, and move backward (westward) through the sky for some weeks. Again it slows, stops, and resumes its eastward course. It seems plausible that the Magi were “overjoyed” at again seeing before them, as they travelled southward, the ‘star’, Jupiter, which at its stationary point was standing still over Bethlehem. We do know for certain that Jupiter performed a retrograde loop in 2 BC, and that it was actually stationary on December 25, interestingly enough, during Hanukkah, the season for giving presents. (Peter Pett, 2013; excessive italics removed)

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VI. Phenomenological, Non-Literal Language of Appearances Employed in Matthew 2:9

in a matter like astronomy, where popular language is so universally broad, and the Scriptures so generally use popular language, it is surely not the letter, but the spirit of the narrative with which we are concerned. (Henry Alford, 1878)

Being near the zenith it would seem to go before them on their way. (Philip Schaff, 1890)

The words would seem to imply that they started in the evening, and, as they started, saw the star in the direction of Bethlehem. In popular language it served to guide them, and so led them on. (Charles John Ellicott, 1905)

The star ‘went before them’. It does not say that they specifically followed it. That was unnecessary. They only had to follow the road, and there is no more reason to think that the star moved as it ‘went before them’, than there would have been to think that the road moved if it had said that they ‘followed the road’. It is the language of appearance (just as we say that ‘the sun rises’ when we know perfectly well that literally it does not). All that was necessary was that they thought that it moved before them, because that was what it appeared to do. After all they knew that stars moved, otherwise their months and years spent in calculating their movements would have been a waste of time, and those who travel widely often feel that the stars are moving before them. Many a mariner has spoken of following the north star, and of the north star, or some other heavenly lights, going before their ship, when it was only their ship that moved. (Peter Pett, 2013)

Related Reading

Star of Bethlehem, Astronomy, Wise Men, & Josephus (Amazing Astronomically Verified Data in Relation to the Journey of the Wise Men  & Jesus’ Birth & Infancy) [12-14-20]

Timeline: Star of Bethlehem, Herod’s Death, & Jesus’ Birth (Chronology of Harmonious Data from History, Archaeology, the Bible, and Astronomy) [12-15-20]

Star of Bethlehem: Refuting Silly Atheist Objections [12-26-20]

Star of Bethlehem: More Silly Atheist “Objections” [12-29-20]

Pearce’s Potshots #12: Supernatural Star of Bethlehem? (Biblical View of Astronomy, Laws of Nature, and the Natural World) [1-11-21]

Star of Bethlehem: Natural or Supernatural? [1-13-21]

Star of Bethlehem: Reply to Obnoxious Atheist Aaron Adair (Plus Further Related Exchanges with Aaron and a Few Others in an Atheist Combox) [1-14-21]

Star of Bethlehem: 2nd Reply to Arrogant Aaron Adair [1-18-21]

Star Researcher Aaron Adair: “Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire!” [1-19-21]

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Exchange with atheist commenter eric (his words in blue):

Mr. Armstrong, personally I don’t think the idea of only quoting those bits of another scholar that agree with you when they disagree with your overall conclusion is good practice.

Telling your audience their overall disagreement may not be necessary, but if a scientist disagreed with my paper’s overall conclusions, but agreed with some small particular of my analysis, and I quoted that person in my paper, I would mention their overall disagreement. It’s a “full disclosure” type of practice to inform your audience that while you might reason A -> B, the folks whom you cite as authoritative sources for supporting ‘A is true’ do not reason from it to B…and in fact they conclude not-B.

This is (in my opinion) a key difference between the ‘legal/apologetic way’ of arguing and the ‘scientific/academic way’ of arguing; in the legal system, it’s your peers and opponent’s job to bring up the flaws in your argument – you are not obligated to bring them up (in fact, it may be considered unethical to do so!). But in the professional scientific and academic way of arguing, if you know of a flaw in your own logic, and it’s important to your thesis or paper, you yourself are obligated to bring it up (in fact, it may be considered unethical not to!).

Of course I did note the disagreements, in the same paper Aaron despises so much:

For the sake of brevity, I only cite them where they agree with me or when they claim not to know what it was (neutral or agnostic position: II and IV below). I’m not denying at all that these commentators may also disagree on the other major point or additional ones. Readers who want to see their entire comment on Matthew 2:9 can follow the links I provide.

I conceded three points, based on Aaron’s latest critique. They were relatively minor points, and didn’t affect my overall case at all. I noted many errors in Aaron’s analysis. He retracts nothing. When I do so, this is how he reacts:

I’ll let others interpret how best to take that. It would suggest honesty, only insofar as he has to have is faced pushed next to the text to admit what it says. Conversely, it shows he cannot do reliable research.

ROFL. So this is my choice: if I deny all of Aaron’s accusations, I am, of course, a “liar”: as he has now stated literally about a hundred times. In fact I have conceded three points and another partial point (the past use of the word “meteor”). Therefore, I am a lousy, unreliable researcher. That’s the choice: liar or dumbbell and ignoramus.

I would say that I am an open-minded thinker, capable of changing his mind and being convinced by contrary facts and reasoning: even by a persistent slander who calls me a liar every two seconds and has acted like a total ass ever since our first exchange. That’s exactly what I want to be. I’m not ashamed of it. I’ve always had an open mind. That’s why I could convert from evangelical Protestant to Catholic and undergo many other changes of mind through the years (politically, morally, etc.).

This particular sub-discussion was in the realm of theology (particularly, biblical exegesis: what commentators believe what, about the star), not science. I was simply looking for examples of exegetes who took a natural view of the star: something that Aaron implied scarcely existed. There are all kinds of disagreements among Christians regarding the star, which I have always noted from the start. I also constantly note that my view is only a speculative theory: no more.

I read your first quotation before, but (again, just in my opinion), that doesn’t do the needed academic work. “I only cite Bob on A, not on B, so readers should keep in mind Bob might have different ideas about B” is nowhere near as forthright, accurate, or transparent a cite as “Bob agrees with me on A, but thinks it’s wrong to derive B from A like I do, and in fact he thinks B is wrong.”

This particular sub-discussion was in the realm of theology (particularly, biblical exegesis: what commentators believe what, about the star), not science.

Agreed. And maybe academic theology has different standard practices (than science) about how to cite publications and experts that agree with you in part but dissent with you in part. I’m offering what I see as a ‘best practice,’ not a ‘thou shalt, else you are a liar.’

I continue to respectfully disagree, but thank you for a civil, substantive comment, minus the ubiquitous (and beyond silly) accusation that I am a liar.

That paper was simply an effort to find commentators who believed six particular things that I categorized. It’s not making any pretense to being “academic” or “scholarly” (me being a mere lay apologist and nothing more). It’s no big deal. It was a simple overview / summary of what a bunch of biblical commentators believe on various aspects relating to the star.

So it’s arguing: “commentators a, b, c, believe in proposition x, related to the star of Bethlehem [one of six].” There is no insinuation whatsoever that commentators a, b, c also believe in propositions y, z, etc. regarding the star, and I took pains to note that they often didn’t.

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Photo credit: Martin Junius: Conjunction of Jupiter and Venus [mj’s photography / CC BY-ND-NC 3.0 license]

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