Sunday, November 9, 2008

When The Star Steers You Wrong--A Response To Michael Molnar

In my previous post, I mentioned that Dr Michael Molnar, astronomer, formerly a professor at Rutgers University, had written a short article for Sky & Telescope in their recent December issue. What I figured was he would restate his case for the Star of Bethlehem as an unusually powerful horoscope and signaled the birth of Christ to the Magi. However, his way of bringing his argument forth was a far cry from what I would have expected from a scientist, let alone in print.

Basically, Molnar called me a liar in print! Yes indeed, he said the following:

Echoing this charge [of ahistoricity of the Star], an article in this magazine one year ago concluded the star was an irresolvable pious myth (S&T: December 2007, p. 26). Regrettably, the article misrepresented by own research and ignored historical evidence. [p. 112]

Wow. I lied about his work and ignored evidence. In other words, I am dishonest and a terrible scholar. Odd that he did not name me in particular, though he brought up another S&T article from 1999 and mentioned the author, Bradley Schaefer, by name. Perhaps an avoidance of libel?

Did I misrepresent Molnar's work? I explained before that Molnar charged me in saying that I misconstrued his work by saying the Star was an occultation of Jupiter by the Moon. Rather, I said this was a positive condition for the horoscope (at least I said that Molnar said that it was positive), which was a part, or constituted, the Star of Bethlehem. I also pointed out that in Molnar's own book he uses the same language, and in fact more strongly than I did. Molnar's charge that I misconstrued his work is simply wrong.

Have I told him this? I contacted him in November of 2007 and early 2008. I have all the emails in my Gmail account. I tried to correspond on this subject, but unfortunately he was unresponsive. I explained how I had not misrepresented his work, presenting his own words in his book. He would not budge from his position and continued to insult me.

"You then have made a seriously deceitful assessment of [my] book."

"The problem lies in your deceptive writing style and biased cherry-picking of facts that misled S&T readers about my book and the evidence in support of an historical basis to the Star. I am incredulous that you are now rationalizing your historically inaccurate ideas and ignoring your article’s inexcusably fraudulent attack on me."

"If anyone was shortchanged, it was not Christmas planetarium viewers as you claim, but S&T readers."

I was also accused of having a hidden agenda because I brought up parallel stories from the time of early Christianity that may have influenced the story. Seeing that this has been done for over a century and is part of the criterion of dissimilarity used by biblical scholars today, I cannot be said to have any more agenda than them.

So, the good doctor has made much hay about me, calling me a liar on multiple occasions. Further, he refuses to answer any of my emails. I sent him emails in early 2008, which he refused to respond. I sent an email in response to his article a couple of weeks ago as well, again without response. This seems to be childish, and to call me a liar and then hide from my criticism is cowardly in action. Thus, I need to write this entry to make clear the problems I have with Molnar's research.

I'm only going to focus on the evidences brought forth by Molnar in his article. He thinks these are the best, it would seem. I plan on writing a more lengthy and thorough article for a biblical journal in the near future.

The first line of evidence presented are Roman coins. These coins are from Antioch, which is in modern-day Turkey. That is, not Israel. What? In fact, his first coin says on it (in Greek), City of Antioch. Pardon me, but to have coins from a non-Jewish city to be about the Jewish nation is very odd. In recent years, there have been state coins for all 50 states, and they are almost done. There is a coin that says "New York" on it. We also see the Statue of Liberty. What would make us think that a coin that says "New York" on it had anything to do with, say, Maine, and that the Statue was a symbol of this state? Isn't Molnar doing the same thing?

