A few weeks ago on the History Channel’s sister station, H2, the astronomy-based series The Universe went on a quest to solve an ancient mystery. Previous episodes in the previous few weeks had covered the construction and purpose of the pyramids (which was pretty good), Stonehenge, and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The first two certainly have an astronomical connection, such as the solstice alignment of Stonehenge, but explaining Sodom’s ruin via astronomical body begs the very serious question: was this simply a theological story or etiological myth? Apparently that skepticism couldn’t find its way to the heart of the show.
Perhaps then it is no wonder that the same appears in this recent episode on the Star of Bethlehem. Already Jason Colavito has put up a good review of the episode, as well as previous ones of the same series. Before reading my review, you will likely enjoy his. But there are some details I caught, and they further wish they had called upon someone who, I don’t know, wrote a well-researched book on it. :) Now to get into this episode.
SPOILERS: no aliens… this time.
First, a bit of overall impression. Here and there something from behind seemed to try to reach the audience via the narrator that we should at least think it possible that this story was a fiction. It was particularly highlighted when looking at the case of the comet in 66 CE as a possible inspiration to the author of Matthew. This isn’t given much time, and the show ends on the Jupiter conjunction (with some planet or star) hypothesis as the best candidate. I am curious how the show was researched. According to the credits, the researcher for the show was a certain Kristine Hansen, and her IMDB page says she has acted as a clearance supervisor for shows about Jesus’s father, Joseph (among other things). I am not too familiar with the lingo for the jobs used in show business, so perhaps ‘researcher’ has a different meaning. At the very least it doesn’t seem like the documentary was put together by historians or even astronomers.
The first thing the doc does, after establishing itself, it talk about the timing and setting of the story, using that info to try to pin down when the Star was allegedly seen. It is noted that the author of the Gospel of Matthew isn’t an eyewitness to the events described, being written at least 80 years after Jesus’s birth (assuming Matthew’s chronology); only speculation links witnesses in the author’s lifetime to what we see, but that is noted as speculative. That should already be enough of a red flag that we can’t actually show that the story is based on any primary sources, biased or otherwise, but we carry on. Discussing the date of Jesus’s birth is then dropped and picked up again later, noting how we actually have rather little to go on.
Next is talk about the magi, how they interpreted omens, and how they were not astronomers but astrologers. First off, astrology and astronomy were not really separated in the past as they are today; second, and more importantly, as I show in my book, the magi were in fact not interested in astrology until centuries after the Christian religion was founded. However, this fact has been poorly communicated in the literature even in biblical studies, so it is little wonder that the astronomers in this show are not complaining about this.
Next is a bit of description of the Star, after noting how the Magi were asking for directions from Herod to find the Messiah, and all parties involved note how v. 9 makes the Star do what no normal star can do: travel south and then hover over a certain town. There is the mistake that the Star was said to travel west first before going south, and this is commonly believed even though the Gospel only says the Star guided or was before the Magi from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. To try to explain the behavior of the Star that is provided by the Gospel, the first attempt given are meteors–2 specifically. But they are too common, so it’s hard to justify that it would have been spectacular and gotten anyone excited. They also talk about timing issues; a meteor only appears to last for seconds, but the Star is supposed to have had more longevity if seen from the time of leaving Baghdad (which hadn’t been founded yet!) to Jerusalem.
Another attempt comes with comets (citing a painting by Giotto as a source), but the ominous nature of comets makes this hard to work. They also cite the third-century Christian, Origen, but he in fact did not say the Star was a comet, only that the Star was like a comet in that they both are portents. In fact, his in commentary on Numbers, Origen compares the Star to the dove that rested upon Jesus at his baptism. The beginning of this discussion about comets also ends the attempts to explain the strange motions of the Star. While one astronomer, Tyler Nordgren, notes how comets move across the background sky, the point that they do not move south noticeably in one night remains muted. Ignoring this issue makes all of these explanations rather worthless if you have to ignore the most troubling point.
