“Who do you say I am?” Bad Commentary Research on the SoB

“Who do you say I am?” Bad Commentary Research on the SoB January 18, 2021

In my previous post [also here] on a recent attempt at defending an astronomical Star of Bethlehem, I highlighted a number of issues with the writing of Dave Armstrong. In the time between writing that blog and now, Dave has made several more posts, along with comment exchanges. As I highlighted in my old post, Dave failed to understand the underlying text and quote mined one authority of the subject, undermining his credibility to do the sort of research to challenge the consensus position about what the Star was (and wasn’t). Now, with several new posts up, Dave is trying to fix things. Only one of those pages is relevant for today in which he against tries to defend a naturalistic interpretation of the Star of Bethlehem.

However, in the process, Dave proves that he is not an honest researcher, but the worst form of apologist, including hiding relevant information and even straight-up knowingly lying. I don’t like to make this latter accusation, but it is provably so, as I will demonstrate.

What Mr. Armstrong has done in his efforts is to marshall as many scholars as he can to support his position, in particular proving that there is reasonable debate among scholars about how to view the Star as either natural or supernatural. However, it is worth noting a few features of his list of scholars before delving into the issues with them. First off, it has no commentators prior to the 19th century–no Augustine, no Aquinas, no Luther, none of the Church Fathers or other famous interpreters. No Kepler either. Heck, no non-English sources! So he is missing out on a huge swath of commentators. Also note that most of his sources come from the 19th century. It’s almost as if there is little in the way of modern support, let alone traditional confirmation. I could have supplied many dozens of authorities in favor of my position, just like I did with St. Augustine (Against Faustus 2.5), but I’d rather avoid the tedium and look instead at Dave’s citations.

Another thing to note is that Dave has fluffed up his list. He cites the same authorities multiple times. 3 times he cites Wilkins (2009), 3 times Schaff (1890), three times Pett (2013). Others he cites twice. So his unique list of authorities is even smaller than at first glance. But that is not what’s even the biggest problem.

In my last post, I highlighted how Mr. Armstrong had quote mined Joseph Benson’s commentary, not indicating that Benson thought the Star was a miraculous guide. Instead, there was only a snippet he provided against the Star sending down a beam of light. Dave told me in an email that he missed the details from Benson’s commentary, and nonetheless defended his quote mine. Now, he’s taken this tactic to the level, dishonest level.

Let’s look at one of his modern sources, from R.T. France (1985), a conservative scholar who generally supports the historicity of the Jesus stories. France is also Mr. Armstrong’s most reputable modern scholar, so we should take seriously when France says that the text doesn’t specify if a precise house or the general area of Bethlehem is meant by the text of Matt 2:9. However, France has a lot more to say about the Star:

Attempts to identify the ‘star’ as a regular astronomical phenomenon have generally focused on three possibilities…. But no known astronomical phenomena account for the movement of the star as described in v. 9, and this indicates that what Matthew describes is guidance by a miraculous occurrence, even if the initial interest of the Magi was aroused by a nova.

[The star] Went before (proegen) could mean that it ‘let them on’ without itself moving, but the words came to rest mean literally ‘came and stood’, and can mean only that the star itself moved to guide the Magi. It is not said to indicate the precise house, but the general location of where the child was. How it did so can only be left to the imagination, and the search for astronomical parallels to a divine communication is unlikely to be profitable.

THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO MATTHEW: AN INTRODUCTION AND COMMENTARY (1985), PP. 82, 84

That is a lot to miss, all completely contradicting Dave’s argument that France supports the idea that the Star was astronomical.

The same thing happens with Dave mutliply-cites Michael Wilkins, since Wilkins first brings up the numerous theories put forward about the Star. This is what a good scholar should do: bring up all of the possibilities. But this is not what Mr. Armstrong does, as he completely avoids mentioning Wilkins said this:

The star that led them to Palestine now apparently reappears and lead the Magi the six miles to the child in Bethlehem. The description of the activity of the star implies a supernatural phenomenon, since it is difficult to reconstruct how any form of star could go ahead of them and stop or remain over the place where the child was. Since the Magi have already been informed that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, the star doesn’t so much guide them to the town but to the place in the town where the child and family are now located. This is consistent with some king of supernatural angelic guidance.

THE NIV APPLICATION COMMENTARY: MATTHEW (2009), P. 99

Once again, Dave’s own sources say he is wrong–the Star must have been supernatural so it could guide the Wise Men to a particular locale.

The pattern continues when Dave looks to the People’s New Testament (1891). He only quotes a fraction of what it says about Matt 2:9, leaving out this:

So the star… went before them. This language implies a miraculous appearance, like a star, which guided the steps of the wise men. Such a view is no less probable than that a pillar of fire should have guided Israel.

PEOPLE’S NEW TESTAMENT (1891), MATT 2:9

And again, when Dave links to a more recent commentary:

Went ahead of them. A miraculous appearance is implied—no less probable than the pillar of fire which guided Israel.

THE BIBLE STUDY NEW TESTAMENT (1974), MATTHEW 2:9

Can you see a pattern yet? Dave continuously avoids showing what else these commentaries say. That is a classic quote mine, and it is a disingenuous method of citation. It actively hides what the quoter doesn’t want you to know. However, so far, these are lies of omission. What about straight-up lies about content?

This becomes a problem when Dave brings up several sources claiming the Star was a meteor. First off, one of those sources (from Dom Bernard Orchard) doesn’t say anything about a meteor at all, so Dave is just making things up. Instead, the Catholic commentary he has says

The star reappears (cf. ‘and behold’)–it had evidently not led the Magi to Jerusalem. It stands now in the southern sky in the direction of Bethlehem. Mt’s text, literally interpreted, gives the impression of a light visibly advancing southwards (unless we translate, with Patrizi, ‘had gone before them’). This impression is heightened by the apparent implication that it was the star which showed the actual dwelling (though read ‘over the place’ KNT, rather than ‘over the spot’ WV). If this is correct, the ‘star’ is a luminous body in the lower atmosphere.

