It’s been a long time since I posted here at ATP.
Every holiday season there will be articles repeating the theories of what the Star of Bethlehem really was. Or could have been. It definitely was real, and it could have been any of a dozen things. Or so the articles go on, and each year it’s much the same. A few times, I will see something a little bit new, or something that tries to directly address points I have brought up in my writings.
In particular, I noticed a flurry of articles that popped up on the National Catholic Register, in particular from a certain Dave Armstrong, who also writes on Patheos. There are some remarkable differences in tone between the articles written in both places, but the more important thing is to address the, frankly, strained arguments that it’s perfectly natural to read the Christmas Star tale as astronomical rather than supernatural.
First, let’s consider this page at NCR on proper exegesis of the story. Now, one would expect that such exegesis would be to consider the scholarship on the wording of the text, or a direct look at the underlying language (Greek). That is all missing, even though we are told that the version of the story we see all the time is not fitting to the text. That’s hard to tell when someone doesn’t actually look at the text. In fact, even in English, many points the author brings up are clearly contradicted by what is said.
The main argument presented is that Jupiter is the Star, as seen to the south from Jerusalem towards Bethlehem. This was the Star “going before” the Wise Men, and this is just phenomenological language as is saying ‘sunrise’ even though it’s not the Sun moving up in the sky but the Earth rotating. Compared to the North Star (Polaris), then Jupiter is acting in the same way to act as a stationary guide rather than the supernatural traveler others think they read in the text.
There are two points that make this a poor comparison. First, unlike Polaris, Jupiter does move in the sky relative to the observer. Only stars at the poles of rotation (namely Polaris) have little or no movement throughout the night. Jupiter, on the other hand, would be moving constantly with the Earth’s rotation of 15 degrees per hour. That’s the reason no one uses such stars or planets for navigation—if your compass needle deflected by a degree every 4 minutes, you wouldn’t use a compass anymore! Secondly, unlike Jupiter, the Star really is said to move and in a way unlike stars do from east to west. After all, Matt 2:9 says that the Star “went before” them (going south) “until” something happened. Well, it can’t be in front of them and then just not. What happened? According to the Greek (less well-represented in English translations), the Star arrived at its destination. It then stood still. Well, if the Star stood still, then before it was moving! That isn’t what Polaris does at all, and it isn’t what Jupiter does either.
So much for that, but the article writer does bring up an 18/19th-century commentator to say that the Star never pointed out a particular house. The commentary comes from Joseph Benson, a Methodist from England and one I had not heard of before. But when I looked up his commentary on Matt 2:9, he says exactly the opposite:
At the same time, it was a great confirmation of their faith, to be thus miraculously conducted to the very town pointed out in the Scriptures as the place of the birth of the Messiah. It left them not till it came and stood over where the young child was — Thus pointing out the very house.
Benson goes on to say that the Star didn’t send down a beam of light from heaven or come down itself, which is the only traditional trapping he disagrees with. But he instead says the Star was always a light in the air, so it never came down in the first place—it was always low enough to act as a guide.
So the only exegete cited to favor a non-supernatural reading of the text speaks completely in the opposite way. I don’t know how that could have been missed, especially if the author, Dave, is looking for any commentator in history yet has to quote-mine like this. He told me it was a simple mistake, but if so then it shows he’s a poor researcher, searching for any tidbit that seems to favor his theories and blind to any contrary evidence. Sounds like an apologist to me.
But that’s not all. As noted, Dave also has a Patheos article trying to say that skeptics are purposely making the story sound weird by forcing it to seem supernatural. There is frankly a lot of bloviating about too many other topics, trying to argue the Bible is a completely, scientifically advanced text. All of that is a distraction from what matters: what does Matt 2 say about the Star, and is there any historical or linguistic evidence to support any naturalistic reading of the tale.
First, Dave again insists that the text of Matt 2:9 does not say the Star moved. Except that it did. The word used in the Greek here is proago, with ‘pro’ being a prefix to the main verb, ‘ago’. And that verb means ‘to lead, guide’. And as noted earlier, this is something the Star does ‘until’ a certain point in the journey. If the Star were merely in front of the Magi/Wise Men, then it wouldn’t stop being that way when they arrived at Bethlehem. Also, because all stars and planets will move from east to west as the night goes on, there is no way a star or planet could have held steady as a stationary guide to the south. These stars do move, again because of the rotation of the Earth, but not in the way to help someone going south.
Now, there is finally one point that Dave cites a Greek word. And he botches it up. The term is hou, which is an adverb meaning ‘where’. However, Dave at first thought it’s the word for place, as if it were a noun or pronoun. That is even contradicted by the concordance he links to—it clearly says the word is an adverb meaning ‘where’. I don’t know how he could have missed that. It is worth noting that he has modified the article to fix this, but it was only after I told him he was wrong. He seems to not think it matters to his argument, and in a sense it doesn’t. However, it does undermine any believability that he can read and understand the original language. In fact, he told me he doesn’t read Greek, so this goes to show that every deduction he makes about the text is suspect.
