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Switch to Forum Live View Spong on the Star of Bethlehem
10 years ago  ::  May 01, 2008 - 2:10PM #1
artemis01
Posts: 925
Is Spong droning on and on again?   Goodness, how mind-numbingly literalist that man is.

Here's an article about - ahem - what astronomers have actually found and know about the period.  You know, using actual data, rather than, um, unsupported personal opinion?

      ASTRONOMERS have recreated the night sky at the time when Christ was born using computer software.



Historical records and computer simulations point to a rare series of planetary groupings, known as conjunctions, during the years 3BC and 2BC

David Reneke, news editor of Sky and Space Magazine , says most scholars believe Jesus was born around this time and, as it turns out, this was one of the most remarkable celestial periods of the last 3000 years.

He said it was now possible to "go back and have a look at the sky of Christ's time" to spot the Star of Bethlehem - one of the most powerful, and enigmatic, symbols of Christianity.

It is said to have guided the three wise men to the place where Christ was born.

"With modern astronomy software programs we can reproduce the night sky exactly as it was, thousands of years ago," he said.

On August 12, 3BC, Jupiter and Venus appeared very close together just before sunrise, appearing as a bright morning "star". It would have been visible in the eastern dawn sky of the Middle East from about 3:45am to 5:20am.

The crowning touch came 10 months later, on June 17, 2BC, as Venus and Jupiter joined again in the constellation Leo.

This time the two planets were so close that they would have looked like one single brilliant star, the brightest thing in the sky next to the moon.

This is about the time Christ is actually thought to have been born, however, Christians settled on December 25 over the next few centuries by melding their belief with various pagan customs.

So contra Spong, some sort of interesting celestial phenomenon might actually have occurred at the time.  Imagine that!  (And what was he saying about "religious leaders [who] speculate on scientific phenomena about which they know very little"?  Heh.)

(I know I found something else pretty interesting about the sky at that period, too; I'll see if I can find it and post it....)

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10 years ago  ::  May 01, 2008 - 11:08AM #2
RJMcElwain
Posts: 3,013
Below is an excerpt from Bishop Spong's latest letter.

Thoughts?


Despite Professor Filippenko's brilliance, or maybe because of it, I was actually stunned in this course to listen to him pause to discuss what it was that might have caused biblical writers to describe "The Star of Bethlehem." He assumed that this was a legitimate topic for astronomers. I often worry when religious leaders speculate on scientific phenomena about which they know very little, like evolution for example. This, however, was an experience in which a scientific expert was speculating on a religious idea about which he apparently knew very little. After going into several theories that have been advanced in the past to account for the heavenly sign that was supposed to have marked the birth of Jesus, Professor Filippenko placed his weight behind the idea advanced by Michael Molnar, a computer programmer with a doctorate in astronomy, that the planet Jupiter, which rose in the east into the astrological sign of Aries in 6 BCE., was what was behind the "Star of Bethlehem." Filippenko went on to explain that Jupiter was thought of as "the star of kings" and that to the Romans the sign of Aries represented Judea. So when Jupiter rose into the sign of Aries that could have been interpreted as an astrological sign that a new king of the Jews had been born.

I watched this serious explanation with amused incredulity, recognizing once more the extent of the power that has been attributed to the literal Bible over the centuries, and which was now still affecting the life of contemporary scientists. Why did I find this incredulous? There were several reasons. In the first place, the idea that anyone would assert that a heavenly sign can or did literally predict or mark an earthly event is unbelievable. It implies that behind the sky is a supernatural deity who communicates with earthlings about events in human history. Second, the suggestion that Jesus at the moment of his birth was thought of as the king of the Jews is to accept as historical fact a concept in Jewish messianic thought, which was not applied to Jesus until well after his earthly life had come to an end. The biblical claim that Jesus was descended from the royal line of David was first introduced by Paul in the Epistle to the Romans about the year 58. This idea was later incorporated into Matthew's gospel written in the mid-eighties (82-85) by moving Jesus' birthplace from Nazareth, where the first gospel, Mark, assumed that he had been born (he was called "Jesus of Nazareth"), to Bethlehem so that he could be born in the city of David. Matthew introduced this Bethlehem story with a genealogy that traced Jesus' ancestry through the royal line of the kings of Judah back to King David, though Matthew clearly edited the genealogy to fit his needs. This same Matthew, however, tells us in chapter 13 that Jesus was in fact the son of a carpenter. Matthew, we need to note, is the only gospel to mention the "Star of Bethlehem." In the only other birth story of Jesus, found in Luke (88-93), the star has been replaced by a host of angels who break through the midnight sky to sing to hillside shepherds about the birth of a savior, not a king. Jesus is not called the "King of the Jews" in Luke until the scene of the crucifixion. Apparently Professor Filippenko is not aware of the fact that a star in the sky was a regular Jewish way of announcing the births of a significant life in Jewish history. Examples in Jewish writing can be found of stars that announced the births of Abraham, Isaac and Moses, to say nothing of an earlier biblical account (Numbers 24:17) in which a star was anticipated to rise out of Jacob and a scepter, the sign of a king, would rise out of Israel. Matthew would have been aware of each of these references.

