• Does Matthew’s Gospel Pre-Suppose a Supernatural Star of Bethlehem?

    [Contributor Aaron Adair write this piece which is available on his own blog here. Check it out!. Also, please check out his book The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View which has had fantastic reviews, and which I edited.]

    A few days ago at the National Catholic Register, a blog post was put up about the Yuletide star that I have been so interested in. The author of the piece, Jimmy Akin, wrote up about how the text of the Gospel of Matthew does not necessarily talk about a Star that moves around in such a way that it can only be supernatural. Akin, who besides having a cool red beard, is a Catholic apologist, and he categorizes his efforts here about the Star under apologetics (as seen on the blogs tag). I read the blog entry after I saw it come up in a search on Twitter, and the first thing I noted was that he said that the text does not support the supernatural reading, but he never actually cited the Greek text! I left a responses in the comments there, and I was invited to participate more there. My main comment on the Greek was then picked up, along with my book, by Akin, who then wroteanother blog post on this subject. There he looks at my arguments about the Greek terminology and tries to show that I am forcing the text too much. To that, I wish to respond.

    First off, there are a couple of minor mistakes or almost mistakes he does correctly notice. For example, I said that the Magi were the “direction object” of the verb prago, but that should be “direct object”. Strangely enough, the very next line in my book I get it right, so my fingers are the problem here in creating this typo. In fact, while writing this paragraph, I made the same mistake, and it’s one I have noticed doing several other times. My fingers are possessed by Legion, for my letters are many! Now, it’s a minor error and doesn’t affect my argument, and it doesn’t even demonstrate a lack of knowledge of Greek (it’s just a typo), but such corrections are good for me to know. Another one is how I say after the preposition epano that the noun/adjective/pronoun should be ‘declined’ in the genitive. The more precise way of saying anything should have been that it should be in the ‘case’ of the genitive. It’s not quite an error since cases are a subset of how nouns/pronouns/etc. are declined. Inflexive languages decline nouns/adjectives/etc. to indicate number, gender, and case. But I should have been more precise. Again, these things don’t affect my arguments at all, and Akin is clear on that as well.

    Now, before getting into the issues that Akin has with my use of the Greek that would undermine my translation and interpretation of the text, I think there are some serious issues with Akin’s conclusions even without any refutation. In other words, even if I grant Akin’s points, his conclusions that the Star was something naturalistic or scientifically explicable does not follow. Because of that, I will focus on that first, and then I will show that his refutation of my interpretation of the Greek doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

    First, he still translates the verb proago as to mean ‘to go before’, and in this case that is going before the Magi. His own sources say that it means “to lead ahead, go before, lead the way, precede”. And the root verb here, ago, is a verb of leading and motion. In fact, it even means to carry something away to a certain destination. As such, the Star is still traveling, even supposing my translation of the term is wrong. This is further confirmed by the use of the verb erchomai (used in 2:9 as a participle) that says the Star ‘arrived’. And lastly, the movement has a termination, as proven by the use of the proposition ‘until’ (heos) and then the verb meaning ‘to stop/stand’ (histemi). Most importantly, this motion in in the direction that the Magi travel, and that is south. But, as I noted in my book, all stars and planets move east to west in the sky and could not in any reasonable sense be said to move in the direction of Bethlehem as seen from Jerusalem.

    In an attempt to counter this, Akin uses the example of being lost on a camping trip, seeing the Moon to the south, and using it for directions. As such, saying the Moon “led” you anywhere doesn’t imply anything supernatural. But this is quite odd considering I don’t know of anyone that even said the Moon leads you any place. If the Moon (or any other object, for that matter) is being used as a directional guidepost, then no one talks about that in terms of leading or ‘going before’. The example is one that doesn’t fit even English diction, and I would be impressed to find an example in Koine Greek. Moreover, even this attempt does not fit the context of Matthew, again because of the term ‘until’. In Akin’s example, the Moon acted as a guide post and led him home “until it stopped”. Huh? This makes no sense to me.

    The only way for Matthew to have avoided saying the Star was moving to the south, he should have used a term indicating position, such as the verb ‘to be’ and the preposition meaning ‘before, in front of’. In English, then the text would be rendered as “the Star was before them”. But this again will not make sense because of the use of ‘until’. This same preposition has the same thing pointed out by David Strauss all the way back in 1835 when he showed the scholars of his time that they couldn’t consistently re-translate the text to get a naturalistic version of the Star.

