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Ed Neumann

Ed Neumann is a member of the La Crosse Area Freethought Society.

Although the star of Bethlehem looks good on a Christmas card, what was this portentous luminary and how did it direct wise men to the little Judean hamlet?

One might suppose the birth of the Jewish Messiah had been recorded in all four canonical gospels, but this is not the case. Mark, the earliest Gospel, is strangely silent on the subject, as is John. And though Luke mentions certain early events, he says nothing about the star, magi, Jesus’ nativity, Herod’s slaughter of infants or a flight to Egypt. It turns out the anonymously penned Gospel we call Matthew is the only source we have for these events.

In fact, Luke and Matthew don’t agree on much. Not only do they list completely different ancestral lineages for their savior, their disagreement as to the year of his birth is irreconcilable. Luke claims he was born during the census of Quirinius (6 to 7 A.D.), whereas Matthew has it during King Herod’s reign (37  to 4 B.C.). This is a discrepancy of at least nine years.

However, if we want to explore the origins of Matthew’s star of Bethlehem, we’ll stick with his timeline — sometime just before 4 B.C.

Early on, most believers were content to call the star a miracle. But over the past few centuries, rationalists sought to identify the star with an actual stellar phenomenon — something natural rather than supernatural. In his book, “The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View,” physicist Aaron Adair outlines and evaluates the various hypotheses put forward.

Among the explanations were meteors, ball lightning and even UFOs. But three phenomena stand out as most likely to rise in the east and be interpreted by Persian Magi (Zoroastrian priests) as astrologically significant. Fortunately, the Chinese, among others, kept meticulous records of stellar events during the period.

Nova: The Chinese recorded none of these exploding stars during Matthew’s time window.

Comet: The Chinese witnessed a particularly long-tailed “broom star” in 5 B.C. Even so, comets were almost universally interpreted as bad omens, more apt to portend the death of a king than the birth of one.

Planetary conjunction: Much ado has been made of the triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 7 B.C. But the Babylonians thought such a conjunction signified war and hostility, and the Magi’s Avesta literature doesn’t mention them at all.

In agreement with Matthew, these stellar phenomena rise in the east. But so far, there is no compelling argument for an astronomical or meteorological phenomenon that would induce eastern sages to travel to Judea seeking a Jewish king. And that’s not the only problem.

According to Matthew, after the Magi spoke to Herod in Jerusalem, the star led them south to Bethlehem where, and the Greek is abundantly clear here, it “stood over” where the child was. Matthew employs the word epano, which implies not just above, but hovering directly over in close proximity. As Augustine interpreted it, the star left the sky and came down to the newborn. Real astral events don’t do this.

Another problem is that Matthew’s nativity narrative is not independently attested by any contemporary writer. Even Herod’s court historian, Nicolas of Damascus, who wrote a history of the world right up to Herod’s death, neglected to record these events. In fact, there are exactly zero corroborating reports about the star or a slaughter of innocents.

So if not actual events, what could have influenced the details of Matthew’s story?

We know Greco-Roman writers invented similar yarns with prophecies of coming rulers, miraculous signs and attempts on an infant savior’s life by the reigning king. Such tales were told of Perseus, Hercules, Zoroaster, Romulus, Alexander and Augustus.

A massacre of infants occurred in the legends of Sargon, Nimrod, Krishna and Moses. And versions exist in which a star heralded the births of both Abraham and Moses. By the time Matthew wrote, these motifs were cliché.

But the Old Testament may have been his biggest influence. Matthew often cites Scripture to show how his narrative “fulfills prophecy.”

Consider Numbers 24:17 — “A star shall rise out of Jacob, a scepter out of Israel.” Isaiah 60 speaks of eastern kings coming to the rising light of Israel bringing gold and frankincense. Matthew also blends Micah 5:2 (a promised ruler from Bethlehem) and 2 Samuel 5:2 into a contrived quotation to arrive at the connection he wants.

Moreover, we read details only an omniscient narrator could know — the mental state and agitation of Herod, the private conversation between Herod and the Magi, and the Magi’s dream.

In the end, the only record we have of the star comes from an anonymous figure reworking scriptural passages perhaps a century after the purported events, relating a tale that reads like myth, not history.

