"The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View" by Aaron Adair cover photo courtesy Aaron Adair.

“The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View” by Aaron Adair cover photo courtesy Aaron Adair.


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(RNS) Aaron Adair earned his Ph.D. in physics from Ohio State University. A former Catholic who now identifies as an atheist, he just wrote “The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View,” which examines theories about the star’s movement. Next October, he will travel to the Netherlands to speak at a scholarly conference about the star of Bethlehem. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Q: The Gospel of Matthew describes the star as “rising in the east” and leading the Magi from north to south. He also describes it as hovering over the house where Jesus stayed. What could have done all those things? Could it have been a meteor or a comet?

A: It could not have been a meteor because they are extremely common and short-lived and could not have hovered over Jesus’ location. There was a comet in about 5 B.C.E. but it would have been moving in the wrong direction. And comets were considered the most ominous sign in ancient astrology, not something that would herald the coming of a Jewish king.

Q: What about a supernova or an alignment of the planets?

A: Well, it could not have been a supernova because they do not move in the sky and we have no historical evidence that any were seen at the time — and someone would have noticed a supernova. And as for an alignment of the planets, they do not move the way the star of Bethlehem is described as having moved.

Q: My favorite is that the star was actually a UFO. Why would anyone believe this theory?

A: It actually fits the description of the star in the Gospels. A UFO can move around and look like anything it wants to, given sufficient technology. It could lead people to a location and hover over a particular spot and say, for example, “Eat at Joe’s.” And sufficiently advanced aliens could have communicated with the Magi. But all this just means it is imaginable. Of course the problem is, we don’t know if there are intelligent aliens out there or whether they traveled to Earth to mess around with a few local Palestinians.

Q: If the star of Bethlehem wasn’t historical, was it a symbol?

A: I think the story of the star is written in a way that in part tries to co-opt a common myth of the Romans — that a star guided Aeneas to found the city of Rome. Matthew was superseding that myth by using the star to say Jesus, even as a baby is more worthy of worship than the warrior Aeneas ever was. This is a common practice in mythology — co-opting an old myth and changing it to express new values. And it seems to be there as part of the Gospels’ fulfillment of Old Testament Scripture. There was a prophecy of a star rising that would symbolize the new Jewish king. It was to show that Jesus was the new Moses, the new King David and the great final prophet of the Christian faith. It is there to align the New Testament with Jewish Scriptures.

Q:  What is it about the star of Bethlehem that makes us want to prove, or disprove it?

A: For believers, it would be a way to have science tell us that something from the Gospel stories is true. And for the broader audience, it would show a harmony between science and religion, a place where most people think there’s conflict. I think it is comforting to believe it is actually true. It was comforting for me when I first learned about it and I was pretty much a Catholic deist at the time. It said there is a God who does not need miracles to get things done and that seemed like a more interesting and amazing God than one who does.

Q: Why did you want to write this book?

A: I did not write the book in such a way to overthrow Christianity, only literalist forms of it at best. I argue about the literary nature of the gospel and the message it is going for, so a liberal Christian would have no problems with it. So I may disprove the historicity of the star of Bethlehem, but I help discover the real message in the story.

YS/AMB END WINSTON

19 Comments

  1. In Australia where I live, the Sydney Observatory’s seasonal article says it’s likely the Bethlehem Star was an astrological not a notable astronomical phenomenon, but if so it’s hard to certify. I agree… but I have now made any certification much easier than before and stand at the opposite pole from Aaron Adair’s theory the Star was a literary creation symbolizing salvation. The story is historical.

    Indeed, as regards the salvation theme Adair stresses, suppose I told you as only one of a blizzard of suggestive coincidences, that when Christ “the Redeemer” was born (at a date and time I deduce radically enlarging on researches of some notable astronomers) he improbably and against chance was so with his natal sun conjunct the Part of Redemption and his Part of Death conjunct Acrux i.e. Cross, (a Part is an ancient mathematical formula needing a near exact birth time to fall meaningfully wherever it is in a horoscope). Suppose I continued that beyond the meaningful planetary set up at Christ’s birth that Magi could see, that name, place and concept asteroids (unknown and unseen at the time of the birth) slotted perfectly into the pattern, that there was formed a super conjunction declaring this person was the Messiah? Suppose I said the names of the person’s ancestors happened against chance to be in the right house of origins along with Paradise in the horoscope?

    This is only the beginning of a vast mystery and a picture so remarkable it is a kind of fifth gospel in itself and should be major news. Would people or let’s say rather let’s say the various establishments be interested? Probably not or it would be all over media and already published. No, you’d more likely ignore or jeer at it as nonsense. Too good to be true, mere fancy, astrological mumbo jumbo or plain irrelevant. As the Church Times refusing me a feature remarked years ago: “We know all there is to know about Jesus, we don’t need to know about the Magi”. So though I’m a theologian and astrologer with some basis to judge, the world doesn’t have the facts.

