Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Was the Star of Bethlehem a Comet?

What was the Star of  Bethlehem? Each Christmas produces renewed speculations, as discussed in my post The Star of Bethlehem. A recent addition is the book The Great Christ Comet: Revealing the True Star of Bethlehem (2015), by Dr Colin Nicholl, a New Testament scholar. Dr Nicholl claims that the star was a comet, a conclusion that has been challenged by Jason Engwer on Triablogue.

According to Nicholl, a great comet--one of the most spectacular ever seen--stood over Jesus' house in late November, 6 BC, stretching more than 33 degrees in the sky. 

Yet, if it was so spectacular, why is there no mention of it in ancient astronomical records? Chinese records indicate no comets in 6 BC but do include both Halley's comet of 12 BC and another comet of 5 BC, which Colin Humphries associated with the Bethlehem star.

Further, the ancient Greeks distinguished between star (astera) and comet (kometes). Hence, if Matthew was referring to a comet, why did he refer to it as astera?

The major problem, however, is that the motion of a comet is difficult to square with the account given by Matthew (the only gospel that mentions the star).

Matthew 2:1-12 relates that "wise men (greekmagoi) from the east came to Jerusalem, saying where is he who was born king of the Jews? For we saw his star (greekastera) in the east (or, when it rose)." This troubled Herod, who asked them "what time the star had appeared." Herod sent them to Bethlehem. "After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen in the east (or, when it rose) went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house they saw the child..."

Note the peculiar motion of the star during the short journey of the magi from Jerusalem to Bethlehem (about 5 miles). First, the exceeding great joy of the magi when they again saw the star implies its unusual behaviour, either by its sudden reappearance or by its altered motion. Next, it led them and, finally, it stopped over precisely the right house.

No normal comet, supernova, star, nor conjunction of planets could exhibit such strange actions. 

Bethlehem was due south of Jerusalem. According to Nicholl, the magi left Jerusalem at sunset, when the comet was due south, in the direction of Bethlehem. Two hours later, when they arrived in Bethlehem, the comet pinpointed one particular house when it set behind that house on the SSW horizon of Bethlehem. Nicholl gives the following picture: 

Here we are shown an isolated house, a flat landscape, and a straight road leading to the house. This is not realistic. Bethlehem at that time is estimated to have had 300 to 1000 inhabitants, living in 75 to 250 houses. So Jesus' house was likely surrounded by other houses. The following picture is thus more likely:

Further, Bethlehem is situated in hilly country, with winding roads. Hence the house indicated by the comet would totally depend on the viewpoint of the magi. For example, if we move the viewpoint of the above picture 30 feet to the left, the comet would appear to have moved the same distance to the right, pointing to another house:

Moreover, the comet itself, due to the earth's daily rotation, was steadily moving westward in the sky. Thus, if the magi stopped at the first viewpoint and waited about 20 minutes, the comet would again have seemed to have moved from the first picture to the next. 

Thus, as the magi approached Bethlehem, the comet would likely have seemed to indicate scores of different houses. Were they to reach 
any indicated house, the comet would now seem to be over some other house toward the SSW. Indeed, the comet would really seem to be behind any house, rather than over it. 

Surely the magi, being experienced travelers and observers of the stellar sky, would have been fully aware of all these illusionary effects.

In sum, it seems to me that Matthew's account entails that the star of Bethlehem was supernatural.


steve said...

Excellent analysis. One of my reservations about Nicholl's book was that his argument is too abstract. He doesn't adequately attempt to visualize what an observer would actually see or be able to see. He fails to recreate the concrete setting in which the events took place.

john byl said...

Thanks for your comment, Steve. I much appreciated the in-depth review of Nicholl's book by Jason Engwer on Triablogue, and I refer interested readers to his post (see above).

Alexander I. Reznikov said...

