The Star of Bethlehem, again

By Phil Plait | December 10, 2008 11:50 am

Last year, I wrote a grinch-like article saying I don’t think the Star of Bethlehem is anything more than a legend. I still think that’s likely to be the case, but there’s more to talk about on the topic now: an astronomer in Australia thinks he’s found the actual Star. It wasn’t a star, he says, but an incredibly close conjunction of the planets Venus and Jupiter.

If you saw the very close pass of the two planets on December 1, 2008, then you know how striking it was. What astronomer Dave Reneke found was that in 2 BC, Venus and Jupiter were so close together they would have appeared almost as a single object. That would have been quite spectacular, especially over the few days leading up to the event as the two planets crept closer in the sky. If he’s right, then it wouldn’t surprise me at all that this event would have caught everyone’s attention 2000 years ago, especially since they were more attuned to the night sky than we are today.

However, it’s his assumptions about the event I find fault with:

If the team is correct, it would mean Jesus was a Gemini, not a Capricorn as previously believed.

Australian astronomer Dave Reneke used complex computer software to chart the exact positions of all celestial bodies and map the night sky as it would have appeared over the Holy Land more than 2,000 years ago.

It revealed a spectacular astronomical event around the time of Jesus’s birth.

Mr Reneke says the wise men probably interpreted it as the sign they had been waiting for, and they followed the ‘star’ to Christ’s birthplace in a stable in Bethlehem, as described in the Bible.

My problem with this is the leap of logic from The Star being a real event to it actually signaling the birth of Jesus. Basically, if this is being reported correctly, he is still relying on the account in the Bible being literal. There’s still no indication of this; the conjunction could have been real, but that does not mean it had anything to do with Jesus’ birth. As we know, people see signs all the time, and will conflate two different events given the chance. There’s no indication anywhere outside the Bible story that the Wise Men really existed, or made their journey, or saw The Star. We also know that the Bible has been re-interpreted, re-written, and retranslated many times over the years, so it seems very likely to me that the Wise Men story is just that: a story, and the conjunction gives it a nice ring.

I’m not saying any of this didn’t happen. I am saying that we still have no proof, but the article states all this as a matter of fact.

Reneke goes on to say:

This is not an attempt to decry religion. It’s really backing it up as it shows there really was a bright object appearing in the East at the right time.

I disagree; it’s not backing up religion, it’s giving evidence that one part of a Bible story may actually have occurred. Anything else is speculation.

The article goes even further, saying that this means Jesus was born in June (when the conjunction occurred), not December. Again, this is stated as fact without any real evidence linking the event to the birth of Jesus. The thing is, the reason Christmas is celebrated in December is not clear. There’s nothing in the Bible indicating the actual date (and some evidence in the Bible against it being in December; the Bible says shepherds were tending their sheep at night, which was unlikely during the winter). There are lots of theories, including early Christians usurping a pagan holiday (there is evidence for and against that idea; but decorating trees, for example, didn’t start until centuries later) that occurred at the winter solstice. So it’s certainly possible that Jesus was not born in December, but it’s still a pretty big assumption that this conjunction was tied to the actual date of the birth of Jesus.

Having said all that, I will admit to an error on my part. In my other article on this (linked above), I made a point about not being able to follow a star in the sky for any length of time because stars rise and set. However, for a conjunction of Venus and Jupiter to be easily seen, it has to happen near the eastern or western horizon; Venus never gets far from the Sun, so you can only easily see it after sunset (in the west) or before sunrise (in the east). So if the Wise Men story is true, and they saw the conjunction before sunrise in the east, then they could "follow" it, knowing they had to travel east. During the day they couldn’t see it, but they would have known that was the right direction to go.

Still and all, I think this is a solution looking for a problem. Like a lot of other Bible stories, I think this is a pretty tale that has some basis in reality, but is probably not true in detail (like Noah’s Ark, Job’s travails, Sodom and Gomorrah, and so on). The astronomical evidence is interesting, but interpreting it should be done with a pillar grain of salt.

Image of the Three Wise Men decorations courtesy jbcurio’s Flickr stream.

Comments (158)

  1. Didn’t the wise men come from the east? Meaning they’d be following the “star” at sunset, rather than at sunrise.

    More importantly, weren’t Venus and Jupiter both known to ancient astronomers? I doubt the conjuction would have come as a surprise to any of them, certainly not to the point where they would confuse the event for a single, new star.

  2. hhEb09'1

    1. Conjunctions don’t last very long
    2. Astrologers knew the difference between stars and planets
    3. They could even anticipate conjunctions
    4. Hasn’t this particular conjunction been mentioned before?

  3. Todd W.

    Did Reneke account for the shift of the stars in determining that Jesus was a Gemini, rather than some other sign? I think that that would be a significant point to consider if he doesn’t want to have astrologers jumping down his throat.

    And maybe they thought they were seeing Venus, but it was really a flying saucer.

  4. Helioprogenus

    You might not want to say it BA, but I’ll go ahead and say it’s all bunk. Seriously, if the story has some credibility, it’s been lost through the ages. As for the planetary conjunction, it’s not as though a star-like object showed up at once. As you mentioned, the ancients knew the sky much better than we do, and surely they would have tracked the planets as they approached each other. This could have foretold numerous things, but all of it is conjecture. The problem here is that there are believers who try their hardest to link an archaic and largely mythical book into a scientifically based documented volume. Why not call it as it is, and say that they’re lost in the world of their own imaginations, brought forth by the poison that is religion? They’re so quick to jump on the scientific bandwagon when something seems to support their idiotic beliefs, but as soon as they find themselves with scientific facts that disagree with their opinions, such as the evolutionary theory, or the big bang, they’ll do everything in their power to discard it and inject their imaginary deities and beliefs. Ultimately, we can do one of two things. Coddle them and hope one day they come around to embracing rational thought, or attack their idiotic line of thinking and risk further isolating them in their sphere of ignorance. I guess some take the high road, and others, well, I don’t know if you consider it a low rode, but someone has to fight idiocy with cold hard logic first, then perhaps education. If they can’t deal with it, then let those who are willing to put up with their ignorance help them “see the light”.

  5. Helioprogenus

    *road, oops, it’s hard to maintain spelling consistency on a rant

  6. If you liked “American Idol” you’ll love “Star of Bethlehem”!

  7. IVAN3MAN

    This is probably more realistic:

  8. Ray

    Not a bible scholar, but wasn’t there a prophecy that the Messiah would be born under a “star”. Given such a prophecy, and the long travel times in the ancient world, is it possible that the conjunction could happen in June and be interpreted by the right parties as the “sign” of the coming of the Messiah? Then all you have to do is walk/ride a camel for six months to see him in the manger.

    As for December being the right date, I’m not sure about that either. But to say that its not possible because shepherds wouldn’t be out at night in winter is not very scientific. The temp today (10 Dec) in Israel (Jerusalem) was high of 62F and low of 50F. Hardly freeze your butt off weather for people who had no central heat or air.

  9. justcorbly

    Not only were people 200o years ago more attuned to the night sky, they could actually see the dang thing. Most of us have no clue what the night sky really looks like.

    The Wise Men: First, they couldn’t have travelled far, otherwise Joseph and Mary and Jesus would have been long gone. Second, how did they know the star marked Bethlehem? It would have marked other locations as their perspective changed during travel unless, again, they were right next door.

    Shepherds: The Jordan River valley is usually warm in winter. Seeing a shepherd out with his flock in any season is not unusual.

    I’m curious if there’s anything in the culture of that place and that time that would lead to this event being placed in Bethlehem or to the involvement of the Wise Men or the shepherds.Besides, that is, the contrast of both the high and low recognizing Jesus. For example, did someone’s faith or cult predict the birth of a savior when a new bright star appeared?

  10. Daffy

    IIRC, the Romans decorated trees and gave gifts as part of their winter Saturnalia celebrations.

  11. Moth-R

    Helioprogenus,

    Like most of history, to say it is “bunk” or is really missing the point. The point of the star is symbolic. This event was written in the stars. Like Romeo and Juliet being “star crossed lovers” it just means it was pre-destined and that the universe can sometimes work in harmony and that seemingly unrelated things can actually be related. Sometimes you have to think abstractly otherwise you can easily use science to bash religion, art, history or philosophy.

  12. I’m puzzled by this talk of stars being “legends.”

    You can look up at night, and see the stars, just as the ancients did.

    In the book of Joshua, quoting from the book of Joshua:

    “…the LORD cast down great stones from heaven upon them unto Azekah, and they died…” — Joshua, 10:11

    I suppose people are now going to claim that meteorites are legends as well.

    But here is the best quote of all:

    “And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed…” — Joshua, 10:13

    This observation has been confirmed all over the world, by the Chinese, the Egyptians, the Babylonians, and the American Indians.

  13. Daffy

    Moth-R, let’s not forget it is the Christians themselves who demand we take their Bible literally. Rabbis, I believe (and let’s not forget who originally wrote the thing), tend to look at it more metaphorically…or, as you say, symbolically.

  14. bob

    I grew up with the tale that Jesus was born in the Spring, and Christmas was celebrated at the time of the pegan Winter Solstace in order for early Christians to blend in better with the rest of us. This “Star of Bethlehem” explanation should not suprise anyone who was raised with this tale.

    Until we can explain why things happen, religion will exist. Best to accept that fact and move on. If you are using Science for anything other than models of how things happen, then you don’t understand science and rational thought as well as you may believe.

  15. Todd W.

    @OilIsMastery

    It is not the stars themselves being legends, but rather the event as depicted.

    This observation has been confirmed all over the world, by the Chinese, the Egyptians, the Babylonians, and the American Indians.

    Can you provide a citation supporting this claim?

  16. Daffy

    Oil, please provide one shred of evidence that the silly story in Joshua about the Earth stopping its spinning for one day has any truth whatsoever. Anything.

  17. GK4

    I also suspect this is just a tall tale. Bu there might be a role for Reneke’s conjunction. But not as a sign of the future. Rather, as a sign of predicting the past.

    Retro-active prophesies would have to be invented to make that carpenter guy into The Messiah. The old prophecy of him being born under a star could have caused the writers of the Gospels to look around — well after the fact — for appropriate astronomical recollections. Maybe one of them knew an old guy on the other side of town who remembered a particularly bright, unusual star about 35 years ago (or whatever). Logical fallacies follow.

    “I like it!”, thinks the Gospel author. “I’ll simply make the details fit, and add some other bits, and I can use it in my story!” And the pen starts scratching.

  18. Quiet Desperation

    Bunk.

    I’m sticking with the Alien Spacecraft Hypothesis.

    Although I could be persuaded to switch to Incredibly Long Lived Ball Lightning for the right price.

  19. Calli Arcale

    Capricorn, as previously believed? Very few actual Christian scholars seriously believe that Jesus would have be born on December 25, in whatever year. Anyone who seriously studies Christian history knows that the date of Christmas was chosen out of convenience, and not because of any actual connection to a real date. It is mostly laypeople who think that December 25 has any special significance. (Oddly, the same laypeople never think anything’s odd about President’s Day not falling on the actual birthday of any actual US president. Again, it is a date chosen for convenience only.) Personally, I think it’s just because it’s a comfortable distance from Easter and occurs at midwinter, which is also when the year changes (on the old Julian calendar, anyway). The fact that Christmas isn’t on New Year’s, and isn’t exactly on midwinter either, is largely because of imprecision in the Julian calendar. (An epoch fail, perhaps?)

    For some time, many scholars have believed that Christ would have been not a Capricorn, nor a Gemini, but a Pisces. This is because ancient Babylonian astrology had come up with a “star of the Messiah” — an astronomical event which (so they said) would herald the birth of the Jewish messiah. Astrology is bunk, of course, but whether one believes in the Bible story or not, the people who wrote it down most certainly did believe in astrology, and the Messiah Star did in fact occur around that time. It was to be a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in “the house of the Hebrews” (Pisces), during that constellation’s heliacal rising.

    This theory of the Star of Bethlehem goes back centuries, and even lead to some troubles of a Heaven’s Gate variety because of the “star” reappearing. (IIRC, it recurs about every 650 years. Or maybe it was closer to 900. I’d have to look it up.) Babylonian astrology was pretty obscure by the time the star reappeared, but there were a few Christian scholars who concluded that it meant the world was about to end because Christ was returning. Obviously, they were wrong. ;-)

  20. Todd W.

    Stars, planets, space ships, ball lightning. We’re overthinking this! He was born under a star…the building had a star-shaped ornament on it, kinda like some country homes/ranches in Texas.

  21. Helioprogenus

    What are you talking about Moth-R? Show me how unrelated things can be related? Can you give me a few examples that you’re aware of? What I’m trying to point out is that you cant’ take any of this as fact. For example, the Egyptians using the Jews as slaves. There is no proof of that, and we know for a fact, thanks to archaeology and the scientific method that the pyramids were built by Egyptian workers who were well treated, and even resided near the project. You can point out any part and we can tear it apart to prove that most of it is just legendary myth. We don’t even know that Jesus actually existed by the way. We only have two outside Roman sources that mention a Jeshua that lived in the Nazareth area approximately during the purported time of Jesus. There were probably as many Jeshuas in the area as there are Marys. The rest are internal sources with little corroboration. My point is that the Bible gives us literally nothing other than stories of Middle Eastern mythology. The same could be said for the Quran because we don’t have independent sources of Mohammed’s existence. All we have are purported eye witness accounts.

  22. DJMoore

    @justcorbly:

    Yup, bang on.

    ===
    Matthew 2:7–10: Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.
    ===

    That, right there in bold? That puts the kibosh on any astronomical phenomenon being the Star of Bethlehem. Nothing outside the Earth’s atmosphere can be a beacon for an object on the Earth’s surface. Nothing outside the atmosphere is going to “stop”.

    We’re either dealing with a true miracle, an alien spacecraft ala Life of Brian, or pure allegorical mythmaking.

    (I have a vague understanding that there is an Old Testament requirement that the Messiah’s birth be announced by certain signs and portents, the Star being one of them. My Mom has been pressing Rev. Spong’s Jesus for the Non-Religious on me, and the few chapters I’ve skimmed do an excellent job of dismantling the more mythic aspects of Jesus’ arrival, and meeting OT criteria is a major theme. Haven’t got to the part yet where he talks about what he thinks actually happened, though….)

  23. Daffy

    Calli, the evidence is pretty strong that December 25 was chosen because it was around the time of the Roman Saturnalia. In fact—and, again, IIRC—the early church opposed Christmas trees and gift giving exactly because of that association.

    In any case, all of this is speculation about a person for whom there is no evidence at all outside the Bible (apart from a very vague mention by Josephus).

