Preview: New Christmas Storybook in Progress

Does the world need another Christmas storybook for children? I think so!

The book I’m currently at work on is called, “The True Story of Christmas.” If that title sounds presumptuous to you, I’ll only say that I believe the Bible gives us the true story of the birth of God’s Messiah – an event that we have come to call Christmas. The book I’m working on seeks to recount the story for kids, with as much fidelity to the Judeo-Christian scriptures as possible.

For example, I don’t recall having seen a kids’ Christmas storybook where the Magi show up in Bethlehem at Jesus’s house when he is a toddler, as the scriptures tell it.

I’ll explain more about why I think this matters when the book is released. I’m not at all sure I’ll be able to get it done in time for ordering for this Christmas but I’m sure trying!

Survey Update:
A couple of weeks ago I did an informal survey on Facebook around the styling of the characters in the book. I was just about to start painting the first illustration when a thumbnail I had done caught my attention, and I suddenly had second thoughts about the styling I had developed for the characters. So I roughed out a couple of samples in a more elongated styling, posted them side by side, and asked people to vote on their favorites. I asked parents to get their kids’ input as well. There were lots of interesting comments.

Here are the roughs I posted:

illustrated Christmas storybooksSurprisingly, the votes were fairly evenly split, but a significant majority of adults voted for the squattier figures. However, many did so because they felt this styling would appeal more to kids. Interestingly, slightly more kids voted for the elongated figures. However, the very youngest kids did seem to favor the squattier characters.

I promised to post my final decision and the finished version, so, here it is. Thank you all for your input!:

Christian holiday kids books scott freemanOne of the other distinctive aspects about this Christmas book is that it puts the Christmas story in context, and explains the reason why there is a Christmas – the Big Picture. It tells of the nation of Israel and introduces children to Israel’s prophets, and their foretelling of a child who would be born to bring peace to the world. I like the way the illustration of the prophets came out. You might recognize the surrounding symbols from various prophetic biblical passages:

prophets watercolor storybooks bibleAnd now, I need to get back to work if I’m going to get this done in time for Christmas! I’ll keep you posted…

(If you haven’t already done so, please join my email list so that I can notify you of new book releases, and send you an occasional deep thought! You can sign up HERE.)


Why the Magi Did Not Follow the Star to Bethlehem, and Why it Matters

Magi,Magus-Scott FreemanI’m not out to ruin Christmas for anyone. In fact, I hope to make Christmas more awesome for everyone who reads this. And by “awesome,” I actually mean “awesome.”

Even children know that it’s part of the Christmas story that three Wiseman followed a blazing star which led them to Bethlehem, to the manger where the infant Jesus lay; a “star of wonder…of royal beauty bright…westward leading…guiding,…” We get this idea from Christmas carols and greeting cards, which are supposedly derived from the Christmas story in the Bible.

Does it matter that the Bible doesn’t actually say any of this?

Stay with me. I’m not a theologically anal party pooper. I love Christmas and Christmas carols. But I’ve also noticed that the traditions that have sprung up around the Christmas story and “Christianity” make it challenging to see what the Bible actually says.

For instance, did you ever notice that Luke never says that the angels sang to the shepherds? We get that idea from carols like Hark, the Herald Angels. See for yourself: Luke 2:13. (Michael Card agrees with me.)

Now, I’ll be first to admit that this business of control-freakish-Bible-verse-correcting can be pedantic and super annoying. Those of us who grew up in evangelical sub-culture have heard a million times: “You know, it doesn’t actually say there were three Wiseman.” And, “It doesn’t actually say it was an apple that Eve ate.” And, “It doesn’t actually say that Jonah was swallowed by a whale.”

So freaking what?

However, in the case of the star of Bethlehem I do actually have a serious reason for being picky. On December 22, 2012 I published a blog post called, The Star of Bethlehem – A Fairy Tale? This post summarized the research of Rick Larson, who has produced, in my opinion, a very compelling video entitled The Star of Bethlehem. Larson’s video and website shows the correspondence between the observable, testable universe and the Bible regarding the Star of Bethlehem story. Modern computer software can show us the precise configuration of the stars at any point in history, from any location on earth. We can know exactly what was going on in the sky around the birth of Jesus. And what was going on will blow your socks off.

