Sunday, December 09, 2012

The star of Bethlehem

Here’s a recent email question (edited to ensure confidentiality):

Do you know of any good resources on extra-biblical confirmation of the events of the infancy narratives?  I’m thinking in particular of the Magi and the star.  A teenager was asking some questions about the historicity of the narratives.

Here’s my reply:

A problem with questions like that is that folks who raise them are rarely prepared to do the necessary reading, if you point them to specific titles.

1. There are entire monographs devoted to this issue. For instance:

i) Mark Kidger, The Star of Bethlehem:

ii) Michael Molnar, The Star of Bethlehem:

iii) Ernest Martin, The Star That Astonished the World:

2. There are chapters of books that discuss this issue. For instance:

i) Edwin Yamauchi, Persia and the Bible, chap. 13.

ii) Paul Maier, In the Fullness of Time, chap. 7.

iii) D. C. Allison, Studies in Matthew: Interpretation Past and Present, 17-41.

iv) Edwin Yamauchi, “The Episode of the Magi”:

3. There’s also online material on ancient astronomy/astrology:

4. Is he asking if there’s specific extrabiblical confirmation for the visit of the Magi? To my knowledge, there’s none. However, that’s an unreasonable expectation in the first place.

Is he asking if there’s general extrabiblical background material which is consistent with the Matthean account? Yes. See above.

5. Is he asking if we can correlate the star of Bethlehem with ancient astronomical notices? There are detailed, scholarly attempts to do so. See above.

6. However, it’s possible that that’s a false lead. We have to put ourselves in the situation of ancient readers. Ancient readers didn’t necessarily equate stars with natural objects. They sometimes viewed stars as supernatural objects.

There’s a danger that a modern reader projecting his astronomical preconceptions back onto the ancient text. But that’s not necessarily how the original readers would understand the text.

For instance, in ancient Jewish literature, stars are sometimes associated with angels. So a 1C reader of Matthew might construe the “star” as a luminous guiding angel. In that case it would be a local phenomenon. Not generally observable, and not something you could correlate with real stars or stellar conjunctions.

7. The behavior of the star of Bethlehem is erratic, and an ancient reader would surely have noticed that. Ancient stargazers were aware of the fact that stars behaved in regular, lawlike, cyclical patterns Even retrograde motion was regular. That predictability made ancient star charts possible. Made certain astronomical predictions possible.

Given the irregular, anomalous behavior (even by ancient standards) of the star of Bethlehem, I suspect ancient readers would have taken that to be a supernatural phenomenon and likely a personal agent.


  1. The "erratic" behaviour of the star is merely involved with failure to understand things like the apparent retrograde and acronychal rising of Jupiter within the story. I didn't cover these matters in the talk at
    to keep to maximum simplicity and provability for laypersons, but the whole matter is taken in this talk to the point it cannot really be disproved and the whole thing speaks for itself as nothing previously ever has. I realize the conclusion can only be deeply disturbing to astronomers and Christian fundamentalists alike that a combination of ancient and modern astrology can supply incredible revelations and answers right down to Jesus' names and titles, his ancestors etc (Whatever I am talking about? well just find out). The information is groundbreaking and revolutionary. Don't ignore it, dismiss it or be afraid of it. It is the final solution to the mystery of the Star.

    1. Ancient stargazers were used to seeing retrograde motion. What they lacked was an adequate explanation. But the phenomenon itself was quite familiar. So that naturalistic explanation fails to account for the star of Bethlehem. Therefore, "Christian fundamentalists" can remain safely undisturbed by your fanciful explanation.

  2. "Ancient readers didn’t necessarily equate stars with natural objects. They sometimes viewed stars as supernatural objects."

    In fact, I believe this:

    "It was not a fixed star nor a planet, and the phenomenon excited the keenest interest. That star was a distant company of shining angels, but of this the wise men were ignorant. Yet they were impressed that the star was of special import to them..." Ellen White, The Desire of Ages.

    1. Darcy, I have family members who are Seventh Day Adventists so I say the following to you respectfully. E.G. White is plagiarized material from the writings of other people. It wouldn't be that bad if she was merely saying she read such and such from another author and thought that it was true. Or even gave limited "inspired" divine approval to a teaching or practice (something which I would be wary of even as a continuationist/charismatic).

      But problem is Ellen White claimed she received many of these things by direct revelation from God EVEN THOUGH it can be documented that she copied large portions of other writings from other authors nearly verbatim. Do a google search and you'll see this discussed and debated by both SDA and non-SDA.

    2. Good observation, AP.

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