Christmas season is upon us. (I recognize I’m late in noting this. For retailers it started immediately after Halloween.) This season brings forth many familiar experiences—familiar because they recur every year: festive decorations, foraging for parking spots, Tom Flynn at work on Christmas Day, and an essay in a newspaper/on the internet attempting to explain how the appearance of the Star of Bethlehem could be explained by some astronomical phenomenon.
It is this last seasonal occurrence which concerns me here. It represents the misguided and repulsive use of science to lend credence to statements in a religious text which are mythical, not factual, in nature.
Examples of what I’m discussing can be found here and here. If you’re interested, a Google search can turn up many more. The precise motivation for these essays presumably varies from author to author. Some may be Christians, while others may be religious skeptics who nonetheless feel the need to explain why the Gospel of Matthew reports that three wise men saw a “star in the East” which guided them to Bethlehem. Matt. 2: 1–11.
But the whole premise behind their efforts is fatally flawed. There is no need to explain the “star” because there was no “star.” The Nativity story in all its aspects is simply a myth, written decades after the life of Jesus, designed to glorify this person, who some had come to consider a deity.
Consider that the Gospels have Joseph and Mary traveling to Bethlehem right before the birth of Jesus, supposedly due to some Roman census requiring inhabitants to return to their birthplace. There is no historical record of such an ill-advised and pointless census, which would have disrupted commerce and exposed many to theft and injury, along with other harmful consequences. Romans were nothing if not practical administrators. No, the thing is because there was no prophecy about a Messiah coming out of the backwater of Nazareth, the gospel writers had to place Jesus in Bethlehem. Similar motivations produced the genealogies at the beginning of Luke and Matthew, purporting to show Jesus was a descendant of David. (One problem: the genealogies are inconsistent; compare Matt. 1: 1–17 with Luke 3: 23–38.)
Similarly, in pre-modern eras, people often associated awe-inspiring celestial occurrences with important events, such as the birth of kings. (Those familiar with Shakespeare may recall Glendower’s boast in Act III of Henry the Fourth, Part One, that his birth was accompanied by “the front of heaven [being] full of fiery shapes.”) If Julius Caesar had his comet, well, then the Messiah needed to have a special star. In other words, the Star of Bethlehem is simply the Gospel of Matthew’s mechanism for marking Jesus as a special guy. Trying to come up with an explanation for this supposed star makes about as much sense as trying to explain how young Arthur pulled the sword from the stone or how a she-wolf could actually suckle Romulus and Remus.
Nativity myths aren’t the only biblical stories, of course, which elicit these misguided attempts to offer a scientific explanation of miracles. Every time there’s a new movie or TV show about Moses, there are bound to be attempts to explain the various prodigies associated with him and the Exodus, most often the parting, and then the sudden merging, of the waters of the Red Sea. See this essay, for example. Again, these efforts are misguided. These authors should spend less time coming up with imaginative explanations and more time reading about ancient cultures. Many ancient cultures have myths about their heroic founding, usually involving the intervention of divine or semi-divine figures who come to the aid of their favored, i.e, “chosen” people and help them triumph over powerful adversaries. The stories about Moses have no more factual foundation than the stories about Heracles (by the way, another figure with a divine father and human mother who ascended into heaven after an agonizing death). Significantly, Egyptian records are silent with respect to the catastrophes Moses supposedly visited upon them.
The foregoing critique does not imply scientific methods are never useful in analyzing purported miracles. Investigations (such as those Joe Nickell has carried out) of weeping statues or the Shroud of Turin serve a purpose. But these involve assessing the evidence for current claims relating to existing items/occurrences or recent events—not attempts to find the “truth” behind biblical stories.
So, the next time you run across a purported explanation of how some miraculous event mentioned in the Bible occurred, I suggest you ignore it. Don’t waste your time. At best, it’s silliness; at worst, it’s the prostitution of science in service of religious myths.
Now if we can just determine how Santa gets his sleigh to fly …