Thursday, November 26, 2015

Was the Star of Bethlehem a comet?

Colin Nicholl has written a testy response to Jason Engwer's review of his book. 

Not having read Nicholl's book, I don't have an informed opinion to offer on his book. In this post I'm not evaluating his book. Rather, I'm going to comment on some things he said in response to Jason. I don't have a firm opinion on the magi's country of origin, so I won't comment on that. Likewise, I won't comment on the patristic/apocryphal texts. That's just not my bailiwick. Finally, in this post I will refer to the Star of Bethlehem by the neutral term "prodigy". 

Let's begin by quoting some of Nicholl's statements that I wish to evaluate: 

As I point out in the book, the supernatural view is a last-resort view.
By contrast, Engwer proposes that his woodenly literal reading of Mt 2:9 (the Star went "in close proximity to" the Magi and stood immediately over the place where the child was) is obviously superior.
Jason Engwer insists that the Star disappeared after the "rising" and only reappeared on the final night of the Magi's journey. However, this is patently absurd.
There is no implication that the Star hadn't been seen since…As regards v9, the recollection of the "rising" most naturally makes the point that the very same Star that had prompted them to set off in search of the baby Messiah was now pinpointing the house where he was located, so that they could complete their mission. Again, there is not implication that the Star had been absent in the meantime.
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.
The very use of the astronomical word "rising" (see, for example, BDAG, Davies an Allison; and my book) refutes the idea that the Star immediately disappeared in the wake of the rising. After all, an astrological body's "rising" is the start of a new stage of its visibility (not invisibility) in the night sky.
…he also fails to appreciate that the Star at its "rising" had, by definition, to be a very great distance away from the Magi (outside Earth's atmosphere, in outer space, where, incidentally comets orbit).
That the Star is called a "star" (aster) and had "a rising" (an astrological term) and was observed by record-keeping celestial experts, who can tell Herod precisely when the Star first appeared make this point well.
However, his "highly local" Star is hard to reconcile with the word "star" and extremely difficult to reconcile with the "rising" language of v. 2, which, as we have just seen, implies that the Star was beyond Earth's atmosphere, not at all near the Magi.
To base a "highly local" Star on nothing other than a naive, wooden literalistic interpretation of v9 seems unwise. That many Christians some centuries after the event did the same is no excuse for making the same mistake today. We should know better.
If the Star was supernatural, why did the Star "appear" so long before the rising?…One could, I suppose, deny that the "appearing" and the "rising are distinct.
A "highly local" Star that is akin to "ball lightning" is unconvincing–if such a body was a short distance in front of the Magi and indeed stood immediately over the house, then are we really to accept that no one else saw it at the time?
Ignorance of astronomy no doubt contributed to the origin and popularity of the various supernaturalist opinions.
However, I explain what the Star did to persuade the Magi that someone had been born and to get them to turn to the Hebrews Scriptures in a bid to identify the newborn.
As regards the Star's "standing," Engwer evidently does not envision his Star as having a cometary tail…[but] comets can stand perfectly vertical over the horizon (e.g. the 1680 comet)…Nevertheless, it seems to me that a slightly offset comet streaking up from near the horizon towards the roof of the sky would certainly have been naturally paradigmed as "standing." 

i) Nicoll's response is deceptive. He misleads the reader by suggesting (more than once) that Jason's "woodenly literal" interpretation is eccentric. I daresay most laymen don't own or have access to major commentaries on Matthew, so they are just taking Nicoll's word for it when he dismisses Jason's interpretation as "woodenly literal" or "naively literal." But let's quote a few major commentators:

