Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Star and Zeitgeist

While I have in prior writings and posts attacked naturalistic theories to explain the Star of Bethlehem as a historical, natural event, I also have encountered other approaches that have their own popularity. In a recent email, I was directed to the coverage of the Star in the Internet-distributed "documentary" Zeitgeist, which is filled with layers of conspiracy. The first third is an argument that Jesus didn't exist, and all of Christianity (and other religions?) is based on astrology or "astrotheology." This is largely the product of the self-published author D. M. Murdock, a.k.a. Acharya S.

What is the basic idea? At about the time of the winter solstice, the three stars of Orion's belt point at the rising sun, pointing through Sirius. This alignment takes place then at about Dec 25. There are also connections between Sirius' heliacal rising (first rising at sunrise in a year) and the summer solstice alleged  Moreover, this was supposed to be celebrated and connected in ancient Egypt, thus making the Christians copy-cats. Thus the Star is fiction and based on Egyptian mythology, itself based on astronomy. Those details are best laid out by Acharya here.

Now, I am not the first to look critically at her claims concerning the Nativity of Jesus, and one place to look at a good examination is done by Richard Carrier here (and update here). Not only are there significant factual errors and unjustified assumptions, but there are good, scholarly-defended results that indicate a lack of historicity for these things (which I hope to detail in my future book on the subject). In particular, the stories of Daniel help explain a lot of the details of Jesus' birth story in Matthew, along with the Moses typology.

However, I haven't found so much detailing the problems with the Star story from Zeitgeist (and if someone finds some links, please share), so I will repost the message I sent back to an inquisitor (name redacted and the email improved for grammar and spelling.)

Hello XXX, 
Thank you for the email and the links. I am familiar with the work of the author you have linked and her interpretation of the Star. However, I think you should be cautious in using her as an authority on this. 
Consider her use of sources. Most all her secondary scholarship is at least a century old, a time when quality was much lower in scholarship. It's also a problem because her central point about the stars of Orion's belt called the Three kings by Egyptians has no support in the primary literature--actual ancient texts. It's also beside the point because Christians didn't refer to the Magi as kings until much later; same with their number three. That means the original story had nothing to do with three kings, thus unrelated to an alleged Egyptian myth. 
There are other details that go against the story in Matthew. While the Magi follow the Star, the belt of Orion leads Sirius. And while Sirius is a star as was Matthew's Star, the Magi are not stars. Why these differences if the Christians were following Egyptian precedent? 
There are also issues with the astronomy. The heliacal rising of Sirius is nowhere near the summer solstice, and the Egyptians cared rather little about solstices. Their agriculture didn't depend on the sun's position as other cultures but on the seasonal flooding of the Nile. (For example, the Maya didn't have seasons so they don't align their calendar with leap years as we do.) The claim about where the stars of Orion and Sirius point on the winter solstice is wrong. The belt has set by sunrise, and it's even worse with precession. 
Lastly, the connection to December 25 is a false lead because, again, the Christians didn't think Jesus was born on that day until centuries later and usually figured different days; Clement of Alexandria gives several guesses, and none are in December, let alone the solstice.
Thus, all the historical and mythological connections are not valid, the astronomy is wrong, and the match between the alleged myth and the Gospel story is poor. That's a big overall negative assessment. 
The much more popular account given by biblical scholars is citing Jewish literature which definitely influenced early Christianity, namely the Star Prophecy of Numbers 24:17. It was used by numerous Jews, including Josephus, rabbis in the Talmud, and the Qumran sect. This is the starting point I have been using in my research about the story, and I suggest the same for you own investigations. On the Nativity stories, the best book is still Raymond Brown's "Birth of the Messiah". I hope to have a future book to supplement Brown's work, but his book is magisterial. 
I hope this helps you. In the mean time, I strongly recommend you be careful about your authorities. See what their sources are, if they cite primary literature rather than old, secondary literature, and if their work has had peer review. It's the only way to have some confidence in the facts presented; otherwise, your have to check everything yourself, thus making the book a pointless read since it didn't inform you but for your own research. Save yourself the time and headache. 
Thanks again for your interest.

In summary, the astronomy is wrong, the astrology is wrong, the fit to Matthew's account is weak, and there are much better explanations. Obviously we have enough reason to be skeptical of the Zeitgeist version of the Star of Bethlehem, and it gives us reason to be skeptical of a lot more as well.

But does Numbers 24:17 explain the Star completely? I will have to say more on that later.

Edit: Apparently Acharya's first name is not "Dorothy", so I have adjusted the text above to reflect this.


Anonymous said...

Here's a response:

Aaron, there are many sloppy errors here that show you've not actually read any of Acharya's work and are relying on others who also have not studied Acharya's works. For starters, you say that "Zeitgeist," Part 1 is "based on astrology or astrotheology." This assumption is false, as astrology as we know it today and astrotheology are two completely different things that have next to nothing to do with each other. It's a sloppy and egregious error. Had you read Acharya's work you'd already know this fact.

It's also very biased to provide completely unrelated trash from Richard Carrier about Luxor, Egypt, without providing Acharya's responses to it. Acharya S has responded to Carrier's trash, demonstrating he made sloppy and egregious errors in his criticism of her work. Carrier simply doesn't have the integrity to admit his errors, especially since he got caught by Acharya herself (I guess Carrier assumed she couldn't read German). Carrier has never been a reliable or credible source on the work by Acharya S, as he has never read a single book of hers and doesn't know her work at all. Harshly criticizing another's work one has never read is well known as intellectual dishonesty. Carrier and his fanboys will continue to spread these lies across the net without any regard to accuracy at all; it's an embarrassment to all freethinkers, mythicists etc..

"However, in "skimming" Brunner's text, as he puts it, Carrier has mistakenly dealt with the substantially different Hatshepsut text (Brunner's "IV D"), demonstrating an egregious error in garbling the cycles, when in fact we are specifically interested in the Luxor narrative (IV L)."

- Luxor

Parallelophobia, personal attacks and professional jealousy: A response to Richard Carrier's 'That Luxor Thing'

Is Jesus's nativity an Egyptian myth?

Aaron, it's important to keep in mind that you are a Grad Student at OSU for physics, not theology, not mythology - nothing related to these issues. What linguistic skills have you - do you read ancient Greek, Hebrew, Latin or Egyptian? Acharya S specializes in linguistics, and she cites the primary sources and highly respected scholarly commentary on them from relevant experts - another fact that one would already know had one actually read her work...."

Please read the full response.

Aaron Adair said...

Hello anonymous. From what you quote here, are you the same person as Freethinkaluva22 at freethoughtnation.com forums? It doesn't really matter, but it helps me to know if there are one or two people I am talking to.

Let me work backward in your response. 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 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 Mithraism. And this is why I did not say "astrology as we know it today" 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.

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. 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 source 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 premises. Thinks 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?

Aaron Adair said...

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. It is a fact that the Magi were not called Kings or numbered three until centuries later (other numbers include 12). 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.) 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.