Featured image: Did 'Wise Men' follow a star to Jesus?
Manchester, Wednesday 7th December 2011
Hello and welcome back. In my previous post I discussed my first experiences with the group Christians in Science (CiS). In this post I describe a specific talk I attended on a familiar story to us all, one that pillars many Christian traditions: The Nativity of Jesus (his birth). Was the star that led the Wise Men through the desert to baby Jesus an act of fact or fiction?
This biblical narrative is so ingrained in us all that you can probably still recite the dialogue allocated to you as a young schoolchild. You could have been assigned the role of a shepherd, had the luxury of acting as the Virgin Mary, or maybe the memories of your contribution were merely the groans of a farm animal. Whatever it means to you, the story has traditionally been a big part of the Christmas festivities here in the UK (and in many other countries where Christianity is prevalent).
The story’s moral foundations have manifested themselves in today’s traditions and customs. For example, the virtue of respect is evident in the presentation of three gifts to Jesus (each has been theorised to have a symbolic meaning) and the act of kneeling down that accompanies it is often practised when revering someone.
If you were deprived of this story, here are its origins succinctly explained.
The story features in two of the Gospels (four books in the New Testament). But the Star of Bethlehem is only described in the Gospel of Matthew. Men called ‘Magi’ (usually translated to ‘Wise Men’ or ‘astronomers’), asked of King Herod of Judea the whereabouts of the newborn baby Jesus so they could pay homage to him (an event they predicted from the stars).
Herod wanted Jesus returned to him as he was afraid Jesus would usurp his throne. So he ordered the Magi to retrieve him. They agreed and followed the star. Upon arriving, thanks to some divine intervention in the dreams of the Magi and Joseph, they fled the city. This was to avoid the horror that ensued following the birth. King Herod slaughtered every child under two-years-old in the hope of eliminating the new Messiah (Jesus), an act which is known as the Massacre of the Innocents.
Lovely. So what about the talk? Interestingly, the speaker was an extremely qualified scientist. But I believe he was a chemist, not an astronomer … Still, he opened up by proclaiming near-100-% biblical accuracy, citing other religious scripture such as the Qur’an to corroborate. (This screams contradiction to me.) As is widely acknowledged, even by theologians, this story’s claims are not only ambiguous but different when compared to fellow Holy Christian books. For example, there are many other logistical clashes across both of the aforementioned Gospels, such as the disparity in where Mary and Joseph lived: Nazareth or Bethlehem. So why he focused on accuracy from the outset startled me. I guess he was taking blind comfort in it.
The most topical point of the talk (and the one most relevant to this blog) was when he discussed whether the event was a miracle or a result of scientifically understandable events. In my mind, if it was scientific, the story would be more believable since it would have been natural; there would be more substance to the biblical accounts. On the other hand, a miracle has no boundaries; hence believing it seems counterintuitive and contrary to recorded astronomic events that people can vouch for. People today need that justification to believe. It’s no longer solely dependent on Faith as there has been no evidence in favour of miracles.
The speaker conjured up his own shooting star theory. He postulated that this could have been an act of God—like many things in the minds of these people. CiS exists to force together science and religion like this, just not very successfully. But let’s give him some room to explain.
The shooting star was described to have ‘stood over’ the birthplace of Jesus in the Bible. But, scientifically, we know that shooting stars don’t remain stationary. He made some reasonable guesswork as to how fast the celestial object was required to have moved to coincide with the time it took the Magi to make the trip. He said something like two or three degrees an hour and thought that the stationary part was either an inaccurate description or an illusion of the orbit. To my annoyance, there were pictures and paintings (by no accountable witness) used on the slides that portrayed the illusion. Annoyingly, he implied that they were on the verge of evidence. The audience, not knowing any better, seemed to believe every word.
In terms of the ‘star’ itself, the main candidate in his theory was a meteor (colloquially a shooting star) but he didn’t rule out any other similar celestial objects, such as meteoroids. But, because he wasn’t an astronomer, I don’t think he realised what the insinuation meant in terms of the apparent brightness of the shooting star.
This, in my mind, is where the major flaw in his theory exists. In his pictures, descriptions, and quotes from the Bible, the star was intensely bright and large. He rules out stars—rightly so because their orbits entail only small relative motions—whilst planets have the same problem. (Johannes Kepler, a famous astronomer and Christian, put forward the idea of the conjunction of two planetary orbits and another celestial object but computer simulations don’t agree.) The implication of the size and brightness of the shooting star meant the thing had to be absolutely huge in our sky and far away to match the orbit. But, to be moving as slow as described, this would be impossible. You don’t get these objects that big unless it really was an outright miracle. He was forcing an unhappy marriage.
The talk suffered from many contradictions which seemed to mirror the battle between logic and Faith in the minds of many Christians today. One part guides them with the intuition of their real-life experiences; the other propels them towards some predefined, longed-for meaning. Unfortunately, their Faith can be a purely sentimental matter and, epistemically, can’t be backed up. Although God is thought to be supreme, irrational and infinite, his word—permeated through the stories of the Bible like this— can’t be verified by our probing. Still, these stories of little universal truth can settle their minds, bringing the peace of consolation. Reconciling science and religion is, therefore, justifiable to them. In this sense, who am I to judge?