[JP – This was written some time ago, just before the publication of The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View. The book is a critical look at the Star of Bethlehem and all of the theories which propose that the star elucidated in the Gospel of Matthew referred to a real and existent astronomical event. It’s a great debunking of all of those theories, and actually works nicely as a companion to my own book, The Nativity: A Critical Examination, if you don’t mind me saying so myself! Back over to Aaron Adair:]
In my work in looking into the various theories about the Star of Bethlehem, I have primarily focused on efforts to explain the Star that are in the scientific or biblical studies literature. That will provide something of an orthodoxy, either with scientific ideas that have to be less than outlandish or with religious notions that do not drift far from conservative or evangelical thinking. For example, ideas about the Star being a conjunction of Jupiter and Venus comes from evangelicals trying to prove the historical authenticity of the Bible. Michael Molnar’s ideas about the Star and horoscopes was written by a professional astronomer and in a university press.
But that limits a look at the less orthodox ideas out there, especially in the so-called alternative scholarship. There you get your theories of Atlantis, ancient aliens, conspiracies, etc. I have had some posts poking at these things, such as my presentation on ancient aliens, the posts dealing with the theories of Jesus as King Arthur by Ralph Ellis (1, 2, 3, 4), and a few other things. I also talked about one odd idea related to the Star of Bethlehem, but overall I haven’t done much to delve into it.
So, it is worth seeing what are some of the ideas about what the Star of Bethlehem could have been, of course always assumed by proponents to not be a historical fantasy or based on some historical kernel. And without the limitations of what “the Man” in academia would allow, maybe some new idea can come about to explain the story in Matthew.
Perhaps the most obvious idea that comes up that fits into the alternative world of writing is that the Star was a UFO. Such an object would be able to move about and park over the house or inn Jesus and his family were staying in, and you could imagine it being used to guide the Magi to the manger in Bethlehem. Now, of course, the key word here is imagine since we cannot even show aliens exist outside of our solar system, let alone they are intelligent, can travel light-years between the stars, and care enough about earth-based infants to mess around with Persian sages.
Now, the UFO crazy started proper in the 1950s, but I have difficulty finding anyone arguing for the Star-UFO connection then, including the work of Morris Jessup and hisUFO and the Bible (1956). The earliest I am aware of is book by Barry Downing, The Bible and Flying Saucers (1968). [EDIT: Jason Colavito, with his encyclopedic knowledge of these matters, has found an earlier UFO-Christmas Star connection from 1967. It is fromCoral and Jim Lorenzen, two ufologists who founded ARPO.] When it comes to academic credentials, Downing is way up there. He has a PhD from the University of Edinburgh in theology, and he has other degrees in the sciences. His dissertation was about Isaac Newton and his theological beliefs, and it sounds interesting enough to me to check out. But while his UFO book came out the same year as Erich von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods?, I doubt there is a direct influence. Von Daniken’s book didn’t really take off in the Anglo-American world until later when it was translated, serialized in the National Enquirer, and then pushed by Rod Sterling. Also, later additions of Downing’s book (PDF here) are mixed when it mentions von Daniken, sometimes stating he supports his case, but he isn’t a careful Bible scholar.
Downing says a little bit about the Christmas Star, chalking that up to a UFO in the neighborhood; instead, though, he spends more time on things such as the odd sighting or revelation to Ezekiel which he and others have thought was a closer encounter of sorts. And while these ideas are earlier than Downing,
it seems he is the first to make the Star-UFO connection, so far as I can tell [see edit above].
Why this passion for this idea? According to an interview, Downing became interested in this when at seminary in the 1960s and trying to look into ways to fend off the conflict between science and religion.
When I was in seminary, the conflict between science and religion had become fairly clear, and some of the more liberal professors basically said, ‘We can’t believe in things in the Bible, like the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, we can’t believe in the angel world — this is all mythology.’
But when you dismiss these things as mythology, you end up with a god with no power, and nobody’s going to bother with a god with no power.