After I published that post, a PhD physicist with degrees in mathematics and astronomy replied. His name is Aaron Adair, and he has a special interest in the Star of Bethlehem. He had just published a book claiming to debunk Larson’s theory. For Bible “skeptics,” he is apparently considered the go-to guy regarding the Star of Bethlehem.

So the next year, on December 22, 2013, I published a blog post entitled, Answering a Debunker: The Star of Bethlehem. In response, Mr. Adair cordially visited my blog’s comment section where he and I engaged in a rather lengthy but respectful debate. (Those interested can view the entire conversation HERE.)

A brief summary of why interpretive accuracy matters in the case of the star:
Mr. Adair claims to have debunked a naturalistic interpretation of the biblical story of the star of Bethlehem. He claims to have proven there was no clear, natural, astronomical sign in the heavens around the time of Jesus’s birth that fits the story in the Bible. We now know what the ancient sky looked like, and there was nothing in the heavens that would have told the Magi that a king in Israel had been born. Furthermore, there was no star “dancing in the night with a tail as big as a kite” that could’ve led the Magi to Jerusalem, then to Bethlehem, and then to the child. But then, I contend that the Bible doesn’t actually say that this is what happened. I contend that Mr. Adair has merely done a great job of debunking nonbiblical traditions passed down through Christmas carols and greeting cards. I think the actual biblical account of the star only becomes more amazing under modern scrutiny.

Following is a brief summary of what the Bible actually says about the Magi and the Star:

  • The story begins hundreds of years earlier when Israel is in exile under Babylon and Persia. While in exile to these foreign powers, the Jewish prophet Daniel is given miraculous revelation from God concerning the coming of an eternal kingdom and an eternal king from Israel. Daniel provides a specific timeline as to when these events would occur. Hundreds of years later, when the Romans, (the fourth kingdom prophesied in Daniel ch 2,) came to power, the Persian Magi would’ve been watching for some sign that the prophesied king of the Jews had been born. We now know that in 3 and 2 B.C. there were, in fact, remarkable, rare and repeated astronomical signs having to do with the birth of a king.
  • So upon “seeing His star in the East,” the Magi left for the capital city of Israel – Jerusalem – assuming that’s where they would find the young king. They didn’t need to follow a star to get there, especially considering the history between Persia and Israel.
  • Upon arriving, the Magi were probably surprised to learn that no one in Jerusalem seemed to know about the birth of Israel’s own king. In fact it says the entire city was troubled by the statements of the Magi. It is clear that King Herod didn’t know about the star either (Matt 2:7.) So the Bible is not describing a blazing star leading Wisemen around the Middle East. Whatever the Magi were seeing would’ve been easy for others to miss.
  • A troubled King Herod assembles the chief priests and scribes to learn where the messiah would be born according to the Jewish prophets. Then, King Herod, (not a star,) sends them to Bethlehem (2:8.) Bethlehem was five miles down the main road. Again, the Magi did not need a star to guide them.
  • He tells them, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him bring me word…” (2:8).
    This is significant because there was obviously no blazing ball of fire leading the Magi around. Why would Herod have directed them to diligently search if he could see that the Magi already had a magical star to guide them to Jesus? Better yet, why would he not have sent his own guys to follow the star directly to the child?
  • As the Magi start out to Bethlehem, “lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy…” (2:9,10.)
    Can heavenly bodies appear to move in the sky and then stop over towns? Yes, they can. In fact, we know that in 2 B.C. Jupiter performed a retrograde loop and was stationary over Bethlehem on, interestingly, December 25th. This was only one of many significant planetary movements involving Jupiter. (See full explanation HERE.) While I understand how this one sentence has been interpreted over the centuries that mean that the star was guiding the Magi to the house where Jesus was, this is not the only way to see it. It can also be seen as a divinely orchestrated coincidence; an affirmation to the Magi that the young king was indeed in Bethlehem. Of course the Magi would’ve been overjoyed at this heavenly sign.

