Answering a Debunker: The Star of Bethlehem

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Star of Bethlehem
Worship painting by Mollie Walker Freeman, 18×24″, mixed media
This is not so much a depiction of how the Star of Bethlehem may have actually appeared, but is more a symbolic depiction of light breaking into spiritual darkness.

Last Christmas season I wrote a post about Rick Larson’s remarkable Star of Bethlehem video and some new insights made possible by modern astronomy software. A reader commented on my post, claiming to have debunked Larson’s theory. I didn’t publish this reader’s comment because when I went to his blog site, he hadn’t finished writing about the two points of greatest interest to me. He has now finished those articles and has, in fact, published a book as well. He believes his book demolishes Larson’s theory. I haven’t yet read the book, but if it contains reasoning similar to that in his blog,…well, I’ll leave it to you to decide for yourself whose arguments are left standing.

The author’s name is Aaron Adair. His new book is The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View. Adair has a PhD in physics, and degrees in mathematics and astronomy from Michigan State. He has read widely and published on the topic of the Star of Bethlehem, about which people have been theorizing and writing for centuries. Apparently the Star has long been an area of special interest for him.

I, on the other hand, know next to nothing about physics, math, or astronomy and have no credentials. I am relatively uneducated, and I paint pictures for a living. Perhaps it would make sense for me to accept Dr. Adair’s proclamation that he has debunked Larson’s theory. Perhaps. Except that, as is so often the case with experts and scholars, I can’t help noticing that his reasoning is super lame.

On his blog site, Fleeing Nergal, Seeking StarsAdair posts a “Critical View Index.” There he lists five posts wherein he critiques five claims from Larson’s theory. For the sake of brevity, and because it is Christmastime, I will comment here only on his third post: The Constellation Leo as the Sign of the Jews. His wrongheaded approach to discrediting the story of the Magi in the gospel of Matthew is typical of “skeptics” and Bible critics.

For those unfamiliar with Rick Larson or my post from last year, here’s a brief recap:
The movements of the stars and planets are set and predictable. We now have computer software that can show us exactly how the sky looked at any point in history, from any location on earth. Think about that. This means we can know what the Magi would’ve seen from their vantage point in Jerusalem when they were seeking the infant Christ. Larson narrows down the possibilities and settles on a time frame – 3 and 2 BC – and describes an incredible series of astronomical events that were occurring during that time frame, and explains how they might have corresponded with the events described in Matthew’s gospel. I read this perspective for the first time in a 1993 essay by PhD astronomer, Craig C. Chester, president of the Monterey Institute for Research in Astronomy (MIRA.) Larsen’s video and website goes into even more detail.

One such notable detail is referenced in the apostle John’s book of Revelation. John writes of a portent that “appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon at her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” (12:1,2.) The woman is about to give birth. She delivers a male child “who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron” (12:5.) Now compare this fact: astronomy software shows that on September 11 of 3 BC, the sun was in the constellation of Virgo (the virgin), and there was a new moon at her feet. In other words, we now know that in 3 BC the heavens corresponded exactly with what John wrote down, which was clearly a reference to the birth of Jesus. This would be true whether or not anyone was aware of it at the time.

Larson admits he is an amateur astronomer. I was curious to see if Adair would argue that Larson had somehow gotten the astronomy wrong. But the degreed astronomer doesn’t argue this. Instead he tries to chip away at the credibility of the story mostly by citing a lack of ancient sources corroborating his own unfounded assumptions about the story. For example Adair states:

Regulus was the king star. With the planet Jupiter moving back and forth around Regulus it seemed to indicate something important, and the final, supreme conjunction of Jupiter and Venus then took place after this in 2 BCE. Now (sic) only is this a key part of the film, there are many planetariums around the USA that at the holidays present this dance of the planets and stars (including the planetarium I used to work at)…So a lot is hinging on how important Leo and Regulus are to kingship and the Jews. That means we need to look at what is the evidence that Leo was connected to the Holy Land and God’s chosen people…”

Actually, no, we don’t. (Though it would be icing on the cake to find such an association.)

Adair then impressively references a list of Jewish Rabbis, both medieval and ancient, to show they did not associate the constellation Leo with Israel. He then quotes ancient non-Jewish sources connecting Leo with other nations, not Israel. He shows that astronomical interpretation was all over the place in the ancient world and that there was no known authoritative standard by which ancient astronomers would’ve associated Leo with Israel. But all of these points are irrelevant to the account in the gospel of Matthew. If anything these points lend credibility Matthew’s account.

Why the Magi would’ve associated heavenly signs with a king born in Israel

The Bible gives a harmonious account of history that is internally consistent. Does it provide any reason to believe that “wise men from the East” would travel to Jerusalem seeking a newborn king, based on signs they had seen in the sky? Yes.

But first, I should point out that we would not necessarily expect to find Jewish or rabbinical sources linking the constellation Leo to Israel. The Torah of Moses and the prophets forbade the practice of astrology in Israel! (Deut 18:9-14; Isa 47:13,14; Jer 10:1-3.) As I mentioned in my original post, neither Herod nor anyone else in Jerusalem seemed to know anything about “the Star of Bethlehem.” In fact Matthew says Herod and all of Jerusalem were “troubled” by the Magi’s news. So, whatever the Star was, it must not have been very obvious. Or if it was obvious, its meaning was unknown to the Jewish people.

