I’m usually skeptical of books like this. However, I was intrigued after seeing someone who teaches astronomy review it on TGC (you’ll notice he has the same feeling I do about books like this). Since I had the ability to easily receive the e-Book from Crossway, I decided it was worth checking into. The endorsements are from a combination of respected astronomers and biblical scholars. The foreword is even written by a guy who is literally a cometographer.
I gave a brief overview of the book already when I posted several excerpts last week. The relevant portion was this:
Nicholl had surveyed what people have made of the Bethlehem star (chapter 1). Then he examined Matthew’s historical account (chapters 2-3), the main hypothesis about the star (chapter 4) before offering his own case that it was a comet (chapter 5-6). Chapter 7 then tackles the question, “why did the Magi interpret the comet the way they did?” In other words, what could the Magi have seen in the night sky that lead them to not only infer a special birth, but then know where to go to see the child?
Nicholl looks briefly at what Matthew says the Magi say. They allude to Numbers 24:17, a text they would have had access to, if in fact they were from Babylon (which is most likely). He then suggests that the astronomical phenomena they witnessed involved a conjugation of constellations with the comet. Then, surprisingly, he suggests that it is described in Revelation 12:1-5
The chapters that follow, which I didn’t mention because I hadn’t read, cover how the Magi would have connected what they saw in the sky to Israel (chapter 8). He suggests the main passages that would have formed their expectations are Numbers 24:17 (alluded to in Matthew 2) and Isaiah 7:14 (quoted in Matthew 2). The latter passage was not necessarily part of the Jewish messianic expectations prior to fulfillment. The Magi could have played a significant role in making that connection explicit. Chapter 9 then turns to a chronology of the Magi’s journey. Assuming the earlier data about what appeared in the sky was accurate, the Magi would have arrived in Bethlehem late November or early December. Jesus is still very much a baby.
Chapter 10 tracks the comet across the sky from its first appearance to its eventual departure. The proposed path Nicholl suggests allows the comet to do some interesting things with the constellations, which might have been what initially caught the Magi’s attention. What he explains about Virgo giving birth (see previous post) would have been the culmination of events that had been going on in the night sky for quite some time.
Chapter 11 and 12 are both on the shorter side. The former makes the case that this would have been the greatest comet in history, given the generally accepted measurements of such a thing. The latter then tells the “on-going” story which mainly includes Herod’s demise (which may have also coincided with an eclipse over Virgo). And with that you are left to pore through the bibliography and notes and the glossary of astronomical terms if you so desire.
Not knowing as much about astronomy, I was actually mostly skeptical of the Revelation 12 connection. It makes sense, but having never heard it before, I was curious to see what the commentaries say. Keener (NIVAC) explicitly denies the connection. He does agree that the term “semeion” can be refer to constellations. However, he notes that the portrayal here differs from Greek mythology, so they can’t be constellations. This seems to be begging the question, or at the very least, assuming that since what is depicted here has no direct correlation in mythology, then the constellations can’t be in view. Not a very strong argument.
David Aune (WBC), as you might expect, goes into the greatest detail and explores the background most fully, especially the combat myth in both Jewish and other cultural backgrounds. I didn’t have all day so I didn’t read his entire section on the passage, but he doesn’t affirm or deny an astronomical connection. He notes such a thing is possible, but not in the kind of detail that Nicholl is arguing.
As far as Beale (NIGTC), Osborne (BECNT), Mounce (NICNT), Morris (TNTC), Kistemaker (BNTC), and Patterson (NAC) go, there is no connection argued. They almost all interpret this passage in purely symbolic terms, but with various literal referents (usually Israel as the woman and Jesus as the boy born). To me this suggests that an actual historical referent is entirely possible. John may very well be describing something that historically happened in the night sky (or rehearsing a version of it) that has multiple symbolic meanings. One of those is the literal birth of Christ in 6 BC. This historical event itself has symbolic meaning against the Old Testament backdrop and John may very well be developing that further in his re-telling of it Revelation (since obviously the passage in question doesn’t end with the birth).
All that to say, I don’t see a good argument against Nicholl’s interpretation of Revelation 12 from any of the major commentaries. They do not argue for it, but what they do argue for doesn’t conflict with Nicholl’s suggested referent. At the end of the day though, it may be best to concur with the previously mentioned reviewer’s conclusion:
So, has Nicholl finally solved the mystery of the Star? I’m tempted to say he has. But until an independent reference to the Christ Comet is discovered in the historical record, I would have to call his theory a speculative historical reconstruction—albeit a sophisticated one that may be the most plausible offered to date.
Historians, take note: even a single brief note of a comet appearing at a certain date and in a particular constellation consistent with Nicholl’s theory would be enough to confirm it.
I was encouraged by reading through this book leading up to Christmas. Even though it is tomorrow, it’s not late to use that Amazon gift card you’re going to get to pick this up for yourself!
Colin Nicholl, The Great Christ Comet: Revealing The True Star of Bethlehem. Wheaton: Crossway, September 2015. 368 pp. Hardcover, $40.00.
Buy it: Amazon | Westminster
Read an excerpt
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Thanks to Crossway for the review copy!