Thursday, November 26, 2015

An Exchange With Colin Nicholl

I recently reviewed Colin Nicholl's book on the star of Bethlehem. He's written a response. The references in parentheses that follow are page numbers in Nicholl's response to me, unless otherwise noted.

Regarding the place of origin of the magi, Nicholl mentions that Babylon is east of Jerusalem. But as Tony Maalouf explains in the article I cited, Arabia is associated with the east more than Babylon in the relevant sources. As Nicholl remarks in his book, "in the Biblical tradition, those coming from Babylon by the normal trade routes were normally portrayed as coming from the north, because they would have approached Jerusalem by way of Syria in the north" (218). The issue here is the normal usage of the language, so appealing to exceptions or potential exceptions wouldn't overturn my point.

Nicholl refers to how frankincense and myrrh are associated with southwest Arabia, which isn't east of Jerusalem. But the location within Arabia from which those products came didn't prevent Arabia in general from being associated with those items. My review offered the example of First Clement 25. Similarly, states within the United States are often associated with some type of fruit or other product, even if that item is produced primarily or only in some regions of the state and not others. Again, see Maalouf's article, which Nicholl doesn't interact with, for more examples of how Arabia was associated with frankincense and myrrh. That association doesn't require that the magi came from Arabia. But an Arabian origin of the magi would make more sense of their bringing frankincense and myrrh.

Regarding the nearness of Arabia to Israel, Nicholl asks, "Are Syrians or Jordanians more likely to become Jewish sympathizers simply by virtue of their proximity to Israel?" (1) I don't deny that factors other than geographical proximity are involved. But geography is one of the factors, among others. That's my point, and nothing Nicholl has said overturns it.

He then claims that my review "argues that the fact that Justin Martyr advocated the Arabia view should settle the matter" (1). But I didn't make that argument. Rather, I appealed to Justin's testimony as one line of argument among others. I was making a cumulative case, one that I consider more weighty than Nicholl's case for a Babylonian origin of the magi.

He goes on to cast doubt on Justin's testimony by appealing to what's "commonly regarded" about where Justin got his information, what "many scholars" believe, etc. He dismisses Justin's claims about the woodwork Jesus did as a carpenter by saying that it's "commonly" believed that Justin's conclusion was derived from Matthew 11:29-30. But Justin doesn't cite Matthew 11 as his source, and nothing in Matthew 11 implies that Jesus made yokes as a carpenter. Besides, the passage I cited in Justin mentions more than yokes, so how can Matthew 11 explain where Justin got that information? Nicholl mentions that some of Justin's other views related to Jesus' birth, such as his having been born in a cave, are widely rejected. But Nicholl rejects similar claims in Origen (e.g., his reference to a birth cave in Against Celsus, 1:51), yet he approvingly cites Origen's testimony in support of the Babylonian origin of the magi and the star's identity as a comet. Similarly, Nicholl appeals to the Protevangelium Of James, even though he considers it unreliable on some points. Nicholl raises the possibility that Justin arrived at an Arabian origin for the magi merely by means of reflection on Psalm 72:10 and Isaiah 8:4, but he does nothing to demonstrate that such a scenario is a probability. Similarly, Origen cites Numbers 24:17 in the process of identifying the star as a comet (Against Celsus, 1:59), but we don't conclude that Origen must therefore have arrived at his identification of the star merely by means of reflection on Numbers 24.

Nicholl hasn't done much to overturn the significance of the fact that our earliest source to comment on the place of origin of the magi names Arabia as the location. Justin could be wrong, but the fact that he thinks an Arabian origin fulfilled Psalm 72 and Isaiah 8 doesn't make it probable that he was wrong, nor do the other points Nicholl raises against Justin.

So, we have Arabia offering a better fit for the "east" language, a better explanation for the gifts the magi bring, a better explanation for their interest in a Jewish king, and a better explanation for why the earliest source to comment on the subject says that the magi came from Arabia. That's more than Nicholl gives us for a Babylonian origin for the magi.