Secondly, the Magi were (probably) not Jewish. The sign was for them, not for the Jews. I would humbly suggest that here in the 21st century, these astronomical events can now be taken as a sign for everyone, both Jew and gentile, since we can now see in hindsight what has occurred. But for Adair to cite a lack of ancient Jewish sources identifying Leo with Israel debunks nothing.

However, since Adair also shows that neither were there non-Jewish sources linking the constellation Leo to Israel, (none, at least, that are known to us today,) he concludes that the Magi therefore wouldn’t have known to travel to Jerusalem to pay homage to a newborn king. Game over, Larson’s theory is bogus, and the whole story is fictional.

Incidentally, Adair is especially intent on proving that the Star could not have been a “natural” event, but, if anything, could only have been a miraculous one. (I’ll say more later on why this matters to him.) For the sake of argument, let’s say that the Star was a miraculous event. This still doesn’t solve the problem. Why would non-Jewish Magi associate a supernatural star with Israel, or “follow” it, any more than they would follow a natural star? (Unless it was a talking star.)

Then what reason is there to believe that wise men from the East would journey to Israel based on heavenly signs?

The biblical account of Israel’s Babylonian exile provides a plausible answer. Bear in mind that, from the beginning, God’s plan in establishing a chosen people Israel was to bless all the nations of the world through Israel (Gen 12:2,3; 18:18; 22:18; 26:4; 28:14.) In keeping with this, the book of the exiled Daniel has God revealing remarkable, specific prophecies regarding the precise timing of the coming of God’s Messiah and the establishment of His eternal kingdom (Daniel ch 2, 7, 8, & 9:23-27.) As a result of these prophecies and other miracles, first the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, decreed that the God of the Israelites was pre-eminent (Da 3:29,30.) Later, the Medo-Persian King, Darius, exalted Daniel and made the following decree:

“…I make a decree, that in all my royal dominion men tremble and fear before the God of Daniel, for he is the living God, enduring forever; his kingdom shall never be destroyed…he works signs and wonders in heaven and on earth…” (Da 6:25-28.)

These decrees came from idolatrous, gentile kings who had conquered the Jewish nation, and had then become convinced of the supremacy of YHWH, the God of the Jews. The Persian wise men in Daniel’s time could not have avoided being aware of Daniel and his God. They would’ve known of Daniel’s repeated prophecies that after Babylon there would be three more kingdoms and then the greatest of kings would come and establish an eternal kingdom (Dan 2:36-45.) Surely such knowledge would have been preserved and handed down until the time of the appointed fourth kingdom, which turned out to be the Roman Empire. At this time the Magi would’ve been watching for any sign from “the God who works signs and wonders in heaven and on earth.” They would have specifically been watching Israel, Daniels’s people, who had long since returned from exile to their homeland, and who were also in a state of Messianic expectation because of these same prophecies. So when the sky began announcing the birth of a great king, on cue, the Magi already knew exactly where to find him – Israel.

ImageSo we see that specifically associating the constellation Leo with Israel is not critical to Larson’s theory at all. As Adair admits, pretty much every ancient civilization wished to be associated with the lion. The Magi were expecting the birth of the greatest of kings who was prophesied to establish the greatest of kingdoms. How fitting it must have seemed to them that his sign would appear in the constellation of Leo.

I look forward to reading Adair’s book, and I’m hopeful that it will drive more people to check out Rick Larson’s beautifully produced video and website for themselves. Until then, just for fun, I want to go out on a limb and make a guess as to why Aaron Adair and people like him are so intent on proving that the Star of Bethlehem could not have been a “natural” event: They are dogmatists. It is an article of dogmatic belief for New Atheism that biblical faith cannot be based on evidence. At all. Ever. They feel that materialism/atheism owns the field of observable, verifiable evidence and that religious faith must ever remain wholly outside of that field. By definition. Always. Ironically, this in itself is a religious belief contradicting evidence, as I have explained here.

By contrast, I am perfectly content to share the field. I am happy to let PhD experts believe that by sheer coincidence the heavens declared the birth of a child who grew to be the most influential person who ever lived, and that this astronomical configuration was precisely described by the apostle John some 2000 years ago in the Bible. I understand that peer pressure in academia is very great. One simply won’t be respected by one’s academic peers if one entertains the possibility of events being foreknown and fixed in the stars by an omniscient Creator. Even if they were.

So to all academics everywhere, and to the academically unenlightened masses of which I am a part, I can only wish for us all the merriest of Christmases!

(For those interested in more detailed dialogue, please note that author Aaron Adair has replied in the comment section below…)

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15 comments on “Answering a Debunker: The Star of Bethlehem

  1. Great read on a fascinating topic … is the “LEO” connection more a reference to “JUDAH” rather than simply “ISRAEL”? … no?

    • Hello Daniel – Yes, that would be technically correct, historically. However, Aaron is saying that there is no known reason that foreign nations would’ve associated Leo with Israel or Judah. I’m countering that this was completely unnecessary anyway because of Daniel’s influence during the Babylonian captivity.

      Having said that, it is important to recognize that the Hebrew scriptures do identify the Messiah/Israel/Judah with a lion. My wife just pointed out an example I hadn’t noticed in Micah ch 8. interestingly, it follows the prophecy that the messiah will come from Bethlehem (2:2.) Just a few verses later it says “the remnant of Jacob shall be among the nations…like a lion among the beasts of the forest, like a young lion among the flocks of sheep…(2:8.) Also, Ezekial 19 associates the lion with Israel.