    Admittedly the material I am referring to was described by a top editor of a top publisher as “ground breaking, fascinating and publishable”. But it has not been published. The abrupt unexplained verdict was “it wouldn’t fit our lists”. Why not just say “no room at the inn?”. Censorship by any other name! But Aaron Adair, denying the very idea of the star just in time for Christmas is being promoted and reviewed everywhere. This belongs with the modern outlook at the end of the Piscean era Christ’s birth introduced. Belief is not fashionable, and if you’re too exact it’s dismissed as fundamentalism anyway. The unusual can’t and musn’t be true, rather as statistician Michel Gauquelin after proving through thousands of cases that certain factors of a horoscope could be reproduced for certain professions was dismissed at the Belgian Academy of Science with “If astrology can be proved by statistics, then we no longer believe in statistics”. For many people mysteries are more attractive than the solutions, travelling than arriving, they prefer to keep speculating on the star but don’t come up with what’s manifestly the only possible solution exact for Jesus as a fingerprint..

    If you want to know beyond reasonable doubt when Jesus was born and a lot about his life and Jesus issues to this day, look at what I have to say about the possibilities at
    http://bit.ly/18LQOad
    And if you want the full works, my self-published “Testament of the Magi” gives all the data and explanations from beginning to end.
    http://amzn.to/12eP5S8

    • Careful Frank. You don’t want to “drive away” the young people and the so-called “nones” from the church by, umm, telling the raw truth about things.

      Try to hem, haw, and fudge a little more about Bible historical claims like the professionals do. Throw in some doubts and materialistic presuppositions. Water down your Bible till it tastes like gooey universalist paste. That’s how it’s done in the 21st century!

      • “Throw in some doubts and materialistic presuppositions”

        None of that objective science and careful analysis for you. You only believe legends, magic and miracles.

        Frank didn’t read the article. I doubt you did either. The author of the book was trying to support Christianity by throwing out idiotic literalism. The kind which makes people have to chose between sane education and willful ignorance.

        Besides Biblical literalism, when it comes to such things, is a grossly dishonest form of religious belief. It denies the value of faith (belief in the absence of evidence) and makes people lie about support of their religion (making phony claims of factual truth and the basis of their belief). If your belief is based on factual evidence, you could be persuaded to believe otherwise. But you can’t, so it isn’t.

  2. The star story tells us that the magi, astrologists to kings, came to Bethlehem from the east. The three nearest kingdoms were Syria, Mesopotamia (in Iraq) and Persia (Iran). A look at a map will tell you that all three are east of Bethlehem. If the magi followed a star in the east, they would have been moving away from Bethlehem when the star rose. Later in the night, they would have been moving south toward the Arabian Peninsula as the star began its descent. Finally, as the star descended, they would have gone east. The next night, they would have done the same thing, and so forth. They never would have reached Bethlehem. Furthermore, depending on which kingdom they came from, they would have travelled about 1,200 miles to reach Bethlehem. At a rate of 10 miles a night, it would have taken them four months to reach Bethlehem. Even if they travelled 20 miles a night, it would have taken them two months. Where was Jesus when they arrived in Bethlehem? Certainly not still in a stable. The star story was invented by Matthew, who is the only gospel writer to relate it, or he transcribed it from legend passed down and embellished over decades before he wrote it in the mid-70s.

    • Star at ascension: In astrology, the point when a star rises in the east at the time of a person’s birth or other event.
      Following a star: Charting its course through the sky
      If you read the story, the magi did not find the child at the stable but at a house.
      Not that it is proven, just most of the arguments against are uninformed.

  3. Now if you are in Rome, (or any province of it at the time) you would be coming to Bethlehem by moving east. The appropriation of a Roman story makes more sense in that light.

  4. This is not a new argument. The early Fathers of the Church themselves did not consider the Star an astronomical event.

    Pope Emeritus Benedict on his volume about the birth of Christ offers a more in-depth discussion of the event, while disregarding facile appeals to ancient mythology. Read the Pope Emeritus’ book and dump the one by Dr. Adair.

    Be skeptical of scientists dressed as theologians, for they are like tone-deaf people teaching music.

    ~Theo

  5. robert webster

    There are two stories connected with Jesus birth. One in Luke about the shepherds who were social outcasts because their job made them continually ritually impure. They were hardened ‘mountain men’ and when they came to town you hid your daughters. The point Luke is making is that the despised social misfits were the first ones to whom God chose to reveal the nature of this birth.

    The second story is in Matthew and tells of ‘Gentiles’, another despised group being the first to whom God revealed this event. The Magi were students and interpreters of astrological events. Whatever they saw they interpreted as the birth of a king in the house of the Hebrews. To travel to the capital city, where it would be assumed one would find a king, it would be necessary to arrange, or find, a caravan and travel a considerable distance. Matthew does not mention a manger but talks about the family being in a house. Herod, who wants to kill the child, learns that the magi are not coming back to tell him how to find him, but knows that they went to Bethlehem. So he has all the boys two years and under killed. This indicates that the magi came anywhere up to two years after the birth.

    Apart from historical accuracy, the point of both stories is that God loves all people no matter their lack of social status or national origin. This squares exactly with the focus of Jesus message. Without going into details, both stories can have rational explanations, but that isn’t the point. Luke is a gentile and wants all the Jewish Christians to know that even he is acceptable to god and Matthew is writing for a Jewish community who needs to understand the prophecies concerning all Gentiles coming to worship the God of Israel.

    So haggle away if you will. God is amused by our debates and continues to love us!

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