Finally, given what we now know about the size of the universe and the fact that light we see from the stars today was emitted hundreds of thousands, in some cases even millions of years ago since it takes light that long to navigate the distances involved, for God to send a heavenly sign announcing Jesus' birth, God would have had to put that star into its place centuries before the event being announced to get the timing correct. Even if it was only the light of Jupiter that constituted the "Star of Bethlehem," it would still put the timing off seriously.

No, Professor Filippenko, there was no literal "Star of Bethlehem." That is nothing more than Jewish interpretive writing (based on Isaiah 60) composed well after the fact of Jesus' birth, trying to find language big enough and significant enough to capture what the life of Jesus meant to the gospel writers, who were second generation Christians writing some 40-70 years after the death of Jesus. Confusing history with mythology and facts with interpretive signs is to play into hands of biblical literalists one more time. That is a shame because the story behind the star of Bethlehem stands on its own merits.
John Shelby Spong

Robert J. McElwain

"The strongest reason for people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government." (Supposedly)Thomas Jefferson

"He who is not angry when there is just cause for anger is immoral."
St. Thomas Aquinas

One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors. Plato
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10 years ago  ::  May 01, 2008 - 12:52PM #3
maplewood
Posts: 4,517
Gosh, Spong just sounds to me like someone who is a bit full of himself, over-reaching in his analysis, and just  looking silly.   Allow me to explain...

"Despite Professor Filippenko's brilliance, or maybe because of it, I was actually stunned in this course to listen to him pause to discuss what it was that might have caused biblical writers to describe "The Star of Bethlehem." He assumed that this was a legitimate topic for astronomers."   Why would it not?  It is an astronomical event reported in an ancient text.

"I often worry when religious leaders speculate on scientific phenomena about which they know very little, like evolution for example. This, however, was an experience in which a scientific expert was speculating on a religious idea about which he apparently knew very little. After going into several theories that have been advanced in the past to account for the heavenly sign that was supposed to have marked the birth of Jesus, Professor Filippenko placed his weight behind the idea advanced by Michael Molnar, a computer programmer with a doctorate in astronomy, that the planet Jupiter, which rose in the east into the astrological sign of Aries in 6 BCE., was what was behind the "Star of Bethlehem." Filippenko went on to explain that Jupiter was thought of as "the star of kings" and that to the Romans the sign of Aries represented Judea. So when Jupiter rose into the sign of Aries that could have been interpreted as an astrological sign that a new king of the Jews had been born.

I watched this serious explanation with amused incredulity, recognizing once more the extent of the power that has been attributed to the literal Bible over the centuries, and which was now still affecting the life of contemporary scientists." Why would the Bible NOT be of interest to scientists?  One of the seminal works of Western society?  Gimme a break!  Besides, isn't Spong violating his own standard in this article? Talking about what you don't know anything about?  Is Spong an astronomer? :)

"Why did I find this incredulous? There were several reasons. In the first place, the idea that anyone would assert that a heavenly sign can or did literally predict or mark an earthly event is unbelievable. It implies that behind the sky is a supernatural deity who communicates with earthlings about events in human history." Well, yeah!  That's why it's called a "miraculous event".  Scratching my scalp here trying to figure out what is so odd about that, and why that means a scientist can't test it for any veracity.