He goes on to criticize my "woodenly literal" reading of Matthew 2, since I reject his appeal to observational language (2). I cited examples of other passages in Matthew in which the language is used as I'm taking it in chapter 2. I don't deny that observational language is sometimes used by Biblical and other ancient authors, but we don't begin with a default assumption that language is being used that way. There's no significant problem with taking Matthew's language in Matthew 2 the same way he uses it so often elsewhere, so why should we resort to a less common interpretation, like Nicholl's appeal to observational language, instead?

Nicholl is right to see some of the language as favoring an astronomical view, namely the terms "star" and "at its rising". But the terms aren't as favorable to his view as he makes them out to be, for reasons I've outlined already and will address below, and the evidence for a supernatural entity is weightier. I'm appealing to a balance of evidence. My position isn't that every piece of evidence favors the supernatural view. As I said in my review, I do think some of Matthew's language is typically astronomical. But I think the combined force of factors like the star's activities (in the context of how Matthew uses such language elsewhere), the behavior of the people in the passage, and the history of the passage's interpretation outweigh the aspects of the passage that are more suggestive of an astronomical star.

What Nicholl dismisses as my "woodenly literal" view of Matthew 2 is roughly the same as the view held by most modern New Testament scholars. And, as I noted in my review, Nicholl himself claims that his view is "a straightforward reading of Matthew's text" (27) and "matches Matthew's account most closely" (28), and he refers to how it would be "fatal" for any view of the star to depart from a "literal" interpretation of Matthew (80), how his comet "fits perfectly" with Matthew's text (149), etc. Yet, now he's complaining about "wooden literalism".

In an attempt to explain Herod's dependence on the magi for information about the star, Nicholl comments that "only a professional astronomer keeping records would know when a comet first appeared" (3). But the magi in question wouldn't have been the only people with that information. Just as Herod consulted individuals other than the magi about where the Messiah was to be born (Matthew 2:4), he could have done the same with regard to the first appearance of the star. As I noted in my review, it would especially have made sense for Herod to have consulted another source once he thought the magi had double-crossed him. Yet, even in Matthew 2:16, Herod is portrayed as dependent on the information the magi had given him. His dependence on the magi for such information makes more sense if the star was a more local phenomenon rather than the highly public and widely discussed one Nicholl proposes.

He comments that "an astronomical body's 'rising' is the start of a new stage of its visibility (not invisibility) in the night sky" (4). A rising object, or one doing something similar, can be described as such even if it didn't do what would normally be done before or after the rising. Supernatural objects and events are often described with terminology applied to natural entities, even if the natural entities are different to some degree. We use familiar terminology to describe what's unfamiliar. If Jesus creates food to feed the five thousand, we call it "fish" or "bread", even though the objects in question were produced differently than how fish and bread are normally produced. The pillar of fire that appeared to the Israelites, in the book of Exodus, didn't have to have the same subsequent behavior that a fire would normally have. It didn't have to slowly die out, like a typical fire.

Concerning whether the magi saw the star between its rising and their arrival in Jerusalem, Nicholl writes, "If a superstitious person says, 'I knew something big was going to happen, because I saw the Moon when it was eclipsed,' that does not imply the absence of the Moon in the period since!" (4) That analogy is problematic. We have evidence for the ongoing visibility of the moon that we don't have for the ongoing visibility of the Bethlehem star. And, in my review of Nicholl's book, I gave multiple lines of evidence that the star didn't continue to be visible.

He claims:

"If an object is present, then absent for a long time, and reappears in another region of the sky, the ancients simply would not have been able to identify it as one and the same item….[Engwer offers] no explanation of what might have made this 'star' so recognizable" (4)

Shape, movement, and other characteristics could make the object identifiable. If those defining characteristics were present both times, then the star's disappearance for a while wouldn't make it unidentifiable. Similarly, if you see a friend at one location, then see him later at another location, you can identify him without his having been visible to you all along.

