Tuesday, August 14, 2012

More on the Star and Zeitgeist

Since my last post about how the Star of Bethlehem has been interpreted by Acharya S and in the Internet film Zeitgeist, there has been some predictable backlash from those that defend the position. Very natural, and hopefully dialogue can happen. A response on Freethought Nation was posted on in the comments, and I responded there. I wanted to direct those at the forum the response came from, but it seems registration to that forum is currently not possible. Not sure why, but it seems that if I make my response here they will notice. And perhaps they can hook me up to their system. We'll see.

Nonetheless, the response was actually not too productive a start and avoided pretty much all my substantive points. So my response can to trod through the mud first. I am accused of not being studied enough in the subject matter and other inadequacies on my part. The only error I made was thinking that Acharya's first name was Dorothy, which is apparently incorrect (she has not made her first name public). I changed that in my blog post, but beside that, no error has been pointed out on my part.

The author of the attacking post also took a look at my article about the Star and significantly misunderstood its purpose. I did not look at older mythology because the subject of the matter was how the Star was interpreted especially in a scientific context. It was not about where the story really came from, beside giving the current view of mainstream scholars. And while my article has been referenced by the Apologia Archive (as a critique of the version of the Star by Rick Lawson), I am in fact not a Christian trying to defend the faith. My purpose also wasn't to attack religious belief but to give a history of how the Star had been understood and how modernist attempts to make it something naturalistic is outside the mainstream.

But let's get to the post I wish to respond to.

Let me work backward about what is said. Firstly, I actually do read Greek and Latin, as I did take college courses so I could conduct the research I have published. (My Hebrew is far to weak to talk about.) Moreover, my paper on the Star of Bethlehem was cited extensively earlier in that forum, so you can see that I have studied theological literature and the interpretation of the Star for the last 2000 years. Since that made it through peer-review among those that are theologically mindful, that should give me a bit of credit about when I speak of things related to the subject. And unfortunately, that is more than can be said for Acharya. I bet she could get some things published, and I would be very interested to see her do so. I bet she would move conversations in interesting ways. Let me know if that happens.

Now, this attack on Richard Carrier's criticism is ultimately beside the point of what I said about the Star (and Carrier said nothing of it either). It's also a bit disturbing that the poster linked to Acharya's response to Carrier, but not to Carrier's re-response, which I did post in my blog. And unfortunately, Carrier's points were not refuted by Acharya, though Carrier did make a correct or two (a sign of a good scholar: someone that fixes their mistakes rather than doubles-down).

Now, getting to actual criticism of me: for my response, I did not depend on anyone except Acharya for her position. I pointed to the link on the Star from her, which was based on her book Christ in Egypt, so the accusation has no grounding. Next, my use of the term 'astrology' is apropos if it is not limited to the meaning of horoscopes. Astrology is broadly about learning from the stars, and it is an offshoot of star worship. The ideas of astrology are certainly part of at least some religions, especially notable in the artifacts of Mithraism. And this is why I did not say "astrology as we know it today" (emphasis original) as the poster presents; if words have to be literally put into my mouth to make my statements false, then I am in pretty good standing. Admittedly, I could have been clearer and considered the misconceptions this would bring up, so I will try to not make that mistake in the future.

A later posted also made hay about the difference between horoscopic predictions and astrotheology, about how refuting one doesn't refute the other. And since I did not attack horoscopes but only said how the thesis depended on the interpretation of the sky (the basic essence of astrology), it is an attack that has nothing to do with what I have said.

As for using old scholarship to justify her stance: when it comes to the webpage she was for the Star, that is in fact true. Her only footnote is to an encyclopedia from 1915. Her other internal citations are rarely from someone in Egyptology. J. Gwyn Griffiths was an Irish poet, Barbara Walker is trained as a journalist. There is also a citation from a long-dead French philosopher, Simone Weil. And it is really odd to attack people for pointing out her reliance on old scholarship because in the introduction to Suns of God (which I own and have read) she defends her use of old scholarship. That doesn't mean all her sources are old and out of date, but the ones she needs the most for this thesis are.

For example, she cites NO primary sources for calling the belt of Orion the "Three Kings". None. In another of her writings she shows the symbol for Orion that has three loops, but there is nothing but speculation to say that three loops represent kings. Moreover, the heliacal rising of Sirius (Sothis) is first and foremost connected to the resurrection of Osiris and the flooding of the Nile. The rising sun was connected to Horus, but there is nothing connecting it to his birth, let alone on Dec 25. Again, Acharya has NO primary sources for that, only speculations. While she does cite proper Egyptologists from recent years, they are for points that do not support her substantive premises. This makes them window dressing: using good scholarship to disugise the reliance on bad. If she wants to improve her scholarship, she has to jettison ALL the bad, not lump it in with the good. Otherwise, how can a lay reader know the difference?

