Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Highlights From The Barthel/Van Kooten Book On The Star Of Bethlehem (Part 2)

You can read part one here. You can read my review of the book at Amazon here.

- As far as I recall, none of the authors who places a date on Matthew's gospel puts it before the year 70. Instead, we get many comments like Beck's assertion that it was written "about 90 CE" (287). There's no interaction with the many good arguments for dating the gospel earlier. Matthew's similarities with the other Synoptics and differences from John make more sense if all of the Synoptics were written close together, followed by a larger timeframe before John was written. The imprecision of the prophecies of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple make more sense if Matthew was written before those events in 70 rather than a scenario in which the prophecies were fabricated in 70 or later. The prominence of Matthew's gospel in the earliest centuries of Christianity makes more sense if the gospel was circulating under Matthew's name well before John's gospel was published. Extrabiblical sources suggest a date around the middle of the century for Matthew rather than a date at the close of the century. Etc. You can read more about these and other arguments in my collection of articles on Matthew here. It's striking how so many scholars accept and assert the later dating of Matthew without making any effort to interact with counterarguments that are so substantial.

- As another example of how weak scholarly claims about such issues often are, here's Beck's assessment of how the star account in Matthew may have originated. Notice how facile his reasoning is and how it tells us more about the mindset of certain modern scholars than the mindset of the earliest Christians:

"The precise circumstances of its [the star account's] genesis are irrecoverable, but I would imagine something like this: a group of Antiochene Christians proclaiming, 'Yes! And the true king and savior of the world was visited and adored by magi, too [as with Tiridates' visit to Nero]!' The 'star' was then fitted into the narrative. Maybe there was a separate, pre-existing story about it, maybe not." (287)

- But Beck is an expert on Mithraism, and his comments on that subject are more significant. He doesn't think Mithraism had the sort of influence on Christianity that skeptics sometimes claim it did:

"When did the Mithras cult get underway? I see no reason to change the view I advanced sixteen years ago, that the cult as we know it from the copious archaeological record started to blossom some time in the last two decades of the first century CE. If I am right, Mithraism cannot have influenced the very early development of Christianity or Christianity's stories….This is an appropriate point at which to acknowledge that a cult celebration of Mithras's birthday at the winter solstice is not improbable, although there is no record of it, as there is for the public celebration on 25 December of the birthday of the official Sun god…But I must emphasize that although this Mithras [at Nemrud Dagh in the first century B.C.] may have been a precursor of the god of the Roman mystery cult, he was not one and the same. Iranian Mithra had further metamorphoses to undergo in his journey from East to West." (289, n. 19 on 292, 294)

- Stephan Heilen's chapter is one of the best in the book, primarily as a refutation of Michael Molnar's view of the star. You'd have to read Heilen's entire chapter to get the full force of it, but here are some highlights:

"Also, why should Matthew write that those astrologers 'saw' a star if that star (in Molnar's opinion, Jupiter) was actually occulted by the Moon? This leaves us with the grave objection that 'Molnar's star was both invisible and unpredictable.'…Molnar tries to make us believe that astrologers from a country where no historical evidence for the practice of Hellenistic astrology exists practiced Hellenistic astrological geography with unusual astronomical protases, unusual astrological apodoses, unusual associations of signs and countries, and unusual emphasis on ecliptic latitude in an unusual prospective manner to identify extraordinary future events….Prospective searches for royal horoscopes are, in contrast, unknown in Greco-Roman antiquity….at the time of Herod, a dozen other countries were certainly associated with Aries…The chances that hypothetical Eastern astrologers (the magi) would have chosen Judea are minimal…no one among the ancient readers and commentators who were native speakers of Greek, understood Matt 2:1-12 in such a way [as Molnar does]….the transmitted text of Matt 2:9 clearly does not and cannot mean astronomical retrogradation….In sum, there is not a single instance of demonstrably and indisputably technical astral language in Matthew's story of the magi….After all of the public attention Molnar attracted and the religious importance some readers have attached to his theory, it will be difficult (if not psychologically impossible) for him to admit the validity of the objections that have been raised. Nevertheless, that would be an act of greatness." (342, n. 193 on 342, 343-4, 347-8, n. 217 on 349)