On pages 4-5, Nicholl addresses the issue of whether the magi were rejoicing in Matthew 2:10 because the star reappeared after disappearing (my view) or because they saw it standing over the house (Nicholl's view). He argues that Matthew is trying to avoid being overly repetitive, so he leaves out the "standing over the place where the child was" qualifier in verse 10. But I anticipated that argument in my review and responded to it. If Matthew held Nicholl's view, he could have just said that the magi rejoiced. The "when they saw the star" qualifier wouldn't be needed. That qualifier makes more sense under my reading of the passage. Nicholl argues that Matthew "wishes to make it clear that the Magi's overwhelming joy was on account of the Star" (5). But the chronology had already implied that connection under Nicholl's view. He also argues that Matthew didn't want to be too repetitive by mentioning the place where the child was in all three verses (verses 9, 10, and 11). But a phrase like "saw the star standing" could have been used in verse 10 if that was Matthew's concern. Given that Matthew mentions multiple activities of the star in verse 9, the best explanation for why he doesn't specify that he has the standing of the star in mind in verse 10 is that he didn't have that in mind.

Nicholl says it's unlikely that Matthew would go back in time in verse 10, since "verse 9 culminates with the Magi facing the Messiah's house and verse 11 reports their entry into it" (5). But verse 9 ends by telling us about the star's further activities. It doesn't climax with the magi waiting to go into the house. The shift to the magi in verse 10 is a change of subject. The last we'd heard of the magi, in the beginning of verse 9, involved their setting out from Jerusalem. There's no description of their seeing the house or facing it in any relevant sense, despite Nicholl's reference to "the Magi facing the Messiah's house".

Nicholl goes on to appeal to an alternative view of verse 10, in which the magi rejoice in seeing the star before its standing over the place where the child was, even though the star had never disappeared. But I addressed that alternative in my review (ninth paragraph). The magi might have greatly rejoiced because a star that had been with them all along continued to be with them. I don't deny that. Rather, my argument is that their great joy is better explained if the star had disappeared, then reappeared. Nicholl's view is possible, but less likely.

He mentions that "it is a mistake to imagine that every great comet or meteor storm is mentioned in the Chinese records or, for that matter, in scattered Greco-Roman references" (6). I agree. That's why my review explains that it's the specific characteristics of the comet Nicholl is proposing, as well as its absence across the board rather than only in some sources, that make its absence in the ancient records problematic. In his book, he claims that the comet was "the greatest astronomical entity in recorded history" (236) and "a talking point within the general population all across the northern hemisphere" (243), and he remarks that "No comet in recorded history ever put on a display like this." (243) I agree that it's possible that such a comet didn't get mentioned in the relevant ancient sources. Its absence in those records could be overcome by other evidence, but the absence is a problem.

He mentions that his interpretation of the Protevangelium Of James relies on the same sort of reasoning he applies to Matthew 2 (6). So, I'll refer the reader to my comments on Matthew 2. He goes on to say that "the mind boggles" as to how I reconcile the Protevangelium's details about the star with my view. I haven't claimed that I agree with the Protevangelium's details about the star. See the third-to-last paragraph in my review. As I explain there, the patristic sources present a variety of supernatural views of the star, sometimes inconsistent with one another. As I explained in my review, that variety of perspectives on the star makes more sense under my scenario than Nicholl's.

Much the same can be said regarding Ignatius. And Nicholl doesn't address most of the differences I cited between his view of the star and Ignatius' view.

Nicholl points out that Origen's discussion of the star as a comet was written after his comments on the star that I cited in his Homilies On Numbers. I was aware of that, and I wasn't denying it. But if Origen was inconsistent on the identity of the star, then his inconsistency is further evidence of the diversity of views we see among the patristic sources. That diversity is problematic for Nicholl's view, as I explained.

