Friday, December 21

Ho Ho Horseshit

Tom Coyne, AP: Notre Dame astrophysicist has theories on star of Bethlehem." December 20

LOOK, if NORAD wants to spend taxpayer dollars tracking Santa every year, I say fine. Gives the Boys something to do in the years between North Korean missle tests. I'm not too worried whether your kid's school permits green and red napkins or calls it "Christmas break". I don't think a creche belongs on the courthouse lawn, but I'd be willing to overlook it if wasn't a stupid ratings ploy designed to rally a bunch of obnoxious hypocrites.

So I think my real point here is this: if there is a God, He surely intended His editors to have more brains than His geese, sufficient to recognize the difference between hard science, soft or "feature" science, Holiday fluff, and self-promoting bullshit, and while the rules might be relaxed in a spirit of fun, that shouldn't extend to the point of slack-jawed credulity.
As a theoretical astrophysicist, Grant Mathews had hoped the answer would be spectacular -- something like a supernova. But two years of research have led him to a more ordinary conclusion. The heavenly sign around the time of the birth of Jesus Christ was likely an unusual alignment of planets, the sun and the moon.

No, it "likely" wasn't.
The star, though, has long been immortalized in Christmas songs, plays and movies. Astronomers, theologians and historians for hundreds of years have been trying to determine exactly which star might have inspired the biblical writing.

In reality, theologians solved it over a century ago. It's just that editors don't like the answer.
The Gospel of Matthew indicates Jesus was born in Bethlehem when Herod was king. Roman historian Flavius Josephus wrote that Herod died after an eclipse of the moon before the Passover. Mathews said among the possibilities are 6 B.C., 5 B.C., 1 B.C. or 1 A.D. The star could have appeared up to two years before the wise men arrived in Jerusalem, he said.

Mathews believes that means the Christmas star could have appeared anywhere from 8 to 4 B.C.

Look, Doc, I'm sorry, but the Nativity story is a steaming pile of fiction, concocted decades after the death of Jesus, if any, by people who knew nothing about his birth but felt the urge to tell the tale and shaped it for their intended audience. Jesus winds up in Bethlehem (Matthew just drops him there; Luke pulls the "worldwide census" groaner) strictly to "fulfill" prophecy that had nothing to do with him, the better to wow Matthew's Jewish audience. Luke wrote a little later, when the Christian cult had begun focusing its membership drives on Gentiles, i.e. the Roman poor. He may in part have copied directly from Matthew; both used Mark as a source, the Synoptic Gospels being something like the Fiji Wedge of my college days, when frat boys aligned themselves to look over each others' shoulders on test day, the vertex of the angle being the one guy who studied.

(By the way, just as a little sample of how this pot-au-feu is concocted, that "The star could have appeared up to two years before the wise men arrived in Jerusalem..." has nothing to do with anything except the internal consistency of the Matthew tale. We have no knowledge of The Wise Men beyond their being from The East, nor anything of their methodology. They might have taken twenty years to make the trip, or finish their calculations, for that matter; they might have fortuitously been attending a Magi convention at the Bethlehem Marriot.)

The scholarship here is not obscure, and there's really nothing to oppose it save the doctrinal insistence that everything in the Bible must be literally true, a position even more head-meets-wall obtuse than usual when it comes to justifying Matthew and Luke on the Nativity. (One December I'd like to see that cute lil' feature come across the AP wire.) So what begins by saying "Herod died between 6 B.C. and 1 A.D." (the earlier dates are generally accepted) almost immediately runs into serious problems. Only Matthew tells the Star tale, and Matthew simply gives Herod as referent, but Luke, stuck with his census story, links it (clumsily) to a Judean census that took place in 6-7 A.D. So when we set off to use "science" to prop up Matthew we must first reject Luke out of hand, something which might suggest the whole operation should have been filed where it belongs before we wasted any more time on it.
Mathews believes the Christmas star is most likely an alignment of planets. He said there are three likely times for this:
--Feb. 20, 6 B.C., when Mars, Jupiter and Saturn aligned in the constellation Pisces.
--April 17, 6 B.C., when the sun, Jupiter, the moon and Saturn aligned in the constellation Aries while Venus and Mars were in neighboring constellations.
--June 17, 2 B.C., when Jupiter and Venus were closely aligned in Leo.
Mathews believes the April 17, 6 B.C., alignment is the most likely candidate. It makes sense because he believes the wise men were Zoroastrian astrologers who would have recognized the planetary alignment in Aries as a sign a powerful leader was born.

