Star of Bethlehem: Methodological Difficulties

Star of Bethlehem: Methodological Difficulties October 2, 2015

Aaron Adair wrote a superb book which I edited called The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View. It is well worth reading, and you will learn a number of gems. I thought I would give you a taste with part of the second chapter detailing methodological difficulties involved with the Gospel of Matthew and accounts and claims of the star. The book is available from the sidebar over there>>>>>>>

Before we investigate what natural event may have been behind the Star of Bethlehem, there are some methodological problems that need to be highlighted which are not often well-considered in the literature. Part of that list of problems was discussed in the prior chapter, but they will be highlighted again here.

Firstly, we are rather unsure about the dating of Jesus’s birth. None of the canonical Gospels provide an exact date, nor even a year, so we are forced to infer what we can from those books. The historical context Matthew provides in his story can only provide a terminus a quo with the death of Herod. The data from Luke could help establish a terminus ad quem based on the data when Jesus came to John, as noted in the previous chapter. However, that must ignore the information about Jesus being born during the 6/7 CE census of Judea when it came part of the province of Syria under Quirinius. In the Star of Bethlehem literature, the way this is dealt with is varied. For example, astronomer and historian David Hughes,[1] in his book, looked at some of the attempts to reconcile the accounts of Matthew and Luke. Retired astronomer Michael Molnar,[2] on the other hand, is not convinced by these attempts and sees it as a serious issue, though this does not seem to make him skeptical of the account of the Star in Matthew. However, without either a reconciliation or a demonstration of which dating of Jesus’s birth is more reliable (assuming either are reliable), then searching for an astronomical event or astrological circumstance is pointless unless something very definite can be cited as to what gave rise to the story of the Christmas Star.

The chronology is also confusing to modern researchers because Luke’s version of the birth of Jesus has very little in common with Matthew’s account. Most strikingly, Luke has no mention of the Magi, the slaughter of babies in Bethlehem, the flight to Egypt, or the Star. Luke is also the only Gospel author that even puts on the mantel of a historian, so the absence of the amazing story seen in the First Evangelist should be alarming. Did Luke not include the story because he thought it wasn’t historical? Or did he just not hear of the tale? And if he didn’t know of the story, and Luke claims to be using witnesses of the Jesus tradition (Luke 1:2), what does that mean about the reliability of Matthew’s tale of astrologers following a strange luminary?[3]

This leads to the second methodological problem, one perhaps even more insurmountable than the prior one. The premise of all Star scholarship is that something in the skies indicated to the Magi that a king was born, specifically Jewish. But this requires delving into astrological interpretation, and that is extremely problematic. This is not because astrology is a failed science (which it is), but because portents can be almost infinitely interpreted to mean most anything. This has been noted in scientific studies of the subject as practiced by modern astrologers.

For example, consider the following study with several astrologers, all of whom were respected by their peers and had practiced their craft for years. They had participants answer questions about personality traits that fit what the astrologers wanted for analyzing their horoscopes, along with the date, time, and location of birth of the participants. The results were then mixed up and the astrologers had to match up the 23 participants’ horoscopes with their personal details. The study found that the astrologers could not connect the horoscopes with the personality reports any better than chance, as expected of a subject that does not have any basis in reality. However, more interesting is the fact that the astrologers were in amazing contradiction among each other when it came to which horoscope went with each personality report. That is, one astrologer would say horoscope A fit with personality report B, but another would say horoscope A fit personality report C, and so on with the remaining personality reports. On average, the agreement between any two astrologers was only 1.4 times out of 23. That is basically at the level of chance.[4] A Dutch study of similar design found much the same results: accuracy was about at the level of chance and so was agreement between astrologers.[5] So, at least for modern astrologers, what a given horoscope will mean is just as determinate as a roulette wheel. This makes any interpretation of past skies highly suspect since most any condition of the sky could be said to mean almost anything.

This condition can be seen in the ancient records as well, including those from Christians. For example, Christian critics of astrology said that the astrologer simply looked for what their client wanted to hear as any horoscope had positive and negative conditions; just pick the parts you wanted.[6] Pagans such as the historian Tacitus were of a similar opinion.[7] In his critique of astrology, the famous Roman politician Cicero gives the example of a Babylonian astrologer who made predictions for the three members of the Triumvirate—Crassus, Pompey, and Caesar. The astrologer, apparently wanting a happy story for these figures as well as the Roman public that depended on their alliance, stated that all three would live long lives and be glorious. Cicero wrote after the assassination of Caesar, which itself followed the failed invasion of Parthia by Crassus and his demise as well as the civil war between Pompey and Caesar that ended with Pompey’s death.[8] For Cicero, it was obvious how astrologers were poor prophets and instead brownnosers.