- In an ecumenical, religiously pluralistic culture like ours, people often lose sight of the greatness of Jesus' character, how different he is than other religious leaders. I was struck by some comments Helen Jacobus made about the second-century A.D. Messianic figure Simon Bar Kokhba. These comments are especially significant in light of how Jesus and Bar Kokhba come from such similar contexts (Israel and Judaism in the early A.D. era):

"The letters reveal that a punitive and coercive system appeared to be in force under Bar Kokhba's 'rule', corroborating the early Christian accounts of his behavior as bullying. In rabbinic sources, he is apparently portrayed as cruel and as a killer, in contrast to being a righteous judge, because he kicked Rabbi Eleazar ha-Modai to death at Bethar….According to some early church sources discussed, he was regarded in some circles as setting himself up as a rival messiah to Jesus. Rabbinical texts indicate that Bar Kokhba had been proclaimed the messiah in connection with Num 24:17, but as a defeated, cruel, self-appointed 'prince,' they emphatically repudiated any assertion that he was the 'son of the star.'" (422-4)

- The book has a lot of material on the church fathers, some of which I haven't discussed before. I've long known that there's a passage in Irenaeus in which he describes the star as a supernatural entity that was small and mobile enough to enter the house where Jesus' family was and stand above his head (Demonstration Of The Apostolic Preaching, 58). Something I hadn't noticed before, though, as far as I remember, is that the same passage refers to how the star "appeared at His birth to those men, the magi" (quoted on page 436 of the book I'm discussing). While that language doesn't require that the star appeared only to the magi, it does lean in that direction. Otherwise, the qualifier "to those men, the magi" could easily have been left out. The phrase seems to make more sense if the star is a highly local phenomenon. Darrell Hannah also cites a passage in Origen in which he seems to distinguish between the star of Bethlehem and "comets in the sky and suchlike" (440). As I've said before, it seems that Origen's view of the star changed over time. But the passage Hannah cites adds further evidence to the conclusion that Origen held at least a non-cometary, and probably a supernatural, view of the star for a while. The passage in question is a fragment of Origen's partially lost Commentary On Matthew. Hannah dates it to "Origen's final decade, 244-54" (n. 17 on 440). That extends the period during which Origen held the view in question. Hannah's chapter also has a lot of other material on patristic views of the star, though he's focused on how Numbers 24:17 was interpreted and related issues, not the star in general.

- George van Kooten is an example of a scholar who rejects much of the historicity of the infancy narratives, yet accepts the historicity of significant portions, such as the star, the magi, and Jesus' Davidic ancestry (621-2). Skeptics often suggest that only inerrantists accept something like the star or the magi. Sometimes they go even further by claiming that inerrantists only accept such things because of a prior commitment to inerrancy that isn't based on any evidence. Van Kooten is yet another example of how false that characterization is.

- I think the magi were Arabian. But for those who think they were Persian, van Kooten provides a significant line of evidence to that effect in his chapter (496-646). He argues that there was an unusual era of peace and interaction between the Parthians and Romans from about 20 to 2 B.C., which was significantly different than the state of affairs before and after that period. So, what Matthew reports aligns well with how Persian magi would have acted and been perceived around the time of Jesus' birth.

- Van Kooten makes some other points about the historicity of the passage that are applicable regardless of whether you view the magi as Persian:

"The magi are still called 'magi,' [in Matthew] which is remarkable for two reasons. Firstly, the framing of the Bethlehem narrative within the context of Matthew's depiction of Jesus as 'the son of Abraham' [Matthew 1:1] would have made it very easy for Matthew to have styled the magi as Chaldeans, who were primarily known as astronomers and would also have better fitted Abraham's original background amongst the Chaldeans. Secondly, as we have seen, the magi were receiving bad press in the Flavian era as magicians. The fact that Matthew did not use the term 'Chaldeans' seems to suggest that he received earlier, specific information about magi and consciously decided to maintain it." (622)

So, this is yet another instance in which the infancy narratives have material that meets the criterion of embarrassment and in which the author made a claim less favorable to Christianity when he had an opportunity to make a more favorable claim. Though van Kooten mentions two points above, I think we should take note of three:

- Magi had a highly negative reputation.
- The reputation of Chaldeans was better at the time.
- Chaldeans also had a close relationship with Abraham, a figure Matthew and the early Christians in general thought highly of.

Yet, Matthew includes magi rather than Chaldeans.

You can read my Amazon review of this book I've been discussing here.

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