Molnar speculates that the coins were minted in Antioch because of the census of 6-7 CE when Judea became part of Syria, in which the capitol of Antioch. So his connection between the coins and Judea can only rest on speculation. However, there are serious problems even with that. Firstly, of the coins he presents only some have dates on them, and those dated are from 12-13 CE, well after the time of the census and inclusion of Judea into the Roman Empire proper. This makes the connection on Molnar's part more imaginative. Worse, his undated coin was dated by his own source, G. MacDonald, to 5-6 CE, before the census and unification (he uses Actian years, and so the coin was minted in Actian year 36, the census in 37 according to the Jewish historian Josephus). If his source is correct, then Molnar's coin was minted before the event that connects Syria and Judea. Molnar's contention is temporally impossible!

Further, Molnar claimed in his book that these coins were ordered by the govenor of Syria. This is not the case since the earliest coins are not of the legate class, but of the civic class. That is, they were minted by the city for the city's own needs. In other words, these were Antiochian coins minted in Antioch for Antioch under the pressures of the needs of the citizens of Antioch. Not Rome. Not Judea. Antioch was a free city and was free to print such currency as seen fit.

Finally, there are coins with the same symbol in question, Aries the Ram, on later Antiochian coins, in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Are they still celebrating the union of Judea and Syria? Worse is that there are coins from 55-56 CE with the symbol, but at that time Judea was not part of Syria. The province would go back and forth on being part of Rome properly or as a client kingdom under one of the Herods, Agrippa II, from 48 CE until later on (Josephus, BJ 2.9.5; AJ 19 and 20). The Jewish War began in 66 CE, so until then the nation was under not direct Roman but Herodian rule, and after the war the land was returned to Agrippa until his death in around 100 CE. Judea was not part of Syria in these times. We can be certain of this because Josephus tells us this information and the two figures knew each other. Josephus reproduces some of their interchanges (e.g. AJ 17.5.4; BJ 2.11.6; Vit. 54). If the capitol of Syria was producing coins with the same symbol referring to the unification of Judea to Syria, then such a connection cannot be considered true. Simply, Molnar's case was complete speculation that fails against the evidence. Hard.

What of astrological documents that use Aries to represent Judea? Molnar's best source is Ptolemy, who does say Aries was over Judea and other nearby lands. However, Ptolemy says that the constellation was representative of modern-day Germany, France and England. That's rather far from the Holy Land, no? What is frightening is that Ptolemy produces a list of what nations are under what constellations, and that list for Aries includes Germania, Gaul, and Britannia, as well as Palestine. However, Molnar reproduces this list but has an ellipsis where these non-Israeli nations would be. Shouldn't he have at least mentioned this somewhere in his book? Molnar also cites Valens, a 2nd century astrologer, but this figure does not mention Palestine at all. He does relate Coele Syria to part of Aries, but we would have to assume that the astrologer meant Judea into the lands of Coele Syria and the lands that surround it. He may mean that Phoenicia was what included Judea. For all we knew, Valens had no constellation for this region at all; he doesn't cover the whole known world (nor all the constellations of the zodiac for that matter).

What is really strange is Molnar's reading of the 1st century astrologer Manilius. He speaks of Syria and Egypt under Aries, but does not mention Palestine. Molnar figures that Syria included Palestine. But if he had flipped just two pages in the Loeb translation of the book (which Molnar used), he would have seen a description for lands under Aquarius which included regions between Egypt and Tyre (4.797-8). That's the Holy Land! This region he refers to he calls Phoenicia, a geography that he makes clear elsewhere (4.620-7). So Molnar's reading of Manilius is seriously botched. However, this translation includes in the preface a list of regions and constellations, which Molnar missed, along with a frontispiece that included a map with all the different regions with their corresponding constellation symbol. It had Aquarius near the Dead Sea! So there were three different places in the text that says that Aries was NOT the constellation of the Holy Land. How did Molnar miss this?

