Monday, October 27, 2014

A Report On The Groningen Star Of Bethlehem Conference

Several months ago, I mentioned that there would be a conference on the star of Bethlehem at the University of Groningen in October. That conference was held last week. Aaron Adair is one of the scholars who attended, and he's written a report of what happened. There's a lot of significant information there, and I recommend reading the whole thing. For those who don't want to read it all, I've included some excerpts below. You can read my review of Adair's book on the star here. And here are some of his comments on the conference:

This was also my first academic conference in the area of history and biblical studies, and I was surrounded by scholars in Iranian studies, Jewish astrology, Latin literature, ancient science, and of course New Testament studies. And it looks like I did well among this august group. Heck, after my talk a few whispered to me that it seemed like I already answered all the questions about the subject!

Not everyone could be at such an event, so I want to give my take on the various talks, not to mention the overall impression of the event. (There was a complete audio recording of all the talks and conversations in the conference room, but I don’t know if or when that will be public record.) It is also interesting that I bring this up now since this conference was in part focused on the thesis of Michael Molnar, and just the day after the conference his review of my book was published….

It was also stated that the only other case the organizers knew where there was this sort of cross-disciplinary work happened for classical studies was concerning the comet of 44 BCE, the one seen at the funeral games of Julius Caesar. It is good to be a part of something unique….

Next came my talk, 30 minutes to give a critical look at all of the hypotheses out there. I focused on Molnar’s, but I also gave focus to the literary theories and what issues they may have. I also presented my suggestion that there may be an underlying star source for Matthew based on the mention of the morning star in several our Christian sources. In the Q&A immediately after my talk, no one attacked that idea, and in conversations with others after the fact it seemed like they thought I may have something to my idea….

There were a few issues that I picked up, since I have devoted a lot of time to investigating the attempted reconciliations between the chronologies of Matthew and Luke, especially things about the death of King Herod. I brought up one or two of those points in the Q&A after, though I did say one thing incorrectly about an inscription–I corrected myself to van Gent later. Nonetheless, van Gent was impressed with me and asked for my sources and if I would take a look at his paper before submitting it to the conference proceeding editors….

The next presentation brought up what I think might be one of he few, new hypotheses for the Star based on a literary connection. Mattieu Ossendrijver believes the story of the Star to be fiction, but it was built on the idea of coopting the stories about Alexander the Great and his interactions with astrologers in and around Babylon. It is a fascinating idea, though I don’t think it will be ultimately persuasive….

When he gets to talking about the Star and Molnar’s work, Panaino went no holds barred. He cited the work of Franz Boll almost 100 years ago showing that so much that is said and done in Star research is rubbish, and Panaino compared Molnar to Dan Brown and his novels. Ouch! I was critical of Molnar in my talk, but I must have looked nice by comparison. As for de Jong, he admitted he couldn’t be as rhetorically powerful as was Panaino, but he also brought up devastating points. He brought up the Mandean Book of John the Baptist which included a star at the birth of John, and if we were Mandeans we would have a conference instead about that Star. A wonderful way of taking down the credibility of the entire enterprise!...

Heilen also notes that what the astrological geographies are consistent on would suggest that Aries was the sign for Persia, so the Magi could have just stayed home. This is also devastating to Molnar’s thesis….

I did ask her [Annette Merz] in the Q&A what she thought of a particular way of making Luke at least self-consistent (if the Herod mentioned in chapter 1 wasn’t Herod the Great but his son Herod Archelaeus). She didn’t think it plausible that a reader in antiquity would have made that connection, but she did come over later to talk to me about the idea and where I had heard it….

Overall, I think the conference was a big success. I met a lot of excellent scholars, rubbed shoulders in the right ways, helped establish myself to some degree in the guild, and by the looks of it came out on the right with the majority view. My impression was that most did not think the story of the Star of Bethlehem was historical, and at there were serious issues with Molnar’s hypothesis even assuming nothing about the historicity of the story it sought to explain.

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