      But I still agree with Aaron that it’s a stretch to say that the Hebrew scriptures would’ve necessarily provided a basis for foreign nations to associate the constellation Leo with Israel/Judah. (Although it could’ve, if the Persian magi were studying the Hebrew scriptures. It is even possible that the magi mentioned in Matthew were Jewish or half-Jewish, left over from the Babylonian captivity. We just don’t know.)

  2. Rod says:

    Outstanding article Scott. There tends to be a lot of collective “howling” this time of year, although it sounds like an interesting read. I wonder how much of this is ‘speculation’ resulting from the: ”how dare the ancients be as intelligent, if not more so, than post-enlightened experts today”. The authoritarian, people-pleasing, self-important superiority complexes associated with academia – something you point to, and in which I agree exists – undermines any clear conclusions, because it bases such conclusions on the pre-understanding that the bible is non-historical and the person approaching it is far superior than those who wrote it. (in short pride not humility). As a result God is not free to speak and be heard. Btw: The painting is magnificent. Merry Christmas mate.

    • Thanks Rod. Thank you for not assuming I was pooh-poohing scholarship in general. Obviously I think verifiable facts are important, and that all truth is God’s truth. However, “scholars” and “experts” are as biased and agenda-driven as anyone else, perhaps even more-so. Furthermore, no matter how educated or intelligent a person is, if he/she begins with a false presupposition, and reasons correctly, his/her conclusion will be wrong.

  3. Hi Scott,

    I’m the author of the page and book you mentioned, so I hope you don’t mind me coming in to your page. First thing, though, thank you for finding that typo. One of these days I need to learn how to properly type, or at least go and fix up any grammar/spelling errors on my pages.

    As to your response to my critical review of Larson’s documentary, I should note that no where in the review do I claim that the Star must be supernatural and/or fiction. I only focus on why Larson’s theory will not work. The question of if anything natural can fit the theory and if there was a Star or journey of the Magi at all is something I focus on in my book. Now, on to some astronomy!

    About the Sun and Moon in Virgo: while that does happen in 3 BCE, it also happens every year. The moon goes through all the zodiac constellations every month, and the Sun does so every year. So this is not only common, it’s trivial. But when it comes to placing the events of Revelation into history, that can be difficult. After all, that same chapter talks of a dragon coming down and spitting rivers of water. Needless to say, that’s not in the Gospel story. So, just be cautious with a book that is highly symbolic.

    Now, you seem to agree with me that there is no evidence, Jewish or otherwise, that shows that the constellation of Leo was associated with Jews/Judaism/Palestine. So it confuses me that you say it doesn’t matter, that Leo would have been associated with that religion anyways. Would they not as likely have thought the signs were about their own nation? They had a king to consider, after all. I understand that you think the text from Daniel indicates the magi would have been on the look-out for the messiah (whose historical accuracy is also something questioned by scholars), but that hardly means they would look to any particular constellation (or ‘sign’, as astrologers prefer). It is a question of why this collection of signs rather than any other, and if Larson cannot show that anyone would have made the connections he does, then it becomes nothing more than modern, idle speculation. As for the movements of the Star, I discuss those in Part 4 of my review, so you can see why Larson’s hypothesis won’t work. In particular, I show that eastern astrological records indicate that the very motions of Jupiter around Regulus and the conjunctions of Jupiter and Venus would have been horrible omens. That, and the movements don’t really fit the description of the Star in the Gospel of Matthew.

    So, perhaps you will continue to review my review, and I hope that you and your readership find some utility in it.

    • Greetings Aaron!
      Welcome, and thank you for taking time to respond personally to my post. I do look forward to reading your book at some point. It is true that your review I cited does not make the claim that the star must be supernatural and/or fiction, but you do make this claim elsewhere. I felt it only fair to inform my readers of your bias, since we all have one. This is not unlike you pointing out that Rick Larson studied under the evangelical author, Francis Schaeffer, even though this has nothing to do with whether or not what he is saying is true.

      Sun & Moon in Virgo: What made this otherwise common event noteworthy in September of 3 BC is that it occurred in the same month that a series of conjunctions began, involving Jupiter & Regulus – the brightest star in the constellation of Leo, associated with kingship. This conjunction was repeated in Feb & May of 2 BC. Then what you refer to as the “final, supreme conjunction of Jupiter & Venus” took place in June of 2 BC. Craig Chester calls this “touching” of the 2 brightest objects in the sky, (besides the sun & moon,) seen as a single object above the setting sun, “an exceptionally rare spectacle.”

      So when in Revelation, we have John describing a giant virgin in the sky giving birth to “one who will rule all the nations”, taken together with a series of impressive and/or rare planetary motions & events having to do with kingship, is it really a stretch to associate these events with the birth Jesus? I generally agree with your cautionary note about the highly symbolic nature of the book of Revelation. However, in the chapter in question, everything we’re talking about is explicitly identified. The woman giving birth, (who is a virgin – surely you can admit this is quite a coincidence.) The child (v 5.) The dragon is identified as Satan (v 9) who attempts to devour the child when it is brought forth (v 4.) (So, yes, the dragon is part of the gospel story.) You are aware that Matthew says that Herod attempted to kill the infant Jesus after learning of his birth. In general Rev 12 describes the birth, Satan’s attempt to destroy him, and God rescuing him. I think most people would agree that an angelic visitation warning the parents to flee Herod would qualify as God rescuing the child. I honestly don‘t see where I’m speculating here, but I’m open to consider your opinion.