And if we look at other astrological geographies, there is much more contradiction that consensus (which the translator of Manilius noted himself). For example, Dorotheus, another 1st century astrologer, had Aries over Babylon and Gemini over Phoenicia--which probably includes Judea (Pingree, Dorothei Sindonii Carmen Astrologicum, pp. 427-8). A fourth century astrologer, Hephaistio, told of many traditions of astrological geography, some of it going back to Hipparcus. He tells us that Aries was over Babylon, Trace, Armenia, Persia, Mesopotamia, Syria, and the Red Sea, while Gemini was over Phoenicia. Syria also included rule by multiple constellations (Apotelesmatica I 1, pp. 4-29). Paulus Alexandrinus (4th century) and the Hermes Trismegistus also give contradicting astrological geographies, none of while say Aries was over the Holy Land. In fact, there is no majority position over all the treatises on astrological geography.

In case the paragraphs are hard to read, here's a recap, and see this link:
  • Ptolemy: Aries over Palestine as well as Germania, Gaul, and Britannia (ignored my Molnar).
  • Valens: Aries over Coele Syria and surrounding lands, but Phoenicia more likely to include Palestine and had different constellation (not considered by Molnar).
  • Manilius: Aries over Syria; Aquarius over Phoenicia which included Judea (contra Molnar).
  • Dorotheus: Aries over Babylon, Gemini over Phoenicia (not mentioned by Molnar).
  • Hephastio's sources: Aries over modern-day Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria; Gemini over Phoenicia (not mentioned by Molnar).
  • Paulus Alexandrinus: Aries over Persia; not sure which constellation for Palestine, but no probable choices include Aries (Syria had Capricorn, Egypt had Aquarius, Red Sea had Pisces) (not mentioned by Molnar).
  • Hermes Trismegistus: Aries over ocean, Bactria, Lydia; Scorpio for Palestine (not mentioned by Molnar).
The last two texts were not even mentioned by Molnar, but he had access to their astrological geographies. Molnar makes much of of Cramer's Astrology in Roman Law and Politics, and on page 23 a list is reproduced from another work that gives the astrological geographies of these texts as well as Ptolemy's list for comparison. How could Molnar have missed this?

Overall, Molnar ignored as many works as he cited, and only one can actually support his position while it also contradicts it as well. The mass array of contradiction should tell us that a particular agreed-upon constellation for Judea is non-existent in the literature.

So far then, one line of evidence is ungrounded speculation, another is poor research in reading of texts. Perhaps then we can imagine the quality of his last piece of evidence. Actually, he thinks it is independent confirmation of his Star of Bethlehem, coming from the 4th century (Molnar wrote the wrong year for this figure in his recent article). The astrologer Firmicus, who converted to Christianity at some unknown time before writing his most famous work against heretical forms of Christianity, wrote a Latin astrological work called the Mathesis. In one part of his text, Firmicus mentions a person of almost divine nature (4.3.9). The astrological circumstances also have some similarity to Molnar's conjectured horoscope for Jesus, which was on April 17, 6 BCE.

What's wrong with this piece of evidence? Firstly, the horoscope is not said to be of any particular person and mixes multiple horoscopes, including that of Caesar Augustus', as Molnar himself says in his recent article and book. So that Jesus was referred to here at all can only be speculative. Besides, the figure described does not match Jesus well. It says the person would be a general of great military prowess; Jesus had no army, not to mention "turn the other cheek" is not an effective way of winning wars. (Note that Obama made comment to this as well in a speech not too long ago, about how if the military utilized the philosophy of the Sermon on the Mount it could not work.) Further, the astrological conditions mentioned in Firmicus' work does not match Molnar's horoscope. Molnar has the Moon occulting Jupiter while Jupiter was close to the Sun. In such a circumstance, the Moon would be new and waning. However, Firmicus says that in his horoscope the Moon is full and waxing. The exact opposite.

As such, Molnar simply read into the text what he wanted to see. Besides, it is certainly odd that Firmicus, in the 4th century, knew the exact day (perhaps hour) Jesus was born, while other Christians could not figure out what year Jesus was born! Further, Firmicus later wrote his book to defend orthodox Christianity, but he did not mention the Star. Since Firmicus does not repudiate his history as an astrologer, why does he not mention his knowledge of the Star? It makes no sense at all.

