2012-11-22

The Star of Bethlehem — the “common-sense view”

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by Neil Godfrey

Edward Burne-Jones Star of Bethlehem detail

Edward Burne-Jones Star of Bethlehem detail (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here is an interesting excerpt from Early Christianity and Ancient Astrology by Tim Hegedus. (I learned of the book through fortuitous serendipity via astrotheology supporters who describe the book as “a good one”, though their view appears to be based on the cover description alone. It doesn’t do anything to support astrotheology. Quite the opposite, in fact. But I agree it is an interesting book. I had a chance to catch up with it at the University of Queensland library yesterday.)

[The Magi] ask for “the newborn king of the Jews” whose star they have seen “at its rising” (ἐν τῇ ἀνατολῇ) (v. 2, cf. v. 9). (This translation is preferable to “in the east” of older versions [so KJV and RSV], which would be properly ἐν [ταῖς] ἀνατολαῖς.)

The statement of the Magi is not a reference to a time of day, but rather is calendrical (cf. the phrase “the time of the star’s appearing” [τὸν χρόνον τοῦ φαινομένου ἀστέρος] in 2.7): “rising” means the star’s heliacal rising, i.e. the first time in the year that it was visible rising ahead of the sun before dawn. The usual technical term for this was έχιτολῇ but ἀνατολῇ could be used for the heliacal rising as well; the latter seems to be the case in Matt 2.2.

According to the narrative, the heliacal “rising” of the star held significance for the Magi as an astrological omen. It was this more ancient form of astrology, rather than horoscopic astrology, in which the Magi were engaged.

A recent study by Michael Molnar argues that the most likely horoscope in which professional astrologers such as the Magi would have been interested was the appearance of the Sun, Moon, Jupiter and Saturn (all regal signs) in Aries on April 17, 6 B.C.E. However, Molnar’s conclusions are overly sophisticated: there is no need to interpret the Matthean text in terms of technical or sophisticated astrology such as that of Ptolemy and Firmicus Maternus. Rather, the star of Matthew 2.1-12 derives from the widespread belief (found already in Plato) that all people have a “natal star” which appears at their birth and passes away with them, a belief according to the elder Pliny was commonly held among the general population.

Of course, the association of celestial phenomena with important terrestrial events is frequently found in antiquity: it sees most plausible to read the Matthean pericope as yet another example of this literary topos. Despite this common-sense view, however, over the centuries many attempts have been made to identify the star of Matthew with spectacular celestial phenomenon such as a supernova, a comet or a planetary conjunction. Nevertheless, the direct relevance of such scientific explanations to the Matthean text can be neither assumed nor demonstrated.  (pp. 201-202, my own formatting)

Hegedus goes on to remark on some of the weaknesses of these “scientific” interpretations. For example, how could “a rising” or even “a star” be interpreted as an ascent of two planets?

Raymond Brown is quoted:

Really no one, including the astronomers, takes everything in the Matthean account as literal history.

And Nicola Denzey:

[T]he focus on a scientific ‘explanation’ for the star of Bethlehem is to move considerably beyond the interpretive horizons of the first four centuries of the common era. Early Christians rarely addressed the question of what exactly the star was, in terms of an astronomical event. For the most part, early Christian interpreters were far more interested in what the star meant.

5 Comments

  • 2012-11-22 23:54:43 UTC - 23:54 | Permalink

    Hi Neil,

    I have also written about this subject at length and noted the history of the interesting interpretations of the Star through history, especially the naturalistic interpretations. The article is still up for free if you care to read and share:
    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-9744.2011.01237.x/abstract

    In the mean time, Hegedus has pretty much nailed it.

  • 2012-11-23 22:42:12 UTC - 22:42 | Permalink

    $100 at Amazon…how luck of you to find a copy at the library. :) Sounds fascinating, though.

  • 2012-11-25 01:57:33 UTC - 01:57 | Permalink

    Another oddity of the Magi bit that I rarely if ever see mentioned is that if they themselves are from the EAST (at least from where Bethlehem is) and they are following a star in the EAST, then shouldn’t following that star have only led them farther EAST, rather than in the opposite direction to a city to the WEST of them?

    • 2012-11-25 08:26:34 UTC - 08:26 | Permalink

      The reason I delete most of your comments is because they indicate you have not bothered to read the post so your comments are missing the point entirely. The point that concerns you was addressed in the opening two sentences of the quotation.

      But even if the older translation were correct there is still an ambiguity about it that opens the door to another interpretation.

      When I was a young zealous convert to a fundamentalist type faith I was “smart enough” to tell others how stupid the scientists were who dated the age of the earth’s rocks by invalid circular methods. One person I spoke to dismissed me with, “Perhaps those scientists really are smarter than you think.” He was right. I look back with embarrassment on that period of my life now.

      • 2012-11-25 08:50:59 UTC - 08:50 | Permalink

        0_o But that’s what I was referring to. I guess I have my own problems of ambiguity too. My apologies if I wasn’t clear. But that’s what I’m saying, I was glad to see that oddity addressed because I don’t recall having ever seen it acknowledged before, let alone address, even though it troubled me even back when I was xian.

        Oh well. Given our recent disagreements plus the inability to properly emote when typing, I suppose I can understand the initial skepticism.

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