    However, what I find the most damaging is what Akin left out in his response: he never discusses the the verbiage used to say that the Star stood over a single house. It is strange considering I thought it was the point that did the most to show the unusual nature of the Star, and it is the point I provided the most evidence to support. But Akin didn’t address it at all. What I argued was that the use of the preposition epano, followed by a noun/adjective/etc. in the genitive case — I got it this time ;) — indicates close proximity or being right on top of an object. I provide many examples of this construction from Matthew’s Gospel, other NT writings, and I also point out how it is totally inconsistent with how Greek texts talk of astronomical phenomena.

    Another point to consider on top of all the syntactical evidence I provided, I also showed how my interpretation is consistent with everyone else with an opinion on the subject from antiquity up to 1800, and now one is hard pressed to find a NT scholar that diverges from the supernatural interpretation. Particularly in my comment on Akin’s first blog on the subject, I cited the following from the Oxford Bible Commentary on the Star (p. 849): “This is no ordinary star, and attempts to identify it with a planetary conjunction, comet, or super-nova are futile”, and all of the ancient commentators “rightly recognize that the so-called star does not stay on high but moves as a guide and indeed comes to rest very near the infant Jesus.” In my book, I particularly cited St. Augustine (someone a Catholic would probably find authoritative on a lot of things) and Johannes Kepler. In my article for Zygon, I provided lots of sources all indicating the same thing for nearly 2000 years (see also Allison, Studies in Matthew, pp. 17-22.) One is hard pressed to find a recognized NT scholar, Catholic or Protestant, that differs from saying that the Star is described as supernatural. As such, this hardly rests on my authority, but instead on virtually everyone that has read the story in the original Greek.

    Given that Akin’s arguments against me, if unrefuted, do not lead to his conclusion, that he does not deal with the most difficult aspect of saying the Star was not supernatural, and he must go up against just about every authority on the subject, that leaves his position untenable. And this is without me even arguing against my supposed refutation.

    But now to get into what Akins thinks I did wrong that does affect my arguments–that is, if you are still awake. Because if you are, the rest of this can get really dry and boring and is all about linguistics and grammar… but grammar can be fun.

    On the use of the aorist tense of the verb histemi, Akin says that the aorist does not indicate an instantaneous action, but rather it leaves the matter “undefined”. However, it seems that Akin is not being careful in his usage of how the aorist term is defined and used. What his sources indicate is that the aorist tense does not indicate if the action is continuing or still affecting things. However, the aorist is used to give an action in a snapshot. This can be compared to another major past tense used in Greek, the imperfect. As my intro to Greek textbook put it, and Akin’s cited paper, not to mention other authoritative sources, the imperfect is like a movie film strip, while the aorist is a picture. To get a simplified grasp on this in English, at least with respect to the verb histemi, it is the difference between “it stopped/stood” (aorist) and “it was stopping/standing” (imperfect). The latter we sometimes call the past progressive.

    In linguistics, the aorist is said to have perfective aspect, meaning it is a unit without any subdivisions or internal complexity. It is complete in itself. For an example in English with something progressive happening to compare, observe this sentence:

    While the boy was walking down the sidewalk on his way home, he saw a large bird.

    The verb form of ‘was walking’ is progressive and imperfect, while the verb form ‘saw’ has perfective aspect. The first moment of seeing the bird in question is an instant. Now, the seeing may continue on after that first moment, and that is usually the case, but the seeing had an instant it started. What the aorist captures is a moment in this walk.

    In Akin’s example of the built fire, the use of the aorist indicates that the building of the fire had been finished; there is an instant that you can say the fire is built. Akin says that in this example you don’t know if the fire was only starting to be built, but that’s not true in this context; if someone said something was ‘built’ then I would think it was done. Akin has confused things, but it can be rectified. Using the aorist of ‘built’ does not indicate on its own that the fire had just been built or if its building has simply been completed in the past; it also doesn’t tell us if the fire still exists.  Again, it’s the snapshot. If we were considering the process, we would say that the fire ‘was being built’. In the case of ‘to stand’, the use of the aorist doesn’t clarify if the situation of standing had just started or if we were just considering a moment when someone was standing. For example, you see someone has “stood at attention”. That person could have already been standing at attention, and so we are looking at an instant of the time when that person was standing. This doesn’t make sense in the case of building something; we don’t say a building has been built before its completion. So if Akin used my example or corrected his, his point would have more strength.

    Coming back to Matthew’s text, in 2:9, the Star ‘going before’ the Magi until ‘it stood’ in place. The use of the aorist here indicates that it came to a stop; that there was an instant it had stopped or stood in place. If the imperfect had been used, it could indicate that the Star had been standing in place for a while and never had to have been moving. But the use of terms that indicate motion, not to mention the use of the word ‘until’ (heos), this stopping or standing begins in an instant. It is the context with the aorist that indicates a sudden change in verb action. The use of the aorist indicates the completion of the movement of the Star and the beginning of it being stopped in place. In this context of motion verbs and the preposition ‘until’ makes clear that the stopping happened in an instant. And that is consistent with what is said by Akin’s source paper on the abuse of the aorist:

    “The aorist is well suited to action which in itself is punctiliar whereas some other tenses, e.g., the imperfect, are not. But the aorist is also suited to actions which are in themselves linear, unless one wants to stress its linear nature. It follows, then, that the action covered by the aorist may or may not be punctiliar, and the presence of the aorist does not in itself give any hint as to the nature of the action behind it. Contextual factors are primary for any attempt to go behind the aorist to the nature of the action itself.”

