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The Star of Bethlehem: A Review

Published: 14 December 2010 (GMT+10)
‘The Start of Bethlehem’ DVD

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Rick Larson’s quest to figure out the mystery behind the star of Bethlehem began when he was making Christmas decorations for his yard. Using the program Starry Night, he says he has found new evidence for the phenomenon being astronomical, not miraculous (at least in the sense we normally mean it).

Larson is undoubtedly genuine and enthusiastic about what he has found, and he was very helpful and prompt in answering my correspondence as I was researching the review. He doesn’t claim to be any sort of expert; just a Christian following God where He leads. Larson also said that he loves Bereans (Acts 17:10–11), showing that he isn’t hostile to those who want to examine his claims.

The astronomy itself seems to be sound, but the significance attributed to these phenomena relies on astronomical interpretations of passages that are not normally interpreted in that way.

The astronomy is the centerpiece of Larson’s presentation, and the connections he draws are breathtaking. The astronomy itself seems to be sound; the software he’s using is accurate enough to reproduce the night sky that far back, and other sources say much the same thing about the astronomy (see here and here, for instance). But the significance attributed to these phenomena relies on astronomical interpretations of passages that are not normally interpreted in that way. For instance, Genesis 49:10 is said to be fulfilled in the sky when Jupiter’s retrograde motion circled Regulus, the brightest star in Leo, “crowning” it. But it makes no sense of the last line “and the obedience of the nations is his.” Also, in the context, are the other blessings also astronomical predictions? What marks this alone as an astronomical prediction while verse 11, for instance, is not, and is there evidence that the ancient Jews used the stars and constellations in this way?

He also interprets Revelation 12 as a view of the heavens at the time of Christ’s birth, or possibly conception. The virgin is Virgo, which was behind the sun and so “clothed” with it, and it was “giving birth” to the new moon at her feet. But he interprets the dragon as Herod; this is impossible because both the virgin and the dragon are said to be “signs in heaven”. If the “sign in heaven” for the virgin means it’s astronomical, it has to mean the same thing for the dragon. The text also doesn’t say that the woman is a virgin, and the woman is interpreted in several ways; some interpret her as Israel, some as the Church, or in entirely different ways depending on their eschatological view.

Most criticisms I’ve read of Larson’s work focus on his DVD presentation where he claims that some manuscripts of Josephus are consistent with a 1 BC death of Herod. But Larson gives references on his site (and it is hardly fair to expect footnotes in a DVD; especially when he says that further information is available on the site in the DVD itself). After researching it, I’ve found that this is a view that some scholars support, though it is a minority view. If these things actually happened in the sky in 3 and 2 BC (which it appears that they did) and if one were persuaded that they were significant in the way that Larson proposes, then that would tip the scales toward the 1 BC date for Herod’s death.

As Christians, we are understandably excited when new evidence comes to light that seems to support our faith, or to confirm historical events that are important for our faith.

Another common objection is that Jupiter couldn’t lead the Magi to a specific house. Larson claims that’s not what the Bible says it did. He claims that Jupiter was switching to retrograde motion at that point, so appeared to have stopped when they got to Bethlehem. But that leaves one with the question how the Magi found the specific house, if not by the star. And taking “the place where the child was” as “the house where the child was” makes sense of the context. It is difficult to see how any natural astronomical occurrence could point to a particular location in a town, which the Bible seems to indicate the “Bethlehem star” did. They didn’t need a star simply to guide them to Bethlehem, because the Jewish scholars whom Herod consulted had already told them that the Messiah would be born there (Micah 5:2, Matthew 2:3–8). This would seem to be a miraculous provision of God, the Shekinah Glory, rather than a natural phenomenon. Matthew 2:9 says that this was the same star that the wise men saw from the east; the star that they understood as being a sign that the Judean king had been born (Matt. 2:2). But this seems like a natural phenomenon like Larson has identified. It’s very curious.

As Christians, we are understandably excited when new evidence comes to light that seems to support our faith, or to confirm historical events that are important for our faith. But it is important to “test everything, hold on to the good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). Larson’s claims are very interesting, but like good Bereans, we need to be cautious. Grand claims need to be thoroughly checked out before we accept them. In this regard it would be nice to see some independent verification of the claims. For instance, I would like to see research that shows that Babylonian astronomers associated Leo with Judah, and some ancient interpretation of Genesis 49:10 in an astronomical sense (this would demonstrate that Larson’s reading of it is not eisegesis; reading a modern understanding into the text).

In short, there is not enough evidence to say whether or not Larson’s claims are true; hopefully other motivated Christians with qualifications in the relevant areas will investigate further to shed light on this issue. But whether or not Larson’s take on the star of Bethlehem turns out to be correct, it should not affect our confidence in the Bible’s record of the events of Christ’s birth.

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