Astrologers of the era were well aware of the problem of poor predictions. The most famous of the ancient Western astrologers, Claudius Ptolemy, wrote in the second century that the subject had many fraudsters, but even the best will make mistakes because of the immense complexity of the task,[9] an argument repeated by a fourth century Christian convert and astrologer, Julius Firmicus Maternus.[10] In other words, because there are so many things that can be considered in putting together and interpreting a horoscope, experts are bound to disagree.6x9 SOB h web view

So, the ancient astrologers in the Western tradition already tell us that the act of interpretation is very difficult, and the evidence is that astrologers cannot agree even when they all follow the same rulebook. The work of the historian of astrology Tamsyn Barton also shows that the ancient treatises of ancient Western astrologers (such as from Marcus Manilius, Ptolemy and others) actually do not tell us how to interpret a star chart.[11] But more damning is the incredible level at which astrologers will contradict each other and even themselves. One particular example should be examined because of its importance to this study: what constellation or astrological sign corresponded to or influenced what region of the world; this is known as geographical astrology. This is important for Star research because of efforts to find the constellation which would have been associated with Judea. The only specific list that mentioned Judea comes from Ptolemy who connected that region with the zodiac constellation of Aries. However, a century earlier in the writing of Manilius this same general region is under the purview of Aquarius. Later in the same century, Dorotheus of Sidon goes with Gemini.[12] There are still other astrological geographies, and none agree more than once or twice with each other and none agree on any one thing.

As such, historians of astronomy and astrology, such as John North (who studied ancient and medieval horoscopes), would not try to interpret a given horoscope since how it was done was subject-dependent; there are too many ways to read a star chart.[13] Considering how much contradiction there is between astrologers on so much, from methods to meaning, there is no respectable position one can take on how a horoscope would have been interpreted in antiquity. But this problem is compounded even more by another enigma: which version of astrology is being used?

There is not one, singular version of this divination technique, and there are significant differences between how astrology is done in the Western tradition compared to the Chinese version. However, even the Western tradition is taking on an earlier form of the art from Assyrian and Babylonian traditions which exist in records of great antiquity. We have some horoscopes from these lands and times, but what has been seen is that it is not the same as the methods better known from Greek and Latin treatises from the second century BCE and onward. One of the defining features of the Western horoscope is the arrangement of the cardinal points. These are the locations of the eastern and western horizon (the ascendant and descendant), along with the point on the zodiac that is highest in the sky at the observer’s location and the point 180 degrees opposite on the zodiac (the midheaven and anti-midheaven). The location of these points in a horoscope are very important to interpretation, and considerable calculations are done to find and place them, yet they are absent from the older Babylonian versions of horoscopes. Moreover, we have no good information to help us even guess how ancient, eastern horoscopes were interpreted as most of them failed to include an interpretation, and we have no treatises on the subject.[14] The closest is the astrological text called the Enuma Anu Enlil, written sometime around 1000 BCE, but how this source was applied in the first century is almost impossible to extrapolate.

This means we have almost no basis to discuss how any configuration of the stars would have been interpreted by eastern diviners. We also have to be more specific in which group one considers the magi. These pious figures were at first perhaps a tribe in modern-day Iran (the Medes), but by the rise of the Persian Empire it had become a priestly cast in the Zoroastrian religion. More discussion of the magi and their religion will take place in Chapter 8, but for now it is worth mentioning that the attitude towards astrology at the time of Jesus’s birth is even more divergent than what we know from the Greeks and Babylonians. Overall, the hurdle of interpretation of astrological portents by moderns ought to be out of the purview of appropriate method.

Lastly, we should consider an issue that is poorly addressed in the literature by those searching for the Christmas Star: what makes us think the author is trying to tell us history and why ought we trust him or his sources (if he had any concerning the Nativity)? Besides having the correct reconstruction of the text (something which we are in reasonably good standing when it comes to Matt 2; see the translation provided in this book), we need to consider the literary purpose and context of a text. Are we dealing with a diary of events similar to Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars, a biography based on eyewitnesses such as Arrian’s history of Alexander the Great (the Anabasis), or do we have folklore and romances as in the stories of King Arthur? When it comes to the Gospels, this is not an easy question and has created mounds of collected paper and ink, all with both helpful and unhelpful observations, insights, and points of method in determining what we are dealing with.[15] But perhaps key is the fact that the story of the amazing portent at birth indicating greatness of the infant is part and parcel of stories told of heroes, kings, and gods in antiquity. This includes stellar features as well. Famous stars leading heroes to their destination include that of Timoleon on his way to Sicily[16] and Aeneas on his way to Italy.[17] We also have the parallels between Jesus’s birth and Moses’s, especially in non-canonical sources concerning the latter (which include a star at his birth interpreted by ‘wise men’ of sorts).[18] Put simply, how does one categorize the story? You cannot skip this step and do proper analysis; else you will simply misunderstand what you are reading.

