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 Stars, Adair 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.
So 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…)