The Star of Bethlehem and other dumb religious pseudo-science

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I caught an episode of PBS’ Religion and Ethics this morning, and something in it really made me do a double-take. It was a perfect example of what nonreligious people like me always complain about: religious people giving all the credit for natural phenomena to deities, simply because they don’t understand how things work. You see this all the time, when someone marvels at how complex the human body or a sunset or a plant happens to be. They’ll say something like, “another one of God’s miracles,” when really, everything just evolved to its present state from a puddle of primordial ooze, out of necessity, not intent. But this really takes the cake.

This scientist (I’m not even sure if he was a legitimate scientist…somehow, I doubt it) said he decided to look into any possible explanations for what the Star of Bethlehem might have been. Now, part of this was very interesting, because it explains a whole lot about the Bible from a literary perspective, i.e. assuming that the character of Jesus is either made up or very loosely based on a real guy, but not a supernatural one. He explained that the Magi or Three Wise Men (who didn’t necessarily number three; the number was never specified in the Bible) were basically astrologers, who reacted to a very rare astronomical event by reading it as saying something about the king of the Jews and all that.

So what was this astronomical event? It could have been a very rare intersection of the Female and Male ruler planets, Mars and Venus, which would have produced an incredibly bright light in the sky. Others have said it could have been an intersection of up to four planets, but I think that in the context of the story, it would make sense to get a conception and birth prediction out of the intersection of the male and female planets.

Now for the part that irritated me. This guy went on to say that some eclipse or something also happens to mark the death of Jesus, and that these two lunar events which match up ‘perfectly’ to the story really helped to strengthen his faith, and made everything make sense. He said that once he knew that God wrote poetry in the heavens to mark events, everything changed, and he saw the whole world as a symphony and blah blah blah.

But hold on a second. This guy is assuming that the church did absolutely zero marketing in the Bible, which we all know isn’t true. We all know that Christians appropriated Yule and a number of other religions in terms of holiday traditions, and otherwise integrated the mythology of the people they were converting into the religion, to make it seem not only familiar, but legitimate and eternal as well. For instance, they chose their new religion’s details and numbers carefully to make sure that their characters and stories matched up to the ancient prophecies of other religions (i.e. Jesus fulfills Judaism’s prophecy of a messiah). The character of Jesus, whether or not he had any basis in reality, is extremely similar to any number of other mythic heroes, even down to the details of the allegories themselves. I just love hearing people argue about which town or grave Jesus might be buried in, then remember that we might be talking about a character no more real than James Bond.

So wouldn’t it make perfect sense for this fledgling church to also incorporate astrological omens? We already know that Jesus wasn’t born on December 25th, or even in the year Zero (if he existed at all), and it is assumed that the mid-winter time of the year was chosen because that’s when the mega-popular Yule holiday celebration started. But since these clever Bible-writers were writing about the distant past, they could pick and choose through the years using almanacs and figure out which year had the most impressive sky event. Then, bingo, you get the day you have your messiah character born.

As for having an eclipse on the day he died, that makes sense too…plenty of eclipses to choose from over the years, and they could have their character die whenever they wanted.

I just feel bad for this guy, that he can be so easily swayed. Not necessarily that he believes, but that he would take it as unalterable fact that the story proves that the stars did something supernatural, not the other way around. He decides that his little theory is correct before anyone has a chance to disprove it, knowing full well the margin of error he must be working with (who can say they know the exact time and date of three men seeing a star in a book?).

I guess there’s nothing wrong with this guy seeing magic in the stars from now on, but I just don’t give him much credit if he’s so easily won over. This is the type of guy who would convert to Scientology five minutes after touching the e-meter. Well, to bastardize Barnum’s famous saying, there’s a sucker born every minute, and most of them get baptized.

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