    The context with the aorist in Matt 2:9 clearly indicates the moment the Star stopped.

    Now, all of this is rather beside the point because, even in Akin’s reading, the Star was ahead of the Magi until they arrived. In other words, the stopping of the Star in place is still in a moment in time. He thinks that that moment is when the Magi reach the house of the Holy Family. Never mind if that is what the text actually says; he is still having the Star stop at a particular time. Just as I do. Which makes his whole grammar lesson, which he doesn’t quite do right, entirely pointless.

    Now, on to proago. In the commonly used Bauer Greek-English lexicon, it states that the verb was intransitive in the case of the Star and Magi. That is, it did not take a direct object. This is a bit strange, considering that the word ‘them’ is in the accusative case before a verb that is normally transitive. If you have a direct object and transitive verb, that indicates the verb is doing something to the object. For example: “I threw the ball”; ‘threw is the transitive verb, and it affects the direct object, ‘the ball’. Reading the Greek, because ‘them’ is in the accusative case, which usually indicates a direct object, one would expect that it means the Star is proago-ing the Magi. And this is how it is rendered in several translations, which I cited in my book.

    But even taking the Bauer lexicon, does it means the Star is not leading them? As Akin’s own citation indicates, the verb in the intransitive case means “to move ahead or in front of, go before, lead the way, precede.” In all of these English equivalents, we still have movement and leading. So in Matt 21:9, the crowds “went ahead”, but they are still traveling in the direction that Jesus will walk. There may not be direct leading, but there is still movement and following of a certain path. Similarly in Matt 26:32, Jesus will “go before” his disciples to Galilee, meaning Jesus travels there; he isn’t teleported and acting as a homing beacon. The only word in the English-Greek lexicon for proago that seems to have wiggle-room is “precede“, since it may just mean being in front of rather than traveling ahead. But considering that it is grouped with several other attempted equivalents, which all indicate motion and leadership, ‘precede’ must also mean to move in the direction that you are leading ahead. It is an abuse to take a translation dictionary, ignore all of the versions that contradict your position, and go with the one that could fit what you want if it was decontextualized from all the rest that indicate a more precise meaning of the word.

    Even if we decontextualize as Akin has done, it won’t work. Again, the use of ‘until’ makes this translation implausible. If the Star simply preceded them, it would still have preceded them when they arrived at the house. ‘Precede’ also ignores the participial form of erchomai, which means to come or arrive. Akin has to make nonsense of this passage even when abusing the dictionary of choice (also, the most authoritative Greek-English lexicon for classicists is that of Liddell, Scott, and Jones, or the LSJ, but Bauer’s is a great resource, too).

    Lastly, to deal with how Akin talks of the Star stopping over “the place where the child was”, he says “when they approached the house—from whatever angle they approached it—they noted that the star was in the part of the sky above the house.” First off, a star up in the sky is no more over one house than any other. It’s also not clear if Akin means the Star was at zenith or still to the south. If the latter, then the Star would still be preceding them, so ‘until’ makes that senseless, as noted above.

    On the other hand, it seems that Akin wants the Star to be at zenith while the Magi were in Bethlehem. But that will not work with his belief that the Star was seen to the south from Jerusalem; the distance between the locations is so small that the Star would have been just as at zenith in Bethlehem as in Jerusalem to naked-eye observers. In other words, the Star can’t both be towards the south and then directly above… unless the Star moved south, which makes it supernatural. In either scenario, there is either a grammatical impossibility or an astronomical one.

    And this also fails to fit the Greek anyways, as I note in my book. The Star is not simply up above in the sky. The wrong preposition is used for that (epano instead of huper). This reading by Akin fails at all levels.

    So, I will leave the discussion with the reminder that all authorities on this subject, ancient and modern, agree with me on the the supernatural description of the Star. This case hardly rests on just my authority, though my reasons for my reading are very well justified. Considering I am reading the text the same way every other expert does, it is a near-impossible case to argue against without re-doing a lot of ancient Greek semantics. That was already attempted in the early 19th century, and it didn’t work then.


    Category: Biblical ExegesiscosmologyFeaturedScience and religionSkepticism


    Article by: Aaron Adair