His attempt to explain Origen's passage in Homilies On Numbers doesn't make sense to me. You can read Origen's passage on page 114 of the book here. Origen refers to the "narrative" of Matthew and asks what the star did after its activities described by Matthew. He suggests that the star acted similar to the dove descending on Jesus at his baptism. He also refers to the star as a symbol of Jesus' deity. It doesn't follow, from the star's role in symbolizing Jesus' deity, that what Origen says of the activities of the star in a narrative account didn't occur historically. Rather, those historical activities of the star symbolized Jesus' deity. Nicholl seems to be confusing categories. Origen refers to the gifts of the magi as symbolic (Against Celsus, 1:60), but that doesn't mean they were unhistorical in his view.

Nicholl refers to "big problems regarding why the Magi delayed traveling for so long" (8) under my view of the star. We don't know whether they were believers at the time the star first appeared or how long it would have taken to coordinate the star's activities with other information they had to process, whether from scripture or other sources. There aren't "big problems" with the time involved.

He claims that "Engwer criticises the book for failing to take into account that Christians from the 4th century and following tended to adopt the supernatural perspective" (8). No, I said nothing about a fourth-century starting point. Rather, I cited Dale Allison's work on the patristic evidence, which includes sources prior to the fourth century, in addition to sources from the fourth century onward.

Remember, the patristic evidence has implications for what Nicholl argues on a wide variety of issues. For example, if so many early interpreters and people who knew Greek thought that terms like "star" and "at its rising" were so consistent with supernatural entities and objects close to the earth's surface, that weakens Nicholl's appeal to those terms.

Nicholl says that I think "no one else [other than the magi] saw it [the star] at the time [when it stood over where Jesus was]" (9). I didn't say that, and it's not my view. We don't know whether other people saw the star. But if any did, I wouldn't expect the number of people to be high.

In his book, Nicholl had objected that a supernatural star, by itself, wouldn't have led the magi to their conclusions described in Matthew 2. In response, I pointed out that the magi's seeing the star would have been supplemented by other sources of information not discussed by Matthew. I also pointed out that Nicholl's own view involves that sort of scenario. Now Nicholl has changed his objection. He says that he's offered an explanation of how the star prompted the magi to look into other sources of information, whereas a supernatural view of the star doesn't explain how other sources became involved (10). But Matthew doesn't have to explain it, nor do we have to know it from any other source. If the historical sources are silent on the matter, we can be silent as well. There are reasonable possible explanations of what happened, but we don't have enough information to discern that any scenario is probable.

If a comet could communicate the birth of a Jewish king through interacting with something in the sky, like the constellation Virgo, so could a supernatural entity. It would just have to cross the magi's field of vision in the relevant places, and that wouldn't even require that the supernatural entity be far above the earth's surface. A supernatural star would even have the advantage of being able to make itself look more like an infant, a scepter, or some other object than a comet would. If a comet can communicate what Nicholl thinks his comet did, then a supernatural object could do the same. And more. I don't think the star did what Nicholl attributes to it (interacting with Virgo, etc.). I'm just using that as an example.

Nicholl claims that "Engwer questions whether a comet was capable of appearing as a scepter or rod." (10) No, that's not what I said. Rather, I questioned how observers would distinguish between a comet looking like one object, such as a scepter, and a comet looking like some other object of a similar nature. Nicholl's scenario has observers seeing the comet in just the right ways at just the right times, even though what they allegedly were seeing in the comet would have been so open to other interpretations.

He writes:

"Contrary to what Engwer claims, I do not write that Herod 'wanted to 'take on God and win.''" (11)

Here's the relevant sentence from Nicholl's book. Ask yourself whether there's any significant difference between what I said about Nicholl's view and what Nicholl wrote:

"So self-deluded is this king of Judea that he actually imagines that he can take on God and win!" (54)

Nicholl goes on, in his reply to me, to say that "if the Magi were wrong, there would be no messianic movement" (11). How does his conclusion follow from his premise? It doesn't. False messiahs often had a following, like the ones Josephus and other ancient sources discuss. Herod didn't have to think the Messiah had actually been born in order to conclude that there was a threat to his political standing or a threat of some other nature.

Nicholl wants to know why I think the Jerusalemites were troubled in Matthew 2:3. I've addressed that subject in the past, like here.