  24. Todd W.,

    Here are some sources which corroborate astronomical disturbances: Anaxagoras, Empedokles, Herodotos, Leukippos, Demokritos, Platon, Seneca, Plutarchus, Diogenes Laertius, and Velikovsky.

    “There is a Mexican tradition, recorded in the Nahua-Indian in the Annals of Cuauhtitlan, that once in the remote past the night did not end for a long time. Friar Bernardino de Sahagun, a Spanish scholar who came to the New World a generation after Columbus, wrote that the American aborigines told of a great catastrophe, in which the sun had risen only a little way above the horizon, and then stood still. These are but two of the many traditions from all parts of the world which refer to a disturbance in the earth’s orderly rotation.” — Eric Larrabee

  25. “There did really happen, and will again happen, like many other events of which ancient tradition has preserved the record, the portent which is traditionally said to have occurred in the quarrel of Atreus and Thyestes. … how the sun and the stars once rose in the west, and set in the east, and that the god reversed their motion, and gave them that which they now have as a testimony to the right of Atreus. ” — Plato, The Statesman

  26. Daffy

    Velikovsky!?!?!?!?!?

    Oil, you’re going to have to do a LOT better than this if you want to be taken seriously. How about naming your sources, rather than just listing names?

  27. If you look at the tomb of Queen Hatshepsut you can see how the hemispheres of stars are reversed.

    Furthermore, Seneca talks about how the Big Bear had previously not dipped below the horizon, but the gods moved the Earth.

  28. Daffy

    Plato also mentioned Atlantis, Oil.

  29. Daffy

    The Romans and Greeks both worshiped Zeus/Jupiter. I guess that means he is real, too, right?

  30. Helioprogenus, as one of the worlds worst spellers, I highly recommend changing your browser to Firefox. It has the best spelling feature. When you spell a word wrong, it underlines it in red. You right click, and it gives correction options. Slick stuff for the spelling challenged.

    As for evidence, and biblical inerrancy, one tiny casual correlation does not make up for the massive amount of contradictions, absurdities , and out right errors in that ancient desert religion.

    Have a Happy Winter Solstice, and a Merry Christmyth.

  31. Daffy, Atlantis has been identified as the island of Santorini which erupted in 1600 BC.

  32. Dave Hall

    I remember this hypothesis discussed at the Hansen Planetarium in Salt Lake City in about 1968/ I was thirteen then and thought it did not make much sense.
    It still does not–unless you are seeking “scientific” validation of ones mythology. Velikovsky not withstanding.

  33. TaoMacGuy

    Read “Misquoting Jesus” by Bart Ehrman.

    http://tinyurl.com/5faffj

    A) We do NOT know the original words for the New Testament texts.

    B) Read “A” again!

    C) The oldest surviving texts date to 200-300 years *after* Jesus’ death.

    D) The oldest surviving texts were all hand copies of hand copies of hand copies of hand copies of… Well you get the idea.

    E) Many (most?) of the surviving oldest texts were transcribed by *illiterate* scribes. Now *there’s* a recipe for success.

    F) There are more versions of the oldest texts known than there are words in the New Testament. This one blew my mind!

    G) Clearly some (most) of these things have to be incorrect or at least not the original words.

    Never mind the various language translations, deliberate mis-translations, etc. over the years. Bottom line, no one really has a clue as to what the original New Testament books contain.

    Lovely.

    And I’m being asked to base my life on this!?!?

    Right.

  34. Stephen

    Actually the biblical story can even be demonstrated to be fictional without any astronomical knowledge at all. I went through it fairly thoroughly a couple of years ago:
    The Star of Bethlehem Identified.

  35. Gary

    A couple of corrections to the original post:

    1. The New Testament books (from which this story derives) have been edited/changed very, very much less than the Old Testament stories (eg, Noah’s ark) have. The story here is related pretty much (99.9%) as originally written according to all of the evidence (early manuscripts still extant).

    2. The story also mentions that shepherds were watching their sheep in the fields by night at the time of the birth. I’ve read (although not independently verified) that this was/is a typical activity of the springtime. So there is additional information in the story, not just a presumed planetary conjunction.

    3. There is no Biblical evidence that the Wise Men arrived the very night of the birth. The fact that the story of their visit culminates with the King murdering all boy children in Bethlehem younger than 2 years of age suggests they arrived much later.

    It must be repeated constantly to people who are not familiar with the text (including some who self-identify as Christians) that it was not written to provide scientific facts and chronologies precise to the level we expect today. Taking it that way is inappropriate. It’s just as inappropriate, however, to dismiss it because it doesn’t meet these ex post facto standards. The best one can do as a dispassionate observer is to admit the story exists as an historical observation, the events related in it are plausible, and there is plenty of room for speculation. Believing or disbelieving conclusions drawn from it, should not influence your judgment of the story’s authenticity.

  36. Darth Robo

    I guess then, Oil, that means the Egyptian Gods are real.

    What’s the “scientific theory” of ID again? Lemme guess, you’re gonna come here spouting woo-woo nonsense until people here debunk you, then you’ll run away until another post comes along that “might” have a woo-woo “explanation”?

    Seriously, I don’t see why this is worthy of a news article in the first place. I used my Starry Night program to look up the conjunction of Venus and Jupiter around Jesus’s birth a year or two ago. I didn’t discover this of course, I’d heard this idea from somewhere else and I thought it would be interesting to look up on my astronomy program. And the first thing I thought was “Hey, Jesus was born in summer!” Assuming of course, he even existed. And assuming that this event WAS the actual “Star of Bethlehem”. Sure, the Bible might have been based on *some* historical facts, but that’s hardly surprising.

    As an aside, clear skies have given me a good view of Venus and Jupiter on the way home from work.
    :)

  37. brie

    I have a question and if someone knows can you direct me to a link.

    If it was well known by wise “persons” that a messiah was being born and a huge star spot lighted the way to his birthing I have this question, what ever happened to these people? They are wise so they must be knowledgeable meaning they must have been able to write and read, did any of them keep up with Jesus? Write him letters even keep in touch with the messiah, I mean it would have been fascinating to hear about him growing up. Are there any accounts to this or these people? I realize the “messiah” family had to up and leave due to death treats by the local king but still.

    Thanks for any leads.

  38. Helioprogenus

    Bart Mitchell, thanks for the advice, and actually, I do have firefox (I gave up on IE a very long time ago, I actually like Opera as a browser more, but it doesn’t have spell check, doesn’t work well with all the websites, and has much less interesting extensions, and without the google notebook extension on Firefox, I would be totally lost). It’s just that sometimes, it refuses to spell check, for reasons unknown to me. It must be the star of Bethlehem fiddling around to make my life more difficult. Well, ok, maybe not, but let the bible coddlers try to prove me wrong. While they’re at it, can they prove to me that leprechauns don’t live in the attic? What’s the difference between their idiotic beliefs and mine? Oh, I forgot, they have a fancy archaic book full of contradictions with a deity so awful, that it makes Ivan the Terrible look like Ivan the Cuddleable. Also, I don’t have an attic, but that’s just splitting hairs.

  39. Darth, the sun (Aten) and the planets are real so yes, you are correct, the Egyptian gods are real.

  40. Christmas is on Dec 25 because it was usurping existing solstice related holidays. Saturnalia is sited frequently but the Jesus mythology and actual celebration lines up closer with Mithra. Mithra’s birth was celebrated on Dec 25 because that’s the day the days start getting longer. It’s said she died and rose again 3 days later. 3 days being how long the sun appears to rise in the same place – Dec 22-24.

    Since Jesus was supposedly born while his folks were heading back to Jerusalem for a census it’s long been thought that the birth would be in warmer months making Jesus a Taurus or Gemini. December was just too damn cold to make people march across the countryside to their home towns. So the alignment does lend some slight credence to that.

    MY question is why the shepherds/wisemen were following a star to the same place that so many thousands of other people were flocking to anyway. It’s not like they were in an isolate farm somewhere. They’re claiming to have been led to a single no vacancy hotel in a bustling metropolis.

  41. Darth Robo

    Oil

    >>>”Daffy, Atlantis has been identified as the island of Santorini which erupted in 1600 BC.”

    Okay, you’re a poe, right?

    Or do you have a citation?

    A REPUTABLE citation?

  42. SplendidMonkey

    There was a professor Karlis Kaufmanis that popularized a similar theory – his was a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 7BC.

  43. Daffy

    Gary,

    Not one story in the Bible about Jesus was written by an actual eyewitness. None.

    Just for the record.

  44. “Calli, the evidence is pretty strong that December 25 was chosen because it was around the time of the Roman Saturnalia”

    It’s true that it was around the time of Saturnalia, but it was actually meant to replace Sol Invictus, a celebration of the sun god Mithras, who has a history extremely similar to Jesus.

  45. The wise men are the three stars in orion’s belt that point to the north star. It’s an old myth.

  46. Moth-R

    Bart,

    Which absurdities are you talking about: “love thy neighor”, or “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour”, or maybe “And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.”?

    Hmmm, nothing but myths and contradictions there.

  47. Actually, there is nothing new in Reneke’s analysis. As far as I can tell it was proposed back in 1968:

    http://www.astrosurf.com/comets/cometas/Star/Possible.html

    “It was in 1968 when Roger Sinnott wrote a highly influential article in Sky and Telescope pointing to the June 17th 2 BC conjunction of Venus and Jupiter as having been particularly spectacular from Babylon that this theory took off. Sinnott’s work is still one of the finest ever carried out in this field and all the more laudable for having been done from planetary tables, without the assistance of a computer. Sinnott investigated conjunctions over a wide range of dates from 12 BC to 7 AD finding more than 200 conjunctions of the major planets. He also found no less than 20 compact groupings of three or four planets, of which only 4 would have been observable. After carefully filtering the events, Sinnott concluded that the 2 BC conjunction, in Leo, would have fitted the bill.

    On June 17th 2 BC, as seen from Babylon, Venus and Jupiter would have set 3 hours after sunset, with the two planets too close together to separate by eye, having closed considerably in the time since sunset. In fact, we now know that the disk of Venus actually passed in front of Jupiter, occulting it partially.”

    But there’s a big problem if you want to use this date for the birth of Jesus of Nazareth and that is this: Herod the Great died in 4 BCE. By the time of the Venus-Jupiter conjunction he had been dead already for 2 years. How could he have ordered the slaughter of the innocents (attested to by the Gospels) if he was already dead? So that’s only one of many major contradictions that one has if one tries to come up with a self-consistent Christian chronology.

    BTW, Phil, an atheist like you uses “2 BC” and not “2 BCE”? Tsk, tsk. :)
    (Yeah, I know I hated BCE/CE too at first but then I got used to it)

  48. Helioprogenus

    You’re just picking and choosing passages there Moth-R? How about the verses that support slavery? Or that a man always dominates a woman? How about all the children that god allows to die? You can’t use one verse to support your point, and then have others that totally contradict things.

  49. My-Name-is-Kenneth

    The Star of Bethlehem was the flaring of the thruster drive from the starship that deposited Jesus in the Middle East in 1 AD, of course.

    Due to some faulty language translation technology, they mistook the
    word Manger for Five Star Inn and dropped the kid off there.

    Like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, the origin story of Christianity
    will never die, as too many people have too much invested in it, including major corporations.

    Happy Winter Solstice, Everybody!

  50. If you want to keep Herod the Great in the picture then you’d better shoot for the Triple Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn which occured in 7 BCE, with Mars joining them in 6 BCE. At least Herod the Great was still alive at that time.

    http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/p_greetham/wisemen/theory1.html

    The Saturn/Jupiter triple conjunction Theory

    “During 8 BC, the Magi would have observed that Jupiter was slowly catching up Saturn as they moved along the ecliptic. By the middle of February they had both disappeared behind the setting sun and they would then have turned their attention to the early morning sky to await their reappearance. In March 7 BC, rising out of the glare of the nearly rising sun, Jupiter and Saturn appeared close together in the sky. This is a rare event for these two planets; it happens only once every 20 years or so. They got closer together day by day until on the 29th May they got as close as two moon diameters. This happened in the constellation of Pisces. Then throughout the summer of that year Jupiter and Saturn began to pull away from each other, but then as often happens when these two planets get together, they started to go back towards each other. Eventually this led to another conjunction on the 29th September 7 BC. On towards winter, the two pulled away from each other again, but then amazingly they started to move towards each other a third time. The third conjunction happened on the 6th December 7 BC. This triple conjunction is caused by the movement of the Earth around the Sun, causing the two planets to both apparently do a loop against the background of stars. The first conjunction was a simple meeting of the planets; Jupiter being faster caught Saturn up. The second conjunction was caused by the Earths movement. The apparent movement of the planets is thus reversed by the earth’s movement and the planets have a second conjunction. However this reversing of the movement is only temporary, and the two planets eventually continue their apparent movement. Jupiter then catches Saturn up again causing the third and final conjunction.

    By the 26th February 6 BC, Mars has joined the group, although Jupiter and Saturn were then much further apart. All three planets are lost in the glare of the setting sun by the end of March 6 BC.

    For:
    This is very convincing, for a triple conjunction of these two planets is very rare and probably would not have been chronicled by the Magi as ever having happened before. It can only happen every 973 years, but the position at which it happens appears to slowly move around the sky. It happened in 1951 BC but in the constellation of Aquarius. In 978 BC, 7 BC and AD 967 it was observed to happen in Pisces. It would have been seen last in AD 1940, when the event had moved to the next door constellation of Aries. When it happens next in AD 2913/4 it will happen in Taurus.
    This theory relies on Astrological significance being given to this event. It is believed that Pisces was, according to Babylonian astrologers, the constellation of the Jews. Jupiter the planets of Kingship.
    This event falls exactly on the precarious date of 4th October 7 BC. It is a repeatable phenomena although the gap between the events is rather short, only seven months or so between the first and last occurrences. The position of the ‘star’ is about right. The first conjunction happened while rising in the eastern sky, The subsequent conjunctions occurring in the south-south-west. Exactly right for a journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.

    Against:
    One of the strengths of this theory is the repeatability of the event. However there is no way that the Magi could have known that this was going to be a triple conjunction until it actually happened. If the highly unique nature of this phenomenon is to be used as a powerful argument, then the Magi would not have set off on their journey until the third conjunction had taken place. If this is so then they could not have seen the apparition repeated later on. One could argue that they set off after the second conjunction and then saw the third on the way to Bethlehem but this still weakens the argument since double conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn are quite normal . Also as we have said, the time between conjunctions is less than 7 months, and less than 3 months between the second and third conjunctions. Herod’s killing of the baby boys suggests a time interval of one to two years.

