Review of ‘The Great Christ Comet’ by Colin R. Nicholl


Great_Christ_Comet_350Colin R. Nicholl, The Great Christ Comet: Revealing the True Star of Bethlehem (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015). Hardcover | Kindle

This review originally appeared at InfluenceMagazine.com.

In The Great Christ Comet, Colin R. Nicholl argues that the Star of Bethlehem was not, in fact, a star. Instead, as the title suggests, it was a comet, “undeniably the single greatest comet in recorded history.” To reach this conclusion, Nicholl blends a close reading of the Bible with careful attention to the astronomical record. The result is one of the most intriguing books you will read this year.

Nicholl joins a long tradition of scholars who have written about Bethlehem’s star. Through the centuries, they have proposed a variety of answers to the question of its nature. Some have proposed that it was a star, of course. Others, the triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in Pisces in 7 B.C. Occultations of Jupiter in Aries in 6 B.C. is a more recent suggestion, as are either a nova or supernova. Meteors get mentioned. Some think it may have been a supernatural phenomenon such as a mystical vision or an angel. Skeptics dismiss it entirely as a myth.

By contrast, Nicholl affirms the historicity of the Gospel account of Jesus’ birth. He further argues that a comet can account for the star’s seemingly erratic behavior, appearing first in the eastern morning sky, then months later in the western and southern evening skies. Depending on the observer’s perspective, he points out, a comet can appear to stand still over a particular location as its speeds toward the nighttime horizon.

Nicholl does more than suggest that the Star of Bethlehem was a comet on grounds of biblical exegesis. Using up-to-date astronomy software, which is able to reconstruct the nighttime sky in the past and project it for the future, Nicholl runs the numbers and concludes that the Star of Bethlehem must have been a very particular kind of comet:

…a narrowly inclined, retrograde, long-period comet that, around the time of its close perihelion, rose heliacally and thereafter crossed the Sun-Earth line to be on the western and eventually the southern side of Earth.

Such a comet could account for the seemingly erratic behavior of Matthew’s star. In fact, its behavior was not erratic at all, but rather the predictable movement of an astronomical body along a predefined trajectory.

The question is, why would the Magi interpret such a comet as signifying “the one who has been born king of the Jews” (Matthew 2:2)? To answer that question, Nicholl turns to Revelation 12:1–5, a passage depicting a war in heaven between “a woman clothed with the sun” and “an enormous red dragon.” Commentators have long noted that this is a depiction of cosmic warfare between the devil and the woman’s offspring, that is, Jesus Christ (Revelation 2:5; cf. 2:26–27; 19:15; Psalm 2:9). Nicholl argues that it is also a memorial of the nighttime sky around the time of Jesus’ birth. In other words, it describes the alignment of the stars at a particular point in time, with the constellation Virgo being the semeion or “sign” of the “woman.”

I won’t recapitulate that entire argument here, interesting though it is. Instead, I will simply note that using Revelation 12:1 this way helps Nicholl arrive at a date: September 15, 6 BC. According to his astronomy software, on this date, “the Sun, making its way through Virgo, was located over her womb, while the Moon was under Virgo’s feet.” This was also the date of the Jewish New Year, which Babylonian astrologers would have known because of the Jewish diaspora in that region.

If a comet appeared in Virgo’s midsection or “womb” after this time, Babylonian astrologers might have interpreted it as the omen of a royal Judean birth. Nicholl writes:

…the Magi probably came to the conclusion that the great leader whose birth was being so dramatically announced in the heavens was the Messiah based on a number of key prophecies in the Hebrew Bible—particularly, Numbers 24:17; Isaiah 7:14; and 9:2. Together, these texts disclosed the identity, nature, destiny, and general location of the newborn.

Interestingly, according to Nicholl’s astronomical calculations, the comet would have descended below Virgo on October 20, 6 BC, suggesting the actual birth of the royal baby. At some point after this, he argues, the Magi left on their weeks-long journey to Judea. Matthew 2 records what happened when they arrived.

I cannot say that Nicholl’s cometary hypothesis has settled the question of the Star of Bethlehem’s nature once for all. Other than Matthew 2 (and possibly Revelation 12), extant historical records, which are admittedly spotty, make no reference to this comet. Nicholl’s use of Revelation 12 to establish a timeline is without doubt fascinating, but not the only — or even most obvious — way to read that passage. And the reconstruction of the comet’s duration, size, magnitude, and trajectory is conjecture, though a mathematically informed one.