In light of this evidence, I conclude that the "star" is a miraculous and mysterious phenomenon whose precise identity cannot be ascertained. Knox Chamblin, Matthew: A Mentor Commentary (CFP 2010), 1:218-19. 
For a "star" (i) to disappear at certain times and then suddenly to shine again, and (ii) to lead directly to Bethlehem and then to stand fixed over the house where Christ lay "was not of the order of nature." Ibid. 219n18.  
The element in the story which most obviously invites skepticism is the guiding star with its apparently purposeful movement and stopping to indicate a specific location (see on v9).  
…those of us who are not astronomers may find it hard to envisage either of these phenomena first "rising," then "leading on" the magi, and eventually "coming to rest" in such a way as to indicate a specific location, even when due allowance is made for the phenomenal viewpoint of the storyteller's language. Despite the fascination of astronomical explanations, it may in the end be more appropriate to interpret Mt 2:9 as describing not a regular astronomical occurrence but the miraculous provision of what appeared to be a star which uniquely moved and then stopped (or at least which appeared to observers on the ground to do so), though of course there is no improbability in a natural astronomical phenomenon being the basis on which the magi made their initial deductions and set off on their journey.  
…it is hard to explain unless the star somehow indicated the actual house rather than just the village as a whole. It seems, then, that the star's movement gave them the final supernatural direction they needed to the specific house "where the child was." R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (Eerdmans 2007), 65, 69, 74.  
The conditions which the star must satisfy are the following: It must be the kind of star (a) for which the Magi might be considered to be on the lookout; (b) which on some basis or other could be identified as the star of the messiah of the Jews; (c) which can blaze a trail for the Magi to follow from Jerusalem; and (d) which can finally come to rest over a particular dwelling. 
While the first two conditions alone would point in the direction of astrological observation of the natural heavens, the third and fourth point only to a miraculously provided heavenly light. We appear to be dealing with a new light in the heavens which on the basis of location and/or time of emergence pointed in astrological lore to some special ascendancy of the Jews, but which goes away from its location in the heavens to lead the Magi from Jerusalem to the location in Bethlehem. The story itself provides no basis on which the Magi could have determined the identity of the star at its rising with the star which later went ahead to Bethlehem. The reader is left to depend on the superior knowledge (and reliability) of the narrator. 
The need to search or inquiry is preempted by the star, which at this point becomes (for the first time) a guiding star. Presumably the star confirms the correctness of looking for the child in Bethlehem, as well as guiding the Magi to the specific location. John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew (Eerdmans 2005), 110, 116. 

While these leading commentators don't necessarily agree with Engwer in every detail, or agree with each other in every detail, they clearly disagree with Nicholl. They interpret the "star" as miraculous or supernatural phenomenon that appears and disappears when needed, providing very specific direction to the magi.  

Nicholl can take issue with that, but it's unethical for him to insinuate that Jason's interpretation on these points is some backwood's reading that no serious modern Bible scholar would countenance. 

ii) Comets are visible during the daytime, but the narrative indicates the star of Bethlehem was only visible at night.

iii) In a nativity account that includes the virgin birth, as well as special divine guidance in the form of angelic apparitions and revelatory dreams, I don't see that the supernatural interpretation of the "star" is a last resort-view. Not to mention supernatural events throughout the Gospel of Matthew (e.g. Satan miraculously tempting Jesus, miracles of Christ, angel rolling stone away from tomb, resurrection of Christ). 

iv) It doesn't seem that Nicholl has given much thought to distance in relation to "rising." Take moonrise. The horizon which the moon rises above is observer-relative, depending on the landscape. Relative distance. The visible or apparent horizon. If I live on a featureless plain, then it's the distance between the observer and where the curvature of the earth terminates his line of sight. But in other cases, the horizon may be a distant mountain range, or nearby hills. So the apparent distance is highly variable. 

Suppose I see the calvary riding over the hill. They come into view as they "rise" over the local hillside. 

Or suppose I'm standing on the beach. The water is choppy. A boat intermittently appears and disappears as it rises on the crest of a wave, then vanishes behind the wave. "Rising" is context-sensitive. 

v) A lot depends on how we visualize "the sky." How the sky appears, and how objects appear in the sky, is quite variable depending on topolography as well as the position of the luminous object. And that's true even for natural astronomical phenomena. 

Take "big sky" country. If you have a flat, featureless landscape, then everyone within that radius can see a bright, star-like object rising above the horizon, unless it's behind them. And if it's high in the sky, then everyone within a certain radius can see it on a clear night.

If, on the other hand, you live at the bottom of a hill, then the object may be invisible to most viewers until it clears the hill. Or if you live in a wooded area, it may be invisible until it either clears the trees or is visible between a clearing in the woods. You may be able to see it in-between some trees if you're in the right location. 

Recently, I went for a walk just before sundown. As I was returning, I saw the moon rising. But that was in-between trees and houses. The moon was mostly obscured by various objects various blocking the view. 

It's easy to imagine scenarios in which the prodigy was only visible to a few observers. That depends on the landscape and the altitude of the phenomenon. To judge by his response, Nicholl hasn't tried to visualize different ways such an object could present itself. He hasn't take into account differences topography would make, or the altitude. 