    Also against it is the fact that this phenomenon is not a star. It is two stars. It looks like two stars. Knowing this, attempts have been made to show that either Jupiter or Saturn is the Star of Christ. The suggested evidence seems equally split between them. This is the problem with astrology; it is, with hind sight, possible to link any earthly event with some heavenly one. There is always some interesting conjunction or some such happening and who is to say what phenomena means what when it comes to specific events. A triple conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation of Pisces might have indicated to Babylonian Magi the birth of a world leader from Judea, but can we be certain? We know that the Babylonians saw this event because we have their record of it on clay tablets but would they really have given it this interpretation? In 26 BC, (as our wise men would recall from their records) there were much closer conjunctions between Jupiter and Saturn and also with Regulus, the ‘King Star’ in the constellation of the Lion. On the 12th May Jupiter and Saturn were in conjunction. They were joined by Venus on the 10th June. Jupiter and Saturn were in conjunction a second time on June 30th and a spectacular line up of Jupiter, Saturn and Regulus took place. If we were looking for a date around 30 BC we might be saying that this is the Star of Bethlehem heralding the new born King of the Jews, the Lion of Judah! We could play this game at any time in history.

    A further objection to this theory is that both Judaism and Christianity condemn astrology. Always supposing that this conjunction did appear at the right time, why would the early church want to include an account which appears to give credence to a system of faith at odds with Christianity? If the early Christian writers had any inkling that the Magi had used astrology to work out the birth of Christ they would never had included it. As we have seen, the Magi did use astrology, but they also gathered knowledge of signs and prophecies. It should not be thought automatically that the Star of Christ is necessarily an astrological phenomenon.”

  51. Cheyenne

    I think one of the reasons that I would never refer to myself as a “Skeptic” (despite my amateurish love of science) is that I’m not really into the whole “making fun of and constantly criticizing other people’s religion” thing.

    People can believe whatever they want, I really don’t care, and as long as it doesn’t impact me negatively in some meaningful way I’ll just respectfully let them keep on keeping on. Listening to Shermer (“flying Spaghetti monster”), Myers (too many to quote), Harris, etc gets pretty old fast. They seem to whine a bit too much.

    By the way, I don’t think Bad Astronomy does this at all. I think this article was interesting and well written.

  52. supes12

    sigh..and another thread degenerates into two camps who purport to fully understand everything both scientifically and culturally and theologically; the us against them….my favourites so far this time around include bible verses/”teachings” pulled randomly out of context and the idea that all Christians take the Bible literally. It’d be ideal if everyone could take at least 1st year science and 1st year Ancient Near East history/religion. A full undergrad degree in both programs would be especially helpful.

    My point is people get so polarized at both ends they miss so much. I say bring on the science – It works, it’s amazing and fun! Bring on the ancient history/anthropology – let’s try to understand things from a different cultural perspective, things that weren’t written with a 21st understanding of science and see what we glean from it!

    Definitely, the wackiness should be left behind, but don’t dismiss potential learning opportunities along the way. There’s so much to learn and experience and so little time. I’m tired of the bashing back and forth…Bash someone, and they’ll bash back for sure. Time to check out the latest issues of Near Eastern Archaeology and Icarus…much less stressful and enjoyable.

  53. Cusp

    From an Australian perspective – I’m here in Sydney and of course we have not heard anything about this story – It’s a media search for a querky story (just like the ones we get about crazy brits and americans but which never appear in their home countries).

    So basically, the sorry is that someone got hold of some standard sky software and set the date to 3bc and took at look at the sky and went ooh – look at that.

    And the problem with the word “astronomer” is that it covers everyone from professionals to nut-bags – and it’s hard to tell which is which.

  54. Shoeshine Boy

    I’ll second the statement that this BA article “was interesting and well written.” Very nice work, Phil.

  55. @Ibid “Since Jesus was supposedly born while his folks were heading back to Jerusalem for a census it’s long been thought that the birth would be in warmer months making Jesus a Taurus or Gemini.”

    The actual census is one of the few references in the Gospel story to an externally recognizable historical event. Let’s see what Luke has to say about it (King James Bible 2:1-2):

    “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. 2 And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.”

    O.K. So we have a Roman emperor – Augustus. That narrows the date down to 27 BCE to 14 CE. We have a census carried out by a governor of Syria named Cyrenius (Roman name was Publius Sulpicius Quirinius, 51 BCE – 21 CE). There is good historical evidence that Quirinius was appointed governor of Syria in 6 CE and promptly carried out a census for taxation purposes. This was 9 years after the death of Herod the Great. The existence of this census is attested to by Josephus:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Census_of_Quirinius

    So this presents a contradiction, either Joseph and Mary travelled to Bethlehem due to the Census of Quirinius in 6 CE in which case Herod the Great was already dead and could not have ordered the slaughter of the innocents, or Joseph and Mary travelled to Bethlehem while Herod was still alive in which case there is no known census that would have caused them to travel there. So either way, it just doesn’t fit the known facts.

    Not looking good for Christian historicity unless you want to throw out major components of the Gospel accounts.

  56. Like Phil, I tend to think it’s pointless to try to link ancient astronomical phenomena to the Biblical story.

    However, it’s worth pointing out that there’s a perfectly respectable scholarship of ancient manuscripts generally, including those of the Bible, which aims to reconstruct what was originally written from what we have left today. The fact that there are multiple different manuscripts helps, not hinders, this scholarship, and it has gone into modern translations. This means that we can be reasonably sure that what we read in a modern translation indeed reflects the original writings (and that the idea of an ‘original’ is meaningful, for the New Testament, at least). Where there is scholarly uncertainty, this is usually indicated by the footnotes.

    Of course, none of this means that the originals were inspired, or any more or less reliable than other documents. It applies just as much to Julius Caesar, or Josephus.

  57. F) There are more versions of the oldest texts known than there are words in the New Testament. This one blew my mind!

    Actually, if I remember Misquoting Jesus right, then there were more differences between the known versions than words in the New Testament. Not quite the same as what you said.

  58. Mike Lemonick

    It’s irresistible for some to keep trying to explain the SOB–and I’m as tired of it as Phil and others are. Anyone remember the Arthur C. Clarke short story?
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Star_(short_story)

  59. Doc Kinne

    Phil, we have as much evidence that Jesus existed as an actual historical figure as we have evidence that aliens have visited this planet in spaceships. Period.

    We have no independent records of this guy Jesus outside of the Bible, and the Bible is as historical as a Tom Clancy novel. (Which really gets me to thinking how 500 years from now someone may think that Harrison Ford was one of our Presidents! :-) )

    Before the Council of Nicea (?) around 200CE or so, Christ was born in the late Spring. December was chosen to try to counteract and assimulate Pagan celebrations going on in Rome area at that time.

    The problem with astronomers who do this research is that they take as fact the Christian myths because they’ve been raised to think of the as true in the same way that the Aristotoleans were raised to think the Earth was at the center of the system. No one questioned it, which is why it stood until the time of Copernicus. We simply have no independent historical records of the guy, and those that we thought we did have were debunked in the 50s. I tell this to people, I tell them to do their own research, and they, to a person, have come back to me wide-eyed believing me.

    Astronomers who do this research are reaching to find a coincidence that has nothing to do with fact.

    This argument has nothing to do with religion. That Jesus never existed does nothing to alter the fact that the concept of him is the most powerful social concept in Western civilization, bar no one. I say nothing bad about Christians whatsoever, but from a rational standpoint, their beliefs are simply that – unverified beliefs, not scientific or historical fact.

    In my opinion, astronomers who look for the star of Bethleham are letting their religious thoughts mix with their scientific ones (not a hard thing to do, I know), and desperately need another project.

  60. @Doc Kinne “Phil, we have as much evidence that Jesus existed as an actual historical figure as we have evidence that aliens have visited this planet in spaceships. Period.”

    Are you another adherant of Earl Doherty’s “The Jesus Puzzle” or are you getting this from some other source?

    http://www.jesuspuzzle.com

    I read Doherty’s book and I was still left with lots of doubts. I don’t think we’ll ever know for sure unless some amazing archaeological find gives us the real answer.

    One of the things that gives me pause in asserting the nonexistence of Jesus is this quote from the Roman historian Tacitus in his Annals of Imperial Rome (c. 116 CE):

    “Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired”

    Such a blistering attack on the Christians and their founder is actually quite good evidence for his existence, and is not likely to be a Christian forgery. One is not likely to spend one’s bile in attacking a nonexistant person. For example, there are few diatribes in today’s newspapers attacking the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus. At least Tacitus believed that Jesus existed and this was less than a century after the supposed crucifixion. Maybe Jesus was real after all.

  61. Moth-R Say, I wasn’t thinking of the vague moral platitudes you mentioned. I was thinking of the other 99% of the bible.

    Rules on how to beat your slave, rules for the selling of your daughters, rules for killing your new bride if she turns out to be a non-virgin, rules against wearing blended fabrics, rules against eating shellfish, rules for thought crimes, stories of the ‘benevolent’ god killing all of the first born children, stories of that same god destroying entire cities, stories of that same god killing every living thing with a flood (accept 2 of all of the millions of individual species that live on the earth, in one boat. Or was it 7 of each?) etc.

    And before you bring up the quote from Jesus about fulfilling the law, don’t forget this other great gem from the son of god : “For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven”
    Of course, the Pharisees lived according to all the laws of the Pentateuch. If you shave, wear mixed fabrics, eat shellfish, or any of the other abominations, you don’t get to go to heaven.

    I could go on, but I doubt you would read it all. If your truly interested in the contradictions of your faith, there are a great many websites that I could point you too. A great first stop would be http://www.debunkingchristianity.com. Good luck.

  62. Thanny

    Doc is correct – Jesus is not a historical character.

    Just as there may have been an actual person that served (very loosely) as inspiration for the King Arthur myth, there may have been one or more actual people serving as the inspiration for the Jesus myth. But that person (or those people – would-be messiahs were a dime a dozen around that time in the Middle East) was not Jesus.

    Jesus is a mythical figure, not a real one, so trying to link up actual back-predicted astronomical events to his entirely fictional birth account is silly in the extreme.

  63. Ubi Dubium

    I recall reading about a scholar who actually thought to ask some shepherds in that area about whether they ever sat out with their flocks at night. Their answer was, “Yes, but only in lambing season, in April.” So those nativity scenes, instead of showing a few peaceful sheep with the shepherds, really ought to have some very pregnant ewes in labor! (That will make them more entertaining. Especially after we add a baby FSM (pesto be upon him) and a couple of Pirates to the display!)

  64. As noted previously, December 25 is the one date we know that Jesus Christ probably wasn’t born on. According to the Bible, shepherds has sheep in the fields, which is not something you do in winter. So the conflict between Bible and astronomy in this case is not a problem.

    There’s certainly plenty of evidence that *parts* of the New Testament are true. Josephus, among other contemporary historians, mentions Jesus and much of what is recounted is consistent with what we know of that time. But, as your buddy Penn noted, even if you could prove that most of the Bible story were true (i.e., Jesus was born, gave some sermons, got crucified as a heretic, body vanished, etc.) that wouldn’t prove anything. It’s still a matter of faith and belief as to what to make of those facts.

    So I find this fascinating in a historical context but meaningless in a theological one.

  65. Wow! Hard to read through all this stuff. It goes from very sensible writing to nonsense and word (or should I say “turd”?) salad. Tom Marking’s is good and should be read more than once. Same for Vageofgodalming.

    For many of the entries, the drivel about the Bible needs to be put into the context of contemporary textual and form criticism – that eliminates all literalists and mentalfumbalists (sorry, fundamentalists). The New Testament writings weren’t written until many years after the events. Before that all Jesus stuff was handed down with oral tradition, with various strains and modifications depending on the communities that propagated them. At the time there was no distinction between astrology and anything else one saw in the skies. There must have been stories of the “wise men”; they don’t appear in all of the Gospels. Turning astrological information and actual planetary conjunctions in various constellations into stories that could be remembered and retold could very easily become “a star” over Bethlehem or shining over the shepherds, or even over the “manger.” At some point, all this stuff had to be transcribed, justified, decisions made as to what to keep and what to throw out; not to mention transcription errors and editorial redactions.

    As far as I’m concerned there is no “one Bible,” only various collections of individual texts that various devotees call their “Bible.”

    The whole Christmas story, “star” included, is something that we in the 21st century need to take in its context, and reinterpret with whatever community traditions we find ourselves in, whether we be believers or skeptics. There is no “right” overarching interpretation that will falsify all the others.

    Enjoy the season, as well as the discussions and disagreements!

  66. DrFlimmer

    Sometimes, faith is all we have!

  67. rhea

    Perhaps those who spread these stories simply used an event like this to use as a reference point to convince people.

    “It happened on the night there was that big star in the sky, remember that night”

    Isn’t something much more believable if it is personalized?

  68. Moth-R

    Bart Mitchell,

    My dictionary says this

    pharisee
    n 1: a self-righteous or sanctimonious person

    Do you have a debunking-the-dictionary website too?

  69. Voss

    Sorry if someone’s already mentioned this, but don’t forget the star and wise men baloney only occurs in Matthew. Luke contradicts it. John doesn’t mention Jesus’s birth. And Mark, the earliest gospel, can’t be bothered either.

    The supernatural trappings of Jesus’ birth would have been great “proof” for Jesus being the Messiah, yet two gospels don’t mention it, and the two that do don’t even agree. Why would anyone think it’s true?

  70. complex field

    Phil,

    I think you missed the point when it comes to ancient prophesies: such were written after the events that they supposedly predicted. Geoffry of Monmouth did the same thing when he wrote his “History of the Kings of England”.

    You wrote, “There’s still no indication of this; the conjunction could have been real, but that does not mean it had anything to do with Jesus’ birth”

    Given the way prophesies were written, it actually would have everything to do with his birth (assuming, of course Ol’ Josh ever was a real person).

    “Mr Reneke says the wise men probably interpreted it as the sign they had been waiting for”, which of course is explained by using “post hoc ergo propter hoc.”

    Just a thought in order to degrade the (S + N) / N

  71. Bill Nettles

    http://www.starofbethlehem.com has another descriptionof what could have happened. First proposal, editions of Josephus after the mid-1500′s have an error on the date of the death of Herod. Earlier manuscripts infer that Herod died in 1 BC, not 4 BC. So the birth of Jesus could be in 3 or 2 BC. Second proposal, the planet Jupiter does a retrograde dance around Regulus in the constellation Leo; I believe the time is Sept 2 BC. At the time of this “dance” Jupiter in Leo is in the morning sky, just ahead of the Sun “in the east.” The sun is rising between Leo and Virgo, with a waxing crescent moon at the feet of Virgo, followed by the Serpent, all imagery described by John in the Revelation, Chapter 12. (John, BTW, was an eyewitness of the works and words of Jesus of Nazareth, as were Peter and Matthew. You might not believe they wrote their respective “books” in the NT, but you have no proof about your presumption.)