Rather than a miracle or stellar event, the star of Bethlehem is best explained as a literary creation. Not only is it historically untenable, but it bears all the earmarks of fiction.

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Ed Neumann is a member of the La Crosse Area Freethought Society.

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(32) comments

retiredone

Really getting tired of the Tribune giving print space to this little band of pseudo intellectuals who call them selves the Freethinkers. Someone ought to start a group to counter this craapolla that we read from them. It should be easy to counter stuff from these NON thinkers. They spend way too much time trying to detract from something that their TINY group finds to be objectionable. Most of their "stuff" is lock step from other sources and not new or original. Wonder how many other dizzy groups in the area could get this free space in the local daily wipe?

The Cross

Damned devil-worshippers...

Monteee

LOL....the devil doesn't exist. It's a myth.

neandros

Bill O'Reilly says it was a comet. Let's see, it rose in the east, led the magi west to Jerusalum, then turned 90 degrees and led them south to Bethlehem where it hovered over baby J. I'm pretty sure comets don't do that.

If only the faithful would seriously consider their fanciful beliefs in the light of reason, all religions would dry up and blow away like leaves in the wind. And the world would be a better place.

Monteee

The old superstitions are fading away slowly but surely. With every passing generation, more and more people are living without the yoke of obsolete God-Father myths. As long as we continue our present course, we will eventually rid ourselves of such nonsense.

Redwall

Whether you are a believer or not, it is disgusting, low class, boorish and disrespectful of the Tribune and Neumann to print this type of article at this most holy time of year for christians.

Buggs Raplin

Oh, for good grief, are you so shallow in your faith that you have to have a moratorium on criticism?

neandros

When would an article on the Christmas Star be more appropriate, Easter? It makes more sense to speak of such seasonal fantasies when they're at least somewhat relevant. Perhaps at Easter we'll see a column about another fantasy -- the resurrection...

Redwall

There are plenty of religions to pick on, if that is Neumans intent. That he follows the PC route and picks on christians means one more word is appropriate to describe him: coward.

Monteee

Actually, there is pretty much just one religion to "pick on" in this country - the religion that many self-righteous followers are trying to install in our Constitution, our Legislatures, our public schools, our courtrooms.....and even our newspapers. Guess which religion that is??

Monteee

Redwall, you could always move to another country, where a free press and free discourse aren't allowed. Perhaps Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan......they know how to deal with "disrespectful" citizens.

Snippy Dinosaur

That ain't no friggin' Christmas star, it's the light from the sewage treatment plant.

David Jarzemski

I always get a good chuckle from agnostics and especially from atheists when they find some fault with the Bible and the Jesus the Savior story. (Aside: Obama must be an invention too, because there are flaws in his life story too.)

Oh, the fascination with someone (Jesus the Son of God in this case) whom they don't believe in, is a serious pathology bordering on obsessive for the atheist in the crowd.

One more point: I'll bet my house that even if the Star of Bethlehem was proven to be real it would not convert one single atheist to the Christian Faith. So all the letter writer is really doing is trying to justify their non belief in an Eternal Being.

superman

Merry Christmas David!

Your smug arrogance has been like a warm bowl of chicken noodle soup to my soul.

Monteee

Evidence of a "Christmas star" would prove nothing. Just like evidence of a massive flood in the ancient Middle East wouldn't prove the story of Noah. As always, people take natural phenomena that they don't understand and they create imaginary stories to explain them.

But then, this is beyond the comprehension of the religiously indoctrinated. (chuckle, chuckle...)

Redwall

Absolutely disgusting for the Tribune to be printing this krap in the Christmas season.

Former subsriber (2011)

MidwestAtheist

Oh no, they offended a non subscriber! I guess the money you will take away from them is as imaginary as you god.

superman

Redwall embodies the real Christmas Spirit; that warped entitled attitude of life post morten and spoiled child denial of science, that is precisely the reason more and more younger adults reject their beliefs.

'Tis the Season of Reason!

sam maelstrom

Taking the writer's theme one step further, perhaps the whole gospel story is fictional. That would explain the complete lack of independent attestation for his birth, the miracles, and the resurrection. There is literally no reason to assume any of it actually happened. Paul's Jesus is only known after his death by hallucinations and scriptural passages. That's all. Mark then writes up his fiction to make him seem real. The others later embellish on Mark.