With all that, Molnar's evidence presented in his article is rubbish. It's speculation and grounded misreadings and lack of reading. I won't go into his horoscope for Nero here, which is his last piece of evidence in his book. Suffice it to say, it is based on extrapolations and calculations from Suetonius talking about Nero. Suetonius is probably the worst source for such information as he was more a gossip-artist than historian, especially in his later works, including his Nero. No classicist agrees that the passage he cites is historical (see Bradley, Suetonius' Life of Nero, p. 247; Wallace-Hadrill, Suetonius: The Scholar and his Caesars, pp. 63-4; Baldwin, Suetonius, pp. 174-80; Warmington, Suetonius: Nero, pp. 76-8). Any deductions he makes from this, and they are problematic in themselves, cannot be based on solid ground. Again, all his evidences are either worthless or contradicts his intentions, such as the astrological texts cited above.

Dr. Molnar has been quite confident in his assertions, and in this article he seems to consider his work the final word on the subject. Here is the context for this:

Bradly Schaefer declared that my explanation, based on extensive Roman-era documents and free of historical revisionism, was the "final word" about the Star of Bethlehem. Sometimes a final word needs repeating.

Rather bold, no? Sure he first quotes Schaefer (who is not a biblical scholar nor a classicist as far as I know), but he repeats the phrase "final word" without quotes, so Molnar certainly seems to think his work is that good. Obviously, I disagree.

Now, I wrote the above because Molnar accused me of misrepresenting his views and ignored evidence. I have explained how I did not misrepresent him, and as for ignoring evidence, this is a lot of pot calling the kettle black. Here are some of the things that Molnar failed to consider in any sort of meaningful way, if at all:

