Magical thinking and the Star of Bethlehem

The trouble with the Star of Bethlehem story is that stars are not what they appear to be to children and the uneducated. Yes, they look like fireflies or distant candles, and therefore can be imagined to float through the air like glowing fairies to hover over a house and point it out as special. Maybe they can think. Talk. Smile.

A star. (Note: not entirely credible, scientifically...)

However, being a minimum of 25,000 times the mass of our planet, this isn’t something that they can actually do. They only look like fireflies because they’re trillions of miles away. They’re pretty big, really.

Humans are designed for pattern recognition, and to seek out cause and effect, and to think visually, and to construct explanatory narratives and stories. “Sing me a song! Tell me a story! Read me a book!” A simple story is the most effective way to communicate an abstract concept – that’s why Jesus told parables. But this excellent intellectual tool of ours also has a downside: when our perception is limited or our understanding is incomplete, we use imagination to fill the gap. And our imagination springs from the dream world, not the physical world.

So we have no difficulty with the idea of Santa visiting all the world’s children in a single night. Or with the idea that, if we just get into the right frame of mind, we will be able to hear speech (in our own language!) from animals and trees. Or that we could walk around on the clouds if we could jump up there. Or that when people and animals die and get buried they are still around, you can still see them and talk with them under the right conditions. Or that we can influence the future with a rhyme or a ritual, control dice with a thought or a wish, produce rain by prayer…

We are born with that magical view of the world. It is very effective in keeping us optimistic, healthy, social and creative. Internally, it works. But externally? Sadly deficient.

Enjoy the stories that resonate with you, think about the images that feel powerful, give thanks (to the power of evolution) for the songs and landscapes that you love… but don’t conflate internal emotional power with external physical reality. Carlos Castaneda never turned into a crow, no matter how much peyote he consumed. There is no Easter Bunny. Nor angels, nor talking snakes, nor people ascending up in the air to live in “heaven”.

And regardless of how vivid your imagination is, nothing that has 25,000 times the mass of the Earth is going to hover over a house. Not in the real world. Sorry.

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Unasked questions: How big was the Star of Bethlehem?

The story of the Wise Men following the star is in Matthew 2: 9 “When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.”

It led them, and stopped over where Jesus was.

Obviously, this star was very close to the Earth. Maybe as high as a modern skyscraper over the place Jesus was. Say 1,000 feet. If it was as far away as the Moon, it wouldn’t be leading them and then stopping over where Jesus was. It was a lot closer than the Sun is. A lot closer than the next star, which is 25,277,000,000,000 miles away (4.3 light years, yes, that’s over 25 trillion miles).

Here’s the problem: the smallest that a star can be is 80 times the size of Jupiter, and Jupiter is over 300 times the mass of the Earth. Smaller than that, and the object can’t undergo nuclear fusion. So, to be a star, it has to be at least 25,000 times as massive as the Earth, and even then it would only be a red dwarf. If you want a white star, it has to be 10 times larger still.

Unfortunately, if anything that size came anywhere near the Earth, our planet would be dragged right into it and disappear like a pebble tossed into a pond.

So either the story of “the star leading them, and then stopping over the house” is complete nonsense, or else you have to say “It wasn’t what we would call a star today – it was a light which they thought was a star, because they didn’t have our modern understanding.” Fine. And by the same reasoning you can say “The Burning Bush with the voice of God wasn’t actually a burning bush with the voice of God, it was a phenomenon that Moses didn’t understand and thought was a burning bush with the voice of God… and the vision of Jesus that Paul had wasn’t really a vision of Jesus, he just thought it was Jesus… and the thing called God all through the Bible isn’t really God, it’s just a series of experiences and phenomena that pre-scientific peoples thought was God, because they didn’t have out modern understanding.”

Congratulations, and welcome to the real world! You are now free of religion. Go in peace.