Monday, December 26, 2011

The Star of Bethlehem Found?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suggested Additional Reading:

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Thursday, December 22, 2011

My Perspective on A Veterans Day Sermon

A few weeks ago, a guest preacher preached a sermon at my church.  It was the Sunday before Veteran’s Day.  The preacher is an upstanding, godly member of my congregation who often preaches on special occasions, especially patriotic holidays.

The sermon was about the Gulf War and its similarities to a certain battle or war involving Israel and Syria and the consequences thereof.  In this story, Benhadad, king of Syria, invaded Samaria (the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel) as mentioned in 1 Kings 20:1.  The city had been surrounded by the Syrian army and the Syrians had begun to plunder the city.  But the tables were turned when Israel’s king, Ahab, sent out princes to fight against them in accordance with the word of the Lord given to him by a prophet.  Benhadad then asked for terms of surrender so that his life would be spared and King Ahab agreed to these terms (1 Kings 20:31-34).  God was displeased with Ahab for letting the guilty Benhadad go free (1 Kings 20:42).  Benhadad besieged Samaria again (2 Kings 6:24).

In the parallelism drawn by the preacher, Benhadad represents Saddam Hussein and Syria is represented by Iraq.  Israel is parallel to the United States and King Ahab is President George H.W. Bush.  In the preacher’s view of the events of the history of the Gulf War and its aftermath, Bush let Saddam Hussein get away, God was displeased with this, and as a result, we HAD to fight against Saddam and Iraq again. 

I don’t quite agree.  Yes, there are similarities between the stories.  Saddam Hussein and Benhadad were both wicked aggressors.  I agree that George H.W. Bush did not act in accordance with God’s word, but not quite in the manner that this preacher is intimating.  There are huge differences between the Gulf War and this episode between Benhadad and King Ahab.

Benhadad invaded Samaria, murdering thousands of Israelites.  This was apparently an unprovoked attack.  (The Northern Kingdom of Israel had been at war with Judah, who had made covenant with Benhadad against them [1 Kings 15:18-19].)  The battle was fought completely on Israelite land, not in Syria.  Saddam Hussein never invaded America nor even harmed an American citizen prior to the Gulf War.  The Gulf War was fought in Iraq, not the United States.  This was simply a case of the United States choosing sides (one Muslim nation against another) and was by no means an act of national defense.  I know of no place in Scripture where God ever commanded the nation of Israel to attack a nation outside of the land Canaan because of brutality inflicted only on people who were not Israelites.  It just doesn’t fit very well.

Secondly, there was specific revelation from God that Benhadad was to be removed from office and replaced with another king (1 Kings 19:15).  We had no such revelation from God concerning Saddam Hussein.  From a Biblical perspective, there was no more reason to remove him from office than Kim Jong Il or King Hussein of Saudi Arabia.  In fact, the Bible specifically warns us to stay away from Babylon (e.g. Revelation 18:4), which is modern day Iraq.

Thirdly, I am not so sure that George H.W. Bush had Saddam Hussein in custody or that any form of agreement was made that involved sparing Hussein’s life.  As king of Israel, Ahab had the authority to make such decisions for the entire nation.  But in the United States, we do not have a king, but a President who cannot, according the Constitution, make such an agreement without the approval of the Senate, not to mention that the war itself was unconstitutional because war was not formally declared.  (In fairness to the preacher, he did not actually mention the name of the President, but said “we” which would include the Congress.)  This being the case, the right thing to do, from a Constitutional point of view, at any point in time after the invasion, would be to immediately cease fire and withdrawal all forces from the region.  This would include even a point in time when Saddam Hussein was in captivity or capable of being killed.  A much better parallelism to Benhadad and Ahab would be Osama Bin Laden and Bill Clinton.  Clinton let Bin Laden get away.  Of course, the right thing to do in Ahab’s case would have been to kill Benhadad, but in Bush’s case, it was more of a dilemma.  Because of previous poor choices, there was no good choice for him. 

Fourthly, the parallelism between the subsequent wars has the same problem as the first.  When Benhadad invaded Israel, it was another unprovoked attack which violated a treaty he had made with Israel.  But again Saddam Hussein did not attack the United States or harm any American citizen.  For a second time, in the Iraq War, we invaded his land, taking the side of one of our enemies against another.  We certainly did not HAVE to violate the Constitution and have this second war for reasons which are still unknown to me.

Even though the nation of Iraq was led by a brutal dictator like Hussein, this does not give anyone the right to go in there set off bombs killing thousands of people, including children.  Intentionally killing innocent people is murder and it is always unacceptable to God.  No exceptions.

There is one similarity between the two historical events that the preacher did not mention.  Like the nation of IsraelAmerica has turned its back on God.  In Israel, there were only 7000 people (likely out of millions) who had not bowed the knee to Baal (I Kings 19:18).  While we are not quite that bad off, we are certainly headed in that direction.  One of the consequences of this, in both cases, is that uncompassionate and foolish leaders have come to power and the people are suffering for it.  Will we turn back to God before it’s too late? 

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