Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Historicity Of The Star Of Bethlehem (Part 1)

(This will be a six-part series. The whole series will be linked in a single post at the end.)

Later this year, the University of Groningen will be hosting a colloquium on the star of Bethlehem. One of the participants will be Aaron Adair, who recently wrote a book arguing against the historicity of the star (The Star Of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View [England: Onus Books, 2013]). It's been getting some media attention, like here and here. The book has a foreword by Bob Berman, an astronomer. Richard Carrier calls Adair's book "the definitive takedown" of the star's historicity.

I agree with much of what the book says. It primarily argues against astronomical explanations of the star of Bethlehem, which I also reject. Adair makes some good points that are often neglected (e.g., our ignorance of many aspects of ancient astrology and the inconsistencies in what the ancient sources tell us about the subject). He had some commendable reasons for writing the book. For example, he rightly disdains the practice of planetariums running star of Bethlehem shows that they know to be inaccurate. He's also critical of the misleading media coverage of the star that we frequently see during the Christmas season. Dubious theories about the star are reported by newspapers, web sites, and other sources year after year, without much scrutiny, while more substantive points that could be made about Matthew's account are neglected. See here for some recent examples discussed by Adair.

But there are some problems with Adair's book, especially the last chapter. He doesn't just argue against astronomical explanations of the star, UFO theories, and such. He also argues against traditional Christian views involving a supernatural object that wasn't what we'd normally call a "star" today. His attempt to refute that sort of supernatural view of the star is the book's most significant weakness. Most of the remainder of my review will be focused on that subject.

Before I get there, however, I want to address another problem with the book. It's published by Onus Books, which I believe is operated by Jonathan Pearce. I reviewed Pearce's book on the infancy narratives last year. You can read the review to see what I think of the book. Adair need not agree with much of Pearce's book just because he publishes with Onus. But he repeatedly makes comments suggesting that he thinks highly of Pearce's work. For example, he writes that his book "can be considered a companion volume" to Pearce's (approximate Kindle location 249). He refers readers to Pearce's book, among others, for more information about the historicity of the infancy narratives (317, 1783). Some of the same problems in Pearce's book that I noted in my review are present in Adair's book as well.

Adair argues that if Matthew's star account is referring to a miraculous phenomenon, then the prior probability of its historicity is low (1515). He mentions that people tend to be skeptical of miracle reports associated with religions other than their own. He cites some accounts of miracles surrounding Jesus' childhood that Christians usually reject (e.g., Jesus' "forming living birds out of clay" in the Infancy Gospel Of Thomas).

We've covered this ground many times before. In what follows, I'll cite some relevant material I've brought up in other contexts. On some of the issues mentioned below, either Adair doesn't state his view or his view is unclear to me. What follows in the remainder of this post is an overview of my position on some relevant issues. I'm not claiming that everything I'm arguing against is a position held by Adair. When he brings up claims made by the Infancy Gospel Of Thomas, for example, I don't know to just what extent he thinks that document and Matthew's gospel are similar and different. He doesn't say. So, I don't know to just what extent my view outlined below would be applicable to Adair's position.

Craig Keener addresses many issues related to the historicity of miracles, including matters like prior probability and the frequency of miracles, in his two-volume work Miracles (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2011). I wrote a series of posts about Keener's book a couple of years ago, and I address some of the relevant issues there, like how to compare competing miracle claims.

We have reasons to distinguish between the star account in Matthew 2 and accounts like what Adair cites from the Infancy Gospel Of Thomas, such as differences in the dating, authorship, general historicity, and reception of the documents. The fact that both accounts involve a miracle associated with Jesus' childhood doesn't suggest that the prior probability or evidence for the two accounts is comparable.

Many factors go into discerning a prior probability. We wouldn't just consider issues such as how likely an event is to occur naturalistically or what percentage of miracle claims we've accepted in the past. We'd take a large range of factors into account, such as the context in which the miracle in question is supposed to have occurred and whether we have good evidence for other miracles that would be supportive of the miracle that's being examined.

And even an extraordinarily low prior probability can be overcome more easily than skeptics commonly suggest. All of us, skeptics included, accept many conclusions that initially seemed highly improbable. See, for example, J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations For A Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2003), 569-70 and Timothy and Lydia McGrew's article here.

(As they become available, future segments in this series will be linked here: part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6.)

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