"And yet possibly the Christmas Star was a comet, but … an other one"

I agree with Jason Engwar when he notes:”The best explanation for their joy is that the star had disappeared earlier and just reappeared”. Let's try to look at the Matthean pericope Mt 2:1-11 with a fresh eye.
The canonical text Mt 2:1-11 reports about ONLY two observations of an unusual “star” by the magi: the first time the magi “saw his star when it rose” Mt 2:2 (here and further “New International Version”) and the second time AFTER the “star” had “stopped over the place where the child was” (cf. Mt 2:9 and Mt 2:10).
It may be assumed that the first time the magi saw the rising “star” near Jerusalem. The magi thought that "a king of the Jews" was born in the capital and hurried there to worship him. They came to Jerusalem in the late morning, so the “star” was not visible in daylight and no one could see it. Herod was quickly informed about the excited magi and their report. But there was not a suitable baby in the families of Herod’s numerous descendants. Then the king could simply ignore the magi with their fantasies.
But someone from Herod's environment “added fuel to the dying fire” making a clarification: according to the prophecy Numbers 24.17 the rising of an unusual “star” could mean much more than the birth of another future "king of the Jews", namely the birth of Christ - the Messiah - Mashiach. At the meeting Herod asked “chief priests and teachers of the law... where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea” they replied... Then Herod called the Magi secretly" Mt 2.4,5,7. The king did not leave the meeting immediately so the magi had to wait. Herod met the magi in the evening and he wanted them to show him their "star". However, their “star” had not yet risen and the king only "found out from them the exact time the star had appeared” Mt 2.7. Herod wasn't impressed at all by the humble magi. He was sure they would not find in Bethlehem a newborn "king of the Jews" and even less Messiah. That's why he did not give them any escort.
The magi spent the night in Jerusalem, and the next day at dawn they went to Bethlehem. That morning the magi did not observe the rise of their “star”, probably due to cloudy weather. Though the Gospel says that "the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them” Mt 2.9 the magi did not observe it when they were following the winding road through hills to Bethlehem. They saw the “star” for the second time only after it had "stopped over the place where the child was" (cf. Mt 2.9 and Mt 2.10). Thus when the magi had seen the “star” for the first time they left it behind them and entered Jerusalem from the east. Now they suddenly saw the “star” standing over the house before them. That’s why it’s written “went ahead of them” Mt 2.9. Note that two observations of the star” by the magi are separated by a little more than one day.
It is quite obvious that Matthew did not invent these details, but carefully wrote down what came to him in the oral tradition several decades after the events. It may be easily shown that such a simple realistic interpretation is in a better agreement with the letter and spirit of the canonical text than traditional ones!
So I do not agree with Jason Engwar that the Christmas star was a supernatural phenomenon but I agree with Colin Nicholl, that possibly it was a comet, though an other one.
For further details, see a short summary of my hypothesis on the site www.nativity.reznikova.ru/eng/.
Alexander I. Reznikov, physicist. Russian Academy of Sciences. Moscow.

john byl said...

Hello Alexander

Thanks for your comment. I understand from your link that your candidate for the Bethlehem Star is Halley's Comet of 12 BC.

One problem with that is that the date is too early. The main problem,however,as I explain above, is that no comet could pinpoint a particular house in a city.

In Nicholl's case, the comet is really behind the house, rather than over it. Any particular house that the comet appears to be behind then depends heavily on the precise time and perspective of the magi.

In your case the comet seems to be directly above Bethlehem. But since it is millions of miles away, it would seem to be above (+/- 1 degree) any house within a 70 miles radius of Bethlehem. So, again, how could it pinpoint any particular house?

JohnV said...

Dr. Byl:

I agree with you that the star could not have been a comet. Not because I know much about astronomy, but because the suggestion that it was a comet infers that the Magi were not Magi.

The amazing thing about it is that the Magi knew that the star indicated the birth of a king of the Jews. That would mean that they knew not only the stars but also the OT prophets as well (the only source from which to conclude the meaning of that star.) In short, they were wise because they were very learned.

Now, as an astronomer, would you say that very learned men, whose study is primarily the stars, would make the mistake of calling a comet a star?

More importantly, would the Holy Spirit make that mistake when leading Matthew in writing his gospel? The inference of the Holy Spirit of having made a mistake of calling a comet a star is even greater than suggesting that the Magi would have made that mistake.

Either it was a comet, and therefore the Magi were not Magi, or it was a star and the Bible was correct in calling them Magi. It seems this is the logic in force, and not the logic depending on the speculative conclusions of modern academia.


Alexander I. Reznikov said...