    The magi from the East were learned men and when they saw these connected events (retrograde triple-occurance conjunction with Regulus in Leo [representing the tribe of Judah, from which the Messiah was promised to come], just ahead of the virgin “giving birth” to a waxing moon, they interpreted it as a sign, possibly the conception of a King.

    Nine months later, they see the fabulous conjunction of Venus and Jupiter, conclude that what they saw earlier WAS a sign, and ride to Jerusalem. By the time they get there, Jupiter is higher is the sky, but also in retrograde so that it (a wandering star, which ordinarily moves each night among the fixed stars) is NOT wandering, but is shining brightly in the southern sky over Bethlehem each night, not moving around. A set of real astronomical events. Now, do they really signal the birth of a King? That’s not a point science can measure, yet, because Jesus didn’t become a King. But then the whole story isn’t over.

    So, if all you people want to think there’s nothing more to Phil Plait than a bunch of highly organized chemicals, organized according the laws of quantum electrodynamics and general relativity (which, BTW, are what makes his body work) outputing electromagnetic fields which stimulate your similar blobs of chemicals, go ahead. I believe there is a litte more to him than science can describe.

    Merry Christmas, Phil.

  72. David B
  73. First of all, what exactly is new here? The idea of a conjunction between planets being the “star” of Bethlehem was proposed decades ago; Asimov’s Guide to the Bible (1977) mentions a close apparent approach of Jupiter and Saturn in 7 BCE which could have been noticed by Babylonian astronomers. After summarizing a few such proposals, Asimov writes,

    One might suppose then that in the decades following Jesus’ death, when his disciples piously scraped together whatever records they could find of his life, some might remember the appearance of an unusual phenomenon in the heavens at about the time of his birth — either Halley’s Comet or the close approach of Jupiter and Saturn. The Jews were not themselves astronomers (indeed, they eschewed astronomy, because the study of the stars in those days was invariably and notoriously associated with heathen idolatry) and would describe any such manifestation as simply “a star.”

    Matthew may well have picked up the story, with the miraculous associations that gathered about it, and included it in his gospel.

    It is important to recall that the “nativity story” we soak up in our culture is a montage, a kind of harmonized cartoon version of the different stories told in the different gospels. Mark, often said to be the earliest canonical gospel, begins its story with the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. Matthew and Luke give stories about the infancy of Jesus, but the stories in one are not found in the other. The events recollected in Matthew have something of the feel that they were told to give Jesus the air of being a newer and better Moses: Did Moses escape a slaughter of the innocents? Why so did Jesus! Did Moses come out of Egypt? Why, so did Jesus!

    In Matthew, Jesus is born in Bethlehem “in the days of Herod the king” (2:1). The three wise men arrive, and on the advice of Herod’s scholars they go to Bethlehem (2:8), following the same star which led them to Judea in the first place (2:9). This is not how astronomical objects behave. Then God warns them that they should not return to Herod (2:12), so they flee. God sends another dream to Joseph (2:13), who flees with his family to Egypt (2:15). Herod is upset and orders all the children in and around Bethlehem who are two years of age or younger (2:16), an atrocity not recorded by Josephus or any other surviving source, even though said sources were careful to chronicle lesser crimes of Herod. Then Joseph has another dream, telling him it’s safe to return (2:20), and after a third dream, decides to settle in Nazareth (2:23), apparently fulfilling a prophecy which does not actually exist in the Old Testament.

    In Luke, by contrast, Augustus Caesar decides that “all the world” should be taxed (2:1), during the administration of Quirinius (2:2). Joseph leaves Nazareth and travels to Bethlehem (2:4), dragging his pregnant wife along (2:5). Jesus is born in Bethlehem and swaddled in the manger (2:7). After Jesus’ circumcision (2:8) and some other stuff, they return to Nazareth (2:39).

    These are not the same story! Moreover, if you take the elements of the nativity story which we all learned growing up — the star, the manger, the wise men — you find that some come from Matthew, and others from Luke, and the elements which originate in one gospel do not occur in the other.

    Whatever the truth about the “historical Jesus”, the nativity story is a confabulation.

    Historical evidence for the existence of Jesus is thin on the ground. The passage of Tacitus quoted earlier in this thread, for example, was written the better part of a century after the time when Jesus supposedly lived. What good is it, when a hundred years of fallible memory and untold reams of deception stand between the historian and the event? What were his sources — hearsay?

    Some evidence also exists that factions of early Christianity believed in a Jesus who never took physical form on the Earth. For example, the apologist Minucius Felix wrote a dialogue called Octavius sometime between 150 and 200, in which he had a Christian named Octavius argue with a pagan character named Caecilius. The pagan Caecilius says this of Christians:

    And some say that the objects of their worship include a man who suffered death as a criminal, as well as the wretched wood of his cross; these are fitting altars for such depraved people, and they worship what they deserve.

    Octavius, a character invented by a self-identified Christian, responds by saying (a) that pagans believe similar things about incarnated gods, but (b) those beliefs are ridiculous. “Therefore neither are gods made from dead people, since a god cannot die; nor of people that are born, since everything which is born dies,” he tells Caecilius, and moreover,

    These, and such as these infamous things, we are not at liberty even to hear; it is even disgraceful with any more words to defend ourselves from such charges. For you pretend that those things are done by chaste and modest persons, which we should not believe to be done at all, unless you proved that they were true concerning yourselves. For in that you attribute to our religion the worship of a criminal and his cross, you wander far from the neighbourhood of the truth, in thinking either that a criminal deserved, or that an earthly being was able, to be believed God.

    No being who ever walked the Earth could ever be believed God? Heady stuff.

    Other apologetic works have also survived in which the idea of a divine being walking the Earth and being redemptively sacrificed is never mentioned, as if the story of Jesus was incidental or irrelevant to what those apologists believed Christianity to be. Examples include Theophilus of Antioch’s To Autolycus, Tatian’s Apology to the Greeks and Athenagoras of Athens’s A Plea for the Christians.

    Perhaps the idea of the Messiah as a completely spiritual being never incarnated in Earthly form was a later development, an invention of Christians who wished to purify their faith. This kind of thing does happen: the first person that we know of who tried to establish a “canon” of Biblical books was Marcion of Sinope (c. 110 – 160), whose list of inspired documents excluded the entire Old Testament and everything except a few letters of Paul and an edited version of Luke. People are willing to throw away that which they don’t want to keep!

    I don’t know. The issue may remain forever unresolved.

    What we can say is that attempting to find astronomical truth in the nativity story as it currently exists within our culture is an attempt to pin an astronomical event onto a fictional creation.

  74. Thanny

    MikeS:

    Josephus wrote nothing about Jesus. There’s a forgery attributed to him that does so, written most likely by a guy known for pious frauds, but nothing legitimate.

    There are no historical accounts of Jesus at all, in fact. No accounts, period, outside of the Gospels and their derivatives. Many people find this hard to believe, but it’s a quite uncontroversial fact among serious biblical scholars.

  75. coolstar

    Aaron Adair does a good job of reviewing theories about the star of Bethlehem in the Dec. 2007 Sky and Tel. I’m surprised our Bad Astronomer doesn’t mention it but he does seem to be somewhat ill-read on the subject (as in PLEASE, why bother with another paper about the long known Venus-Jupiter conjunctions….).

  76. Moth-R, way to ignore all of the points, and dive into an argument over semantics. Its the only way to preserve your faith, so I would stick with it. Arguing with Christians is always interesting.

    As for your dictionary, it is a very poor place to research who the Pharisee were. If I were to look into who the Spartans were, I would use a encyclopedia, not a dictionary.

    For your education, the Pharisee was a social/political movement in Judaism that flourished between 550BCE to 80CE. They were known for their strict interpretations of the laws in the Pentateuch (the first 5 books of the old testament).

    As a Christian, you should know who these people were, as they are mentioned in the New Testament several times. Now that we have finished your remedial bible education, do you have a response to the substance of my previous post?

  77. Ian

    OilIsMastery:

    “Daffy, Atlantis has been identified as the island of Santorini which erupted in 1600 BC.”

    Um, no. The Santorini eruption has been hypothesized as a possible origin of the Atlantis myth, nothing more. It has several competitors in this regard.

    Plato was certainly not talking about Santorini, a small island in the Aegean Sea, when he described Atlantis as being located in the Atlantic in front of the mouth of the Strait of Gibraltar, and as being larger than Libya and Turkey put together.

    Some even think that Plato invented Atlantis out of thin air, as a rhetorical device.

  78. SLC

    Re Bill Nettles

    According to Wikipedia, Herod died in 4 BCE. Therefore, Joshua of Nazareth must have been born on or before this time.

    Re Oil

    Mr. Oil apparently rejects the laws of physics as well as evolution. There is no physical mechanism by which the Earth could not only stop spinning on its axis but also cease its revolution around the sun, both of which would be required in order for the sun to stand still in the sky for a day.

    Re Calli Arcale

    New Years day is on the 8th day after Christmas (starting from Christmas day) which was the day on which Joshua of Nazareth underwent circumcision.

  79. Calli Arcale

    SLC, that association is also somewhat speculative, since the Bible doesn’t record when Jesus would’ve been circumcized; it’s based on Jewish practices and several assumptions, most of which are problematic if one takes at face value the story that Herod ordered all male newborns killed.

    Daffy, regarding evidence of Christmas and Saturnalia, that also is speculative, and in my opinion, just part of the convenience of placing the festival then. (That is, folks were already partying at midwinter. If you have to pick a time to celebrate Christ’s birth, one could do worse.) Consider that the festival began before Christianity superceded Roman paganism. Also, it is incorrect that the early church forbade Christmas trees. Christmas trees are a relatively recent phenomenon, and in any case, the very early church was a lot more fractured than a casual reading of Catholic church history would lead one to think. Some were more adverse to pagan celebrations than others.

  80. Man, are you kidding me? 81 comments but only two Diggs?? C’mon, BABlogees, I’m counting on you here!

  81. Davidlpf

    Yes the eygptian gods are real. They made the pryamids to land their space craft and gathered humans as slave and sent them to other worlds through portals called stargates and many thousands of years later humans from Earth started to fight back. A few years later they found Atlantis in a far away galaxy.

  82. Calli Arcale

    Addendum: actually, a lot of the details of timeline are problematic if you take them at face value. It’s also worth noting that the book of Matthew is pretty much the sole source for most of the details of traditional Nativity scenes and plays — most notably, the Star of Bethlehem. EIther the story of Christ’s birth wasn’t important to the other authors, or Matthew (or rumor) added the bit about the star and the wise men to add versimilitude. I’m not saying ancient Jews were so dumb they didn’t know how the stars moved or anything; likely, Matthew (or whomever) didn’t actually mean it quite the way we usually take it. I’m just saying that there had been prophecies (both Jewish and Babylonian) for a long time, there was a lot of Messiah talk going around because of some perceived signs of the prophesies, and so it would be a stamp of approval to his readers.

    Interesting historical sidenote: Jesus was not the only person to whom a prophetic star, indicating him to be the Messiah, was attached. John the Baptist was another, as alluded to in the Bible. The name “Immanuel” also became remarkably popular around this time, perhaps because of optimistic parents hoping that the sign might be referring to their own child. Eventually, various signs and portents along these lines were even a factor in the Jewish revolt that ended so badly.

  83. SLC

    Re Calli Arcale

    SLC, that association is also somewhat speculative, since the Bible doesn’t record when Jesus would’ve been circumcized; it’s based on Jewish practices and several assumptions, most of which are problematic if one takes at face value the story that Herod ordered all male newborns killed.

    Obviously, no contemporaneous written record was made of the event. However, Jewish practice is for the operation to take place on the eighth day counting from the day of birth. There is no evidence that Joshua of Nazareths’ parents, being religious Jews, would have deviated from this practice.

  84. IVAN3MAN

    Phil Plait: “Man, are you kidding me? 81 comments but only two Diggs?? C’mon, BABlogees, I’m counting on you here!”

    Umm… I’ve just Dugg It, Phil, but I don’t see your name on the list of Diggers.

  85. Gary Ansorge

    Helioprogenus:

    That’s an interesting aside, about Mohammed and the Suras of the Quran, one which may need additional clarification.

    My friend, Saib AlGhamdi, told me the reason Muslims believe the Suras are the literal Word of Allah is because, in Arabic, they are the most beautiful poetry anyone has seen, either before or since their writing. The Suras were supposed to have been written down by scribes who were directly overseen by Mohammed, to ensure they wrote it down correctly. He was illeterate(as was 99% of the population) but had a great understanding of the importance of the written word. Since I don’t read Arabic, I cannot attest to the validity of Saibs insight however, I do know that Arabs place great store by language fluency. One reason I guess, that so many are fluent in English. For them, understanding language other than their own is a part of their culture.

    There are no pictures of Mohammed because he understood quite well the proclivity of humans to worship the messenger, when they should be paying attention to his words.As far as independent varification of Mohammeds existence is concerned, do you mean historical references to a census or some other such? Because the Arabs of that time didn’t do that kind of organization. They were itinerent shepards, with no formal governmental structure. Islam welded them into a single tribe(sorta) that then became a civilizing influence in that area. Remember, Mohammed was a 7th century, tribal person. Highly unlikely anyone would have heard of him before his Message to his people and his take over of Mecca and Medina.That act alone has many historical references, I believe,,,

    GAry 7

  86. Adlea

    The gospels are a series retroconning, minus Jar-Jar.

  87. @Blake Stacey “The passage of Tacitus quoted earlier in this thread, for example, was written the better part of a century after the time when Jesus supposedly lived. What good is it, when a hundred years of fallible memory and untold reams of deception stand between the historian and the event? What were his sources — hearsay?”

    Publius Cornelius Tacitus was a Senator and a historian. As such he had access to the Imperial Library in Rome as well as any library anywhere in the empire. We don’t know what his sources were, but given his high status in Roman society suffice it to say that he would have had access to the most accurate reports available, perhaps even correspondence between Pontius Pilate and the Emperor Augustus. Given that fact I think we can assume that he would have been able to check the records and find out whether or not there indeed was a crucified criminal during the tenure of Pontius Pilate. Upon failing to find such a record, would he have hesitated to lay that charge at the feet of the Christians – that their founder didn’t even exist? I think not given his general disdain for Christianity displayed in the passage. Let’s review the quotation again:

    “Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome”

    Several points jump out at me:

    1.) He calls the founder of the religion Christus, not Jesus of Nazareth
    2.) The founder was executed in Judaea by Pontius Pilate
    3.) The religion originated in Judaea

    Now, the mythicist position is that Tacitus obtained his information from contemporary Christians. But given that he was a Roman Senator and the Christians of the time were considered by the Romans to be the dregs of society, how likely is it that he would have been paling around with Christians asking them about their religion? It would be like a U.S. Senator paling around with the Hare Krishnas or something like that.