In the description of the "star" leading them to the house, it's not even in the sky. Rather, it seems to be at eye-level. Ahead of them rather than overhead. It then assumes a position over the roof of the house. That's just a few feet above ground level.

In addition, visibility involves three interrelated variables: size, proximity, and brightness (or contrast). Something smaller and dimmer can be seen nearby. Usually seen by fewer. Something bigger and brighter can be seen further away. Usually seen by more. 

vi) Nicoll lays great emphasis on the terminology: a "rising star." Let's begin with the noun:

a) When we interpret the narrative genre, it's important to identify the viewpoint(s) and distinguish different viewpoints. There's the viewpoint of the narrator. Then there's the viewpoint of characters within the narrative. In this case, Matthew is the narrator while the magi are characters (among others).The designation of the prodigy initially comes from the magi (2:2) rather than the narrator. The fact that characters in the narrative call it a "star" doesn't necessarily or even probably mean the narrator shares their outlook. That's the magi's classification. That's how they introduce the subject. 

b) It's true that the narrator picks up and continues their usage, but of course, it would be confusing to the reader if he suddenly switched to a different term. Moreover, he copies their term to link the initial appearance of the prodigy to its reappearance, so that readers will identify the object as one and the same phenomenon on both occasions.

c) In the nature of the case, the magi classify or designate the object according to the conceptual resources at their disposal. These are pagan gentiles. If, however, a Jew, steeped in the Exodus account, were to witness the same phenomenon, he might well use different nomenclature. 

d) Apropos (c), suppose the prodigy is the same kind of phenomenon as the Shekinah or pillar of fire. That would explain why it's more discriminating in terms of when and where it occurs. And that, moreover, would dovetail nicely with the other literary allusions to the Exodus. The Matthean nativity account is crisscrossed with Exodus typology. So this would be just one more Exodus motif. And it foreshadows the Transfiguration (Mt 17), which recapitulates the Shekinah in the wilderness. 

e) Likewise, Matthew is limited to the vocabulary that's available to him. For instance, Nicholl thinks it's a comet, but according to modern astronomy, a comet is not a star. 

Suppose it had the appearance of ball-lightening. But there is no Greek word for ball lightning, so "star" would have to do. 

f) I'm also unclear on how Nicholl understands the adjectival verb. "Rising" in relation to what? I presume he means rising in relation to the horizon, like moonrise. 

Problem is, you don't only seem them rising. Sometimes they're below the horizon, sometimes above the horizon, sometimes in the zenith, somethings declining, sometimes setting. It's circular motion. And the timing varies from day to day. 

When it becomes dark, you already have constellations well above the horizon. The darkness merely reveals their presence. Some stars never dip below the horizon.

So what does it mean to say the magi saw a comet rising? That's not something they saw all the time. That's not necessarily or even probably how they saw it for the first time. 

Or does Nicholl simply think that's an idiomatic phrase? A figure of speech? But that won't do, because he thinks the phrase has implications for the altitude of the phenomenon. 

vii) To point them in the direction of Jerusalem, the prodigy needn't be high in the sky. Rather, it only needs to function like a compass point. Go in that direction! Pointers can be horizontal rather than vertical. They can point a traveler to go due west, or southwest, or whatever. Take a lighthouse or a signal fire on a hill. You go in the direction of the light. That's roughly at eye-level with the traveler. 

viii) In the narrative, the prodigy has two functions:

a) It's signals the birth of a very important individual.

b) It guides the magi from their country of origin to Jerusalem, and from there to Bethlehem. 

A comet is too broad and too distant to pinpoint to a particular city (Jerusalem), much less pinpoint a particular house in a particular village. It has to be a narrow-gauged phenomenon to discharge that function. Consider the square mileage underneath a comet. 

Even now, it's easy for out-of-towners to get lost in a strange city. And in the 1C, there were no street signs, street lights, or flashlights. How could the magi find the house at night, unless it was a very discriminating phenomenon? A comet lacks that specificity. The area under which a comet extends must be what…hundreds of miles wide? Even if it were just a few miles wide, that's far too indiscriminate.

Try driving towards a star, or driving towards the moon. Assume you could drive in a straight line, with no obstacles. Where would you arrive? Nowhere. There is no end-point because the star or comet or moon isn't on earth. 

Likewise, it's not as if a comet has a beam or shaft of light that shines straight down on a particular address, like a spotlight. 

