Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Historicity Of The Star Of Bethlehem (Part 6)

(Previous posts in the series: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5.)

Matthew and other early sources suggest that the star of Bethlehem was a highly local supernatural phenomenon intended to guide a particular group of people, roughly similar to the pillar of fire in Exodus 13 or the angels in Luke 2. Earlier, I referred to Matthew's theme of the initial smallness of the Christian movement, starting like a small seed in Israel and expanding from there. His star account reflects that theme. Herod and the other Jerusalemites don't seem to have noticed the star. Herod doesn't know when the star appeared, and, unlike his earlier consultation of the religious leaders in Jerusalem regarding the Messiah's expected birthplace (Matthew 2:4), he goes to the magi for more information about the star (verses 7 and 16). We don't have a record of anybody other than the one group of magi in Matthew's account having noticed it. If anybody other than those magi saw the star and recognized its significance, apparently only a small number did. It doesn't seem that it was a situation in which a large group of people had access to the star and could perceive its significance by means of common astrological views, common Biblical interpretations, or something similar. Rather, only a small group saw the star and understood its significance. It seems that Matthew's star was much closer to the earth's surface than what we'd typically call a "star" today (suggested by the ignorance of the star among sources other than the magi; suggested also by the star's ability in verse 9 to lead the magi to a location smaller than the city of Bethlehem). Apparently, it appeared and disappeared (suggested by the references in verses 2 and 9 to the magi's having seen the star earlier without references to its presence again prior to verse 9; suggested also by the magi's joy upon seeing the star again in verse 10). Think of how Matthew might have described a different set of circumstances. He could have referred to many people in different regions of the world seeing the star, many visits to Jerusalem or other locations in Israel by many magi or other groups, etc. Instead, he refers to one visit by one group, and that one group refers to themselves as witnesses of the star without mentioning anybody else. Instead of describing the star as having the usual characteristics of an astronomical object, he mentions the different characteristics I've cited above. Furthermore, taking the star to be some sort of supernatural object seems to have been the dominant view of the patristic era. Patristic sources often refer to the newness of the star, refer to its distinctness from natural objects in the sky, identify the star as or associate it with one or more angels, etc. See Dale Allison, Studies In Matthew (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2005), 17-41.

Given the nature of the star suggested by Matthew and other early sources, we wouldn't expect there to be much direct evidence of the star's historicity. There's more potential for indirect evidence.

Since Matthew's star account is recorded in scripture, evidence for the Divine inspiration of scripture constitutes indirect evidence for the historicity of the star. I won't say much here about the evidence for the Divine inspiration of the Bible, but I'll provide some links to our relevant material written in other contexts: Biblical prophecy, Jesus' pre-resurrection miracles, Jesus' resurrection, early Christian miracles, modern Christian miracles, the canon of scripture.

In an earlier post, I addressed some of the evidence we have for Matthew's trustworthiness as a historical source, such as the genre, authorship, and historicity of his gospel. Matthew presents the same general outline of Jesus' life that we find in other Christian and non-Christian sources. Even some of his most significant details that are most closely related to the supernatural, such as Jesus' Bethlehem birthplace and the empty tomb, are corroborated by ancient non-Christian sources. It's unlikely that Matthew and all of the Christian and non-Christian sources who agreed with him were collectively wrong. Craig Keener notes that Matthew "follows Mark and Q closely (by ancient literary standards)" (A Commentary On The Gospel Of Matthew [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1999], 9). He refers to Matthew's use of Mark as "basically conservative" (10). Even if somebody wants to fault Matthew on some details, his general tendency is toward historical trustworthiness.

We should also consider the immediate context of the star account. In earlier posts, I argued for the historical genre of the infancy narratives in general and the star passage specifically. The historicity of Matthew's material on Jesus' childhood not only was widely accepted by the early Christians, but was often acknowledged by non-Christian sources as well, as I discuss here. Some aspects of what Matthew reports, such as the premarital timing of Mary's pregnancy and the family's early move to Nazareth, are unlikely to have been fabricated in light of how problematic they were for the early Christians. I discuss the examples I just mentioned, as well as some others, in a post here. Given how much Matthew departs from common Messianic expectations, appeals to typological prophecy fulfillment rather than non-typological fulfillment, reports information that was difficult for early Christianity, was read in a historical manner by his earliest interpreters, and was corroborated by both Christian and non-Christian sources, it seems likely that he was sincerely reporting what he and many other people living around that time considered a historically accurate account of Jesus' childhood. The level of significance we attach to their view of the matter depends on what we think of issues like what sources of information they had access to, the authorship of the gospel of Matthew, and whether the document is Divinely inspired scripture. I've argued for my position on those issues.

I agree with Adair, though, that one thing Christians can't appeal to is astronomical confirmation of the star. He spends most of his book making that case, and to that extent the book is successful. The attempt to go on to refute the historicity of the star as Matthew reports it, however, is an overreach.

(For those who are interested, I've posted a much shorter review of Adair's book at Amazon.)

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