By re-imagining the Bible to speak of aliens rather than spirits, it saves the stories from becoming “all mythology” and you still have a god with power. Basically, this is a re-introduction of the Protestant movement from the early 19th century that tried to make all the stories of the Bible, especially from the Gospels, into naturalistic accounts. The Rationalist movement, talked at length by Albert Schweitzer in his Quest of the Historical Jesus, was something that most theologians left before the turn of the century, and the theories about the natural Star of Bethlehem are a product of this movement, as I discussed in my article in Zygon last year. If the Star can be explained by another that isn’t considered impossible, such as a UFO, then it has theological power.
And Downing is not alone in this. For example, there is the claimed UFO contacteeGeorge Van Tassel. Van Tassel started his movement back in the 1950s when he claimed he had called down a UFO from Venus (the aliens were move local then; for example see 20 Million Miles to Earth), and he wrote several books. However, even though he had his own variations on traditional religious texts, he didn’t seem to talk about UFOs and the Star until his 1976 book When Stars Look Down. For Van Tassel, the Magi were informed by the space beings through thought transference (the term used before telepathy), and they were then guided by the UFO to the inn. Apparently it was the force field created by the vessel that made it look like a star.
More recently, the idea of a UFO explaining the Star was stated by Jason Martell on the show Ancient Aliens (S03E08, review here). Martell is a founder of GodTube, the religious version of YouTube, and he is a frequent talking head on the show. After Martell spoke, everybody’s favorite Giorgio Tsoukalos expounded on how the magi were priests with magical powers, and their powers might be the result of alien technology. It was kind of a rough segue to this point, but really, the entire show is that way, jumping from topic to topic before any analysis can happen. I mean, if you stop to think about it, things start to seem silly… oh, I think I figured out the editing.
But not everyone in the alternative world is happy with the UFO connection. But fortunately, the pseudo-scholarly world is just full of other things to recycle as seen fit. For example, take everyone’s favorite planet that doesn’t exist: Planet X. In my searching, there is actually another person with religious academic chops on this subject. Douglass Elwell has a master’s degree in biblical studies from Wheaton, a conservative Christian college which has had alumni like Billy Graham and William Lang Craig. Now, Wheaton has been controversial among conservatives because it has allowed for theistic evolution as a compromise on science and religion rather than pushing young-earth creationism, but I have doubts they will be supporting Elwell’s ideas.
What does he promote? In his reading of the Bible (which in interviews he says he takes seriously, unlike liberal professors), much of the stories are about cosmic collisions a laImmanuel Velikovsky and his Worlds in Collision (1950). The proto-Earth was hit by some impactor early in the history of the solar system by something from beyond the planets. This then changed Earth’s orbit for the better, and the remnants of this collision provided the infamous Planet X. This story then becomes the conflict between God and the sea dragon known as Rahab or Leviathan. Now, from the preview on Amazon of his book,Planet X, the Sign of the Son of Man, and the End of the Age, he does a decent comparison between the Genesis story of creation along with other parts of the Old Testament and then looks to Babylonian and Sumerian myths of creation by combat with a sea dragon. But, because Elwell takes the Bible seriously, then the events must have happened at least in some metaphorical way, so we get cosmic colliders instead of sea monsters. Occasionally the object reappears, as it did for the Magi about 2000 years ago, according to Elwell . I have ordered up Elwell’s book from inter-library loan for more details, but from other sources it seems that this planet has about a 2000 year cycle, so we may be seeing it soon, and thus the End Times.
