In the last few weeks we’ve received a number of emails from people wanting to know RTB’s perspective on The Star of Bethlehem. So a group of us got together to watch this widely distributed DVD documentary, presented by lawyer and Christian Rick Larson. What follows is RTB’s preliminary assessment.
Key Features of Explanation
A key component of Larson’s model is that King Herod died around 1 BC (historians date Herod’s death around 4 BC).1 Assuming this date is correct, Larson then uses the Starry Night software to search for astronomical events that occurred above the ancient Near East around 3–2 BC. He found a conjunction of Jupiter (the “king planet”) and Regulus (the “king star”) in 3 BC, which he claims would have announced the conception of Jesus to the magi. Following this model, roughly nine months later a conjunction of Jupiter and Venus formed the “star” of Bethlehem that led the magi from the east to Jerusalem. Finally, a few months later as the magi arrive in Jerusalem, Jupiter enters retrograde motion. According to Larson, it stops right over Bethlehem to lead the magi to Jesus’ location.
Larson goes on to present a questionable case concluding that these events in the cosmos marked the beginning of what developed into a “celestial poem” of Christ’s life (from conception and birth to His execution and appearance to the disciples at Pentecost).
Positive Aspects of The Star of Bethlehem
1. Larson provides a relatively thorough compilation of the Bible verses about the heavenly signs that beckoned the magi to seek out the Christ child. Specifically, Larson highlights at least nine scriptural criteria that any proposed astronomical explanation for the star must satisfy. (He does, however, leave out Daniel 9 which prophesies the approximate date for Christ’s birth.)
2. Larson outlines his explanation of the astronomical events surrounding Christ’s birth. Though he presents it as the explanation, his presentation provides at least one a plausible model (excluding events discussed relating to Christ’s death) Christians can consider as a possible defense of the historicity of the Bible. Other models exist that utilize similar and different astronomical phenomena to account for the Christmas star.
3. A number of times Larson clearly explains scientific concepts, providing the listener with an accurate knowledge of the phenomena in question (although he does use the term “redshift” inappropriately when describing an eclipse of the moon). At the end of the video, he also gives a clear and heartfelt Gospel presentation.
Areas of Concern
1. Most historians place Herod’s death in 4 BC, yet Larson argues for a date of 1 BC (based on research from an unidentified scholar who claims that a “printing or copying error” around AD 1544 “propagated widely” the 4 BC date). Larson’s model rests crucially on the later date for Herod’s death, placing the model on questionable footing at best.
2. Many of the “astronomical evidences” Larson presents suffer from one of two problems. Some have little relevance to historical events described in the Scriptures (such as the fact that the Sun was in the constellation Virgo, with the Moon at Virgo’s feet). Other evidences rely on theologically questionable interpretations of biblical passages (such as Larson’s understanding of the signs described in Acts 2:22). At times, Larson’s arguments resemble those of astrology or the idea that the gospel message is written in the stars.
3. Larson’s video leaves the impression that his model is the ONLY explanation for the Christmas star (mainly because of information regarding the “celestial poem”). Such a position does not accord with the diversity of scholarship of other Christians and could lead someone to question the legitimacy of Scripture if the dates turn out different from what Larson claims.
4. Finally, Larson’s lack of citation makes it difficult to check his claims regarding some of the astronomical events he describes (such as the close conjunction of Jupiter and Venus he identifies as the official Christmas star). It also muddies the distinction between what work he produced and what material he may have borrowed from other scholars. This latter point would be a minor issue except the presentation implies that Larson arrived at his conclusions all on his own.
(UPDATE on Dec. 3, 2010: Rick Larson informed me that his website, www.bethlehemstar.net, contains the documentation for his research. Those interested in investigating the academic scholarship more thoroughly can find it under the resources link.)
The Bottom Line
While this video provides one plausible explanation for the astronomical events surrounding Jesus’ birth, viewers should watch with caution. Unless one takes measures to militate against believing this is THE explanation and that God wrote the gospel in the stars, viewing this particular presentation may lead to more problems than it solves.
For more of RTB's analysis of The Star of Bethlehem, check out our video clips, podcasts, blogs, and more discussing this popular Christmas-time topic and Larson’s view in particular.