But even ignoring his initial ignorance, his approach is ill-founded. He is looking at only one, rather general word and then declaring its generality means none of text has the supernatural inclinations skeptics claim it has. However, the way words, especially modifiers like adverbs, get their meaning is from context, so what does Dave have to say about the other important words that describe the Star ‘standing’ ‘over’ where ‘the child was’? Nothing. And that is unfortunate because it’s what I focus on the most to show that the Greek is clear about the Star coming low enough to point out a particular house. Just like Joseph Benson said!
And yet, Dave says I’m the one that botched the text, a text which he can neither read nor understand even with aid?
There is one last source Dave jumps to in order to defend his understanding of the text. He notes that in one translation of the Bible, it says the Star stood over Bethlehem. This is a unique translation, but its source is one that scholars know not to use. It’s the Living Bible, a version of the book that is certainly easier to read than the KJV, but it is well-known to not be a reliable version of the text. In fact, it was so problematic, it caused other biblical societies to come out with a new, easy-to-read English version, the New Living Translation. And guess what? That version doesn’t translate the passage as Dave wants—it says the Star guided the Wise Men and then stood over where the child was. So for Dave’s argument to work, we have to follow the grade-school level version of the Gospels that was so bad other evangelicals wrote a whole new version to fix it, and then we must ignore everything else.
Again, how am I the one botching the text, when Dave is literally using botched texts?
So, there is a lot of misquotes, avoidance of evidence, and the inability to even understand basic tools used to understand the language of Scripture. Which is why I won’t waste my time addressing his ‘medical’ research about the Bible.
But even all of this discussion is premised on the tale being historical. This is something else that few have addressed when I point out the implausibilities of the story as-told, even if one accepts the supernatural. For example, magi were at this time in history not astrologers and wouldn’t be looking to moving stars for signs of a Messiah. In fact, these Zoroastrian priests wouldn’t have cared about a Jewish Messiah any more than a Jew cares about a Zoroastrian Saoshyant. We also know that later on, the magi of Persia actually persecuted Jews and Christians—odd if they had been worshiping the Christ! And there are the political complications of the king-makers of Persia coming into Roman territory to undermine the authority of King Herod and Caesar Augustus concerning who was the king of Judaea. These are all detailed in my book, so I won’t go into them here unless someone actually can deal with the points.
So, what is new in these posts from Dave Armstrong? Unfortunately, not new evidence but ignorance of the text and mistaken citations of authorities that undermine him when read fully. (And I haven’t even go into the particular theories of what conjunction was supposedly the signal to the Wise Men (he’s largely following the ideas from the Star of Bethlehem documentary, which I critique here)). That is lastly demonstrated by his love of Augustine. He brings up the venerable saint because he was against astrology before modern science was. It’s rather a distraction from the main point of his article, but this is worth highlighting for two reasons. One, is that Augustine’s arguments against astrology were not original to him, but comes over 400 years earlier from Cicero. If Augustine is going to get credit for attacking astrology, then so should the pre-Christian philosophers like Cicero. But perhaps more importantly, Augustine was not simply against astrology, but a former believer in it when he was a Manichaean; so when he says that the Star of Bethlehem was not any sort of astrological phenomenon, he should be taken seriously:
Besides, this star was not one of those which from the beginning of the world continue in the course ordained by the Creator. Along with the new birth from the Virgin appeared a new star, which served as a guide to the Magi who were themselves seeking for Christ; for it went before them till they reached the place where they found the Word of God in the form of a child. But what astrologer ever thought of making a star leave its course, and come down to the child that is born, as they imagine, under it?
AGAINST FAUSTUS 2.5
If Dave wants to keep saying the Star of Bethlehem was natural, he can take it up with the patron saint of theologians.
Now, I have also been having back-and-forth messages with Dave via email, and I want to point out what I think is needed if he or anyone else wants to make the case that the Christmas Star was something naturalistic. What they need is some ancient example of someone describing a known, astronomical body with the same sort of language. Has anyone in Ancient Greek, Latin, or Hebrew ever described a planet as “going before” someone, or standing over a place with the same sort of verbiage? If that could be found, then we’d need to change our interpretation of the Gospel text. But without that, why go against the reading of the text as understood for thousands of years by virtually every reputable scholar?
If there is no linguistic evidence for a naturalistic reading of Matt 2, then any other digression is mere bloviation.
“Well researched, scientifically reasoned, elegantly concise, this book will long be required reading on the ‘Star of Bethlehem’. Full of fascinating historical facts, and better informed and more careful than any other book on the subject, this should be on the shelf of everyone interested in that legendary celestial event.” Richard Carrier, Ph.D., author of Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus.
“A fascinating and readable feat of hardcore historical legwork and keen scientific analysis.” David Fitzgerald, author of The Complete Heretic’s Guide to Western Religion: The Mormons.
“…tightly-argued, well-reasoned…. Adair masterfully demonstrates why every effort to rationalize the Star thus far has failed…. A concise and rigorous must-read for anyone interested in religion, history, and modern efforts to understand the past.” Jason Colavito, author of The Cult of Alien Gods.
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