      As for the Magi and the Star, I will grant that you have successfully debunked the idea of wise men following a blazing star to Bethlehem to the manger where the child lay. But, as I stated in my original post, this idea comes to us from Christmas carols & cards. These ideas are not found in the Bible. Matthew does not say that the magi followed a star – this is an assumption that most people make when reading the text (as your editor Jonathan MS Pearce repeatedly does in your Youtube interview.) Anyone interested can read Matthew 2:1-12, and see what it actually says (my caps for emphasis):
      1) v1 – wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, reasonably assuming that the “king of the Jews” would be born in the capitol city of Israel. There is no reason to believe that they needed a star to find Jerusalem.
      2) v2 – They mention they had seen (past tense) his star in the East.
      3) v3-6 – A troubled Herod then assembles the chief priests & scribes to find out where the Hebrew prophets indicate the messiah will be born. They tell him, “Bethlehem of Judea”
      4) v7,8 – Herod secretly summons the magi, asks them when the star first appeared (since it was not an obvious sign,) and SENDS THEM TO BETHLEHEM, which was 5 miles away on the main road. Again, they didn’t need a star to get there
      5) v9-10 – when the magi head out they rejoice because they see “the star, which they had seen in the east,” going before them. PhD astronomer Craig Chester, (& Larson,) note that Jupiter performed a retrograde loop in 2 BC, and that from the vantage point of the magi, it would have appeared to be standing still at its stationary point, over Bethlehem on December 25th
      6) v11 – the magi find a toddler in a house, not an infant in manger. Again, there is no reason to believe that a star led them to the particular house. Bethlehem was a very small town at this time. The arrival of the magi would’ve been a remarkable event.

      In your 4th article you state that the conjunctions of Jupiter and Venus would’ve been read as a sign of “war and hostilities” toward the king (Hunger, Astrological Reports to Assyrian Kings-212, 248.) But even this, if true, still fits perfectly with Daniel’s prophecy in Dan 2:44: “the God of heaven will set up a kingdom (read foreign) which will never be destroyed…it will crush and put an end to all of these kingdoms (Babylonian, Medo-Persian, Greek, & Roman.) However, given that Daniel had provided the Babylonians/Persians a timeline for the arrival of YHWH’s messiah and the establishment of his kingdom, even if these planetary movements did portend war, they also necessarily implied a birth of the great king Daniel had predicted. The magi’s trip could’ve been a diplomatic act of appeasement. I see nothing far-fetched here at all.

      • Hi again,

        On Sun, Moon, and Virgo: you suggest that this particular arrangement was special because it is when a series of conjunctions began. But conjunctions happen all the time. Jupiter and Saturn have conjunctions about every 20 years, and Jupiter and Venus have conjunctions nearly yearly. Unless something is set to specify what conjunctions are supposed to be fortuitous, then we are making any motion of the stars symbolically important. We are behaving with the same poor methods as do astrologers who agree on nothing much better than chance. So how do we know if a Jupiter-Venus conjunction was considered a sign of the upcoming messiah? We have no evidence, just modern speculation. That’s not a great historical method.

        On Revelation: John provides no information of any conjunctions of planets; you are importing that in from what you think is being talked about in Matthew, and even Matthew doesn’t explicitly talk about a conjunction of planets. Be careful that you are not putting in information you have to assume to get your conclusion. Similarly, when you talk about the dragon as Satan, you say that means Satan is a part of the Gospel story, but you are getting this from Revelation, not the Gospels. You also seem to be saying that the dragon is related to Herod trying to kill Jesus. Well, is the dragon Satan or Herod? But more importantly, the context of the story seems to be about the Fall of Satan. Notice how it says the tail of the dragon brought down a third of the stars, how the blood of the Lamb defeated him, and how the dragon was then cast down to earth. This all sounds like things well before the time of Jesus’s birth. In reality, Larson and others are forcing this story from John’s visions to conform to the birth narrative. We should also note that the dragon is also in heaven at this time. Moreover, the woman would be Virgo, the dragon is Draco who appears to in the sky ‘chase’ the woman. It all has nothing to do with the birth of Jesus by Mary.

        On the leading Star: I’m confused. You say that I have successfully disproven that the Star was said to guide the Magi, and this is an idea that is imposed by Christmas carols and other popular imaginings. Rather, I argue how Larson’s explanations for the movements of the Star fail to match up with Matthew’s version, which I prove in my book to have been a guiding light to a particular hovel. It may not be so obvious in certain English translations, but it is that in the original Greek and how it is read by virtually all theologians and Bible scholars.

        On conjunctions of war == here comes the messiah: my article was to show the problems with Larson’s thesis, that we have no evidence that the conjunctions of Jupiter and Regulus or with Jupiter and Venus indicated the birth of a great leader/king/etc. Instead, they portended something the opposite. So in that, I have proven Larson’s particular hypothesis wrong. You are now proposing that a foreboding omen would actually indicate the coming of the greatest of kings, which is certainly different than what Larson said. And what evidence do you provide that a war against Persia “necessarily implied the birth of a great king”? None, just what you think they would have taken from Daniel’s prophecy, which says nothing of astrology (Daniel was interpreting a dream, after all). Also, if a prediction is either good or bad still means ‘the messiah has come’, then anything will be “the” sign. As for predictions of war, there were plenty of assaults on Persia, even in these times, and there were plenty of conjunctions that could also have been interpreted in a negative manner. Again, there is nothing to make these particular conjunctions particular special (not to mention that the theory requires redating the reign of King Herod, making the situation all the worse). This is all after-the-fact speculation, and it has as much likelihood as being correct as any other conjunction or set of conjunctions, making it worthless. Might as well go with the Jupiter/Saturn conjunctions in 7 BCE, or the lunar occultation of Jupiter by the Moon as another astronomer has argued.

