Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Star of Bethlehem Found?

I watched the DVD “The Star of Bethlehem” by Rick Larson a few days ago.  This definitely deserves an investigative report on this blog.  The DVD has been out for over a year, but I just recently got around to viewing it.  I want give you my take on it.

When reading the account of the star in Matthew, a Christian is faced with two possibilities.  Either the star was simply a miraculous occurrence which cannot be explained or it is something that we would recognize today and could potentially discover what it is by extrapolating the trajectories of the stars1 backward to the time of the birth of Christ. 

I must say that the idea that we must find a scientific proof or scientific explanation for events which occurred in the Bible is somewhat overused, at least by some.  I find little value in trying to explain how the waters parted at the Red Sea (or Reed Sea as it was) by showing the wind blew at just the right speed, direction, etc.  These details just don’t matter and no one can ever be sure of their particular theory anyway.  Its almost as silly as trying to say that the wind blew in the just the right manner to cause Jesus to walk on the water.  Miracles do not have to be explained scientifically, you just accept them by faith because you believe in God’s Word.

This whole idea of “looking for something that fits” sometimes leads people to see things as fulfillment of Scripture when it really isn’t.  These kinds of issues should not be accepted without much scrutiny.  The date of Christ’s birth and the date of the visit of wise men are unknown and Larson has a lot of space and time in which to find the two corresponding stellar events described in the Bible and then conclude what the dates are. 

Having said that, at least at first, I think the mystery of the Star is something that seems more interesting to delve into.  One reason for this is that laws of motion can be used to determine exactly how the stars were arranged at any given point in time, barring Divine intervention or miscalculation due to undiscovered forces2.  But you can’t wind by time and see what happened at the Red Sea.  For the moment, let’s assume that the Star obeyed naturalistic forces in the events described in Matthew.  Let’s put Larson’s theory to the test.

Now I must say that Larson takes this way beyond just finding out what the Star was.  He describes other astronomical events surrounding the birth and death of Christ.  I will briefly comment on these first. 

Even before I did any investigation on this subject, some alarms went off in my head about what was said about the constellations and the difference between astrology and authentic interpretation of Biblical signs in the sky.  Yes, one of the differences is that the astrologer believes that the stars are not just signs, but actually control the events.  But it is certainly not the only difference!  There is nothing in the Bible that says that the constellations Leo and Virgo have the symbolism attributed to it in the DVD.  These things were myths from pagan religion.  This is like looking at a horoscope and using it to interpret the Bible! 

How, then, you might ask could it be that such coincidences could occur at the time of Jesus birth?  Remember that we do not know for sure exactly when Christ was born.  Several years can be looked through until you find something that seems significant.  It probably isn’t a coincidence that Jupiter crosses a constellation representing a lion.  A lion is considered to be king of the animals in many cultures.  It would have made sense for the original astrologer to choose a star in this constellation to be the “king” star and a planet that frequently crosses it (more frequently than the DVD leads you to believe, according to AIG) to be the “king” planet.  And Leo doesn’t particularly look like a lion; it could just as easily be some other animal.  And think of all the symbols that are associated with Jesus: Lamb, Shepherd, Rock, Root of Jesse, Bright and Morning Star, etc.  With so many symbols, it is likely that if you look hard enough you’ll find something that looks like it in the sky.  But that wouldn’t be a real Biblical sign because the Bible doesn’t tell us to look for these things in sky.  It is dangerous to mix mythology with the Bible in this way and convince people that it is real because someone could use this idea to look for symbols in the sky and use it to predict future events which only God can foresee.  Also the constellation Virgo does not fit the description given in Revelation 12.  It has about 13 stars, but the description in Revelation says that the woman has a crown of 12 stars.  Virgo doesn’t even have a crown, much less 12 stars in it.  

Larson also describes an eclipse which supposedly fulfilled Joel’s prophecy (the moon would be turned to blood) by making the moon look red at the death of Jesus.  These events necessarily depend on Christ’s death being at 33 A.D.  That date is plausible3, but in Larson’s timeline, Christ’s birth was about 2-4 B.C.  That would make him about 35 years old when he died.  But his ministry began when he was 30 years old (Luke 3:23) and didn’t only last about 3 years4?  Halley’s Handbook calculates the date of Christ’s “coming” to be 26 A.D. (see Dainel 9:25) which (according to Halley) corresponds to beginning of his ministry, not his birth.5 According to the AIG article, the eclipse was only a partial eclipse which would not have produced a reddish colored moon.  Furthermore, this would not be a literal fulfillment of the prophecy, which I always favor.

