The Christmas Story: Is it an insight to the science-religion discussion?


(Phil) #1

In this morning service, our pastor read Matthew 2, the part of the story with the magi, Herod and the Christmas star, and I drifted off thinking of how this has some interesting parallels with how scientific issues are handled in Genesis, and indeed throughout the Bible
. We see the Magi or wise men coming to see baby Jesus. Magi were practioners of astrology, hence watched the stars, and also were practioners of magic, alchemy, and other things we would not accept as science, but were accepted as valid in that day. Astrology was deemed part of the body of what passed for science for centuries, and while Martin Luther did not approve, he also did not condemn its practice. Today however, we see it as hogwash, and some conservative Christians might even consider it demonic, ironically. Yet, the scripture uses that practice in showing them the way to Jesus as they followed the star, and the early church thought nothing of the association, as astrology was an accepted cultural practice and part of how they believed the world worked.
The star itself is a bit of a scientific outlier. Some have tried to connect it to a conjunction of the planets, or perhaps a supernova, but again we have no direct scientific evidence or explanation. For a star to guide the magi to a particular geographic location with near GPS specifically falls outside of natural phenomena. It too seem to have no scientific explanation, and speaks to the Bible using the beliefs of the day to make a point, without requiring scientific support.
The last thing that struck me was the way God communicated through dreams with the wise men to warn them of Herod. That is a little more accepted today, and many feel that that still occurs, though it too is not accepted science, though perhaps considered normal for the day.
Do you think the use of astrology and Magi in the Christmas story has any relation or parallels to the use of non-scientifically accurate descriptions in the creation story, or is that too much of a stretch? How is it same, and how does it differ?


#2

i’ve never considered the connection with astrology in this event. I know some verses speak about God using signs in the sky to indicate things He has done (like Acts 2:19). Is this astrology? I don’t know, I think astrology is when you think the movement of celestial objects themselves influencing natural affairs, but this narrative seems to simply speak of God being the one influencing the natural affairs, and simply using celestial objects to say, well “Hey, this is how you know I’m acting”. I wouldn’t call this astrology.

The one mention of signs in the sky of the creation story I know of is Genesis 1:14 which says "Then God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night, and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years.” But these are not signs of God’s actions, these are signs of seasons, days, and years. The one relationship I can think of is the use of celestial objects as a signal for certain events or things, to which can naturally happen or occur through God’s intervention.


(Phil) #3

Good points, yet the wise men were probably Persian astrologers.


#4

Maybe. Do you God was using their beliefs in astrology to guide them to the birth? The biblical censuring of astrology should be considered here.

Isaiah 47:13-14 (NIV): All the counsel you have received has only worn you out! Let your astrologers come forward, those stargazers who make predictions month by month, let them save you from what is coming upon you. Surely they are like stubble; the fire will burn them up. They cannot even save themselves from the power of the flame. These are not coals for warmth; this is not a fire to sit by.

Here’s the NRSV translation:

You are wearied with your many consultations; let those who study[a] the heavens stand up and save you, those who gaze at the stars, and at each new moon predict what[b] shall befall you. 14 See, they are like stubble, the fire consumes them; they cannot deliver themselves from the power of the flame. No coal for warming oneself is this, no fire to sit before!

Also see Daniel 2.


(Christy Hemphill) #5

I do. I think the attitude of the heart of the seeker is what matters to God not the form. Israelites (and later Christians) were not to consult astrologer because they had revelation from God and a sanctioned way of relating to him. So to turn to astrologers was to turn away from revelation they had. I think God revealing himself to the magi through their culture’s ways of seeking wisdom is similar to God revealing himself in dreams and visions to people seeking those things through fasting at Ramadan.


#6

I think the Magi has more to do with the idea that the Jewish religion was being opened up to people of all cultures and societies where the Jewish God is the God of all people. Just my two cents.


#7

Bingo! The Epiphany (Visit of the Magi, celebrated by many churches on Jan. 6) is the revelation of Christ to the gentiles. It’s not the Jewish religion exactly, but a brand new covenant. Lectionary readings for the day include some of the prophesies where God promises to reach out to the Gentiles, such as Isaiah 60:1-6:

60:1 Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.

60:2 For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.

60:3 Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

60:4 Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.

60:5 Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you.

60:6 A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD.


#8

Isaiah 60 seems to be a reference to Israel and the city of Zion, not Christ. Am I reading this right?


#9

Agreed. I read a paper yesterday showing how pagan literature regularly considers the appearance of a star or shooting star (comet) as the signal of the birth of a great ruler (this is also in some Jewish texts), which means that if these astrologers could have been given any sign from God they would recognized to signal Jesus birth, it would have been a star.

The paper is here.


(RiderOnTheClouds) #10

The writers of the bible accepted the existence of Astrology (judges 5:20) yet they condemned the practise of reading star signs because the heavenly bodies were given to other nations to worship, not Israel (Deut 4:19).


#11

It’s a reference to God drawing the other nations of the world to himself.


(Ronald Myers) #12

There is so little information to go on that almost any possibility can be proposed. Pagan or Jewish? Persian or Semitic? etc. Astrology or prophetic? and so on. One thing can be said: God touched somebody most unexpected who came and gave witness about Jesus. In this God gives us notice that his acts are bigger than our thoughts.