  4. I’d just like to mention that my husband did not actually “like” his own post. I was unaware that he had borrowed my computer and signed into wordpress. When I tried to “like” the post, his photo appeared. Just sayin’.

  5. This is a reply to Aaron Adair’s latest (Dec 28th) post:

    Aaron, Here’s the situation as I see it. You are arguing against at least 3 straw men:
    1) The Star must have had a specific association with Israel/Judah/Palestine,
    2) The Star led the magi to Jesus,
    3) The Star must have been considered “fortuitous,” (I assume what you mean here is “good” or “positive.” If so, “fortuitous” may not be the best word choice. I contend that chance had nothing to do with the Star.) You wrote, “…Unless something is set to specify what conjunctions are supposed to be fortuitous, then we are making any motion of the stars symbolically important…”

    But the text in Matthew neither states, nor depends upon, any of these false assumptions.

    (Please excuse my caps for clarity, but…)
    If the magi had Daniel’s prophecy in mind, then they would’ve been looking for a sign for the arrival of the greatest of KINGS who was to set up an eternal KINGDOM which itself would never be destroyed but which would destroy those kingdoms that came before it, including Persia. This is explicitly stated (Dan 2:44,45.)

    You’ve agreed that Jupiter is the “KING planet” and that Regulus is the “KING star.” You’ve agreed that, “With the planet Jupiter moving back and forth around Regulus it seemed to indicate something important.” Do you disagree with Dr. Chester that the conjunction of Jupiter and Venus in June of 2 BC was “an exceptionally rare spectacle”? If the magi knew that the time for the fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecies was at hand, they would’ve been looking for signs having to do with KINGSHIP. I’m simply arguing that what Larson describes could’ve been sufficient to send them on their way to Israel. The magi simply say they saw “his star.” It is not unreasonable or far-fetched to think they were referring to the KING planet. What other better candidate could there possibly be? You are basically arguing that since these conjunctions were not universally known to be fortuitous and/or associated with Israel, they therefore can’t fit the events described in the story. But you’re simply wrong. It is not stated in Matthew, nor is it necessary to Larson’s theory, that the birth of Israel’s messiah would’ve been considered “fortuitous” to foreign nations. Even Herod himself didn’t consider the magi’s news to be “fortuitous”!

    Furthermore, I’m arguing that, according to Matthew, the star’s primary role for the magi was to indicate the approximate timing of the presence, (and therefore presumably the birth,) of Daniel’s prophesied king. The star’s “going before” and “stopping over” Bethlehem, while fitting and remarkable, had nothing to do with getting them to the child. The magi knew how the find Israel, and then they learned from Herod to travel to Bethlehem. That’s what the text says. Tell me why you think wise men would’ve needed a magical star to guide them to either destination? Nobody else traveling to Jerusalem or Bethlehem needed a star, other than for typical navigational purposes.

    You misstate what I said when you wrote: “I’m confused. You say that I have successfully disproven that the Star was said to guide the Magi, and this is an idea that is imposed by Christmas carols and other popular imaginings…”

    No, you have not “disproven that the star WAS SAID to guide the Magi.” We both agree that this is commonly said. I said I admit that you have shown this common misconception of the Xmas carols to be false; I’m agreeing with you that the magi did not “follow” a star. Where we disagree is that I’m telling you that Matthew never says they did. If I’m wrong simply show me.

    In your Youtube interview you say that the Greek preposition “over” makes clear that the star was in close proximity over the house. But your argument is false and misleading. The Greek word is “epano” (from “epi”- on,upon, and “ano”-up,above.) In your Youtube interview, citing word usage, you lead viewers to believe that since “epano” is used to describe the position of the placard “over” Jesus’s head while he was on the cross, this shows that “epano” must necessarily indicate close proximity. But other examples show this to be false:

    He who comes from above is above (epano) all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above (epano) all” (Jn 3:31.)

    On this point, you and others have also stated that a constellation/star cannot “stand over” a particular location. But anyone can see that even this objection is also false. For example, from my town in the December sky, I could accurately state that Orion’s belt “stands over the place” where my son attends college. If someone wanted to find UNC from my town, I could be obtuse and tell them to follow Orion’s belt, and they could certainly find it. (Orion’s belt would point them in the right direction.) But if I wanted to ensure they would find UNC I would suggest they take hwy 34 east to Greeley and ask someone where the college is. The magi needed only to do something similar.

    Your objections around Revelation simply don’t stand up:
    > “when you talk about the dragon as Satan, you say that means Satan is a part of the Gospel story, but you are getting this from Revelation, not the Gospels…”
    No, I’m getting it first from the Gospels. The 2 correspond perfectly. Unless you want to argue that Herod slaughtering infants in an attempt to kill the infant king was not an evil act.

    > “…Well, is the dragon Satan or Herod?…”
    Both: Herod as Satan’s instrument. This is a typical biblical literary device.