"Second, the suggestion that Jesus at the moment of his birth was thought of as the king of the Jews is to accept as historical fact a concept in Jewish messianic thought, which was not applied to Jesus until well after his earthly life had come to an end. The biblical claim that Jesus was descended from the royal line of David was first introduced by Paul in the Epistle to the Romans about the year 58. This idea was later incorporated into Matthew's gospel written in the mid-eighties (82-85) by moving Jesus' birthplace from Nazareth, where the first gospel, Mark, assumed that he had been born (he was called "Jesus of Nazareth"), to Bethlehem so that he could be born in the city of David. Matthew introduced this Bethlehem story with a genealogy that traced Jesus' ancestry through the royal line of the kings of Judah back to King David, though Matthew clearly edited the genealogy to fit his needs. This same Matthew, however, tells us in chapter 13 that Jesus was in fact the son of a carpenter. Matthew, we need to note, is the only gospel to mention the "Star of Bethlehem." In the only other birth story of Jesus, found in Luke (88-93), the star has been replaced by a host of angels who break through the midnight sky to sing to hillside shepherds about the birth of a savior, not a king. Jesus is not called the "King of the Jews" in Luke until the scene of the crucifixion." Hmm... If God was able to create the event, was He aware that He is suppose to be ignorant of its reasons, and incapable of seeing into the future?  Spong asks us to place faith in his redaction, instead of the possible nature and character of God.  :)

"Apparently Professor Filippenko is not aware of the fact that a star in the sky was a regular Jewish way of announcing the births of a significant life in Jewish history. Examples in Jewish writing can be found of stars that announced the births of Abraham, Isaac and Moses, to say nothing of an earlier biblical account (Numbers 24:17) in which a star was anticipated to rise out of Jacob and a scepter, the sign of a king, would rise out of Israel. Matthew would have been aware of each of these references." Which does not have anything to do with the Bethlehem event, or an astronomer's interest in one, reported ancient event.  Still scratching my head here.

"Finally, given what we now know about the size of the universe and the fact that light we see from the stars today was emitted hundreds of thousands, in some cases even millions of years ago since it takes light that long to navigate the distances involved, for God to send a heavenly sign announcing Jesus' birth, God would have had to put that star into its place centuries before the event being announced to get the timing correct. Even if it was only the light of Jupiter that constituted the "Star of Bethlehem," it would still put the timing off seriously." Once again, this assumes that God has no sense of timing or the future, or that, in fact, it was a star at all.  We really don't know what that "star" was, and his astronomer is considering natural phenomenon options.

"No, Professor Filippenko, there was no literal "Star of Bethlehem." That is nothing more than Jewish interpretive writing (based on Isaiah 60) composed well after the fact of Jesus' birth, trying to find language big enough and significant enough to capture what the life of Jesus meant to the gospel writers, who were second generation Christians writing some 40-70 years after the death of Jesus. Confusing history with mythology and facts with interpretive signs is to play into hands of biblical literalists one more time. That is a shame because the story behind the star of Bethlehem stands on its own merits." No arguement from me that the story stands on it's own merit, but Spong has zero evidence to say there was no Star of Bethlehem, but rather an assumptive disbelief.  Prof. F is doing precisely what scientists do: explore and consider the unknown.  They don't pat people on the head condescendingly and tell them to run off and play, the adults are busy. :)

Spong, IMO, has demonstrated the same characteristics that he criticized in the evangelical world.   I, for one, don't see any reason for such an attitude.

A better atttiude, IMO, would be interest in what Prof. F. has to say and see if it adds to the community of disciples or not.  I have no problem with people seeing it metaphorically, along with most other aspects of the life of Christ.  It is just a bit irritating to see someone get so hung up on factuality, as well as dismiss the notions of miracles simply because they adhere to their very definition.

Did Spong simply have a slow day and needed SOME subject to meet a deadline?

....I still think he's often spot on, though...;)
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10 years ago  ::  May 01, 2008 - 2:30PM #4
artemis01
Posts: 925
(Also, you don't "find something incredulous."  You find it "incredible."

"Incredulous" is a description of a person who finds an event or statement not believable; it means "skeptical."  You don't find an event "skeptical."

Hey, if Spong can feel free to nitpick everything other people say, why shouldn't I?  ;))
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10 years ago  ::  May 01, 2008 - 2:33PM #5
maplewood
Posts: 4,517
Arte: fascinating stuff!

So, we can be reasonably certain that there WAS an unusual celestial event in the mideast about the time of Christ's birth.

True, it does not prove that it was an event specifically created by God for a specific reason, but it sure the hell proves that Spong needs to do his homework before he opens his mouth - he just makes himself look silly.

I wonder if there is any way to forward that info to +Spong?