    @Thanny “There are no historical accounts of Jesus at all, in fact. No accounts, period, outside of the Gospels and their derivatives.”

    I just gave you one, Tacitus. There is also another interesting quote from Suetonius’ “Lives of the Twelve Caesars” (written c. 120 CE):

    “As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he (Claudius) expelled them from Rome.”

    So the Jewish followers of someone named Chrestus were raising cane and so the Emperor Claudius (41 – 54 CE) kicked them out of Rome during his reign. So Suetonius has Chrestus and Tacitus has Christus. If Suetonius is basing his passage on some historical record then apparently there were followers of someone named Chrestus who were causing problems in Rome sometime between the years 41 to 54 CE. How can this be since the mythical figure of Christ (Jesus of Nazareth) wasn’t supposedly invented until the Gospel of Mark whose earliest date is 65 CE? How can there be a real Chrestus whose followers are causing a ruckus in Rome at least 11 years before the myth was invented? IMHO that raises serious doubts about the mythicist cause.

    Now, is the Tacitean Christus and the Suetonian Chestus the same individual? Who knows, maybe. Is it Jesus of Nazareth? Again, unknown. But I think it’s a bit of an overstatement to say there are absolutely zero non-Christian sources bearing on the issue.

  88. G. Marie

    Perhaps if you knew Jesus you would be healed of your infirmities, peaceful even in the midst of your storms and your families would be experiencing Blessings that would out number the hairs on our heads. God’s ways are higher than our ways and His thoughts are deeper than our thoughts. Whatever God wants to do He can and no man can withstand Him. He will TAKE THE FOOLISH THINGS OF THIS WORLD TO CONFOUND THE WISE. Our wisdom, no matter how profound we may think we are, no matter what we may think we know about a universe that could never have created itself is mere grains of sand compared to the mighty God we serve. To try to dismiss what has actually occurred because of information that we may or may not have is absurd. We will never have the technology to know the deep secrets of God, If He gave us the real answers to these questions what would we do? Try to make it a lie, trample it like we trample everything else He allows us to know. That is why in the Bible we are told not to give pearls to swine, they would never appreciate it. Whether we believe what has happened or we remain in unbelief will not change what God has inspired man to tell us through the Bible. One day it will be time to reckon with what we believe and prayerfully we will be in a place to be reconciled to whoever we believe created us. Be careful about what is said, I have found that words come back to haunt,judge and convict us. I Believe and no matter what I always will!

  89. JakeR

    A local professor of religion, one Brent Walters, says the historical data in the NT is consistent with Jesus’ birth in 8 BCE. Any speculation concerning astronomical events in 2 BCE is therefore moot.

  90. Bryan

    @Phil, you’re putting good effort into being more exact with your points, which I really appreciate. Yes, many of the bible stories seem ridiculous from a modern scientific standpoint — but others would suggest a better word is “miraculous”. You correctly say that we don’t know, and can’t prove whether or not any of those stories are true — and correctly imply that if any are true, those happenings are outside of what we’ve observed in nature and therefore a miracle of some kind. I can believe in miracles, while many here cannot (yet?). I imagine part of you enjoys stirring the pot a little, but these last few posts have kept me nodding my head a lot more than earlier ones did. Keep it up.

  91. Jeffersonian

    “So if the Wise Men story is true”
    Phil, you’re confused here. The gospels do not say the wise men visited Jesus at birth. They see the star and look for Jesus who is now at least two years of age, meaning the star indicated his presence, not his birth – Matthew (2:7-12). The other gospels do not agree with this account.
    You might have it mixed up with Baby Jesus visited by shepherds (not wise men) in Luke 2:8-13 but not because they see a star; they are visited by an angel. (The other gospels are not in accordance with Luke’s author.)

    Either way, our calendar would be off by, what, two years?

    Reneke goes on to say:

    This is not an attempt to decry religion.

    That’s a weird thing to say in and of itself. It’s like saying “this is not an attempt to decry philosophy”. What, for example, would it have to do with Judaism or Buddhism or Zoroatrianism?

  92. Autumn

    Tom Marking,
    I feel like I have said this before, but “Christ” is not a name, it is a title.
    The existence of Royalists who love Royals is not evidence of any particular king or queen.

  93. Jeffersonian

    @Blake Stacey
    “the nativity story is a confabulation”

    But just like Catherine Emmerich’s passion story has become part of xtian mythology, it’s obvious why the nativity stories have now been added : they appeal to certain demographics.

  94. Quiet Desperation

    People can believe whatever they want, I really don’t care, and as long as it doesn’t impact me negatively in some meaningful way I’ll just respectfully let them keep on keeping on.

    Did you spend the last eight years in an underground bunker?

  95. csrster

    “For your education, the Pharisee was a social/political movement in Judaism that flourished between 550BCE to 80CE. They were known for their strict interpretations of the laws in the Pentateuch (the first 5 books of the old testament).”

    Even as a two-sentence summary this strikes me as remarkably inaccurate. One of the defining features of Phariseeism was the importance it attached to the Oral Law and the prophets. In that sense, the Pentateuch played a much less central role in Phariseeism than it did in other contemporary strands of Jewish thought, such as Sadduceeism.

    However it should be added that our knowledge of what these groups really believed is very sketchy because all the sources (christian, pagan-Roman, Jewish) are so partisan. For example, talmudic Judaism sees itself as the inheritor of Phariseeism and therefore tends to project its worldview back in time onto its supposed pharisaic predecessors.

  96. I think it’s not terrible to assume that many of the stories in the Bible are derived in some way from actual events. But it IS pretty terrible to believe that the stories in the Bible in any way legitimize belief in a God, or anything else it tells you to believe. It is simply a collection of books written 2000+ years ago. The various authors collected stories, often passed through multiple sources first. Inevitably the details would change. And obviously anyone interested in perpetuating certain religious ideas would also have tweaked the stories to fit their needs.

  97. As one of the other commenters already mentioned, this certainly is *not* a new theory: the Jupiter-Venus extreme conjunction theory has been around for quite a while.

    The magii were astrologers. To them, the significance would be in that it took place in Leo – the sign of Judea and the sign of Kings and power. That would be the cue to the “direction” they had to take – to Judea. No need to literally follow a star.

  98. and they say that he was born in June. Isn’t christmas fake then? because you’re celebrating the birth of the christ.

  99. To ad to my earlier comment: being astrologers, in a culture which heavily attached earthly meaning to heavenly signs, particularly the movement of planets (which they could predict), this extreme conjunction certainly would have been seen as a powerful prediction.

    The confluence of Ishtar (Venus), symbol of love, war and ambition, and Marduk (Jupiter), chief deity of all, in the sign of Judea, kings and power…. well, you can easily see how that gives rise to the idea that it heralded the birth of an ambitious new King and son of the Gods in Judea.

  100. Darth Robo

    @Gary Ansorge

    >>>”There are no pictures of Mohammed because he understood quite well the proclivity of humans to worship the messenger, when they should be paying attention to his words.”

    If I recall, there’s not supposed to be pictures of Jesus either, for the same reason – idolatry. But the Christians decided to turn him into a rock star anyway.

    @Tom Marking

    I still think it’s pushing it a bit that those Roman historians provide evidence of Jesus’s actual existence. It does seem clear that somewhere between (approximately) 8BC-8AD that Christianity was in the process of being invented, so it’s no surprise really that Tacitus would have written about it, or dealt with the Christians. Acceptance of Chritianity grew fairly rapidly since its inception, and what started out as a minor fuss of a few Jew and Roman civillians changing their religions to this funky new cult, in a few hundred years took over the Roman Empire. Christian propaganda would likely have been rife, and the Romans would have took notice. But there is still no definitive evidence that Jesus was actually real. The stories of Christ may well have been based upon a real person (or two), but nothing solid either way.

  101. Icemelter

    The same guy (Mr Reneke) has also been reported elsewhere on other astronomy topics and has made some wierd comments (for a trained astronomer):

    http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,22324653-36095,00.html

    About how the Moon might turn purple during an eclipse one day and seems he is also investigating “UFOs”:

    http://blogs.abc.net.au/queensland/2008/07/ufos—gold-coa.html

    Oh my !

    Icemelter

  102. @Darth Robo “It does seem clear that somewhere between (approximately) 8BC-8AD that Christianity was in the process of being invented, so it’s no surprise really that Tacitus would have written about it, or dealt with the Christians.”

    It’s my understanding that the mythicist position has the myth starting much, much later at the time when the Gospel of Mark was first written, c. 65 CE or later. At least according to Earl Doherty, Saint Paul does not have a historical Jesus in mind and Paul was operating in the Near East c. 40-60 CE, so the myth of a historical Jesus is post-Paul.

    BTW, if as Blake Stacey says the 2nd century CE Christians such as Minucius Felix did NOT believe in a historical Jesus who was crucified in Judaea, then that’s pretty good evidence that Tacitus, writing in the 2nd century CE, did NOT get his account of the founder of Christianity from Christian sources. It must have come from Roman historical sources.

    “The stories of Christ may well have been based upon a real person (or two), but nothing solid either way.”

    If what you desire in order to claim historicity is a detailed alternative biography of the person in question written by an unbeliever, then we don’t have that for the putative founder of any other world religion, either. Not for Muhammad (Islam), not for Moses (Judaism), not for Siddhartha Gautama (Buddhism), etc., etc. If that is the criterion then none of these founders of religion are historical either.

  103. American Voyager

    The biggest problem I with this being a conjunction between Venus and Jupiter in 2 BC is the timing. The Bible makes reference to other historical events and persons. For example it mentions Herod the Great, who ruled Palestine at the time of Jesus’s birth. It has been established from the historical record that he died in 4 BC. Also, it mentions a census ordered by Augustus. During his reign, Augustus took three of them. One was in 6 BC. This fits very well with the account in the Bible that Herod ordered the murder of all Bethlehem boys who were 2-years-old or younger, for that event happened near the end of his life. As far as the “star” being a conjunction of planets, I doubt it, for like others have said above, the planets were well known in ancient times and many astronomers (“astrologers” as they were known then) followed them. There would have been nothing unusual about the two brightest planets coming together other than the spectacular show they would have put on.

  104. csrster, thats a pretty harsh assessment of my description of the Pharisee, especially after your following sentence
    ‘our knowledge of what these groups really believed is very sketchy ‘

    I hold that the phrase “For your education, the Pharisee was a social/political movement in Judaism that flourished between 550BCE to 80CE. They were known for their strict interpretations of the laws in the Pentateuch (the first 5 books of the old testament).” accurately fills your description of the Pharisee nicely. The Pentateuch is the collections of many different scribes who collected the oral traditions of the Jewish tribes. Our understanding of their strict adherence to the law can be derived from the many different version of the New Testament, where the Pharisee are repeatedly described as holding the law above god, or worshiping the law, and not god.

    My brief definition was to help Moth understand that his simple definition from a dictionary was insufficient.

  105. I would never argue with Phil’s awesome knowledge of astronomy, but I fell I have to mention that it is posible to see Venus with the naked eye during the daytime – if the sky is clear and you know exactly where to look. My eyesight is only average, but I do remember a time back in the late 1980′s (I think) when we had a rare unbroken run of weeks of clear skies here in England and Venus was very bright in the evening skies. I looked for it each evening for weeks as it gradually climbed up the sky, and every day I started looking a little earlier, zeroing in on the small part of the sky where I knew it would be.

    Eventually I was able to spot Venus at midday believe it or not, but only because I was looking in exactly the right place, after weeks of observation. I have never been able to do this since, mainly because the skies are never clear enough for more than a few days at a time, and because of light pollution which of course wouldn’t have been a problem 2000 years ago.

  106. Oops – “Feel I have to mention… ” of course!

  107. Cheyenne

    “Did you spend the last eight years in an underground bunker?”

    ZING! Sweet :) ! Yes, yes I did. It was a wonderful one. I had computer access and I got to sit around making fun of people with anonymous blog comments. I was the master of my domain. I named my bunker “Cheyenneland” and it had shag carpeting and velvet all around.

    Sorry if I offended you with that statement. Dork.

  108. After reading some of the earlier posts, I have to say I am astonished that some people still take Velikovsky seriously. As soon as I saw his name I literally burst out laughing. His “theories” have been debunked so hard and so thoroughly that a mere mention of his name (along with Von Daniken’s) is enough to tell me all I need to know about whoever mentions these quacks.

    Try this for starters:
    http://www.astrosociety.org/education/resources/pseudobib07.html

  109. TheOtherOne

    “a Spanish scholar who came to the New World a generation after Columbus, wrote that the American aborigines told of a great catastrophe, in which the sun had risen only a little way above the horizon, and then stood still. These are but two of the many traditions from all parts of the world which refer to a disturbance in the earth’s orderly rotation.” — Eric Larrabee”

    Uh-huh. So, the American aborigines remembered or recorded a story which the Spaniards had forgotten about? That’s certainly possible, but it means that we’re talking about old records, and we’re hearing what someone says the aborigines either read or were told someone else had read, as opposed to these aborigines being actual witnesses to the event. (And we’re also dealing with some translation issues.) So were the aborigines retelling one of their myths? Or discussing actual records of an actual event?

    And if it was an actual event, shouldn’t those records of the sun standing still be accompanied by records of the horrific things that happened at the same time? Seriously, if the earth stops spinning (in order for the sun to stand still in the sky), there’d have to be some pretty noticeable physical effects. . . . Yet they’re not mentioned.

    As for the “the night didn’t end for a long time”, sounds like a massive volcano put a lot of material into the air and blocked out the sun. Doesn’t require that the earth stop moving.

  110. Gary

    Daffy said:
    “Gary, Not one story in the Bible about Jesus was written by an actual eyewitness. None. Just for the record.”

    Most scholarship on the biblical manuscripts attribute the Gospel of John to one of Jesus’ close followers. This is based on internal references in the book and writings by church leaders in the following two centuries. There’s little if any credible evidence of another author or a reason to think otherwise. The books of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles most likely were written by an educated person who collected eye-witness accounts specifically to have as accurate a record as possible. Again the attribution is based on internal and external references and a general lack of credible alternatives. Research in the 19th century cast some doubts on authorship, but it seems mostly based on speculation rather than evidence. At this point in history, it is of course impossible to prove, but strong support by the principle of parsimony (the simplest explanation is usually the correct one) means the doubters need substantial evidence to make their case.