One of the points John Mosley also brought up that makes finding the birthday of Jesus hard was that there were no birth certificates back then. He also says that documents from then rarely had dates on them, and dates were not consecutive by just used the year of a king’s rule. Not only are official documents often dated, the ancients had multiple calendar systems, including consecutive ones. The Olympiads was used a lot in historical sources, such as Josephus’s works, and the date based on the founding of Rome was another way of providing consecutive dates. But I want to focus on the statement about birth certificates. I highlight this because it is an example of how those involved in talking about these sorts of subjects are just unaware of the facts. In reality, we have dozens of birth certificates from imperial Rome and its territories. Augustus in particular instituted laws on registering children of Roman citizens. This was important because citizenship was something passed on like property; you had to either earn it or inherit it, unlike in the US were you just have to be born inside the country. Now, Jesus would not have been put into such a register because there is no evidence that Joseph was a Roman citizen (and if Jesus was a citizen, he could have appealed Pilate’s orders, just as Paul is said to have done to Festus in Acts 25). However, there was still local registration of children for tax purposes. Much of this is discussed in Schulz, Journal of Roman Studies 32 (1942) as well as on a Wikipedia page, though not nearly as thoroughly. Thus Mosley is just not aware of the legal. political, or cultural situation in Roman-controlled territories. Then again, even Bible scholars have been caught being wrong about this very thing. Bart Ehrman, for example, made the claim about the Romans apparently not having made such documents, nor do they exist today. What this means that if even biblical scholars are not really going to get the facts of ancient Rome and its satellites correct, why expect astronomers to do better?
Nordgren also provides the hypothesis that the comet of Bethlehem was really Halley’s comet seen in 66 CE, providing an inspiration to the creation of the story. This is given a considerable amount of air-time, but it doesn’t seem to connect with any of the other talking heads who don’t talk about the hypothesis and so it stands out from the rest of the show. As for its plausibility, I discuss that in my book. It is not likely the best explanation for the creation of the story, but it has received consideration by Raymond Brown, so it deserves attention even if it is dismissed.
The discussion of ISON was also rather odd to me. That comet in particular was brought up because “some people” thought it might be the return of the Star of Bethlehem. I actually looked at this last year before ISON had its close and destructive approach around the Sun. There wasn’t anyone in the scientific community that I was aware of making that claim, and no one was actually cited on the show claiming it. Instead, it appeared to be just Internet noise from those that didn’t even know that ISON was a comet with a near-parabolic orbit, meaning it either would not have returned ever or had a period of hundreds of thousands (perhaps millions) of years. And just to make me a bit angrier, they got wrong how ISON was destroyed. It wasn’t because of the heat of the Sun, but because ISON got so close that the gravitational shearing broke it up. It seems that the research that went into the episode was relying largely on Internet searches of odd fora along with so weak astronomical knowledge. At least none of the scientists said anything wrong on camera about this.
After all the time of comets, which are a dead-end because of their ominous nature, we turn to novae, starting with discussing Kepler’s work in 1604. Erroneously they say that Kepler was trying to connect the nova in that year with a “conjunction” of three planets, when it was really a massing following a so-called great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. Details, details, I know. The more problematic issue is the claim that Kepler thought the Star of Bethlehem was also a nova produced by the planets, when in fact Kepler thought the Star was miraculous. He used the system of great conjunctions to provide what he thought would have been astrologically important to the Persians or magi. And Kepler’s work didn’t create 400 years of people thinking the Star was a supernova; that idea only comes about much later, and Kepler isn’t dragged into naturalistic Star hypotheses until the early 19th century, such as Bishop Friedrich Münter. But Kepler’s involvement in theories about the Star of Bethlehem has been confused for a long time, though books by David Hughes and Michael Molnar do get the facts pretty much right.