By the same token, have you ever noticed that the moon seems to follow your eyes? Same thing with a comet. There's a straight line of sight from you to the moon, but that's true from many different vantage-points. Going in that direction doesn't mean you're going in the same direction. 

Moreover, even if that gives you longitude, it doesn't give you latitude. It doesn't tell you when to stop. It's not like an intersection at the corner of one named street and another named street. There's nothing to mark the destination. 

It's possible that the magi could knock on doors and get more information, but the account attributes their success in finding the house to the "star" alone. 

ix) Nicholl mocks the idea that the star was like ball-lightning. To begin with, I don't know why he thinks ball-lighting would be absurd, but a comet is not. 

In addition, that's just a comparison. The description resembles ball-lighting in certain respects. It's a moving light. And it's small enough to single out a house. The prodigy behaves like directional ball-lighting. 

I incline to the view that the Star of Bethlehem was a preternatural phenomenon of the same kind we find in Exodus, viz. the Shekinah, the pillar of fire. A luminous, directional object. 

It's possible that some other villagers in Bethlehem saw it, if they happened to be outside at the moment the magi arrived, with the "star" in the lead. But that would only last a few minutes to serve its purpose. The villagers may well have been sound asleep. People tended to retire early before the advent of electrical lighting. They rose at first light and went to bed shortly after sundown. Keep in mind, too, that fear of nocturnal predators might keep them inside after dark. 

And even if some of them saw it, they weren't historians, who'd publish their experience. So we wouldn't expect the existence of an independent account (although they might be among Matthew's informants). 

x) Regarding how the magi were in a position to appreciate the significance of the prodigy, that's a crux for every position. A liberal would that's a plot hole. To be expected in pious fiction. 

But everyone who affirms the historicity of the account must postulate some additional source of information for the magi to connect the dots. As far as that goes, why not revelatory dreams? In the nativity account, Joseph receives revelatory dreams. So does Pilate's wife. So why not the magi? As a matter of fact, the magi are said to receive a revelatory dream in 2:12. So that could just as well be the supplementary source of information they needed to embark on their pilgrimage. Sure, that's speculative, but so are the alternative explanations, and that has the merit of an oft-stated source of information. 

In fact, that might be a good example of ellipsis, which Nicholl himself appeals to: "omitting elements which are implied on context."

xi) Nicholl makes a virtue of interpreting the text in light of modern astronomy. But as a rule, when we interpret an ancient text, we're supposed to construe the text according to the kind of knowledge available to the original reader and the original audience.

xii) When Jason says the absence of recorded evidence is a weakness for Nicholl's theory, I assume he's comparing that to Nicholl's claims that the star was "the greatest astronomical entity in recorded history" (236) and "a talking point within the general population all across the northern hemisphere" (243), and "No comet in recorded history ever put on a display like this." (243) Furthermore, "everyone else who knew their constellations" would have been "glued to the heavens each night" to see what the comet was doing (248).

Given that set-up, wouldn't we expect more documentary evidence? Wouldn't Christian scribes be motivated to preserve such records? 

xiii) I don't know what Nicholl means by the star "appearing" long before it's "rising."

xiv) Not having read the book, I don't know how he defends the astronomical interpretation of Rev 12. I have read astronomical interpretations by Ernest Martin and Bruce Malina. Martin, for one, uses that text to date the birth of Christ. I'm dubious about that approach:

a) The Apocalypse contains a fair bit of astronomical imagery. You need to consistently symbolic or consistently representational in how you construe the imagery. It would be arbitrary to treat astronomical imagery in Rev 12 as literally descriptive, but other astronomical imagery in Revelation as figurative. 

b) The woman and the dragon don't stay in the sky. She flees to the wilderness. She sprouts two wings. He spews a river of water out of his mouth to sweep her away in a flood. 

But at this point the astronomical imagery has been left behind. John is using (or seeing) one metaphorical representation replace another in rapid succession. It's arbitrary to treat the astronomical depiction as a star chart, when that suddenly morphs into something entirely different, even though the characters remain the same. 

c) It's not clear what constellation is in view. Although some scholars assume it's the zodiac, Leonard Thomas suggests it could be the Corona Borealis. Likewise, there are several constellations that could represent the devil, viz. Draco, Scorpio, Hydra, Serpens. Date-setter don't begin with the text, and deduce a date. Rather, they begin with the desired date, then pick constellations to fit the desired date. 

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