The reason all of this matters to me is that Christmastime has become one more occasion for Bible “skeptics” to come out of the woodwork, claiming they have debunked the Bible, claiming that science is at odds with the Bible, and claiming that biblical faith is irrational. I enthusiastically disagree.

There is one loose end in my dialogue with Mr. Adair, having to do with the Greek text, which I promised to check into, so I’ll briefly take the occasion of this blog post to respond. Mr. Adair claims the Bible implies that an unnatural star led the Magi to Bethlehem, and that the Magi followed it to the very house where Jesus lived; that the star was literally over the house in close proximity. I contend that the Bible does not say this. But then, I readily admit that I’m no Greek scholar. I welcome anyone who is to weigh in here.

Mr. Adair claims that when the text says, “the star…went before them” (proago), the Greek is clearly saying they were being led by the star. Not necessarily. Just because there are people going before you in the checkout line at Walmart doesn’t mean they’re leading you. In fact, after the resurrection, both Matthew and Mark have an angel telling the disciples that Jesus “… is going before (proago) you to Galilee; there you will see him” (Matt 28:7; Mk 16:7.) In the same way, the Magi were not relying on the star for directions. The words “went before” can simply mean “went before.”

Mr. Adair claims that when the text says the star went on before them “until it came and stood over (epano) where the child was”, the Greek must mean “on top of or slightly above.” As in, “…and they put up above (epano) his head this charge against Him…” (Matt 27:37,) speaking of the sign placed directly over the head of Jesus at His crucifixion. However, the same word is also used here: “…[he] threw [the dragon/Satan] into the abyss, and shut it and sealed it over (epano) him…” (Rev 20:3.) Epano comes from epi – on, upon, and ano – up, above. In the case of the star, understanding epano to mean “in the sky directly over Bethlehem” seems to be within the range of allowable meanings. This is true especially considering that the text has already told us that the Magi needed no starry guide to get them to Bethlehem, that the Magi would have to diligently search for the child when they arrived, and that apparently no one else noticed the star. I favor letting scripture interpret scripture.

Am I arguing that there was nothing supernatural about the Star of Bethlehem? Am I sucking all of the mystery and wonder out of the Christmas Story?

Of course not. The entire thing is miraculous and supernaturally orchestrated from top to bottom.

The Christmas story only matters if it is true. Part of the beauty of it is that we can look back and see the correspondence between events recorded in scripture, and verifiable planetary movements using modern computer software. Yet it is a mantra of “New Atheism” that no evidence for God exists. Therefore the Star of Bethlehem must be assigned fairy tale status.

Adair elsewhere appeals to tradition in saying “all ancient commentators” speak of the star as a supernatural (unnatural) phenomenon. But they didn’t know what we know today. Modern astronomy combined with the plain biblical text reveals an astonishing series of events that, in the sovereignty of God, can only have been scheduled when the stars were first created and set in motion.

God’s fingerprints are all over the Christmas story. The Magi were acting by faith on Jewish prophecy that had been handed down for some five hundred years. The Creator of the stars did announce the birth of His universal Messiah on the canvas of the observable universe, with amazing specificity. The Magi were a foreshadowing of the gentile nations coming into a salvation that would be for “the Jew first, but also to the gentiles.” After leaving Herod for Bethlehem, the Magi rejoiced to see the star going before them and stopping over Bethlehem because they knew that they were a part of a divinely ordained, world-changing chain of events. The invitation has been sent, and you are invited:

For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time” (1 Tim 2:5,6.)

May God reveal Himself more clearly to us all this Christmas season!

(My new fully illustrated kids’ storybook, The True Story of Christmas, tells the story of Jesus’s birth in fidelity to the biblical narrative, beginning with creation and the fall. ORDER HERE.)

Answering a Debunker: The Star of Bethlehem


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…)