    >”… But more importantly, the context of the story seems to be about the Fall of Satan…It all has nothing to do with the birth of Jesus by Mary.”
    A puzzling comment, since Rev 12 plainly says, “…She (the Virgin) was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains (v2)…the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it. She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations (v4,5)…”

    > “…and even Matthew doesn’t explicitly talk about a conjunction of planets. Be careful that you are not putting in information you have to assume to get your conclusion. Similarly, when you talk about the dragon as Satan, you say that means Satan is a part of the Gospel story, but you are getting this from Revelation, not the Gospels…”
    The whole of the Bible is a unity. This is all worse than you realize for your debunking project. The dragon in Revelation also clearly alludes to Daniel’s prophecy, in addition to alluding to the Gospels: Rev 12:3 says the dragon has 10 horns. Daniel 7:7 & 16-27 speak of a beast with 10 horns representing the fourth kingdom; the Roman Empire. Under which Herod reigned. During which time Jesus was born. The 2 correspond perfectly. Both Matthew and Revelation speak of a virgin giving birth to a world ruler. Surely we can agree this is not a common occurance.

    > “…And what evidence do you provide that a war against Persia “necessarily implied the birth of a great king”? None…”
    ‘Sorry – I thought this was obvious: The coming of Daniel’s prophesied eternal, conquering kingdom, implies the appearance of a great, conquering king. How can this not be so? Furthermore, this is more than an implication, taken together with Daniel’s other prophecies in later chapters.

    The bottom line, Aaron, is that I want Matthew’s story to be true, so I am attempting to find a correspondence between what is written in the text and what is written in nature. You, by contrast, do not want the story to be true, but you are misreading the text so that it doesn’t correspond with what is written in nature. This is an issue of the heart, not the head.

    • You are taking a rather forced interpretation of the stars. If anything in the skies was ominous or fortuitous, you will make that mean to the magi that the King of the Jews is born. But by having that level of flexibility of what the stars could mean and yet conform to your hypothesis, then that will not specify any conjunction of planets or anything else, for that matter. That also means getting hung up on the 3/2 BCE events in the sky is odd because you can look in any year and come up with something fortuitous or ominous. Again, why now the Jupiter/Saturn triple conjunctions of 7 BCE? Those are extremely rare, while Jupiter/Venus conjunctions happen at almost yearly. This was a particularly close conjunction, but why is that the criteria of determining the Star of Bethlehem? And you can find plenty of close conjunctions if you want in the time period. I also mentioned the occultation of Jupiter by the Moon, which is part of Michael Molnar’s theory of the Star.

      Now, I did not propose that Regulus/Jupiter conjunctions would indicate something important. I am saying in my original blog post, read in context, that that is how Larson and Martin interpreted it. It MUST have been important, in their eyes. I, on the other hand, wouldn’t say if it was important or not to astrologers because astrologers agree on things almost no better than chance. No decent historian of astronomy and astrology looks at horoscopes and argues what it would have meant to ancient sky watchers. One of the very few things that there is an near universal belief in antiquity was the terror of the comet. And since there was a comet in 5 BCE and doesn’t require changing the history of Herod’s kingship, why now say that that portent of doom is what got the Magi going? Again, you are putting great weight on these 3/2 BCE conjunctions without any historical reasons.

      As for how the Star appears to be interpreted by the Magi, they seem to find it a great sign. Consider how they are filled “with great joy” upon seeing it again (Matt 2:9-10), and this was a sign that made them want to worship someone. And this is how everyone has argued about what the Star must have been, how it must have somehow told them of the good news. You are the only person I have ever heard say that a portent of evil in the skies would have had the same effect. Again, please note that what you propose is certainly different than what Larson does, who instead thought that the signs were obviously ones that indicate the birth of a great king in Israel because of what stars and constellations were involved, not because he re-interpreted them to conform to Daniel’s prophecy of a kingdom that would overthrow the Persian kingdom.

      Now, a big component of what you are going for is relating this to the prophecy of the 70 Weeks of years, hence the time scale you think the magi were using to figure the Messiah must be coming soon. First thing, though, is that prophecies turn out to be pretty hard to interpret, and there has been plenty of diverse views on what Daniel is referring to (even though everyone thinks they can get it to work with Jesus dying in the 30s CE). Depending on if you are going by the starting point of decrees of Cyrus or Artexerxes, if you use inclusive dating, if you use shorter years (360 rather than 265.25 days), and other variables, you can get difference dates. And since the arrival of the Magi is coming decades before the death of the Messiah, how do they know that his birth would have been around then? How would they know the Messiah would be around 30 rather than 40 or 50 (as some Christians thought Jesus was), or younger at around 20, and hence miss the infant by decades? Again, just about anything in the heavens could be construed into a positive or negative portent, so even taking this prophecy into account doesn’t actually help even narrow down when the magi would have been thinking the Messiah was to come. And this is all assuming that the magi cared about this prophecy and a Jewish leader, something that is highly suspect, and a point I show to be weak in my book.

      On the leading Star: you are still confusing me. I am arguing that the text says the Magi were led by the Star to Bethlehem and the house where the Holy Family was. This is clear in the Greek when the root word ago is used (proago in full in the text), and this a word that means “I lead”. Other parts of the Greek indicate motion and arriving at a location, all of which I deal with in my book rather than in the critique I left of Larson’s DVD. As for epano, you should have considered looking at a lexicon before choosing a counter-example. epano can be used to talk of being above another person in rank, but that is hardly the same as being above someone in physical position. Are you going to say now that the Star was higher in rank that the place Jesus was? That doesn’t even make sense. But as I specified, epano when followed by another word in the genitive case and in the context of physical position, has a meaning of having on top of or slightly above. This is how all ancient commentators spoke of the Star, and you will be hard-pressed to find a modern Bible scholar who argues for another meaning of the words used here.