Now, mixing myth with planetary collisions isn’t the only way of getting yourself a bonus planet. There is still the object known as Nibiru from Zecharia Sitchin. And guess what? That has also been used to explain the Star of Bethlehem. Barbara Hand Clow, Chiron: Rainbow Bridge between the Inner and Outer Planets (1994) and Al McDowell, Uncommon Knowledge: New Science on Gravity, Light, the Origin of Life, and the Mind of Man (2012) both declare their connection to Sitchin and his ideas, and both try to explain the Star of Bethlehem as a sighting of Nibiru. To make that work, though, they had to have some adjustments to the timeline that Sitchin first provided, and because they belief in a 3600-year period of the planet it won’t be coming around any time soon. So, this Nibiru won’t be the same as Elwell’s Planet X. This idea is also similar to the theory that the Star was an early discovery of Uranus. But considering we didn’t know of Uranus before the age of the telescope, and even with telescopes we can’t find Nibiru, all of these hypotheses probably aren’t going to work. Not to mention, they don’t really fit the description of the Star moving about and stopping.
However, not everyone in the world outside of academia goes with these outlandish hypotheses. For example, David Hatcher Childress, who is another talking head onAncient Aliens, in his Lost Cities of China, Central Asia and India (1991) states that the Magi noticed the “signs of the heavens” and knew about the birth of Jesus from that. It seems more an endorsement of astrology, and in other parts of the same book he seems to lump astrology with other sciences, but I can only make inferences. Turning to one of the best known New Age tomes, The Urantia Book, the volume has a lot to say about Jesus. He was born like any other person, and Christianity was based on other pagan religions, especially copying from Mithraism, but Jesus was still a cool dude. The volume states that the Star was a legend, but it was based on something real. Apparently the authors of the paper on Jesus’s birth that was put into the book believed the Star to have been the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 7 BCE. Basically, this is a repeat of the Kepler conjunctions that has some prominence among more scientific circles to explain the Star, such as with David Hughes. Also on board with The Urantia Book is ufologist L.A. Marzulli. In an interview on Coast to Coast AM a few years ago, he talked about how various stories from the Bible are really about inter-dimensional aliens. The Nephilim were their creation and became The Watchers, especially known from the Book of Enoch. However, with all the aliens running around doing magical-like things, apparently the Star wasn’t one of them or their vessels. Instead, it was a conjunction with Jupiter. But instead of Jupiter and Saturn, it was Jupiter and the star Regulus in 3 BCE. It looks like he has been influenced by Ernest Martin and his ideas which were put into the recent and popular Star of Bethlehem documentary, which I have critiqued.
But there is one last hurrah of alternative theories that combines the more popular conjunction theories of the Star, one that I have talked about before. This one tries to argue for the immense importance of the vernal equinox because it was so important to some lost super-civilization in the distant past. Such a belief is based on the book Hamlet’s Mill(1969), and it has been panned by scholars for its weaknesses. But even if it was the case that the location of the vernal equinox was so important, it wouldn’t really make the conjunctions of 7 BCE all that potent. For one thing, unlike what some have argued, the conjunctions do not take place on the vernal equinox, and not even that close. The real death-blow is that there was an even better Jupiter-Saturn conjunction in 54 CE that was much closer to the point of interest. So even assuming closeness to the vernal equinox was so important to astrologers (and there isn’t really good evidence for that), we would be saying the Star happened 60 years before Jesus was born. Not a great hypothesis. That and the people proposing the thesis have no explanation for how the Star “went before” anyone.
All in all, there appears to be all the diversity of regular Star research along with the crazy stuff that exists in New Age, spiritualist, or just simply alternative literature. And in many ways, it seems to exist for much the same reason that the Rationalist movement happened in Bible scholarship back in the 19th century. If the stories can be shown to be true somehow, if the phenomenon can be saved, it makes the theology built around it safe. This is true for the evangelical saying the Star was Jupiter and Regulus or Planet X. For the spiritualist, if there is some cosmic connection between religious texts and the heavens, then it has power and we all feel good vibrations. Or some thing like that. Basically, the alternative literature is doing the same thing that the more apologetic literature does: it makes the stories seem defensible and not ridiculous like magic or myth. That was Downing’s reasoning, and others like Erich von Daniken are conservatives and need to make past theology palatable.
I doubt when by book on the Star of Bethlehem comes out this year it will stop all of this, but it may at least start to restrict the unending growth of hypotheses about the Star. Or else it will just keep getting mixed up with another fad in science or pseudoscience.