Friday, December 24, 2010

Star of Bethlehem or a Starry MacGuffin?

At many lectures I've given one of the most asked questions has been: "Was there really a star of Bethlehem?" This is a difficult question. In the preliminary pass for any sort of validating records, it entails assuming any or all of the ancient scriptures were true historical artifacts, not mere mythological escapism masquerading as such.

For example, Matthew 2:1-1 notes such a "star". However, none of the other quadriforms peeps a syllable about it. Why not? If it was such a signal event (no pun intended) and an actual occurrence, why didn’t any of the other New Testament authors note it? This is disturbing and makes one recall the words of Catholic historian, the Rev. Thomas Bokenkotter, in his monograph ‘A Concise History of the Catholic Church’(page 17):

The Gospels were not meant to be a historical or biographical account of Jesus. They were written to convert unbelievers to faith in Jesus as the Messiah, or God.”

This is a shattering admission indeed, and from a historian of Christendom’s largest Church. It is a de facto admission that no historical support exists for any of the accounts in the New Testament, including Matthew's star.

But for the sake of this blog, let's assume for the time being there is something there, some faint signal amidst the noise. We consider ordinary bright stars first. For an observer in Middle Eastern latitudes 2,000 years ago, there would have been at least ten visible at this time of year, each one in a different direction, location of the Celestial sphere. Thus, no one star would be visible long, and certainly not at a fixed location or altitude such that it might provide a "search beacon".

The only other stellar candidate one might invoke is a nova or exploding star. Certainly the incredible brightness common to such entities would attract attention, but is there evidence one might have occurred then and provided the basis for the Matthew citation? Interestingly, this very attribute (of attention–getter) eliminates the nova theory from contention.

Such a cataclysmic event couldn’t have escaped notice, yet there’s no mention in any astronomical records of the time, including from the Chinese, who were already consummate star gazers. An alternative explanation is that the object was a bright comet.

An exceptionally brilliant comet was recorded in 45 B.C. but this is too far in advance of the probable Nativity date. Could such a comet have appeared suddenly and unpredictably around the time? Possibly, but it's doubtful such an event would have been associated with anything beneficent. Two thousand years ago comets were uniformly regarded by all cultures as omens of impending disaster, so we can rule them out.

The only other reasonable explanation is that the Magi witnessed an uncommon astronomical alignment of bright planets. One such candidate is the triple conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn in 7 B.C. A "triple conjunction" means that Jupiter and Saturn appeared in close proximity no less than three times in succession. One can speculate here that the Magi in preparing for their journey witnessed the first conjunction ca. May 29.

A second event was observed on September 29 could have established that Jerusalem was in the general direction they needed to go. Finally, a third conjunction on Dec. 4 would presumably provided the final directional "fix", leading to Bethlehem some eight kilometers away. The accuracy of the above speculations (and I reinforce that's all these are!) is subject to the dubious assumption that our present calendar is actually a bit off and Christ was actually born in 7 B.C. rather than the 1 B.C. usually quoted.

Given this, one is forced to concede that at the present time there is no comprehensive astronomical explanation which consistently explains all the details. The triple conjunction sounds like the best, assuming we’re really in the year 2001 and not the end of 2008! Perhaps the event must remain forever intangible and beyond the realm of any scientific investigation. Or, perhaps there never was such an object in the first place and Matthew simply resorted to some elaborate poetic license.

Reinforcing this, as has been pointed out by Frank Zindler (American Atheist Magazine, Nov.-Dec. 2007, p. 24) is that the first chapter of Matthew commences with an imaginary genealogy totally at odds with the 3rd chapter of Luke. He actually categorizes the generations into three groups of fourteen between Abraham and Jesus Christ. But as Zindler notes:

"Unfortunately, the author (Matthew) doesn't count very well since only 41 generations are actually named between Abraham and Jesus Christ and there is no way to make 3 x 14 = 41!"

Hmmmm.....yet another error, this time mathematical, in a bible supposed to be inerrant?

Zindler points 0ut an even more serious problem traced to common sense and astronomical configurations:

"Even allowing for the miraculous stopping of a star over the nativity scene - an impossibility of literally astronomical dimensions - how would the wise men know which house was under it? Every time they came to a house apparently under the star they'd find the star had apparently moved to be over the next house, and so on!"

This last point, can easily be verified by the energetic reader if you go out on a clear night, locate a low altitude bright star, and attempt to trace any earthly location "under" it. Because of the vast distance of the star, your changing position-location would alter its presumed location over the referfence point.

In other words, no distant astronomical object would be any use to find a terrestrial location.

Only one hypothesis is left, but it's surely NOT one that most god -mongers want to hear: a brilliant UFO, at a relatively low altitude, would have had to be the agent to enable the localization of the nativity scene! Such an object(?) because of its proximity, would remove the problem of shifting perspective as one changed location. Because such an object really could perhaps hover within 12' or so of the location, it would be fairly easy to locate (along with the domecile) - somewhat like looking for a brightly lit Balloon anchored to a house.

No other distant objects make the cuts, including comets or triple conjunctions. Neither is the non-answer (proferred by some delusional religionists) that it was a "temporary supernatural light". First, none of these folks have ever explained how a NON-natural or supernatural source can produce LIGHT - a NATURAL phenomenon consisting of photons within a limited spectral range. Second, they have offered no necessary or sufficient conditions as to exactly HOW a "supernatural light" could exist in the first place. Where does the energy come from? How can it be measured to isolate it from natural light, so we KNOW it's supernatural?The whole preposterous proposition commits the fallacy of ignotium per ignotius or using the not known to try to explain a less well known event. If you're going to reach for extraordinary explanations, better to reach for less "miraculous" ones that don't violate David Hume's "miracle" standard: "No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish." In other words, if you're offering any kind of exceptional explanation always go for the one less miraculous - because that also makes it MORE probable. In this case, a hovering UFO (whatever it might be, including a small, cooperative alien spacecraft) is LESS miraculous - hence MORE probable- than a "supernatural light, " which its adherents can't even offer its n-s conditions to exist in the first place!

So, it's either accept the "Star of Bethlehem" as a myth, or buy into UFOs as flying saucers! And allow that one of them became the "guiding star" for the Magi at least for a brief time that particular night.

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