  1. Contradictions between Luke and Matthew--The gospels give mutually exclusive times when Jesus was born. They can't both be correct. So, why does he effectively ignore this point, which makes any claims for historicity all so much weaker? Besides, why does Molnar accept Matthew's date when Luke is more precise and the only Gospel writer claiming to write careful history? Doesn't this make Luke's date for Jesus' birth more probable, hence more likely born in 6/7 CE instead of 6 BCE?
  2. Miracles in the New Testament--The gospels are full of miracles and events with about zero likelihood of historicity, including Matthew's Nativity. There is the virgin birth and the slaughtering of baby boys by Herod; the first is miraculous and biologically impossible, the latter is unrecorded by any historian, including Luke. If all these events in the birth narrative are not historical, or at least cannot be shown to be so, doesn't that say that the Star should be just about as likely since its existence is only mentioned in this one book (others repeating Matthew's tale)?
  3. Authorship and Date--The Gospel of Matthew was not written until after 70 CE, and perhaps much later. The tax collector also did not write this work. The first mention of the gospel by the name "Gospel of Matthew" does not come about until about the end of the 2nd century! And the Greek says not that Matthew authored this work, but that the gospel is in the tradition of Matthew. It used kata Mathaion instead of Matthew in the genitive case, which is how authorship was stated in ancient works (cf. Josephus).
  4. Genre--The question should have been asked in the first place, Is Matthew telling history? The question of genre of the gospels is a tough topic, but the way things are moving is that the first written gospel, Mark, was written more as a novel then biography, specifically a Jewish novel (Vines, The Problem of Marken Genre: The Gospel of Mark and the Jewish Novel (2002)). Mark also used elements from Homer's epics (MacDonald, The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark). This gospel was also Matthew's primary source, along with Q and some other materials. If Matthew's story is based primarily on something that was more a novel than history, should we even think that Matthew is writing history/biography rather than producing a theological treatise?
  5. Greek--Molnar tried to use the words in Matthew's account of the Star to relate to astrological words. He failed. See Birdsall in "Review Symposium: by Michael Molnar", The Star of Bethlehem", Journal for the History of Astronomy 33, 4 (2002): 391-4. The only phrase that survived was en te anatole to meaning sunrise or a heliacal rising. However, this need not have anything to do with astrology, as Molnar wants, because:
  6. Molnar Ignores the Bible--A rising star can be seen in prophecy, namely Numbers 24:17. This was a well-known Messianic expectation as seen in Josephus, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Jewish revolt led by Simon bar Kochba. Would not the rising Star in Matthew be more likely a fulfillment of prophecy to fit Matthew's story rather than an astrological event? Further, Jesus is called the Morning Star multiple times in the New Testament (2 Peter 1:19; Revelation 2:28; 22:16). Perhaps Matthew means the same thing here with this Morning Star? Why should we consider the Star astrological/astronomical when a Morning Star is so important in Christian literature? The criterion of dissimilarity makes this object most unhistorical in essence.
  7. Observability--Molnar knows that his rising star could not have been seen with the naked eye by the Magi. He thinks this is what made it good for astrologers and why non-astrologers missed it. However, the magi said they saw his Star, not calculated or inferred its existence. What is worse is that the movements of the Star could not have been observed by pre-telescope sky watchers. Molnar proposed that the "going before" and "stood over" in Matthew refer to the retrograde and stationary points of a planet, namely Jupiter. However, the movements of the planets near a stationary point cannot be seen and the stationary point cannot be known to the accuracy required by the Magi. They see the star going before them and then see it stop when they get to Bethlehem. This takes less than 2 hours. No planet can be seen to move relative to the stationary stars in 2 hours by the naked eye. That includes even the best observations by Tycho Brache. In fact, Ptolemy tells us this himself, that stationary points could not be known to the moment as the movement of the planet could not be distinguished for days before and after the stationary point (Almagest 9.2). Molnar's Star is not possible to see. How is an invisible Star preferable to a miraculous Star?
  8. Physical Possibility--Again, the Star, according to Molnar, went into retrograde motion and then stopped during the time the Magi left Jerusalem and reach Bethlehem. The tense for the word that means "go before", proago, is in the imperfect case. This means that the Star may have begun to move. Hence, the retrograde period started and stopped in a 2 hour time frame. No planet comes close to having a retrograde loop this short. Mars, for example, is several weeks, and Mercury, the fastest planet, is about 3 weeks. For a planet to retrograde and stop again in this short period of time would require a violation of orbital mechanics. In other words, a miracle. Hence, Molnar's Star is non-physical and non-observable. How is this preferable to just a miraculous Star?
  9. Reference frames--The Star is said to "go before" the Magi. However, retrograde loops and any planetary motion, as well as the movement of stars, novae, and comets in the night sky, all travel east or west. But this Star goes in the direction the Magi travel, which is south to Bethlehem from Jerusalem. Matthew's context is clear; the Star travels before the Magi, not the stars in the sky themselves. So, Matthew's context clearly contradicts any of the major candidates for the physical Star of Bethlehem.
