Friday, 13 January 2017

The Star of Bethlehem

Symbolism, all is symbolism
You could argue that I've left it a couple of weeks too late to write about the nativity. Although to be fair, it is highly unlikely that Jesus was born on the 25th December. The celebration was simply imposed by the early Christian church on a pre-existing pagan festival. The same happened with Easter which was originally a pagan fertility festival replete with its own goddess, Eastre. In this post I would like to consider the famed Star of Bethlehem. The star is the staple of every school nativity scene. Of the four New Testament Gospels, the star appears in Mathew only. The other synoptic gospels and John are remarkably silent on the topic. Quite sensible modern scientists and astronomers have applied their skills to identify a cosmic phenomenon to explain the Star of Bethlehem. The main problem is that we don't know exactly the year Jesus was born. This may come as a surprise to most folk as our calendar is set rather precisely to Jesus' supposed birth date. The birth date was worked out by a Roman monk, Dionysius Exiguus, in 525AD based on internal gospel evidence. This methodology is heavily flawed mainly due to the historical errors within the biblical accounts themselves. Modern biblical scholars, after reviewing all evidence, prefer a birth date between 6BC to 4BC.
Therefore, if we are being prosaic and looking for a natural celestial phenomenon to explain the ‘star’ it would be useful to review its characteristics as outlined in Mathew. Take it away, Flaxen:
1. It suddenly became visible in the East and shone for a limited period.
2. The Magi followed the star which moved before them.
3. The star stopped over Bethlehem.
Therefore if a real phenomenon, it must be in accord with the above constraints. Plausible possibilities are considered below:
Supernova: star which undergoes a cataclysmic explosion toward the end of its life. These objects can be exceedingly bright and previous supernovae have been visible during the daytime. They also maintain their bright status for a limited time. Thus, they fulfil two of the criteria as outlined above. However, they are static objects and do not travel across the sky.
Fortuitous conjoining of planets: Rarely, several planets may come close and lie in conjunction giving rise to 'one' large bright object. Or a planet may come close to a bright star. I don't find this explanation particularly convincing myself. I think the ancients would have seen the phenomenon for what it was. Wise men and sheppards alike would have been too well acquainted with mundane celestial events to be fooled into thinking that they were observing anything special or unique.
Comet: Comets are travelling cosmic aggregates of ice and dirt. When they come close they can be spectacular objects. Comets consist of a central glowing core with a long flowing incandescent tail of sun illuminated debris. They are transient, and travel relatively slowly across the sky. On the face of it they represent the most promising celestial event to account for the Star of Bethlehem. And indeed Chinese astronomers did report the presence of a comet in 5BC.
If only things were that simple. In fact the attempt to reconcile astronomic events with the Star of Bethlehem as described by Mathew is quite problematic. Mathew is quite specific in his descriptions with regard to the movement of the 'star'. It arose in the East, appeared over Jerusalem before turning south to reside over Bethlehem. This would have been a singular event if it had occurred however there are no contemporary independent reports of this rather unique and startling event.
I’ve been disingenuous and do not take the forgoing explanations seriously, at all. The assumption flowing throughout the above account is that the nativity story described by Mathew represents some kind of historical account that a modern educated person would understand as history. The other point I would like to make is that we interpret the story through a Western Christian perspective which has been dominant, in the West, for the past 15 hundred years. We often lose sight of the fact that the gospels were written by Jews saturated with Jewish religious tradition. Furthermore, the gospel writers reviewed and wrote according to their own historical and cultural traditions. They were a pre-scientific people and understood causality not in modern terms, but within the framework of the miraculous. Their god was everywhere, intimate and responsible for everything. Jewish literature is replete with a literary device called midrash. Although there are several forms of midrash I will concentrate on one aspect as defined by the Jewish Encyclopaedia: The attempt to penetrate into the spirit of the text, to examine the text from all sides, to derive interpretations not immediately obvious, to illustrate the future by appealing to the past. According to this principle, Old Testament tracts have been plundered and interwoven into New Testament gospels. There are numerous examples of this technique within the New Testament. If we examine the text of Mathew in this light we can interpret the relevant passages quite differently. Thus, the ‘star’ is part of Old Testament prophecy. If we turn to the Book of Numbers we read: “a seer from the East who saw the star of David rise and came to bless the king of the Jews” (Numbers, 22-24). The star here is associated with King David. Jesus as the Messiah, is of course associated with David by natural descent as this is a strict requirement for the 'anointed one'. We don't observe a perfect textural match, but the symbolism of the ‘star’ and prophecy would have been apparent for those who could read it right. Therefore, the gospels should be viewed through a Jewish theological lens and the texts not taken literally. The gospels emphasise and accentuate religious meaning as it draws on previous religious literature- this is not literalism and it is not history either; fundamentalists should take note.
Of course fundamentalists do not take note and every word emanating from the Bible is absolute truth. This is where coherent debate ends and I am more than happy to leave bible literalists and fundamentalists to dwell under their carapace of simplistic religious devotion and dogma.


  1. Love the way today's rationalist considers he or she is in a position to judge any more than someone believing it. It's a historical record, in that someone wrote it, so are those by Tacitus and Josephus, so is Bede.

    1. The Josephus account has been outed as a forgery.

      This is Distant Relative btw.

    2. I think written history is difficult and especially so with gospel 'history'. Although the bible mentions people who actually lived and described events which actually happened, the gospel writers were not concerned with history as read in modern Western text books. They were more concerned with promoting a theological theme and mindset. Thus they introduced mythical elements, miracles, midrash and made up connecting stories to push their theological worldview. That said, I recognise the subjective nature of modern history. Consider the written account of the Second World War if Nazi Germany had won. I contend it would have been radically different from the history taught in today's classrooms. History is not a science, more an art form. That does not mean that books purporting to espouse history should not be subjected to the cold hard beam of rationalism. History books do not exist in a vacuum. Multiple sources often exist allowing the prudent rationalist to sift through relative accounts to produce a rational synthesis. This may not be the only synthesis and multiple interpretations are indeed possible. Any rational attempt is worthy even if it doesn't unearth the 'truth', whatever that may mean. If it engenders debate, this is often a spur for further sound scholarship.

      Just a thought on the concept of rationalism. Rationalism is often derided by religious folk. It is thought to be inadequate when we consider religion. Surely, faith and revelation is sufficient. I don't have space to critique faith and revelation in this supposedly brief comment but will do so in future posts. I will say this though. On matters of art, taste, literature and poetry, the rational mind should be stilled. However, when a solid knowledge assertion is introduced, then rationalism should be engaged. For instance, if someone says: "A man was born of a virgin", a rational human is tasked to examine that statement according to known knowledge and pontificate accordingly. I will contend that virgin human births are impossible as they violate numerous biological established principles. Consequently, I will also contend that human virgin births have never occurred, not now, not 2,000 years ago. I will go further and state, that if a human virgin birth could be shown to occur then causality as we know it collapses and in an acausal universe everything can happen and everything is chaotic. David Hume's comments 'On miracles' is still relevant and astoundingly modern after 200 years.

    3. With regard to Josephus: I have always understood that there was a genuine passage in his writings concerning the historical Jesus, but Christian monks couldn't resist a few embellishments.