This is part of an ongoing series of reviews here at GPS. These will be (to the best of my ability) spoiler-free, so as not to ruin the fiction ones I do, as well as relatively brief. I won’t just be reviewing “skeptical” works, but instead a large portion of what I read. I’m a voracious reader, even when I am swamped with other work (it’s what I tend to do instead of watch television), so I’ll probably put out one every couple of weeks. If you’re interested, I’ve actually been tracking exactly what I’ve read (book and GN-wise, anyway) for almost the past four years on LibraryThing.
GPS Review: “The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View” by Aaron Adair
Well, once again the traditional holiday season (at least in the Western world) is upon us. The days are growing shorter (unless you live around the equator), the leaves are falling (unless you live somewhere they don’t), and the thoughts of many people turn to the Christmas celebration and the stories surrounding the birth of Jesus. There’s a good chance that, even if you aren’t Christian, that you nonetheless are familiar with many of the typical religious Christmas stories – the virgin birth, the manger, the three wise men, and the star – even if it’s only from songs and videos like the one below.
A new book aims to shed a critical eye on one aspect of the Christmas story that helps to light up the tree of many a home in the United States and abroad: the Star of Bethlehem. Aaron Adair is a physicist with training in astronomy and mathematics. Online, he has both as a blog of his own and does guest posts for my fellow SINner JP’s A Tippling Philosopher blog. His first, newly released book is called The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View (SOB from here on out) and should definitely find it’s way onto the bookshelf of anyone interested in a) historical astronomy and astrology, b) the historicity of the Gospel narratives, and c) how to tackle arguments by those who try to prove historical religious events have non-supernatural explanations.
Adair writes in clear, concise prose, which is very helpful when you are reading about a scientific field that you have little to no training in. My formal experience with astronomy is minimal, although I do own a telescope and host the occasional star-gazing party (I make sure to have people who actually know what they are doing and looking at on hand, though). Nonetheless, despite my ignorance of the field, I never felt lost or confused when reading SOB. Adair is a clean writer, without the superfluousness that sometimes plagues writers early in their career.
In terms of content, Adair does a great job at covering all bases. The book is broadly divided into three sections (The Story, The Hypotheses, and Fatal Problems), with the majority of the book examining the specific natural hypotheses that have been proposed over the centuries to explain the story of the Star as told in the Gospel of Matthew (and only that particular gospel, something many people don’t know). To wit:
2 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi[a] from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
6 “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
Adair, after discussing some timeline issues in terms of when the birth of Jesus could have conceivably (no pun intended) taken place, systematically address the list of various natural phenomena that people have claimed “explain” the Star of Bethlehem. The list includes comets and meteors, supernova, the northern lights, various planets, and UFOs (not even making that last one up, I promise). His explanations about why none of those are actually good candidates for explaining the Star as described in Matthew are (to my brain, anyway) highly convincing.
This leaves the only potential explanation left as a supernatural one, which sorts of defeats the whole purpose of the apologists coming up with natural explanations in the first place: to “prove” that the events describe in the New Testament actually occurred. In fact, Adair’s book as a whole could be seen as essentially an extended study in why attempting to back up your religious beliefs with scientific “evidence” is such a bad move. While it may appear convincing to those with little or no background in the area, an expert in the field will easily deconstruct your argument and show it to be silly and not backed up by the evidence (this is highly evident in those who try to promote Creationism or Intelligent Design as a scientific theory).
So, overall I would definitely recommend this book. It’s a quick read, an informative read, and a great exercise in how to examine claims critically. If you are giving gifts to a skeptical person this Christmas, I think a double package of SOB and Johnathon Pearce’s The Nativity: A Critical Examination would be just the thing.