  10. Archaeology--I can't blame Molnar on this for his 1999 book. However, in 2005, Avriam Oshri of the IAA wrote an article for the Nov/Dec issue of Archaeology. He points out that Bethlehem was unpopulated centuries before and after Jesus was said to have been born there. In other words, there was no Bethlehem during the time of Jesus. How can there be a Star of Bethlehem if there was no Bethlehem?
  11. Ancient Testimony--Every ancient Christian who mentioned the Star considered it miraculous. I can find no exceptions. This include Origen, who seemed to say the Star was something like a comet. However, he meant that the Star had a similar meaning as a comet does, that it means a great change will happen (change you can believe in!). He demonstrates his belief that the Star is of an amazing nature in Homilies on Numbers 18.4, where he compares the Star to the dove at Jesus' baptism that rested upon Jesus. Further, Christians said the Star was not astrological. For example, see Gregory of Nazianzus, Poemata Arcana 5.56-57. This is also the consensus of Christians throughout history that the Star described was miraculous, including Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, and in modern times the Jesus Seminar as well as Raymond Brown in his Birth of the Messiah. 2000 years of consensus is pretty amazing.
  12. Use of Astrological Texts--Even in Molnar's area of most research, he fails to understand the nature of the texts he uses. Namely, these books by Ptolemy and others cannot be used to make predictions. Barton in her Ancient Astrology (1994), pp. 114-42 compared the horoscope predictions between Manilius and Firmicus, taking the date of birth of Prince Charles. Both horoscope predictions were "correct" as far as astrology goes, but they contradicted each other immensely. Barton figures that these books were not meant for instruction but to demonstrate the learnedness of the the author. In other words, these books were to show off, not to be of practical use. And since different author's system's of casting horoscopes contradicts, they cannot be used as Molnar wants. What is worse is that Molnar confuses the very nature of natal astrology when he has the stars tells of the birth of a great figure when natal astrology does not do this. In natal horoscope astrology, the time of birth is recorded and then the horoscope is cast to predict the child's future. This is the opposite order that Molnar utilizes. Natal astrologers went birth, then stars; Molnar went stars, then birth. Molnar's method is more akin to omen prophecies, such as if this condition is seen, then this will happen. Molnar knows that ancient omen techniques are different that natal horoscope astrology (he makes that clear to me in his emails as well). Hence, Molnar completely abused astrology in not understanding how the instrument was used in the past.
  13. Wrong Astrology--What is also wrong with Molnar's use of astrology is that he focuses on the wrong region. The Magi are from "the East," probably referring to the lands of the Parthian Empire, including Persia and Babylon. However, all of Molnar's astrological texts are from the Roman world. Molnar cites a line from Strabo that the Chaldeans/Magi were casting natal horoscopes, but that says nothing on how they produced horoscopes. This is a major problem. And scholars who have investigated how the later Babylonians and their neighbors produced horoscopes have said that it is a big unknown (Rochberg, The Heavenly Writings, p. 118). The horoscopes that have been recovered do not have key points on them that Western or Hellenistic horoscopes have, such as the Midheaven or the Lot of Fortune. And in later times, the astrological methods of Ptolemy and those of the Persians were still distinct (Abu Ma'shar, Yamamoto, Burnett, On Historical Astrology: The Book of Religious Dynasties (on the Great Conjuctions), p. 573, n. 2). So, even if Molnar was correct about anything on the constellations for regions, it wouldn't matter because that says nothing of what was believed in Persia. Molnar's efforts are a complete red herring.
So, when it comes to ignoring historical evidence, I think that Molnar has a much greater problem here that I do. In effect, Molnar ignored the whole of biblical scholarship, which you would think would be an important area to look into considering that his thesis is something in the area of biblical studies. How is this different than a creationist arguing about the retention of heat in the earth's core, claiming it proves the earth is not billions of years old, while ignoring radioactivity? The creationist claims that physics proves something, but to get that conclusion he or she must ignore much of physics. Similarly, scientists that argue about the Star without looking into biblical studies make the same mistake.

So with all this, will this make Molnar respond to me when I email him? Will he at least try and defend his thesis on these points, to which he has ignored when I have brought them to his attention? I wrote about the observational problems in my article and in my emails to Molnar, but he didn't even mention this point, the point that I think falsifies his theory all on its own. After all, if what Molnar tries to describe is what the Magi observed, and that observation was impossible, is that not the death of a theory?

None the less, I think I have demonstrated that Molnar's work is not the "final word" on the subject, and instead any proponent of a natural Star of Bethlehem has a huge task in front of them. But if instead one sees what the texts says and to what purpose it was written, it makes so much more sense that the author of Matthew was not writing history, his Star was purposefully miraculous, and was written to show that Jesus was God's anointed one, the Morning Star, son of the Dawn (Isaiah 14:12).

What should be investigated instead is why was the Morning Star placed where it is in the text and what does it mean in the context of 1st-century Jewish theology? That is worthy of a paper, which I am producing now.

NOTE: I may fix some sentences in the future for this post.