      Standing constellations and stars: stars do not stand in place in the sky; they are constantly in motion, moving from east to west. The Star of Bethlehem is said to move and then stop in place. If you told someone to use Orion’s belt to find a place, you would be dooming them because those stars will have moved over time, about 15 degrees in an hour. The only star that doesn’t move overnight is Polaris, and that is why it is good for direction-finding–it’s always due north (or at least very close). Pretty much everything you said here about using such stars to point to a location are in contradiction to basic observational astronomy.

      On to Revelation: you are forcing the vision here to fit the nativity story, and only because there is a woman giving birth and an evil entity trying to kill her baby. Are there no other possible associations this could make? Also, you are bringing in things as fact into the story of Rev. For example, it doesn’t say that the woman is a virgin; rather, in Rev 12:17 it says she already had other children (who were loyal to Jesus), which the dragon then went after. And you are ignoring how the dragon is felled from heaven, fought off by the archangel Michael. That certainly doesn’t sound like anything to do with King Herod, but instead sounds like it is related to the fall of Satan from heaven. I’d ask you to stop ignoring what the Bible says when you are trying to tell me what the Bible says. But admittedly, this is a complicated passage, as is Revelation in general. Still, trying to get information out of this vision to see what would have been the astronomical circumstances at the birth of Jesus, while ignoring parts that clearly are not a part of the nativity stories, is neither good history nor exegesis.

      Lastly, I am not against the story of the Star having some historical truth to it, especially if it has some naturalistic explanation. I wanted to look at see what what going on with the story, and I have come to the same sorts of conclusions as most Bible scholars over the last 150-ish years. But if you are saying this is a matter of the heart, then you are pretty much telling me your position is not based on reason but what you prefer to believe. That doesn’t seem like an intellectually fulfilled faith, but instead it’s tantamount to make-believe.

  6. Aaron, thank you for bearing with me; I do appreciate your time. I want to read your book as it sounds as though your arguments are laid out in more detail there than on your blog. I’d also like to read Molner’s book. Until then, please allow me to clarify some points:

    Ominous or Fortuitous?
    It seems to me that the star need only signal the presence/arrival/birth of a great king. Whether this would be considered a good or a bad thing would depend upon the perspective of the viewer. We don’t know who the magi were, but if they were Persians who were following and giving credence to Daniel’s prophecies, then they may have considered the birth of his prophesied king ominous for Persia and the Roman Empire, but personally fortuitous. Or not. We don’t know. They may or may not have been acting officially on behalf of their nation. But as far as ANYONE, Jew or gentile, knew at the time, these prophecies were political in nature – signs would’ve been read as foretelling a conquering, military king. Our hindsight and familiarity with Jesus’s gospel of salvation tends to cause us to now see the Xmas story as being about the birth of spiritual Savior of the world. But nobody understood this at the time. Even the Jews, who were the keepers of the biblical prophecies, expected a military messiah, as can be seen in the gospel accounts. So all I’m saying is that you can’t assume that the sign had to be considered “fortuitous” in order to fit the criteria for the story.

    You write, “…That also means getting hung up on the 3/2 BCE events in the sky is odd because you can look in any year and come up with something fortuitous or ominous. Again, why now (sic) the Jupiter/Saturn triple conjunctions of 7 BCE? Those are extremely rare, while Jupiter/Venus conjunctions happen at almost yearly… I also mentioned the occultation of Jupiter by the Moon, which is part of Michael Molnar’s theory of the Star.”

    I don’t know when Jesus was born, and neither do you. Maybe it was 7 BC. But I like Larson’s theory because it seems to fit better than anything I’ve heard; specifically in 2 BC, the fact that, after a series of events involving Jupiter and Regulus, and following a rare conjunction of Jupiter and Venus, Jupiter performed a retrograde loop and was at its stationary point over Bethlehem on Dec 25th from the vantage point of Jerusalem, a plausible explanation of Mattew’s description. Taken together with the fact that 35 years later on what would be a plausible date for the crucifixion of Jesus, the full moon went into eclipse precisely at the time the gospels say that Jesus was dying. Even if, as you argue, no one would’ve seen this at the time, we know it to be true now, and I find it to be a remarkable coincidence and fraught with meaning. As for other theories, comets don’t stop and stand. An occultation of the King Planet sounds more like the death of a king than a birth. If Maternus was a convert to Xianity, his “birth of divine kings” comment could be chalked up to bias. Plus wouldn’t Molner’s events have been difficult to observe as they occurred during the daytime?

    You write, “…As for how the Star appears to be interpreted by the Magi, they seem to find it a great sign. Consider how they are filled “with great joy” upon seeing it again, and this was a sign that made them want to worship someone…”

    I would imagine that after Herod pointed them to Bethlehem (Mat 2:8,) and they got back on the road and saw that Jupiter was standing stationary over Bethlehem they were filled “with great joy”! Of course they would’ve considered it a great sign. To be a part of cosmic events that had been foretold hundreds of years earlier, watching them unfolding before one’s eyes would’ve been an amazing experience. But I would still contend that it wasn’t the star that “made them want to worship someone”; it was Daniel’s prophetic description of this apparently divine ruler. They arrived in Jerusalem seeking to worship him (2:2)

    You write, “…Again, please note that what you propose is certainly different than what Larson does, who instead thought that the signs were obviously ones that indicate the birth of a great king in Israel because of what stars and constellations were involved,..”

    I think Larson is basically right about the timing and the stars and constellations. I agree with you that he hasn’t proved the magi would’ve known to connect Leo with Israel based on the constellations. But I’ve shown this to be unnecessary because Daniel had already made the connection for them.

