Monday, August 22, 2016

Highlights From The Barthel/Van Kooten Book On The Star Of Bethlehem (Part 1)

In October of 2014, a conference on the star of Bethlehem was held at the University of Groningen. A book came out of the conference, nearly 700 pages long and with contributions from twenty scholars in astronomy, New Testament studies, and other relevant fields. It's edited by Peter Barthel and George van Kooten, and it's titled The Star Of Bethlehem And The Magi (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2015).

I've just posted a review of the book at Amazon. What I want to do here and in another post tomorrow is provide some highlights from the book.

- Though they didn't intend it, the authors illustrate how easy it is to draw a connection between Matthew 2 and a large variety of other sources. One scholar claims that Matthew fabricated an account in an attempt to parallel Jesus to Moses. Another scholar doesn't cite Moses, but appeals to some other Old Testament figure instead. One thinks the magi are meant to parallel Balaam. Another thinks Matthew based his account on what pagan sources reported about Tiridates. And so on. The fact that vague connections can be made in so many directions illustrates how weak that sort of argumentation is. Aaron Adair appeals to Psalm 110:3, among other sources, as a major inspiration for the star account (74-9). Peter Barthel expresses some doubts he has about the historicity of Matthew's passage, since "Matthew is surely using certain Hebrew Bible elements here." (168) Mathieu Ossendrijver argues that Matthew's magi are based on Alexander the Great's interactions with Chaldeans (217-30). Roger Beck thinks the likely inspiration for Matthew's magi comes from pagan accounts of Tiridates and his visit to Nero (286-7). Though he accepts the basic historicity of the magi of Matthew 2, George van Kooten's chapter (496-646) often refers to similarities between the magi's visit to Jesus and some magi's interactions with Alexander the Great, the visit of some magi to Sulla, etc. He discusses a parallel to the Slaughter of the Innocents in a passage of Suetonius about the emperor Augustus, and he contrasts it with the parallel that scholars often cite with the Pharaoh who executed the Israelite boys in Exodus. He also spends part of his chapter explaining why various Old Testament passages (Numbers 24:17, Isaiah 60:1-6, etc.) are insufficient to explain where Matthew got his material. And so on. Given the large number and variety of potential parallels that can be drawn between Matthew and the thousands of pages of other ancient literature we have covering thousands of years of history, how much significance should we assign to these parallels?

- Bradley Schaefer, an astronomer, comments in his chapter that astronomical views of the star (a planetary conjunction, a comet, a nova, etc.) are "dead" (90). He offers a partial defense of Michael Molnar's astrological view, but he thinks that astronomical views have been disproven by "strong arguments" (90).

- It's noteworthy how often advocates of astronomical and astrological views of the star make dismissive comments about the historicity of some of the details of Matthew's account, warn against taking the passage too literally, or don't even attempt to explain certain aspects of the passage. David Hughes warns about "literal" and "absolute truth" interpretations of Matthew (115). H.G. Voigt cautioned against taking Matthew 2:9 "too literally" (153). Van Kooten repeatedly dismisses Matthew's details (588, 599-600, 622). He suggests that in Matthew 2:9-10, Matthew's language is "adapted in a narratological way, as if the star leads the magi on the way, going ahead of them and stopping over the relevant house in Bethlehem" (622).

- Teije de Jong mentions that the classicist Franz Boll pointed out that if Matthew had an astronomical conjunction in mind, he could have used a different Greek term that would specify a "stellar group or constellation" (n. 51 on 152).

- Barthel makes an interesting comment about the roles of astronomy and astrology in the ancient world: "Astrology played an enormously important role in all aspects of life; cities had astronomical observatories and employed professional sky watchers" (167). Alexander Jones' chapter that follows (171-98) provides many examples. Kocku von Stuckrad refers to how Herod was highly interested in astrology (393, 396). He remarks that Herod "had knowledge of astrology and access to the highest educated levels of the astrological craft." (296) The prominence of astronomy and astrology in the ancient world underscores how significant it is that only one group of magi came to see Jesus and that Herod was so dependent on the magi for information on the star. It's further evidence that the star was a highly local supernatural entity, not an astronomical object or astrological phenomenon.

- The chapters by Antonio Panaino (231-68) and Stephan Heilen (297-357) provide a wealth of information on the language Matthew uses. See, for example, Panaino's discussion of whether Matthew refers to a heliacal rising and what significance his language has (245-6) and linguistic problems with interpreting the star as a comet (246) and Heilen's philological appendix to his chapter (344-9).

- The most skeptical contributors to the book acknowledge that a supernatural view of the star makes the most sense of the Biblical text and is supported by patristic views of the star. See, for example, Panaino's comments on pages 260-1 and Merz's on 471-2. (It should be noted, though, that Panaino is wrong in how he describes some of the Biblical and patristic data. The general thrust of his comments, however, to the effect that the star is supernatural in Matthew's gospel and the patristic sources, is correct.)

- Albert de Jong comments that "almost everything that Molnar writes about the Persian magi and the semantic development of the word magos is historically problematic" (n. 13 on 275).

- The view that Matthew based his passage on the visit of Tiridates to Nero is widely criticized in this book, and I think convincingly so. See, for example, the discussions of de Jong (277-9) and George van Kooten (573-82). Their arguments are weightier than Beck's arguments in favor of the Tiridates view.

I'll link part two of this series here when it becomes available. And you can read my review of the book at Amazon here.

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