    So you’re most probably wrong in your assertion.

  111. Moth-R

    Thank you for enlightening me with your scientific mind. I see now that your only primary source “For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” means that people who eat shellfish will not go to heaven. What a fool I was to think that it meant that anyone who follows the rules too strictly rather than the ones that follow it’s spirit are the ones out of sync. Your pragmatism beats my semantics.

    > My nose (look under)

    Gee, I wonder who the modern day Pharisees would be?

  112. Farb

    The whole thing is made suspicious by its characterization as some sort of astonishing revelation, when many posters have already pointed out that this conjunction has been known for quite some time. The use of “complex computer software” is another tip-off, since most planetarium software for ordinary PCs will calculate precise planetary positions backwards and forwards for several thousand years (of course, it gets more and more subject to any number of errors accumulating over time; ultimately, the proper motion of the stars becomes another error). My own software, sent with a telescope I bought four years ago, shows Venus within the distance of the angular separation between Jupiter and Io on 6/17/2BCE.

    So, this looks like another “inspiration piece” along the lines of the old “Joshua’s Missing Day” hoax, albeit based on somewhat more accurate scientific information.

  113. Only two of the four gospels (Matthew and Luke) have a nativity story, and the stories in these two gospels are very different. Matthew’s gospel is the only one that refers to the star.

    The Gospel of Matthew is particularly focussed on Old Testament prophecies fulfilled by the birth of Jesus. It is not at all surprising then that Matthew might be impressed by the prophecy of Numbers 24:17

    I see him, but not now;

    I behold him, but not nigh:

    a star shall come forth out of Jacob,

    and a scepter shall rise out of Israel;

    it shall crush the forehead of Moab,

    and break down all the sons of Sheth.

    Matthew seems to have constructed much of his narrative on the basis of the prophecies that he was familiar with. In at least one case, Matthew’s reliance on prophecy seems to have led him to a ridiculous conclusion. See Matthew 21:1-7 describing Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem.

    [1] And when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Beth’phage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples,

    [2] saying to them, “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find an ass tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. [3] If any one says anything to you, you shall say, `The Lord has need of them,’ and he will send them immediately.” [4] This took place to fulfil what was spoken by the prophet, saying, [5] “Tell the daughter of Zion,

    Behold, your king is coming to you,

    humble, and mounted on an ass,

    and on a colt, the foal of an ass.”

    [6] The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; [7] they brought the ass and the colt, and put their garments on them, and he sat thereon.

    Matthew has Jesus straddling two animals, a colt and an ass, as he enters the city.

    The prophecy which Matthew quotes is Zechariah 9:9.

    [9] Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!

    Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!

    Lo, your king comes to you;

    triumphant and victorious is he,

    humble and riding on an ass,

    on a colt the foal of an ass.

    Can the prophet really mean that the prophesied Messiah will enter Jerusalem riding somehow on top of two animals of different size? Actually what we have in this Zechariah verse is an example of a well-known feature of Hebrew poetry, parallelism (also see this page; a Google search will reveal many further references). What Zechariah means to do is merely to emphasize that the Messiah will enter Jerusalem riding, not on a horse, but on a humble ass, and to emphasize that the animal is an ass, he describes the animal as the offspring of an ass, thus emphasizing that the animal really is an ass, and not some nobler creature. Matthew, apparently being a scriptural literalist takes the poetry to mean that Jesus must have ridden into the city on two animals at once, no matter how awkward that might have been.

    Given the way that Matthew builds his narrative on his literal reading of scriptural prophecies, it is highly improbable that there was any Christmas star. Rather the star was introduced into the narrative on the basis of Numbers 24:17. The star in the heavens was the star out of Jacob — Jesus. That’s all that Matthew’s story means. It also contains, of course, a reference to Psalm 19:1 (New International Version)

    The heavens declare the glory of God;

    the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

    There is absolutely no reason to imagine that Matthew’s story — glorifying Jesus as the fulfillment of prophecy — refers to any real astronomical event.

    All the biblical quotations in this discussion are taken from the Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted.

  114. Moth-R

    BTW, my previous post at 9:41 am was for Bart. However, it goes back to my original point which is religion is meant to allegorical. If you try and use the bible to trace scientific events it will be fraught with problems as others have suggested here – like the Pharisees. This is why determining the age of the Earth with the Bible by that Bishop a long time ago does not match modern science. He used scientific methods to do so. By the way, Lord Kelvin’s scientific estimate of the age of the Earth does not match modern science either. So are we to say that science is doomed? I sayeth nay, dude. %)

    That is not to say that scientific investigations of ancient texts like the Bible are a waste of time. Look at the Iliad, it was thought that Troy was a fictional place but it turned out to be a real place.

  115. @American Voyager “Also, it mentions a census ordered by Augustus. During his reign, Augustus took three of them. One was in 6 BC. This fits very well with the account in the Bible that Herod ordered the murder of all Bethlehem boys who were 2-years-old or younger, for that event happened near the end of his life.”

    Luke specifically mentions Cyrenius (i.e., Quirinius) as conducting the census under the auspices of Augustus. The specific historical context is as follows. Herod Archelaus who was the son of Herod the Great ruled Judaea after the death of his father in 4 BCE. In 6 CE the Romans kicked him off the throne and took over the direct control of Judaea. This was the first time that the Roman Empire excercised direct control over Judaea as a Roman province, instead of as a client kingdom. Quirinius was appointed governor of Syria and put in charge of tax assessment in Judaea as well. Thus, the census of Quirinius is firmly established as occurring in 6 CE and is thus long after the death of Herod the Great. It could not have occurred earlier since Archelaus would still have been alive.

    Concerning the other censuses ordered by Augustus, there were three that we know of – 28 BCE, 8 BCE, and 14 CE. They applied ONLY TO ROMAN CITIZENS and thus would not have affected Judaea at all. Thus, the only relevant census that we know of that would have applied to Jews would have been the Census of Quirinius in 6 CE.

  116. @TheOtherOne “And if it was an actual event, shouldn’t those records of the sun standing still be accompanied by records of the horrific things that happened at the same time? Seriously, if the earth stops spinning (in order for the sun to stand still in the sky), there’d have to be some pretty noticeable physical effects. . . . Yet they’re not mentioned.”

    I wonder if there is not some atmospheric effect that can cause such a phenomenon. For example, when you see the sun set it is actually already below the horizon (the center of the sun’s disk is actually 0.83 degrees below the horizon at the moment of sunset). Atmospheric refraction causes the sun to appear just at the horizon when it is actually below the horizon.

    So what would happen if some change takes place in the refractive index of the atmosphere? Could it not cause the sun to appear to reverse direction or hang stationary for some time, especially near sunset or sunrise? So the earth actually stopping its rotation is not necessary to cause an apparent change in the sun’s motion. So what kinds of things could cause a change in the refractive index of the atmosphere? Maybe things like the injection of superheated gas into the atmosphere between the observer and the sun, etc., etc. Just a hypothesis that might explain such observations.

  117. TheOtherOne

    Tom, the problem with the notion of an atmospheric effect is that when you go back and look at Joshua 10 (I checked it to see how specific it gets), the sun and moon were both supposed to have stood still “for about a whole day”. I could see something making it seem like the sun didn’t move for a while, but the same atmospheric effect making it seem like neither the sun or moon moved for 24 hours seems unlikely. It then goes on immediately to say that nothing like it had ever been seen before or since – so if there were some kind of effect, it would have been unique at least in that region.

  118. Moth-R, I never referenced your original post. I agree that most of the bible is a distorted reflection of history, mixed with ancient mythology.

    I thought our entire side conversation here was in when you responded to my post with
    “Bart,

    Which absurdities are you talking about: “love thy neighor”, or “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour”, or maybe “And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.”?

    Hmmm, nothing but myths and contradictions there.”

    I agree on your comment on the Illiad. Its worth while to examine ancient works of fiction, like the Bible and Iliad, in order to better understand the people of those ancient times. Basing your life on those ancient beliefs is seems foolish.

    Where I pointed out that these are basic moral platitudes that are found in most societies that aren’t based on the ancient Semitic beliefs. I did give some examples of how it has contradictions and rules that we would consider amoral. You then offered a dictionary definition of a social/political group.

    Your last post proves my point for me. The bible contradicts itself regularly. It has a central character who says that you must follow the law in one part, and the same character is quoted as saying that you don’t need to follow the law. There is a commandment telling us not to kill, and another story of Yahweh commanding the armies of Judea to kill everyone in a city, even the infants.

  119. Bill Nettles

    SLC,
    Wikipedia notwithstanding, there is debate about the 4 BC date for Herod’s death. That’s because the traditional interpretation of the inferences in Josephus point to that. Most of those works use older manuscripts of Josephus’ histories. Earlier manuscripts (pre-1500) reportedly have information that infer a later date. Wikipedia is NOT infallible, nor authoritative. Some of it is good, some of it’s bad; caveat emptor.

    If you look around at some other sources, you will find that 2 or 1 BC is also a valid inference for the death of Herod. Josephus never says, “Herod died in [x] year.” It’s the translators that assign the years, and they may be wrong. Look up “Craig Chester Star of Bethlehem” if you care.

    All the Best,
    Bill

  120. Daffy

    Gary, most historians date the Gospel of John at around 90 AD (or CE, if you prefer); it was not written by an eyewitness…unless you want to suggest someone in the age lived to be well over 100 years old.

  121. @TheOtherOne “I could see something making it seem like the sun didn’t move for a while, but the same atmospheric effect making it seem like neither the sun or moon moved for 24 hours seems unlikely. It then goes on immediately to say that nothing like it had ever been seen before or since”

    Let’s review the passage in detail using the King James version: Joshua 10:11-14 :

    “And it came to pass, as they fled from before Israel, and were in the going down to Bethhoron, that the Lord cast down great stones from heaven upon them unto Azekah, and they died: they were more which died with hailstones than they whom the children of Israel slew with the sword. Then spake Joshua to the Lord in the day when the Lord delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel, Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou, Moon, in the valley of Ajalon. And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies. Is not this written in the book of Jasher? So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day. And there was no day like that before it or after it, that the Lord hearkened unto the voice of a man: for the Lord fought for Israel.”

    Now, ask yourself this. What does “about a whole day” mean in Bronze Age Palestine? All of their notions of time were based upon the motion of the sun and the normal diurnal period. So if the sun is not moving, there is no external clock that can tell them the elapsed time. So we are dealing with subjective time here – maybe the sun was stationary long enough for them to get hungry. So I wouldn’t necessarily equate this with a 24 hour period. And of course, if there really was a source atmospheric/astrophysical event its effects would become magnified down the centuries in the constant retelling of the story until an original period of 30 minutes in which the sun didn’t move was magnified into a whole day.

    I also find it significant that meteorites are pelting the enemy shortly before this event. Incidentally, scientists denied the existence of meteorites until 1803 when French scientist Jean-Baptiste Biot investigated a major meteorite fall in L’Aigle, France. Both the Bible and the Koran had reported (accurately as it turned out) centuries before that stones do indeed fall from the sky.

    So perhaps some type of asteroid impact is associated with the Joshua incident. Perhaps a plume of dust rose between the sun and where Joshua was standing, changing the refractive index of the atmosphere, and causing an apparent change in the position of the sun over some short period of time. Of course, it’s speculation but I don’t think we can rule it out.

  122. @Bill Nettles

    “If you look around at some other sources, you will find that 2 or 1 BC is also a valid inference for the death of Herod. Josephus never says, “Herod died in [x] year.” It’s the translators that assign the years”

    Yes, but Josephus does tell us that Herod Archelaus, the successor to Herod the Great, was deposed in the tenth year of his reign:

    Antiquities, 17 13:2 “But in the tenth year of Archelaus’s government, both his brethren, and the principal men of Judaea and Samaria, not being able to bear his barbarous and tyrannical usage of them, accused him before Caesar…Whereupon Caesar, when he heard it, was very angry, and…both banished him, and appointed Vienna, a city of Gaul, to be the place of his habitation, and took his money away from him. So Archelaus’s country was laid to the province of Syria; and Cyrenius, one that had been consul, was sent by Caesar to take account of people’s effects in Syria, and to sell the house of Archelaus.”

    We know from Roman sources that Cyrenius (i.e., Quirinius) was appointed governor of Syria in 6 CE. This is also the year in which Archelaus was deposed. This is a so called “hard date” in Josephus’ chronology and it doesn’t depend on Josephus at all – it can be established by Roman sources. So if Josephus is right about Archelaus being deposed in his 10th year we can just count back:

    6 CE, 5 CE, 4 CE, 3 CE, 2 CE, 1 CE, 1 BCE, 2 BCE, 3 BCE, 4 BCE

    This means Archelaus took over the kingdom in 4 BCE which must also be the year that Herod the Great died. Are you saying there are manuscripts of Jewish Antiquities that say that Archelaus ruled only 7-8 years?

  123. Daffy

    “So perhaps some type of asteroid impact is associated with the Joshua incident. Perhaps a plume of dust rose between the sun and where Joshua was standing, changing the refractive index of the atmosphere, and causing an apparent change in the position of the sun over some short period of time. Of course, it’s speculation but I don’t think we can rule it out.”

    Which in turn became grossly distorted into a ridiculous story about the earth actually stopping its spinning for 24 hours. Nope, can’t rule that out.

  124. DTdNav

    @ Tom Marking,

    Normally I just lurk, but I really have to comment on a couple of things you wrote.

    Tom: “If what you desire in order to claim historicity is a detailed alternative biography of the person in question written by an unbeliever, then we don’t have that for the putative founder of any other world religion, either. Not for Muhammad (Islam), not for Moses (Judaism), not for Siddhartha Gautama (Buddhism), etc., etc. If that is the criterion then none of these founders of religion are historical either.”

    Precisely. Although the criteria for believing in any religion is not infallible and independently verifiable historical accuracy of a founder, a preponderance of evidential accuracy for their claims should be required. My assertion is that all religions fail this. Which is why I believe in them all equally.

    Tom: “So what would happen if some change takes place in the refractive index of the atmosphere? Could it not cause the sun to appear to reverse direction or hang stationary for some time, especially near sunset or sunrise? So the earth actually stopping its rotation is not necessary to cause an apparent change in the sun’s motion. So what kinds of things could cause a change in the refractive index of the atmosphere? Maybe things like the injection of superheated gas into the atmosphere between the observer and the sun, etc., etc. Just a hypothesis that might explain such observations.”