That explanation covers the facts best. Merry Xmas!

Buggs Raplin

Jesus is THE great mystery. I tend to believe he existed because of the Nag Hammadi gospels found in Egypt, but as bb said earlier in the discussion, I think the gospel writers made things up to fit with Old Testament prophesy. It's interesting to note that Paul's epistles were all written some 25 or 30 years before the gospels were written.

Opus

Yup. You are correct. There is nothing you wrote that can't be rationalized through reason and science. The top theologians in the world will agree with you on just about every point you make.
The star, most likely fictional, is not an essential to faith.
Santa Claus is a fictionalized character and I bet you will celebrate Christmas in your home with presents from Santa Claus. As silly as that practice is, you won't see people of faith trying to make you look silly for teaching your children about this Santa character or his flying sleigh.
Happy Holidays, Ed.

Napoleon

Opus: "The star, most likely fictional, is not an essential to faith."

If one bit is fictional, maybe it's all fictional? Talking snakes: fictional. Food falling from the sky: fictional. Virgin birth: fictional. Resurrection: fictional. Hobbits and orcs: fictional....

Okay, the hobbits and orcs are yet not part of Christianity, but I have faith that it's only a matter of time before they will be.

“Moonlight drowns out all but the brightest stars.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

“See, my precious: if we has it, then we can escape, even from Him, eh? Perhaps we grows very strong, stronger than Wraiths. Lord Sméagol? Gollum the Great? The Gollum! Eat fish every day, three times a day, fresh from the sea.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

Opus

Napoleon:" If one bit is fictional, maybe it's all fictional?"

That's a slippery slope, Napoleon. One can look at events we call "historical" in the same way.

Napoleon

Naaah... one can't equate manna from heaven with the Battle of Trafalgar, no, the latter is plausible while the former is clearly on the same level as the Lord of the Rings.

Buggs Raplin

As bb mentions below, it appears the gospel writers would just make things up to fit Old Testament prophesy regarding the Messiah. I recommend the best selling book, "Zealot" on that subject. Ed Nuemann mentions UFO's as a possibility. If you've never seen "UFO's in Ancient Art" google it. There are a surprising amount of old paintings with UFO's in them; many featuring Jesus.

Napoleon

Well, Buggs, the one thing I can say for UFOs is at least it's in the realm of remote plausibility. Christianity: it's not only untrue, it's not even in the realm of plausibility.

Would advanced space aliens use something so primitive as a metallic can with an engine inside it to visit us? Would they waste their time flying thousands of light years to reach insignificant little Earth? Flying saucers: that's so primitive, so 1950s, so anthropomorphic!

No, Buggs, these advanced aliens exist in a higher-dimensional space beyond our comprehension, just millimeters from our noses.. we can't see them because, as modern M-theory points out, the quarks, electrons and photons that make up our existence are confined by physical law to our 3+1 dimensions of space and time.

“Distress not yourself if you cannot at first understand the deeper mysteries of Spaceland. By degrees they will dawn upon you.”
― Edwin A. Abbott, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions

Buggs Raplin

Nappy, you never addressed "UFO's in Ancient Art."

Napoleon

Buggs Raplin - 11 minutes ago
"Nappy, you never addressed "UFO's in Ancient Art.""

No reason to: it's too absurd.

Buggs Raplin

To Nappy below: that's one reason why I never take you seriously on many issues; you have a closed mind; hard to reason with a closed mind

12345

We are wasting time looking for evidence of a christmas star this time of year. The man we know as Jesus (Yeshua) was most likely born in the early summer months (May).

Napoleon

Correct... I've heard it was July, if this Jesus/Yeshua guy actually existed at all. Most likely, the Jesus thing is a composite (Mithras, Horus and all that).

"How the Jesus Myth was created"

http://www.bibliotecapleyades.net/sociopolitica/master_file/jesusmyth.htm

"First of all, you have to realize that Jesus was a composite of different entities and the name was chosen several hundred years later at the Council of Nicea, wherein the entity Constantine ordered the various religious sects to come together and create a single religion for Rome, a Universal religion that incorporated all of the aspects of the various religions, so that all could accept and subscribe to it."

bb

The best way to fulfill prophesy is to write a story that does just that.

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