But let's get to the points I made that were not even attempted a refutation. It is a fact that Orion's belt had set below the horizon before sunrise on the winter solstice, so it cannot point to anything, let alone the sun. Since the hypothesis makes it integral that the belt of Orion point through Sirius to the morning Sun, that this point is false is utterly decisive. Perhaps you don't believe me about the astronomy? Well, here are a couple of screen shots to help. (I am using the planetarium software Stellarium 0.11.2)

This is a view of the night sky as seen on December 25, 5 BCE in Alexandria, Egypt (the view is very similar to that in Jerusalem). As can be seen, the belt is on the western, setting horizon, and the sun is not yet up. In fact, it is four hours away, as seen here.

Notice the time mark in both screen captures to see that four hours passed, and even Sirius is below the horizon (it set about three hours before sunrise). Try it out on your own planetarium software if you want (I also used a NASA database to get similar results). The fact is, the astronomy is wrong.

Perusing some of the other threads at Freethought Nation seem to indicate that, at least to the posters (don't know about Acharya herselt) this isn't a problem; so long as the best and Sirius pointed at the Sun before sunrise that is enough. But then that begs the question of why make December 25 so special? Any date after the heliacal rising of Sirius would have been more interesting as Orion and Sirius would have been directly over the Sun in the morning (though probably not visible due to the dawn's early light). But this would mean any time since late July would have been just as good or better than December 25. And if Orion need not be in the sky at sunrise, then any date would have the same alignment quality. The excuse then doesn't work and makes no date special.

One potential point to consider is how low the Sun gets in the sky. Because of the angle of the earth, the height the Sun gets in the sky during the day varies throughout the year. So this means the alignment between sun and Orion's belt is better on some days than others. But when is it best? Well, from what I can see, it is best some time in September or October.

So once again, nothing suggest that December 25 is special based on this hypothesis. But that assumes the hypothesis has anything else to back it up.

Let's also highlight a few more facts ignored:
  • It is a fact that the Magi were not called Kings or numbered three until centuries later (other numbers include 12). If they were not called kings originally or three in number, then any alleged Egyptian comparison will not explain the original story, only later adaptations at best.
  • It is a fact that Dec 25 was not celebrated as the birthday of Jesus until much later, and other dates nowhere near the solstices were proposed before Dec 25 came into use. (Also, it is NOT the case that only Dec 25 is celebrated as his birthday today; Armenian Christians still hold to another tradition, just as old, that Christ was born on Jan 6.) Again, you cannot explain the original story of Matthew with details that are not part of the Jesus story centuries after the fact.
  • There is no primary evidence at all that says the stars of Orion's best were called king, and Acharya provided none.
  • There is no primary evidence that Horus was born (or conceived) on Dec 25, and Acharya provided none.
  • Related to this, the heliacal rising of Sirius happens no where near the summer solstice.
  • And lastly, there is a far superior and well-supported position that explains things (and I hope to add to this scholarship in the near future).

When you have a hypothesis that doesn’t have very good evidence for it, and another with much better supported evidence, there is a particular way you should lean. Moreover, Jewish literature is far more likely to influence the early Christians than ancient Egyptian, so there is prior probability in favor of a Jewish background for the story than Egyptian. And no mumbling about my ineptitudes can change that.

Now unless Acharya (or anyone else) can address these points, then the hypothesis is very, very dead. The false astronomy is itself a deal-breaker.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm more or less just an interested person. Don't believe nor disbelieve any of these legends or commonly discussed faiths but since you're the educated one, allow me to pose this question to you:

1. The night sky you discuss is charted from Egypt, close enough to where Jesus was born Jerusalem. However according to the noted historians, Jesus didn't even exist. The original story came from the Egyptians anyway but the story written is by the Egyptians is a personified version of the Heavens. Horus never existed either. So I ask, where does the night sky perform this alleged phenomena? Perhaps this place is the real spot where the story originates. The earliest man is always talked about coming from the desert but maybe we came from more of the Pangaea land form. After all, the star maps are written on several different continents, South America and Africa for example, but the sun doesn't do the same dance on those hemispheres. So, how did opposite sides of the Earth come up with the same religion? Sun/star worship. The real story is most likely older than the Egyptions and Mayans.