    Are you saying that you think some type of atmospheric phenomena is responsible for the belief that the sun and moon were made to stand still for “about a day?”

    Tom: “So perhaps some type of asteroid impact is associated with the Joshua incident. Perhaps a plume of dust rose between the sun and where Joshua was standing, changing the refractive index of the atmosphere, and causing an apparent change in the position of the sun over some short period of time. Of course, it’s speculation but I don’t think we can rule it out.”

    Oh, I see. The meteor shower caused the atmospheric refraction by either injecting superheated gas or throwing up dust plumes from the ground.

    Tom: “And of course, if there really was a source atmospheric/astrophysical event its effects would become magnified down the centuries in the constant retelling of the story until an original period of 30 minutes in which the sun didn’t move was magnified into a whole day.”

    I’m pretty sure the passage is referring to how God fought on the side of Israel by keeping the sun and the moon in the sky long enough so they could kick some tail. Something that might take a bit longer than 30 minutes. I’d guess closer to maybe “about a day.” Unless you’re willing to admit that a human inaccuracy has just been introduced into the Bible.

    Tom: “I also find it significant that meteorites are pelting the enemy shortly before this event. Incidentally, scientists denied the existence of meteorites until 1803 when French scientist Jean-Baptiste Biot investigated a major meteorite fall in L’Aigle, France. Both the Bible and the Koran had reported (accurately as it turned out) centuries before that stones do indeed fall from the sky.”

    I guess your point is that the Bible and the Koran can be accurate about some things even when modern science isn’t. Good point. The difference is that because of science we now know much more about meteorites than their existence. We know where they come from, what they’re made of, and why they behave the way they do. The Bible simply says that God cast stones down from heaven. Yes, it’s proven that stones fall from the heavens, now prove the “God cast” part.

    Tom: “Of course, it’s speculation but I don’t think we can rule it out.”

    I don’t know, but I think you are a bible apologist. What gave it away was the stretching of logic and invention of implausible phenomena to make it seem like the most improbable things of the bible could work. The problem is, I don’t think you’d ever rule anything out regardless of how unlikely. Of course, this is only speculation.

    Cheers, and Merry Christmas!

  125. @DTdNav “A preponderance of evidential accuracy for their claims should be required. My assertion is that all religions fail this. Which is why I believe in them all equally.”

    Huh? You believe in all religions equally? I think you meant to say that you disbelieve in them all equally. How could you believe in them all equally since they contradict one another on so many points?

    “Are you saying that you think some type of atmospheric phenomena is responsible for the belief that the sun and moon were made to stand still for “about a day?””

    No, I’m saying that the claim that the earth’s rotation has to actually stop for 24 hours in order to explain the story is not necessarily true. There may be other phenomena which explain it. The whole asteroid/atmospheric disturbance hypothesis is just one example of a phenomenon which might explain it.

    “Unless you’re willing to admit that a human inaccuracy has just been introduced into the Bible.”

    I believe that’s what I said – some initially short event that may have been real got stretched into a much longer event as it was passed down from generation to generation orally. I believe that’s what you might call “human inaccuracy”.

    “The Bible simply says that God cast stones down from heaven. Yes, it’s proven that stones fall from the heavens, now prove the “God cast” part.”

    To a Bronze Age Hebrew living in Canaan anything that happens in nature, God did. So if stones fall from the sky, God did it. So of course the Bible will say that God caused it.

    “I don’t know, but I think you are a bible apologist.”

    LOL. Please read ALL the postings on this thread instead of cheery picking. Like my postings on the Census of Cyrenius, death of King Herod, etc., etc. Then come back and tell me I’m a Bible apologist.

    “The problem is, I don’t think you’d ever rule anything out regardless of how unlikely.”

    Question for you, DTdNav. Are you saying that under no possible circumstances can atmospheric phenomena cause an apparent change in the position of the sun in the sky? If so please provide some evidence for that assertion.

  126. I’m pretty sure decorated trees of some kind were used amongst the pagans centuries before Christ. Jeremiah mentioned people cutting down trees to decorate them and decried the practice.

  127. Gary

    Daffy said: “Gary, most historians date the Gospel of John at around 90 AD (or CE, if you prefer); it was not written by an eyewitness…unless you want to suggest someone in the age lived to be well over 100 years old.”

    Most historians also think that John, who was the only one of the 12 closest followers of Jesus not to experience martyrdom, lived to an old age. It’s quite possible (maybe even likely given the teacher-student relationship at work) that he was a younger than Jesus. Let’s be generous and say he was born in 10 AD; that would only make him 80 at the attributed date of the gospel. That certainly is within the realm of possibility. Yes, lifespans were statistically shorter, but that calculation includes high infant mortality rates. The proof isn’t ironclad, but neither is there proof that no account could possibly be from an eyewitness.

  128. Daffy

    Gary,

    Since the author of John is unknown, and the age required is quite a leap to claim he was an actual follower of Jesus, I would say the burden of proof is on anyone trying to make that claim. Not to mention that the details in John differ from those in the other Gospels.

    I would not care about any of this were it not for the fact that so many Christians want to claim the Bible as literal truth—and want it taught in schools that way.

  129. Darth Robo

    Tom

    >>>”Question for you, DTdNav. Are you saying that under no possible circumstances can atmospheric phenomena cause an apparent change in the position of the sun in the sky? If so please provide some evidence for that assertion.”

    If you claim that something CAN cause this, surely it’s YOUR job to provide an explanation, no? Until then, we expect the sun to act in it’s usual predictable way.

  130. @Darth Robo

    “If you claim that something CAN cause this, surely it’s YOUR job to provide an explanation, no? Until then, we expect the sun to act in it’s usual predictable way.”

    Usual, predictable way, huh? I think you’d better educate yourself. Strange goings on with the sun are not just reported in the Bible. They have been reported by various observers for centuries. For example, take this account of Ernest Shackleton describing his voyage to the Anarctic:

    http://www.coolantarctica.com/Antarctica%20fact%20file/History/south/south_shackleton_chapter3.htm

    “Worsley was in the crow’s-nest on the evening of the 15th, watching for signs of land to the westward, and he reported an interesting phenomenon. The sun set amid a glow of prismatic colours on a line of clouds just above the horizon. A minute later Worsley saw a golden glow, which expanded as he watched it, and presently the sun appeared again and rose a semi-diameter clear above the western horizon. He hailed Crean, who from a position on the floe 90 ft. below the crow’s-nest also saw the re-born sun. A quarter of an hour later from the deck Worsley saw the sun set a second time. This strange phenomenon was due to mirage or refraction. We attributed it to an ice-crack to the westward, where the band of open water had heated a stratum of air.”

    So the sun set, then reversed its motion, and rose again above the horizon. I suppose now you will be calling Shackleton a liar since his observation means the earth reversed its rotation, which is of course impossible.

  131. Greg in Austin

    So, what could cause the earth to stop rotating and revolving for half a day, and then restart again? If a large enough body were to pass close to, but not hit, the planet, could it only temporarily alter the orbital motion of the earth/sun (and moon) system? Or would it more likely permanently change the orbital characteristics?

    Sounds like an interesting physics problem. Have the calculations for such a thing been tested?

    8)

  132. DTdNav

    Hi Tom,

    My apologies if I misinterpreted your postings as apologetics if you are not of that bent. The atmospheric aspect of your arguments really seem (to me) to be a bit of a stretch and an attempt to legitimize an unlikely occurrence as told by the Bible. This is a technique that is often used by apologists.

    I really only had issue with those things I quoted, hence the cherry picking.

    Tom: “Huh? You believe in all religions equally? I think you meant to say that you disbelieve in them all equally. How could you believe in them all equally since they contradict one another on so many points?”

    I believe that all religions exist and all have some aspects to them that are true. However, I do not believe that any of them have a special relationship with any divine entity(ies) or are uniquely truer than any other. Yes, I believe in them all equally – an equally small amount.

    Tom: “I believe that’s what I said – some initially short event that may have been real got stretched into a much longer event as it was passed down from generation to generation orally. I believe that’s what you might call “human inaccuracy”.”

    Apologists often use their mental contortions to attempt proof that the Bible is inerrant. Since you evidently weren’t doing that, see first paragraph above.

    Tom: “To a Bronze Age Hebrew living in Canaan anything that happens in nature, God did. So if stones fall from the sky, God did it. So of course the Bible will say that God caused it.”

    Agreed. But if you are going to argue that the Bible has special information making it a reliable source of facts you need to provide proof that the latter is as true as the former.

    Tom: “For example, when you see the sun set it is actually already below the horizon (the center of the sun’s disk is actually 0.83 degrees below the horizon at the moment of sunset). Atmospheric refraction causes the sun to appear just at the horizon when it is actually below the horizon.”

    Tom: “Question for you, DTdNav. Are you saying that under no possible circumstances can atmospheric phenomena cause an apparent change in the position of the sun in the sky? If so please provide some evidence for that assertion.”

    The apparent movement of the sun across the sky is about 15 arc-minutes for every minute of time. That equates to around 7.5 degrees for one-half hour. According to your quote above this is more than 9 times what is observed when the sun is at the horizon. An atmospheric anomaly that lasts 30 minutes, is large enough to be observed over a whole region, and makes people engaged in battle stop and notice would be a pretty significant event. I am not asserting that that cannot happen. I am just skeptical of your rationalization. I do believe the burden of proof is on you.

  133. @DTdNav

    “Apologists often use their mental contortions to attempt proof that the Bible is inerrant.”

    I think you have mistaken my claim that certain stories in the Bible may (repeat MAY) be based on something that really happened for Biblical inerrancy. The two positions are starkly different.

    “But if you are going to argue that the Bible has special information making it a reliable source of facts you need to provide proof that the latter is as true as the former.”

    Well, I wouldn’t say it’s a reliable source of facts. However, it may point you in the direction of previously unknown historical facts indirectly. Of course, everything lies hidden under a veil of distortion but that is as true of the Iliad as it is of the Bible. For example, let’s take Noah’s flood which was actually borrowed from the Epic of Gilgamesh. I believe it was a guy by the name of Utnapishtim who is the Noah character in the Epic of Gilgamesh. So is the flood story true? Well, it now turns out that it may all be based on an asteroid impact which occurred in the Indian Ocean c. 2800 BCE. So there was a mega-tsunami which inundated the Near East at the time, but how close is the story to what really happened? Not very close – the story has 40 days and nights of rain; the reality was several hours of 10-meter plus waves hitting the coastal areas of the Near East. So by the time the Noah story gets all the way down to us it only has a grain of truth left which is the flooding of the land. None of the specific details of what really happen remain. I think the story of Joshua is probably very similar – the exact details bear little resemblance to the grain of truth which lies behind it.

    “The apparent movement of the sun across the sky is about 15 arc-minutes for every minute of time. That equates to around 7.5 degrees for one-half hour. According to your quote above this is more than 9 times what is observed when the sun is at the horizon. An atmospheric anomaly that lasts 30 minutes, is large enough to be observed over a whole region, and makes people engaged in battle stop and notice would be a pretty significant event. I am not asserting that that cannot happen. I am just skeptical of your rationalization. I do believe the burden of proof is on you.”

    A couple of points. What would have happened if the ancient Hebrews witnessed an event similar to what Shackleton witnessed in the 1910′s (i.e., a sun set followed by the sun popping back up and then setting again)? This took about 15 minutes of time which would definitely be long enough for them to take notice. They definitely would have taken it as a sign from God, perhaps that he was granting them more daylight to smite their enemies.

    The 0.83 degrees (50 arc minutes) beneath the horizon is a global average that I got from the Nautical Almanac. This represents about 3.3 minutes of elapsed time assuming the sun is moving straight up and down. It varies considerably based on atmospheric conditions. For example, in far northern Russia on the Island of Novaya Zemlya the sun can be seen when it is still 5 degrees beneath the horizon (20 minutes if the sun moves straight up, 28 minutes if the sun is moving at an angle of 45 degrees relative to the horizon). So this is proof that refractive effects can get you into the half-hour time range. And who is to say that under even rarer atmospheric conditions that the time range can’t stretch into several hours?

    http://www.science-frontiers.com/sf015/sf015p12.htm

    There are other phenomena which might explain the story as well. Consider parhelion (the common name is sundog or mock sun) which under certain atmospheric conditions may be quite bright.

    Sundogs can easily be mistaken for the sun especially if the actual sun is obscured by clouds or beneath the horizon. They usually occur 22 degrees on each side of the sun. So a sundog mistaken for the sun at some earlier time, and the real sun being observed at some later time might give rise to the notion that the sun hasn’t moved. A 22 degree separation between sundog and sun represents 1 hour 28 minutes of elapsed time. A 44 degree separation between the two sundogs represents 2 hours 56 minutes of elapsed time. So confusion between sun and sundog could represent an error in time of several hours.

    There are even rarer sundog events such as the one observed by the astronomer Johannes Hevelius in 1661 which an inner halo of 22 degrees and an outer halo of 46 degrees. Sundog-to-sundog elapsed time for the 46 degree arc is 6 hours 8 minutes. This is now edging very close to the “about a day” range.

    I believe I have fulfilled by burden of proof in terms of at least plausibility. Without further historical or archaeological details that is about as far as I can go. I can show that it could have happened, but not that it did happen.

  134. quasidog

    I am pretty sure many respected Encyclopedias indicate Jesus was born around October anyway. The Decemeber 25th thing is also believed to have been a fusing of a Roman Sun god celebrations, of that date or near it, and the Christian story, historically meant to have been during the creation or fusion of the Roman-Catholic church about 100 – 200 AD, when Roman pagan holidays were fused with Christian doctrine. It has been ages since I have researched this but its pretty easy to dig up in a good encyclopedia.

    Also it is widely believed the ’3 wise men’ actually came to visit right after the birth, but according to the biblical account it seems it was later, a year or two after. Also of note, and this is a fact I have checked .. although semi-unrelated, nowhere in the biblical account does it say how many wise men there were, only that they had 3 types of gifts, and that they were astrologers. It is a common misconception that accont says there were 3 men. There may well have been 2 of them … with both of them giving the 3 gifts of gold, frankensence and myrr .. all together, or 4 of them, but there is definitely nowhere indicating exactly .. how many wise men there was supposed to be. Also of note was that the men were sent by a King that wanted Jesus dead, so they could report back to him on his whereabouts. So it seems strange that God would put a star in the sky telling them where to find him. That same King had every male child under 2 years of age killed in the entire land not long after.

    The thing is about this story, is that there are so many variations to it now, that it is hard to try to try to accurately predict a certain star or planetary conjunction, or comet, or supernova, at a specific time, that would be relevant. Which version would it be relevant to? If anyone really wants to know I guess reading the actual account, and the bits before and after it might be a good thing, before trying to debunk, or prove anything, regardless of whether you think its a myth or based in fact.