Hello John,

First of all, thank you for your quick reply to my comment. Unfortunately, I forgot that I published my comment in your blog too, and verified only the site http://triablogue.blogspot.ru/2015/12/john-byl-on-great-christ-comet.html
(not your site
http://bylogos.blogspot.ru/2015/12/was-star-of-bethlehem-comet.html). Sorry.

Let’s consider your “main problem”: “how could the comet pinpoint any particular house?” When in cloudy weather I walk down the street sometimes between clouds I can see a star, standing directly above a certain house (not behind it as you write!) on the condition that I am not far from the house. In my hypothesis, I suppose a similar situation with the magi and the “star” (not necessary a comet). The magi were close to a house when they saw the “star” for the second time. Using modern calculations, I can estimate the date August 27, 12 BCE and the time 8am. If we had ancient maps of the road and of Bethlehem, we could try to identify the house, which was visited by the magi.
Now you write: “One problem with that is that the date is too early”. Yes, traditionally one thinks that “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar… When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too… Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry” (Luke Chapter 3). According to my hypothesis in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Jesus was about 40. I can offer two different explanations for this discrepancy: either Jesus began his ministry 10 years before his baptism by John, or in the text it was erroneously written 30 instead of 40. Which one is correct I don't know.


JohnV said...

With respect, sir, traditional logic severely limits your “hypothesis”. You explain away your explaining away of the text by giving two possible solutions to the dilemma you have created from your own hypothesis. Then you ask which one is true, a question you cannot answer.

There is a third option to the self-created dilemma: neither is true. And since it is a hypothesis to begin with, the onus is on proving any truth to it in the first place, not of assuming the truth of one or the other of the provided escapes as if one or the other was the only possible answer. Suggesting a “possible” solution carries with it a burden of proof.

To give an answer to the first part of your hypothesis: Suggesting a “possible” solution carries with it a burden of proof, not the assumption of error on the part of that which a solution is given. What underlies your hypothesis is the assumption that anything other than the bare truth of the text is to be considered at least as equal to the plain meaning. In other words, respect for the Word of God as God’s communication to man comes last, not first.

Of equal weight in your hypothesis is the assumption that, though the Magi were considered wise men we consider them so no more, for we have outgrown such primitive notions. But our age is not so unwise, not like those Magi in the first century; and not like the Holy Spirit in leading Matthew to write that it was a star. In point of fact, even the Holy Spirit was fooled by the assumptions of the Magi.

In short, the assumption is that neither the wise men nor the Bible knows what it is talking about when it calls the star a star; but we do today.

Simple logic throws all kinds of barriers in the way of your hypothesis, sir, without even having to be knowledgeable about the night sky.

a different

JohnV said...

If I may be, I'd like to make it a bit more clear.

The explanation that Matthew’s star must have been a comet, it seems to me, assumes that the Bible can and does make a mistake in calling it a star. The assumption is that history’s record is more reliable than the Bible, and yet the Bible, though wrong here, has not erred: so it must be explained away while maintaining an inerrant integrity. That’s what this is: an explaining away while still upholding in some way that what the Bible says is right.

The argument from RA concerning the creation days is as follows: the reason the Bible must be reinterpreted is because it has to maintain an inerrant integrity in what it says: it must not be regarded as being mistaken. That is, the Bible says that the world was created in six days, so we have to change what we understand by “day”, not call it a mistake. We rather stretch “day” to mean a much more generous definition, make of it a Biblical synonym to ‘generation’, or to modern-day 'times’; but we must refuse to infer that the Bible simply erred.

This assumption underlies RA’s line of argumentation. And yet RA also insists that we ought no longer regard the Bible as inerrant.

To say it bluntly: denying that the Bible is inerrant, necessitated by the presumption that Bible must maintain an inerrant integrity, is, quite obviously, nonsense (logical nonsense, if you’ll excuse an oxymoron.) So also, to aver that Matthew’s star must have been a comet, on the pretext that Matthew could not have been mistaken about the star but he was mistaken that it was a star, is, quite obviously, logical nonsense as well.

In both cases this lack of logic is supported, not by science, but by “possible” solutions which rather attribute inerrancy to modern men, even though unspiritual, over against ancient men, even though inspired by the Holy Spirit.