The most interesting part about this movie is the Star itself and particularly the explanation of its motion as seen by the wise men as they approached Bethlehem.  Larson claims that the Star is really the planet Jupiter and that it was in conjunction with Venus at the time that it “went before” the wise men to Bethlehem.  Assuming a naturalistic explanation, the fact the Star “stopped”6 over Bethlehem could only be accomplished by a nearby object such a planet.  For purposes of this discussion, I am considering the motion of the Star (and all other heavenly bodies) to be relative the earth7.  In this perspective, the planets are revolving around both the earth (i.e. its rotation) and the Sun simultaneously.  These two simultaneous motions are what make possible the stoppage in motion of a planet relative to the earth. 

This stoppage in motion is described by Larson as a momentary change in direction (to the opposite direction).  But did this planet (Jupiter), according to Larson’s calculations, actually stop?  If the Star was moving either toward or away from the earth during the instant in which it “stopped” then it didn’t really stop, but only appeared to stop from the view of the observer who could not necessarily perceive that this was the case.  A literal interpretation would not allow this additional movement.  I am not saying that this is the case in Larson’s scenario (he didn’t describe it in that much detail in the DVD), but I must be skeptical until I see otherwise.

Did the planet actually stand over where the child was lying in a manger?  (I am just seeing if you are awake.  I really mean that house that Jesus was staying at the time that the wise men came, not stable that the shepherds visited!)  Again, I am a literalist, so the Star must have been collinear with the child and the center of earth.  That is the definition of “over”.  If Jupiter did not really stop over the child but only appeared to be over Bethlehem from the wise men’s line of sight, then this does not count.  Again, I don’t know whether or not Larson considered this detail.  If this were really true that Jupiter actually did all these things, then it is a very amazing and definitive proof of the events described in Matthew.  But according to the AIG article, Jupiter would have appeared near the horizon at the time of this conjunction. If this is the case, Larson's claim does not fit the biblical account.

What was the real star of Bethlehem, then?  Every reliable source that I have been able to find says that there is no naturalistic explanation for the Star as described in Matthew.  (Some articles attempt an explanation which includes Divine Intervention to move the star in the manner described in Matthew.  Some of these may be plausible, but are highly speculative.)  You just have to accept that it was a miracle that God performed at the proper time.  No scientific explanation is needed.

In conclusion with having done just a brief investigation of the “Star of Bethlehem” DVD (or even just giving it a little thought), I have to say that I don’t come to same conclusions that were arrived at by Mr. Larson.  There are many arguments which can be used to refute its claims on both a scientific basis and a theological basis.  Basically, the DVD exaggerates many things.

(1) For purposes of this discussion, “stars” include planets, comets, asteroids, meteors or anything else which would have been considered a star at that time.  The ancients were not mistaken that other objects are stars, but it is merely a matter of semantics.

(2) Couldn’t it be possible that gravitational field could have been disturbed by an object that is not now detectable?

(3) Assuming a Friday crucifixion, the date of Christ’s death was either 30 or 33 A.D.  See for a discussion of this.

(4) That is the weak link in my argument.  I have no definitive proof that Jesus’ ministry wasn’t much more than three years.

(5) It is interesting that Larson establishes that the Magi were from Babylon and may have been influenced by Daniel who wrote the prophecy of the seventy-sevens, which predicted the coming of Christ.  However, as mentioned above, it was not the date of his birth, but the beginning of his ministry that was predicted.

(6) “…it came and stood over where the young child was.” Matthew 2:9

(7) Larson uses the language of a Heliocentrist and affirms the Copernican claim that the earth revolves around the Sun and rotates about an axis.  But he explains that retrograde motion is the apparent motion of an object relative to the earth’s frame of reference and purports that this is what is being referred to when the Bible says that the Star “stopped” over Bethlehem.  But I, being a literalist, take it and all other passages referring motion of heavenly bodies to be absolute motion.  This view is referred to as geocentrism.  The question of which view is correct is not relative to this discussion.  However the fact that the literalism from which geocentrism springs is very relevant will be made manifest in the rest of the article.

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