In the second-to-last paragraph of my review, I had cited an article by Stephen Carlson to correct some of Nicholl's apparent misconceptions about the infancy narratives. He doesn't interact with that article, and at one point he even claims that I cited "nothing" to support what I claimed about a particular subject (11). Actually, I cited Carlson's article, which addresses some of the issues in question, including the one Nicholl thinks I cited "nothing" about. He goes on to acknowledge that I cited that article, but dismisses it as just "one article" that I cite as an "unassailable authority". That's similar to Nicholl's references elsewhere to how I'm supposedly being "dogmatic". He's reading a lot into my comments that I didn't intend. I don't need something "unassailable" or "dogmatic", and I didn't suggest that I had that. All I need is a probability to justify my conclusions. If you want to see which of us is being more dogmatic, read the second paragraph of my review of Nicholl's book, where I cite some examples of how dogmatic he is.

He asks why I think the light in Isaiah 9:2 is supernatural. Because it shines on people across the world, which goes beyond the scope of a natural light. This is evident in Jesus' application of the passage in John 8:12, for example, where he refers to a light for "the world". For more about the connection between Isaiah 9 and John 8, see here.

Nicholl comments that "Revelation itself associates the Sun with God in Rev. 1:16; 10:1; 21:23; and 22:5." (12) But none of those passages are as relevant as Revelation 12:1, which associates the sun with Israel, twelve stars, and the moon. That imagery is more reminiscent of Genesis 37:9 than it is of any of the other passages Nicholl cites from Revelation. And I've explained how the Genesis 37 context is problematic for Nicholl's interpretation of Revelation 12. He tells us that Old Testament passages other than Genesis 37 are relevant as well, but he doesn't explain how any other Old Testament passage comparably or better explains the grouping together of Israel, twelve stars, the sun, and the moon.

Furthermore, the other passages he cites in Revelation don't make his point. Revelation 1:16 is referring to how Jesus' face was like the sun. Yet, Nicholl wants us to think the sun in Revelation 12 is the Father. Revelation 10:1 is about an angel. I don't know why Nicholl cited it. And 21:23 doesn't identify the sun as God or the Father specifically. Rather, it says that there's no need for the sun and identifies Jesus as a lamp. Similarly, 22:5 refers to there being no need for the sun. None of these passages identifies the Father as the sun. Even if they did, the Genesis 37 context of Revelation 12:1 would make an identification of the sun as the Father in that passage unlikely.

Nicholl tells us that "when the Sun is present over Virgo's midriff, it is clothing her whole body" (12). That's an assertion, not an argument.

In conclusion, while some of the language of Matthew 2 is better explained under an astronomical view, and there's some patristic support for an astronomical star, most of the Biblical, patristic, and other historical evidence supports a supernatural view of the star. Nicholl's comet offers a worse explanation of Matthew 2 and a worse explanation of the patristic evidence, and it isn't referred to anywhere in the ancient astronomical records, in spite of how great an astronomical event Nicholl claims it was.

Update on 11/30/15: Nicholl has updated his original article. See here for my response to his update.


  1. Thanks, Jason, for your original review, and your current reply to Nicholl's response to your original review. I haven't read Nicholl's book, which based on your original review and rejoinder to Nicholl seems like a mixed bag, but maybe I'll pick it up at some point since the topic interests me.

    1. Thanks for the encouragement, Patrick. Since the topic of the book is of interest to you, I'd recommend getting the book. There's a lot of valuable information in it, and he makes some good points on the genre of Matthew's gospel, the incompleteness of ancient astronomical records, and some other issues. Even where you disagree with him, he goes into a lot of depth, so you'll probably leave the book having thought through the issues more than you had previously.

    2. Sounds like you struck a nerve. Some people are uncomfortable being questioned.

      I'm sure Nicholl invested a lot of time and effort into his book, and it's probably hard to be objective and impartial when criticism arises, even fair and even handed criticism from a Christian perspective.

      Seems like he's taking it personal.