As for a supernova sighting close to when Jesus was born, it is claimed that the comet seen by Chinese astronomers in 5 BCE was a nova because it didn’t have any signs of being a comet, such as a tail. That is simply untrue. The Chinese records saw the object was a “broom star”, meaning a tailed comet. What is getting mangled here is the argument that the object seen in 4 BCE might have been a nova (no signs of a tail are provided there) and the two objects are the same object. This argument was first put forward in the late 1970s but was also demolished withing two years. That it is still repeated shows that many who promote Star of Bethlehem theories have not done well in background research even directly related to the subject, let alone details of Roman administration. But the show is correct when it notes that novae do not move relative to the other stars in the night sky, so it cannot move south as the Star is said to have done.
Now it moves on to hypotheses related to the planets, and the first premise to get to that is in reference to the original Greek behind the phrase “in the east” (εν τη ανατολη). It is claimed that this phrase has the specific meaning of a heliacal rising, but that is not true. The phrase meant for that is talked about by ancient sources, such as Geminus of Rhodes, and the term should be επιτολη or επι ανατολη. This has incorrectly been claimed by numerous books on the Star of Bethlehem, most prominently Michael Molnar’s book, but the claim was already called “naive” by Franz Boll about a century ago. Speaking of Molnar, his hypothesis is brought up by a couple of the astronomers, though this does not seem to get much prominence. At least there is talk about how heliacal risings of stars had important meanings for ancients, such as the heliacal rising signaling to the Egyptians that the flooding of the Nile was at hand.
The conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn from 7 BCE are considered, and after this we get to consider the conjunctions of Jupiter and Regulus in 3/2 BCE. There is also a fairly good discussion of retrograde motion and how it is illusory due to how the Earth and other planets move about the Sun at different speeds. The claim here is made that Saturn and Aries are the astrological associates for the Jews, but that will be undermined by the show’s own discussions when talking about the 3/2 BCE conjunctions. That Aries is associated with the Jews or Palestine is argued, again, by Molnar, but I show that his own sources (and the combination of all ancient Western astrological treatises) are hopelessly contradictory on this point even when Judea is mentioned. The occultation of Jupiter by the Moon is also said to have been indicating the birth of a Jewish king, but Babylonian sources say the exact opposite. Again, details are provided in my book.
The last hypothesis pushed is the 3/2 BCE conjunctions involving Jupiter, Venus, and Regulus, but this requires changing when Herod the Great died. Besides the fact that the motions of Jupiter about Regulus was a sign of the death of the king, and that there is no ancient sources that associates Regulus with Judea, there is no good argument to move the date of Herod’s death. I discuss this in some detail in my review of the Star of Bethlehem documentary by Rick Lawson here and here. The location of the conjunction as towards the south is also a weak attempt to fit with what is said in the Gospel. There, and as noted earlier in the show, the Star moves south and then stops over Bethlehem (actually, over a particular house!), but now it seems that it is enough for the conjunction to be merely in the direction of Bethlehem as seen from Jerusalem. Considering anything in the sky not in the north can fit this criteria and it ignores what the Gospel actually says, it is more of a bait-and-switch. The connection with Dec 25th is also implausible since that dates wasn’t connected to Jesus’s life until centuries later.
At the end, the various talking heads of the show talk about wishing we had some other evidence to finally give light to this subject, such as some archaeological find. That already undoes the title of the show: “Ancient Mysteries Solved“. The show ends saying that most likely Jupiter is the answer to the question of what the Star was. But as I argue, the description of the Star is completely supernatural with a Star that travels south over a period of a couple of hours and then stops and hovers over a particular house in the small town of Bethlehem. We don’t need a new source to find the Star because what is described was no actual star in the sky. Moreover, the tale is not written to even try to be history, and if it were true it would be in contradiction to much of what we do know about Roman and Persian history.
In other words, I have a lot of work ahead of me to get my message out. Almost every year things like this are shown on TV, not to mention in planetaria around the world, and influencing opinions of people with information that has been known to be erroneous by experts, in particular Bible scholars, for a very long time. Perhaps the Star of Bethlehem conference I will be going to later this year will help.