    I notice many people that try to debunk these things, have not even read the accounts to start with, or at best have glossed over it, or are jsut debunking a certain religions version of it. Nor have they set out a list of detailed facts of what exactly was supposed to have happened, and at what time. But one thing is certain, 25th December is the middle of winter in that part of the world, certainly not a time for shepherding sheep (there was supposed to be a shepherd with sheep in the story too ) and I find it hard to think all this would have been going on at that point, in extreme cold conditions. The winter is pretty harsh there. However, October or near it would have been fine, and fits in with Bible chronology in a far more conclusive manner. It is a matter of research.

    But that is just my version.

  135. @ Icemelter:

    The earlier comment of Reneke about a purple moon eclipse is really not that weird. The darker an eclipse is on the Danjon scale, the more deep purple the colour becomes. So with a lot of volcanic dust in the air (which was what Reneke talked about), it will indeed be very dark purple at eclipse.

    As for his involvement with UFO’s, the link you provided makes not clear what position he takes on UFO’s at all. So in both links, I see really nothing worrying for a professional astronomer.

  136. Gary

    Daffy,
    You get no argument from me that every sentence in the Bible cannot be taken literally with a modern understanding. One example: pi=3.0 according to the description of the purification basin at the ancient Hebrew temple (circumference=30 units, diameter=10 units). My point is that some information not being literally true doesn’t invalidate the idea that some of it can be. Of course burden of proof is on the claimant, but if the claim is reasonably possible then the skeptics have as much of a burden of proof. Mere assertion isn’t enough. In this case the weight of evidence is sufficient for me to accept that an eyewitness who makes the claim of authorship in the text (last chapter, next to last verse) most probably is. Your point about the content and particularly the style of this gospel compared to the others being different speaks to different authors, not *necessarily* a much later date.

  137. EG

    Have you heard of this?
    http://thestarofbethlehemmovie.com
    It’s taking this idea and moving it forward with more info.

    You can watch the entire video on youtube in 7 parts:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sGsnaJeQFCw&feature=related

  138. Edward

    I believe that it was the conjunction of Jupiter and Venus.
    Knowing the skys as they did, they used them as a guide west becaus ethey were the brightest objects in the sky during November/December. Since they came far from the east, that was probably an easy month’s journey. As they got closer to the middle east, they started asking around which pinpointed them to Bethlehem. remember that Joseph and Mary spent much time in Egypt.

  139. Homeward Bound

    Wake up everyone. If you really want the truth READ it for your self in the BIBLE of HIM. It is in there, I just studied it. And ask HIM to keep your brain functioning correctly so you can GET IT. GOT IT? So, why are you still here????? GO!!!!!

  140. Dave Reneke

    Dave Reneke’s reply:

    This is in reply to the large number of inquiries I’ve had on a story I wrote called “Was the Xmas Star Real?”

    Look, I didn’t intend to validate anyone’s birth date. In my original press release it never stated that. The story was simply an ambitious scientific exercise, using modern astronomical software, to go back and reconstruct the night sky of biblical times to either validate or refute the existence of a “Xmas Star.” What it actually implied was not tantamount to my research, and neither do I claim my work was unique. I simply followed on from previous speculation and investigation from other similarly confused souls (err, no pun intended) like myself attempting to puzzle out another ‘fact’ or ‘fantasy’ story.

    We take too many things for granted today because we’ve become complacent. Here’s a tip – question everything, it’s called ‘curiosity and it’s what made us stop chiselling round wheels out of square blocks of stone and start building spaceships. I have a simple philosophy. Fill what is empty. Empty what’s full. And scratch where it itches

    The chronological baseline I used was Matthew’s version of the bible, the first book of the New Testament. Among all the conjecture, confusion, hyperbole, and general misinformation it’s the only one that has all the key players assembled in the same place in (generally) the same time.

    For the die-hards out there, here’s some of the text. Oh, and don’t shoot me, I’m only the messenger, OK?

    “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him… After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen 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.” Matthew 2

    The Christmas Star, or the Star of Bethlehem, is mentioned only in chapter two of the book of Matthew. But this story of a bright star leading the magi, or wise men, to the birth of Jesus Christ has become an iconic symbol of the Christmas season. It sounds fantastic, and even has miraculous or divine overtones, but it could have happened.

    The French scientist, Descartes once stated, “In order to reach the truth it is necessary, once in awhile, to put everything in doubt… as far as possible.” This rule seems to be very applicable to the discussion of the evolution of Christianity in our tragic time. I realised this story would become an emotive issue. It cuts to the very core of our existence and questions our very place in this amazing and complex Universe.

    I’ve received hundreds of emails from all around the world on this story with mixed and insightful sentiments. I’ve been featured on some of the biggest programs in the world, from a live spot on Romanian TV complete with interpreters (really!) and dozens of global radio stations to prime spots on major U.S. networked breakfast programs, like GMA – Good Morning America.

    The number of websites my story has appeared on is countless. I chuckled at a few abridged versions – one has me as a research “team leader” using “complex computer software” (its Starry Night guys) and another claims I’m trying to change the day Xmas is celebrated to June 17. Oh, I almost forgot the one where I declared Jesus to be a Gemini! Go figure.

    I must say, in researching this story, I’m surprised how there is no absolute, undisputed record of Jesus’ birth date and the date of his death. Indeed, many accounts place his existence in the 2nd, 4th and even 6th decades BC! There is so much disagreement and general discord among students of the Bible about everything from actual dates key figures lived to whether in fact they existed at all. For instance, the biblical ‘Magi.’

    There is, I believe, no mention at all of December 25 in the Bible in connection with Jesus. Apparently it is an arbitrary figure laid down by the church, perhaps a dozen centuries ago, to celebrate or align with various religious festivals. I’m not a theologian, I’m not even scholastically gifted when it comes to biblical prophecy or the strict application of biblical verse, but I have my beliefs. In trying to unravel history the more simple anything is, the less liable it is to be disordered in my view.

    For arguably the most important person who ever lived, and someone who started a column of progress that still exists today with billions of followers, nobody can tell me with absolute unchallenged certainty when he walked the earth. It’s sad for I want it to be true! For most it is – but I just wanted some little bit of proof… can’t blame me for that, I’m human.

    I do however firmly believe this type of retrospective investigation, archaeo-astronomy if you will, is a minefield so badly populated with hidden traps, turns and disguised meanings it would be impossible for anyone to get to the truth. There are simply too many loose ends!

    OK, so what do we do with all this? So what if certain dates don’t relate to certain figures. It’s still a great story. We should stop right here and remember the reason we celebrate as we do this time of the year and ponder over the meaning of it all. For those who understand, no explanation is needed. For those who don’t understand … no explanation is possible.

    Merry Xmas. Dave Reneke

  141. Mark

    I just finished watching a dvd that sounds similar to the investigations of Dave Reneke.

    http://www.bethlehemstar.net

    For those who understand, be prepared for more understanding.(and awe)
    For those who don’t, there is still time.

    Unless Kepler was wrong, you just can’t make this stuff up.

    Merry Christmas!
    Peace on earth and good will toward men!

  142. David R

    I found this page while looking for anyone who could repond to the evidence on bethlehemstar.net. Looks like none of the Star of Bethlehem detractors have bothered to look at that site, which is disappointing. If they do (and read, not just look at the video), there is alot to respond to, because the author has done his research.

  143. Danielle

    Actually, this article disproves nothing!
    It basically just points out that it doesn’t explain the whole story,
    which, no, it does not.
    It just tries to make sense of something.

  144. I am late to this blog posting, but I wanted to point out that I already called out this story in last year’s entry’s comments:

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2007/12/25/the-bah-star-of-humbug-bethlehem/#comment-60789

    Of course I’m not the one to discover this – I merely read about this theory. It was many years ago and I no longer know where. In any case the “now” in this article’s opener, “there’s more to talk about on the topic now”, is simply wrong. It is has been known for a long time.

  145. David Johnson

    Concerning the conjunction theory:
    “The culmination of Kaufmanis’ research was his famous Star of Bethlehem lecture. During every holiday season starting in 1949, Kaufmanis would give his lecture at the University of Minnesota. It didn’t take long for the lecture to gain in popularity and become a tradition in the Twin Cities area. Other colleges, churches, local clubs, and a variety of other organizations kept Kaufmanis booked each Christmas season until 1997, when Kaufmanis had to move to Florida with his wife due to health reasons. He had given his lecture well over 1,000 times.”
    Prof. Kaufmanis was an Astronomy professor and head of he Department.

    The from
    http://www.space.com/spacewatch/star_bethlehem_021220.html

    “Another possible explanation for the Star of Bethlehem is the three-times passing of Jupiter and Saturn between May and December in 7 BC; a rare triple or “great conjunction.”

    Jupiter appeared to pass one degree north of Saturn on May 29; practically the same on Sept. 30; then finally a third time on Dec. 5.

    There is no doubt about the visibility of these events, mostly opposite to the Sun in nighttime skies. As for their astrological impact, the Magi would have certainly noticed that both planets did not appear to separate widely between their conjunctions. In fact, for eight consecutive months the time it might have taken to travel the 500 miles or more from Babylonia to Judea Jupiter and Saturn remained within three degrees of each other, from late April of 7 BC until early January of 6 BC.

    A fist held on an outstretched arm covers about 10 degrees of sky.

    But perhaps no other planetary grouping can equal that of the two brightest planets Venus and Jupiter for the explanation that we seek. And if we take the only known account of the Star literally, as given in St. Matthew, then what we really need is the appearance of not just one, but two “stars.” The first appearance would have been seen well in advance of the Magis arrival in Bethlehem, and the other at the end of their long journey.

    Perhaps the signal for their star was to be a sign in the constellation of Leo, the Lion.

    To the early Israelites, Leo was a constellation of great astrological significance and considered a sacred part of the sky. A very close conjunction of Venus and Jupiter would have been visible in the eastern dawn sky of the Middle East from about 3:45 to 5:20 a.m. on Aug. 12, 3 BC.

    When they first emerged above the eastern horizon, the two planets were separated by only about two-fifths of the Moons apparent diameter or 12 minutes of arc. As a comparison, the separation of the stars Mizar and Alcor in the handle of the Big Dipper is also 12 minutes. Planets this close are very striking, if they don’t differ too much in brightness.

    Incidentally, St. Matthew wrote that the Magi stated in their meeting with King Herod: “We have seen his Star in the East and have come to worship him.” It has never been clear if they saw the star in the eastern sky, or if they saw it from the East. The fact that the Aug. 12, 3 BC conjunction of Venus and Jupiter occurred in the eastern sky and may have also started the Magi on the journey (from the East) to Bethlehem means that both bases are covered with their statement — reported by St. Matthew — to King Herod.

    Venus ultimately vanished into the glare of the Sun, but Jupiter and Leo remained in the night sky during the next ten months. During this time a number of additional planetary conjunctions took place, all of which would have been of great importance to the priest-astrologers of the time.”

  146. The comment about the shepherds tending their sheep at night in winter would be a reason to exercise caution in assigning a December date. However, weather changes often evening in winter.

  147. John

    I was hoping to find some arguments against this claim from the creator of the Star of Bethlehem movie. I find none hear, or anywhere else on the net. I am believing the story until someone can disprove it.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sGsnaJeQFCw&feature=related

  148. A Stranger

    I recall a religious track printed I believe in the seventies telling about the space center preparing for the launch of a satellite and needed to prepare for the launch. numbers were crunched in the computer and it came back with errors, saying there was a day missing in space according to the planets alignment. They ran the program again more errors, a day missing, stumped they could not find an answer. A worker recalled in Sunday school there was a story about the sun standing still, sure enough he showed the workers the story and they crunched the numbers again, this time the computer said they were still short 45 minutes, he recalled another story where Hezekiah prayed to God for eight more years of life, it says the sun was moved backwards 15 degrees (I think) to show his prayer would be answered, the guys at the space center punched in this info and the remaining 45 minutes were accounted for by the computers. Go figure… : )

  149. alice r

    It looks like none of you have done your homework. Science requires a prediction. Try “a statistical solution to the star of bethlehem problem”

  150. * almost every year the planet Jupiter and the planet Venus do have a conjunction. The orbits of both planets seem to cross, either at sunrise or at sunset, in the time-frame of a few days. In the morning they sometimes show as two bright parallel eyes (Jupiter a little bit smaller than Venus). Sometimes they show as two parallel bright eyes at sunset.
    The behavior of both planets when they come closer on these special days, and cross, is an event that has been very important event in relation to the year of the return of Halley’s Comet. The cross could not always be seen at the same time of year our brightest comet could be seen. Metaphorically speaking, and in an astronomical context, the cross of both planets and the ‘beardstar’, a synonym of (Halley’s) ((a)) comet, made up a nose-less face. (two eyes and a beard).

    Before Christianity rose, the lives of children (the first born where the most precious gift), men and women where taken, to ‘please’ the eternal bearded god. They watched the apparitions of Halley’s Comet and sacrificed. One life for one day of visibility from the day on when the comet could be seen at brightest. This day they also called, metaphorically, “the crowning of the King” or ‘throne assumption’ because the tails of Halley’s Comet could be seen, on this special day, best at sunrise in the east and/or at sunset in the west. Kingdom and Kings, often related to myths and not by archaeological facts, are metaphors that can be traced back to the Lascaux caves in France (ca. 15.000 BC).

    So ancient megalithic monuments, like Stonehenge or Newgrange (Ireland), Egyptian 4th dynasty pyramids, anywhere are constructed in honor of the returning celestial eyes and celestial beard: the metaphorical King.

    So this article is not bad at all but incomplete. It lacks the concept of the (metaphorical) King.

  151. The writer is not correct in his statement about the “re-writing” of the Bible. The Bible has been translated into many different languages over time. It has been put into the modern vernacular several times as it should have been. But the compilation of the original documents has not been changed over the 2000 years. Given the slight shift in wording offered in modern vernaculars, the true meaning and intent of the narrative has not changed. It has not changed enough in substance to mean anything. To suppose that the story of the Magi was concocted over time is just not credible. It is in every Greek test that we have and has survived as the story line since the manuscripts were compiled. Whether someone believes in the ability of God to prompt them to follow the star; well that is between that person and God.

  152. Alan

    the writer is biblically illiterate

  153. These videos go MUCH more in-depth, using scripture to connect astronomical events not only to Jesus’ birth but also to his conception and crucifixion. In my opinion, there’s just too much here to be pure coincidence:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kqhi772VpZE&feature=related

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