A CATHOLIC COMMENTARY ON HOLY SCRIPTURE (1953), P. 856

Dave only quoted the last line, which says nothing about a meteor, but then claim that the author here is saying it was a natural phenomenon. Mr. Armstrong is imposing a lot onto this commentary and ignoring virtually everything else. Obviously because it doesn’t fit what he wants. So this is both a lie of omission and a lie of saying something is there which is not.

But that’s not all! There is even worse things concerning the discussion of meteors.

Now, it is worth taking into account that every source Dave cites concerning the Star as a meteor is from the 1800s. That is worth keeping in mind because it was only by the end of that century that astronomers even knew what a meteor was–falling rocks from outer space. The word ‘meteor’ is itself interesting because it is of the same root word in ‘meteorology’–the weather. For the longest time, people thought meteors were atmospheric phenomenon, which is why they are discussed in Aristotle’s book, Meteorology. For the longest time then, a meteor was a light in the atmosphere, which would be below the sphere of the heavens. Literally, down to earth, just like all other weather events.

Now, does Dave know this? Actually yes, because I told him in our email exchange! He has to know that these old sources don’t mean by ‘meteor’ what we today mean by ‘meteor’. And yet, he again quotes four different 19th-century commentaries to bolster himself. And once again, he doesn’t fully quote what those sources say.

When looking at Adam Clarke (1832), we see this:

Stood over where the young child was – Super caput pueri, Over the head of the child, as the Opus Imperfectum, on this place, has it. See Griesbach’s Var. Lect. So it appears to have been a simple luminous meteor in a star-like form, and at a very short distance from the ground, otherwise it could not have ascertained the place where the child lay.

ADAM CLARKE COMMENTARY (1832), MATT 2:9

Similarly, with Albert Barnes:

When they arrived there, it was important that they should be directed to the very place where he was, and the star again appeared.

BARNES COMMENTARY (1832), MATT 2:9

Turning then to a commentary from the 1870s, again Dave doesn’t relate this to his readers:

Much has been written on the subject of this star; but from all that is here said it is perhaps safest to regard it as simply a luminous meteor, which appeared under special laws and for a special purpose.

COMMENTARY CRITICAL AND EXPLANATORY ON THE WHOLE BIBLE (1871), MATT 2:2

Notice the mention of special laws, meaning not the laws of Nature. In other words, the Star was supernatural.

And fascinatingly, we return to the first commentator Mr. Armstrong used to argue for his hypothesis that the Star wasn’t a luminary hovering over a house. Once again, Joseph Benson is brought up because he said the Star was a ‘meteor’. This is the particular commentary I talked to Dave about, so he knows that Benson believes the Star is miraculous. However, Dave is straight-up denying this, so let’s bring up the grass to show that it’s green.

[The Star] went before them — This intimates that it had not been their guide in their journey from their own country. Nor was it needful they should have a guide, Jerusalem being sufficiently known. It had shone, it seems, on the night of his nativity, and then had disappeared till the present time. By its not appearing for a time, occasion was given for their inquiries at Jerusalem, which gave notice to the Jews of the birth of Christ; an event of which, it is likely, they would have had no information, if the star had led the wise men first to Bethlehem. And the reappearance of the star was probably intended of God to prevent their being discouraged at their not only not finding the king they sought in the royal city, but not being able to learn that any thing was known there concerning his birth, and especially in perceiving that when they had brought intelligence of it, all ranks seemed to be troubled, and not a single person of those whose native king he was offered himself as a companion to them, though come from a foreign land to worship him. Thus, also, their taking offence at the low condition in which they found Christ and his parents, was prevented. 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, lest if they should have been obliged to make anxious inquiry concerning the child, there should be some who might have carried the matter to Herod, and have discovered him and his parents. Here, therefore, the star stopped, and proceeded no further, and not long after, viz., as soon as the wise men arrived at the place, as is most probable, entirely vanished. Hence it appears, that this star was not in the higher heavens, but in the lower regions of the air; for no star in the heavens could have exactly pointed out a particular house. Nothing is said here concerning a ray descending from the star to the top of the house, or concerning the descent of the body of the star. It is therefore probable it was a meteor, which to them had the appearance of a star, as meteors frequently have. This appears, further, from its moving by intervals, sometimes moving and sometimes standing still, which the stars, properly so called, never do.

BENSON COMMENTARY (1857), MATT 2:9

The Star “miraculously conducted” the Magi to the “very house”, being low enough to indicate a particular abode. Does this sound like any falling rock to you? No, because Benson isn’t using the word ‘meteor’ as we do today, and his light in the air is a supernatural phenomenon.

That Dave cites this as evidence of people believing in an astronomical Star of Bethlehem, even after I told him what Benson said and what ‘meteor’ meant, shows that he is lying. He knows this isn’t true, but says it anyways. That makes him a lying liar.

Now, let’s take stock of all of this. Does Dave’s failure to honestly present information mean that the Star had to be supernatural? Of course not. It ultimately comes down the quality of the arguments brought up in good faith. I have presented the reasons the vast majority of scholars, dead and living, agree that the Star as described is miraculous. I have also described how one would overthrow the consensus. While no one has done so yet, it’s always possible that new linguistic evidence will come to light. However, we should not to expect it to be found by Dave Armstrong. He doesn’t know the facts, and he cannot honestly represent the data.

Please check out my book: The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View [UK], called the “go-to book on the Star of Bethlehem” by Richard Carrier:

“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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