Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Good Idea/Bad Idea

I'm always a fan of taking superstitious nonsense and replacing it with rational options, so in a sense, I'm quite happy to see this presentation by the Morehead Planetarium in North Carolina, in which they address the mythical Star of Bethlehem. However, if they're going to try and do such a thing, they should at least make sure to get the science right.

The article says it explores possible "astronomical explanations for the Star. Viewers can decide for themselves whether a blazing comet, an exploding or shooting star, a major eclipse, or a conjunction of planets might explain the reported event."

Seriously. A shooting star? Why is this even being brought up as a potential option. Shooting stars are meteors that zip across the sky in often less than a second. I hardly see any magi being able to chase that down.

The rest of their options have a similarly pointless approach. If it's anything outside our own atmosphere, then it's going to move. Funny that whole rising in the east, setting in the west thing. The only way something like that could not move (and thus allow the wise men to be able to follow it) was if it were near the North Celestial Pole (i.e. Polaris, the North Star).

This would rule out anything in our own solar system since the NCP is pretty far away from the plane of the solar system. Thus, about the only viable astronomical events left are novae (including the super variety). This sounds pretty good to me. A supernova in our galaxy could well be near the NCP.

But there's still another glitch. It would always look like it was still further North. Matthew 2:2 says:
"Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him."
So it looks like that's not going to work either. Additionally, such an event would have been visible in many more places and there are no other historical records confirming what would undoubtedly have caused a stir.

"Star in the east" does have somewhat of a familiar ring to it though. Since things rise in the east, the east is the direction by which morning comes. The planet Venus has two other names: Lucifer and Noctifer. The former means the morning star, whilst the latter means the evening star. Could it be possible that Venus was the "star" they observed since when it appears in the east, it only rises a relatively short distance before the sun rises? Sure. But only if you want to believe that ancients were completely ignorant of Venus before hand. Other sources have pointed to Jupiter, another planet that often appears as a bright star like object in the skies. But I would dismiss this for the same reason. Both Venus and Jupiter (although not understood) were familiar astronomical sights and both would have been visible either before or after (depending on whether or not it was in retrograde motion) ruling out the notion that it could have been a novel event.

Thus, the Star of Bethlehem does not have a good astronomical explanation. But this doesn't mean there isn't a good rational one: It never existed. Like so much of religious history, this event is likely either an exaggeration or fabrication, much like Sampson killing 1,000 Philistines with the jawbone of an ass in Judges 15. But somehow, I doubt this is the track the planetarium show will be taking.

Instead, I suspect they will make the same conclusion I did in the first part (no credible astronomical explanation) but then given credence to the inane philosophy of "if we don't know, that means your nonsense is credible!"

9 comments:

MattW said...

I thought there was a theory that it might've been a planetary conjunction. No idea of the plausibility of that though.

And of course I don't believe a word of it either - but if you ARE going to have a Messiah born, a big light in the sky pointing the way to where he is might be a good way to make a suitably large impact.

Four or five extra-large supernovas becoming visible simultaneously would just about do it...

Ned said...

The Nativity story in Luke, which includes the three wise men chasing the star, is believed to be false. Matthew has what is believed to be the real version, the Magi go to King Herod telling him that the stars predict that the new king of the Jews will be born so he orders the execution of every child under two to protect himself. Newborn Jesus and his family fled to Egypt to escape, coming back after Herod died. This event is also confirmed by sources other than the Bible, which is why it's believed to be what really happend. The Census described in Luke actually took place under a different King 10 years after Herod died!

(Aside: This is an easy to find and obvious contradiction in the bible, point this out when a creationist starts using the bible as evidence for anything)

Spring 4-6BC is the most likely date, and apparantly there is mention of odd astronomical phenomenon around that time. BBC focus had a very interesting article on it about two years ago.

Dawn said...

Ned - Sounds interesting but do you have links? Mark, probably the earliest gospel, didn't even have a nativity story...Sounds to me like something that may have popped in afterwards.