Bob?  Any ideas?  Do you know the gentleman in any way? (Seriously.  No sarcasm intended.)
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10 years ago  ::  May 01, 2008 - 3:00PM #6
RJMcElwain
Posts: 3,013

maplewood wrote:

Arte: fascinating stuff!

maplewood wrote:



So, we can be reasonably certain that there WAS an unusual celestial event in the mideast about the time of Christ's birth.

True, it does not prove that it was an event specifically created by God for a specific reason, but it sure the hell proves that Spong needs to do his homework before he opens his mouth - he just makes himself look silly.

I wonder if there is any way to forward that info to +Spong?

Bob? Any ideas? Do you know the gentleman in any way? (Seriously. No sarcasm intended.)



Mape,

I think you win the Gold Star on this one since you were the first to say the good Bishop must've been having a slow day when he wrote this column. ;) OTOH, he could have made his point in a couple of sentences by saying "regardless of any possible astronomical events at that time, the reason for the reference in the Bible had to do with Greek mythological format in that special stars were used as a sign of an important event, kind of along the same line as virgin births".

But if he'd taken the short cut, he would have been left with a nearly blank page.:)

Below is an email address for him. Type away.:cool:

Send your questions to support@johnshelbyspong.com

Robert J. McElwain

"The strongest reason for people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government." (Supposedly)Thomas Jefferson

"He who is not angry when there is just cause for anger is immoral."
St. Thomas Aquinas

One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors. Plato
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10 years ago  ::  May 01, 2008 - 3:10PM #7
maplewood
Posts: 4,517
LOL on that one, Bob!

Thanks for the email.  I will shoot him a note and see what happens.  I'll keep in polite, too!

I've discovered over the years that you'd be surprised what happens when you email these folks directly.  They usually respond.

The last three folks I emailed - a reporter on his book, an asst. attorney general of the state of AZ, and a scholar at the Jerusalem Biblical Institue - all answered my note with good answers.

I'll try Spong.
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10 years ago  ::  May 01, 2008 - 3:30PM #8
maplewood
Posts: 4,517
Dear Bishop Spong:  Good afternoon!  Some friends of mine were discussing one of your latest columns, discussing your puzzlement about a Prof. Filipennko's interest in the star of Bethlehem. 

We were discussing the merits of the issue (Real? Not real? Does it matter?) when one of us pointed out that some astronomers have already demonstrated by computer software models that there was, indeed, an unusual celestial event between 3 BCE and 2 BCE.

http://www.news.com.au/story/0,23599,22941749-2,00.html

In the article linked above from News.com.au: Astronomers Find the Christmas Star
Dec. 18 2007

"ASTRONOMERS have recreated the night sky at the time when Christ was born using computer software.  Historical records and computer simulations point to a rare series of planetary groupings, known as conjunctions, during the years 3BC and 2BC

"David Reneke, news editor of Sky and Space Magazine , says most scholars believe Jesus was born around this time and, as it turns out, this was one of the most remarkable celestial periods of the last 3000 years.

"He said it was now possible to "go back and have a look at the sky of Christ's time" to spot the Star of Bethlehem - one of the most powerful, and enigmatic, symbols of Christianity."

It certainly proves nothing about why the event occured or Who/What made it occur, but it does provide us with some rather compelling evidence that such a celestial event did occur, and that it would be of interest to astronomers.

We wondered what your thoughts might be, now armed with the additional information?  No "gotcha" intended here.  Thanks for your time.

Kevin
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10 years ago  ::  May 01, 2008 - 3:53PM #9
maplewood
Posts: 4,517
Hello,

Thank you for contacting A New Christianity For A New World.  Unfortunately, we cannot find a valid account for this email address.  If you are a member of A New Christianity For A New World, please email us again from the email address you enrolled with to bypass this automated filter.

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...I'll try again....  :)
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10 years ago  ::  May 01, 2008 - 4:01PM #10
artemis01
Posts: 925
Here's an article like the other one I was thinking of (it's not the very same one, but similar).   Excerpt:

[QUOTE]It's long been a puzzle for Christian astronomers, and now a professor from the University of Notre Dame thinks he has it figured out - almost, anyway.


His quest: discovering just what "the star in the East" was that led wise men to travel to Bethlehem 2,000 years ago.


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 probably an unusual alignment of planets, the sun and the moon.
[/QUOTE]
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