Good thing they had grounds for further evaluation, or those Zoroastrian astrologers would have spent all their time on the road.

Look, for one, this isn't Biblical. The Magi (who are remarkably adept with Jewish scripture for Zoroastrians, by the way) see the star of the king of the Jews and come to Jerusalem, but when Herod sends them off to find Jesus they do so by physically following the star, which hovers over his location. The first could be an astrological calculation, assuming one is okay with a Biblical commendation of astrology, but what end of the telescope do you grab to find the second? It's no natural phenomenon, it's a portent from God, and once you admit that into your story you've pretty much blown any justification for all that computer time at NASA. Aside from the book deal, I mean.

And for another, I don't know about you, but I read The Old Farmer's Almanac every year, and there's some celestial must-see event every time, yet somehow none of them warned Christians about George W. Bush.

This is nothing new. I remember reading about the Star in an anthology I got for my eighth birthday (and which, IIRC, lighted on that supernova Matthews rejects as Bad News). We've been able to theoretically reverse the paths of the planets since the 17th century, and we've always had the evidence of Chinese astronomers to fall back on. If there was some highly suggestive cosmological event during the reign of Herod the Great I think you can trust you'd have heard about it from your grandparents, and dollars to doughnuts it'd figure in 98% of the History Channel's programming over the next five days. Regardless of the violence it did to scripture, or history, or archeology. It's a dry well, Doc. Aside from the book deal, I mean.

Again, Christmas fluff is one thing, the suggestion that there's some evidence-free yet scientific-y basis for a belief that some hard facts cling to a fictional account is quite another. And this time, when we get to the seventeen-paragraphs-later disclaimer, it doesn't even disclaim much. Instead, we get a fuzzy, we-just-need-that-last-piece-of-evidence routine:
Mathews concedes, though, that any of the other events could have been the famed star. Unless a document is discovered that allows historians to more accurately estimate exactly when Jesus was born, it will be impossible to say what caused the light with absolute certainty, Mathews said.
"I think it would take more of a historical reference more than an astrophysics," he said. "There are plenty of strong opinions out there. I think this is as good as you can do for now."

You're just being modest, Doc. I'm sure we can do a lot better.


Julia said...

See, I think that's a lovely theory.

I thought it was a lovely theory the first time I saw the christmas sky show at the Hayden Planetarium that explained it when I was six.

Anonymous said...

That astrophysicists can waste time on such nonsense fills me with a sense of despair for the survival of our species.


Anonymous said...

Back in '86 or so ... I was living in the dismal state of Georgia. At the time, I was serving in the military juggernaut that was to be instrumental in destroying communism and eradicated tooth decay.

The University of Georgia did a study, to the tune of about $200,000.00 worth of federal grant money, to determine whether all of the apostles sat on the same side of the table -- ala The Last Supper.

Good times.


Brendan said...

A fun read which pefectly fits my mood at this time of year. Thanks.

You might also like Dawkins's take on the significance of 25 December: "Happy Newton Day!"

punkinsmom said...

That whole hovering star thing always disturbed me too. Let me know if you get a hold of one of them telescopes the Magi had, 'kay?

pookapooka said...

They're from a univeristy named after one of our most endearing fables.

This just in -- biologists from Our Man Zeus U. are researching a small island in the Mediterranean for DNA traces of the endangered cyclops.