I'm with you Jon on there being no astronomical explanation. I find the impulse to probe religious texts and myths with science weird. It's like taking a using a hammer to carve a turkey or a knitting needle to perform surgery. Wrong tool for the job.

magisteria said...

I don't think the wise men appear at all in Luke, he has shepherds instead. In Matthew the star is indeed seen as an astrological indication that a great king will be born, and then later in the story a star appears that moves. It seems to me that there are two different ideas of the star here and they've been merged into the one story.

But in any case, you're right enough that there's no need to look for an astronomical explanation for this old tale!

Chet Galactic said...

The gospels of Matthew and Luke about the manger and/or the Magi are fictions.
Matthew @80 CE; Luke @ 90 CE. These evangelical groups did not witness the birth of a Jesus--they created it to elevate the divinity of their savior god through a miraculous birth with an unknown date/time or season.
Those public and religious manger scene displays combine the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Also, the "star", only in
Matthew "hovers" like a "Tinker Bell" in front of the Magi to lead them and stop over the room in the "inn" or "house" where Mary and Jesus are?
Since the Jewish Savior Messiah ("Christ" in Greek) was suppose to come from the Davidic lineage, Matthew and Luke embellished Mark to have Jesus born in Bethlehem, the City of David...
Ned, it is a fictonal story, really!
The Christian Church substituted the Dec 25th festivals of the solar god cults (like the birth of Mithra) for "Jesus'" birth date--i.e., the winter solstice day altered to the Gregorian (?) calendar.

Ron Murphy said...

I know sweet FA about astronomy, satellite mechanics etc., and I would tend to agree that based on all the other crap the star story is probably hyped exaggeration or lies; but for the sake of argument, how about a near-geo-stationary fly-by of a rock, close enough and the right velocity to trace a 'guiding' path, with or without a trail, and too close to be seen outside the Middle East. Is that possible? Could it hang around long enough - e.g. more than a day, not visible at night with no solar reflection, or visible with lunar reflection, visible in the day with solar reflection,...? If it was captured, could the path appear to be east-west, with eventual splash-down in the Atlantic or Pacific, or otherwise un-whitnessed?

Ron Murphy said...

I know sweet FA about astronomy, satellite mechanics etc., and I would tend to agree that based on all the other crap the star story is probably hyped exaggeration or lies; but for the sake of argument, how about a near-geo-stationary fly-by of a rock, close enough and the right velocity to trace a 'guiding' path, with or without a trail, and too close to be seen outside the Middle East. Is that possible? Could it hang around long enough - e.g. more than a day, not visible at night with no solar reflection, or visible with lunar reflection, visible in the day with solar reflection,...? If it was captured, could the path appear to be east-west, with eventual splash-down in the Atlantic or Pacific, or otherwise un-whitnessed?

magisteria said...

I don't think the wise men appear at all in Luke, he has shepherds instead. In Matthew the star is indeed seen as an astrological indication that a great king will be born, and then later in the story a star appears that moves. It seems to me that there are two different ideas of the star here and they've been merged into the one story.

But in any case, you're right enough that there's no need to look for an astronomical explanation for this old tale!

Chet Galactic said...

The gospels of Matthew and Luke about the manger and/or the Magi are fictions.
Matthew @80 CE; Luke @ 90 CE. These evangelical groups did not witness the birth of a Jesus--they created it to elevate the divinity of their savior god through a miraculous birth with an unknown date/time or season.
Those public and religious manger scene displays combine the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Also, the "star", only in
Matthew "hovers" like a "Tinker Bell" in front of the Magi to lead them and stop over the room in the "inn" or "house" where Mary and Jesus are?
Since the Jewish Savior Messiah ("Christ" in Greek) was suppose to come from the Davidic lineage, Matthew and Luke embellished Mark to have Jesus born in Bethlehem, the City of David...
Ned, it is a fictonal story, really!
The Christian Church substituted the Dec 25th festivals of the solar god cults (like the birth of Mithra) for "Jesus'" birth date--i.e., the winter solstice day altered to the Gregorian (?) calendar.