    The Leading Star?
    You say that the Greek is clear that “the Magi were led by the Star to Bethlehem and the house where the Holy Family was.” I’m no expert in Greek, so I’ve got a call in to a friend to verify if what you say is true. Until then, I will say that a plain reading of the text does not require (or even suggest) that a magical star led the magi to a house:

    1) The fact that the star “went before them” does not necessarily mean it was leading them or that they were following it in the sense that you say. Only in the same sense that you are following the car ahead of you in traffic, until you turn off the road.
    2) Note that Herod “sends the magi to Bethlehem” he tells the magi to “Go and make careful search for the child” to find him. Herod would’ve understood the nature of the star better than you or I. Why would he have told them to make careful/diligent search if the magical star was going to lead them right to the house? I wonder why he didn’t join the entourage and follow the magical star to the house himself rather than ask the magi to find the child for him?
    3) Later when Herod is about to slaughter the children in the region, the angel tells Joseph, “Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him.” This tells us both the magi and Herod had to search for the child.

    You still haven’t answered my question as to why the magi would’ve needed a star to guide them to either Jerusalem or to Bethlehem or to a specific house, according to the biblical account.

    Standing constellations and stars:
    …stars do not stand in place in the sky; they are constantly in motion…”

    Agreed. My point was simply that objects in the sky can have the appearance of standing over cities. I was not proposing following constellations as a navigational strategy.

    The Book of Revelation:
    You write, “…you are forcing the vision here to fit the nativity story, and only because there is a woman giving birth and an evil entity trying to kill her baby. Are there no other possible associations this could make?…”

    No, it is not only for those 2 reasons: 1) A virgin, 2) giving birth, 3) to a male child, 4) who is destined to shepherd/rule not just Israel but all nations, 5) who is caught up to God and His throne, and 6) who is maliciously pursued by an evil entity that is 7) associated with the Roman Empire (10 horns > Dan 7:7.)
    You give me another possible association fitting those 7 aspects and I’ll consider it.

    You say, “…It doesn’t say the woman was a virgin…”

    True, it doesn’t explicitly say that, but we’ve both agreed that it is sufficiently clear that John is describing the constellation Virgo. I understand that’s Latin for virgin. The fact that “offspring” are later mentioned doesn’t mean the birth in question wasn’t a virgin birth. According to the gospels Mary later birthed other offspring. Furthermore, this could (more likely, imo,) refer to spiritual offspring, which is a very prominent New Covenant idea. In fact v17 describes the “offspring” in this way.

    You conclude, “…trying to get information out of this vision to see what would have been the astronomical circumstances at the birth of Jesus, while ignoring parts that clearly are not a part of the nativity stories, is neither good history nor exegesis.”

    I’m looking at the whole enchilada, Aaron. You’re holding up individual pepper chunks and telling me that it’s not an enchilada. The Revelation piece merely describes the beginning. According to PhD astronomer Craig Chester:
    1) on Sept 11, 3 BC the sun was in Virgo with the new moon at her feet, as Revelation describes
    2) Sept 11, 3 BC also marked the beginning of the Jewish New Year
    3) on Sept 11, 3 BC king planet Jupiter was very close to king star Regulus in the first of the series of conjunctions described by Larson and others.
    4) Chester refers to these & the rare Jupiter Venus conjunction in 2 BC as “only the highlights of an impressive series of planetary motions and conjunctions fraught with a variety of astrological meanings, involving all of the other known planets of the period, Mercury, Mars, and Saturn.”

    Revelation chapter 12 seems to cover a grand sweep of history. The fact that it includes events other than the birth narrative, some which are not clearly identifiable, does not mean I am “ignoring” those parts. This discussion is about the birth of Jesus and the Star.

    Heart vs head:
    You state, “…you are pretty much telling me your position is not based on reason but what you prefer to believe…it’s tantamount to make-believe.”
    You misunderstand. I’m saying you and I are both biased, and that we tend to look for and accept reasoning that supports our bias. You certainly have more at stake in this discussion than I do. This idea that people, especially those in the academia, hold positions based on pure reason and verifiable facts – that, my friend, is make-believe.

  7. Kathy Alongi says:

    wow, great logic and explanation ..I will have to read some of the sparring you & Aaron A are going at, but for now, my head is spinning with having read his first two and most of your responses ..!! Exceptional, esp for one who claims not to be an astrologer or expert… 😉 God Bless!

    • Thanks Kathy,
      I’m impressed that you’re taking time to read all of that! I’m no expert; I’ve read very little on astronomy. You’ll notice that Aaron is the one with the knowledge of astronomy. I’m simply contending that he’s reading some assumptions into the biblical text. I think he’s arguing more against extra-biblical traditions than he is arguing against the actual text.

  8. Kristen says:

    Wow! I’m so glad I stumbled onto your site! This article led me to Larsen’s study and it was POWERFUL. Excellent article, and I enjoyed the back and forth with you and Aaron.

    Aaron states in one of the previous comments:
    <>

    My first thought was if this event does happen every year, I wouldn’t say that it is trivial, but rather God’s creation (in this case the stars in heaven) worshipping God. “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this to remember me.”

    But secondly I wanted to raise this idea:
    Revelation was written 70 – 80 years after Christ’s birth, while John was exiled on the island of Patmos. I wonder if while John was filled with the Spirit on the island of Patmos, if he also saw in the heavens the sun and moon interacting with Virgo (as mentioned in Rev 12:1)?

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