But even assuming, upon reflection, that Matthew’s account is a sober one recorded by Joe Friday trying to get “just the facts”, we need to figure out what his sources were, what quality they were, and how critically Matthew treated them. Unfortunately, unlike other historians and biographers of the time, including the lower-quality ones, Matthew does not tell us what his sources were, nor does he do anything like a critical examination of them. Often it has been a premise of form criticism, the study of the conveyance of stories and sayings found in the Gospels, that the stories about Jesus came through some sort of oral tradition from his early followers and then through a chain of transmission (be it via plebs or pastors) to the authors of the Gospels. Unfortunately, we have great difficulty figuring out what may have come from history and what may have been good storytelling. This problem is compounded immensely for the Nativity accounts because at this time Jesus would have been little-known, having not started his ministry and gathered a following yet. As such, none of the Disciples of Jesus would have been witness to his birth. This leaves Jesus’s family, at best, to tell the tale. However, this is further limited by the apparent disappearance of Jesus’s father, Joseph, from the Jesus story after the Nativity. Tradition has it that Joseph was dead by the time Jesus began preaching, leaving only Mary as witness. But even she disappears at the beginning of the Christian movement, last mentioned in the Book of Acts and otherwise existing in later legend (legends that include her own miraculous birth). Any oral tradition then about Jesus’s birth (if it existed) would not be guaranteed by a living witness when Matthew wrote, and we have no evidence to show the story could be traced back to any of those witnesses. But most importantly, Matthew does not tell us what his sources were and why he thought they were useful.

Compare that to a biographer from around the same time who is usually considered a less than trustworthy writer, Suetonius. He wrote biographies of the Caesars, starting with Gaius Julius and ending with Domitian, and for his earlier works he had access to the official Roman archives. Consider his biography of Gaius Octavius, later known as Caesar Augustus. He tells us various stories about the birth of Octavius, many of which include omens that are reminiscent of portents at Jesus’s birth. However, Suetonius distinguishes these tales from that which he finds in various documents that he names. Suetonius also considers the plausibility of the folktales that surround the emperor. The same thing can be seen in Suetonius’s biography of Emperor Nero, often considered overly credulous. It is from him that we learn the story of Nero playing his lyre while Rome burned, confusing gossip with what really happened (Nero wasn’t even in Rome according to the more reliable Tacitus).[19]

Matthew, on the other hand, does not discuss his sources, does not separate witnesses, and provides not a hint of skepticism or critical engagement with the stories. The only source that he does cite is the Old Testament when talking of prophecies about Jesus, but if this is indicative of his efforts then Matthew isn’t even a careful historian. As is well-known, he has either misinterpreted or misquoted parts of the Hebrew Bible or has even made them up (the prophecy that the Messiah had to be from Nazareth is not found, as is, in the actual Hebrew or the ancient Greek translation commonly used around this time; the prophecy of the birth in Bethlehem is also a confabulation between verses of different Hebrew authors). Since Matthew’s historiographical methods are vastly inferior to that of an author considered suspect, and his access to reliable information is even more remote, we have to, a fortiori, consider Matthew even more suspect for historical facts, and this assumes Matthew is even trying to tell us facts…


[1] David Hughes, The Star of Bethlehem: An Astronomer’s Confirmation.

[2] Michael Molnar, The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi.

[3] The debate about the relationship between Matthew and Luke is long and nuanced, but the arguments by Mark Goodacre in The Case Against Q: Studies in Markan Priority and the Synoptic Problem are suggestive that Luke did know and use Matthew for writing his Gospel. However, this possibility will not be considered here, and I reserve a greater discussion on this for future work.

[4] John McGrew and Richard McFall, “A Scientific Inquiry into the Validity of Astrology”, Journal of Scientific Exploration 4, 1 (1990): 75-83.

[5] Rob Nanninga, “The Astrotest: A Tough Match for Astrologers,” Correlation 15, 2 (1996): 14-20.

[6] Cf. The Recognitions of Clement 10.11; Origen, Philocalia 23.21-2.

[7] Tacitus, Histories 1.1.22.

[8] Cicero, De Divinatione 2.99-100.

[9] Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos 1.2 (6-7).

[10] Firmicus, Mathesis 1.3.2.

[11] Tamsyn Barton, Ancient Astrology, pp. 114-142.

[12] Cf. Wilhem Gundel and Siegfried Schott, Dekane und Dekansternbilder: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Sternbilder der Kulturvölker, p. 312.

[13] John David North, Horoscopes and History, p. xi.

[14] Francesca Rochberg, Babylonian Horoscopes. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society vol. 88, pt. 1.

[15] On the genre of at least some of the Gospels, the most useful argument that has a theoretical foundation comes from biblical scholar Michael Vines in The Problem of Markan Genre: The Gospel of Mark and the Jewish Novel.

[16] Plutarch, Timoleon 8; Diodorus, Biblotheca Historica 16.66.3.

[17] Virgil, Aeneid 2.687-711. See Chapter 8 for more discussion of this tale.

[18] John Bowman, Samaritan Documents: Relating to their History, Religion, and Life, pp. 287-288.

[19] Tacitus, Annals 15.39.

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