Still, Nicholl has provided an intellectually rigorous account of the Bethlehem star that honors the historical accuracy of the Bible even as it uses complex scientific calculations to outline its hypothesis. The Great Christ Comet thus provides plenty of grist for the mill for people with interests or training in the Bible and astronomy, not to mention the relationship of faith and science. (His publisher, Crossway, is a well-known conservative evangelical company, and his theology is in line with theirs.) Plus, the book is beautifully printed, with excellent charts and graphs scattered throughout to illustrate the points of Nicholl’s argument.

In sum, The Great Christ Comet is a fascinating book, very well worth reading.

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Review of ‘Scripture and Cosmology’ by Kyle Greenwood


Scripture-and-CosmologyKyle Greenwood, Scripture and Cosmology: Reading the Bible Between the Ancient World and Modern Science (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015). Paperback

The Lord by wisdom founded the earth,

by understanding he established the heavens;

by his knowledge the deeps broke open,

and the clouds drop down the dew.

Proverbs 3:19–20 express the who, what, and how of creation. Who? The Creator is “The Lord,” that is, Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. What? He created “the earth,” “the heavens,” “the deeps,” and the “clouds.” And he did so expertly, with “wisdom,” “understanding,” and “knowledge.”

These verses also express an ancient Near Eastern cosmology. Israel shared with its Egyptian, Syrian, and Mesopotamian neighbors a three-storied universe consisting of heaven, earth, and seas. Though there were variations in the details of these culture’s cosmologies, the basic three-tiered structure was the same.

Modern people hold a very different cosmology than the ancients. We know, for example, that the earth revolves around the sun, not vice versa as the ancients believed. We know that the sun and the moon are not planets, as the ancients believed, and that there are more planets and planetary moons than the ancients could observe with the naked eye. Moreover, we know that our solar system is one among many in the Milky Way galaxy, which itself is one among many galaxies in an expanding universe.

The differences between ancient Near Eastern and modern cosmologies raise questions in the minds of Christians about “reading the Bible faithfully.” Kyle Greenwood outlines both questions and answers in Scripture and Cosmology: Reading the Bible Between the Ancient World and Modern Science. Greenwood is associate professor of Old Testament and Hebrew language at Colorado Christian University, whose Statement of Faith makes this declaration regarding the Bible: “We Believe the Bible to be the inspired, the only infallible, authoritative Word of God.” Though readers of all perspectives will find Greenwood’s presentation informative, Christian readers with a high view of Scripture will find it most helpful.

Scripture and Cosmology opens with a chapter about the importance of reading Scripture in context. In it, he states his book’s thesis: “a high view of Scripture employs a hermeneutic that accommodates the biblical writers’ immersion in their ancient, pre-Enlightenment cultural context. Therefore, as with other cultural matters, such as social customs and language, the biblical texts reflect that worldview in their written communications.”

Part One consists of three chapters that outline the similarities (and differences) between the cosmologies of the ancient Near East (specifically Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia) and of Israel. Greenwood argues that both ANE and biblical texts assume a three-tiered universe consisting of the earth, the heavens, and the sea. He also contends that this three-tiered understanding of the cosmos serves as a better “guiding principle” for the Old Testament various creation accounts than does Genesis 1’s seven-day formula.

Part Two consists of two chapters that describe how the Christian church dealt with the challenges to this three-tiered biblical cosmology posed by first Aristotelian cosmology and then Copernican cosmology. Whereas ancient Near East cosmology depicted the earth as “small, flat and round”—a disk, in other words, Aristotelian cosmology pictured it as a sphere. And whereas Ptolemaic cosmology put Earth at the center of the universe, with the sun, moon, and heavenly bodies revolving around it; Copernican cosmology put the sun at the center, with the heavenly bodies, including Earth, revolving around it. (Contemporary cosmologies understand that the cosmos is acentric; neither the sun nor the earth is the center.) What Greenwood writes about the Aristotelian challenge might be equally applied to Copernican challenge: “The most notable trait we see among the Aristotelian-era interpreters is the willingness to adapt their interpretation of Scripture in light of new understandings of the physical universe.”

Part Three offers a theological rationale for this adaptation. Terming it “the doctrine of divine accommodation,” Greenwood explains the rationale this way: “God condescends his language to the language of humanity. This is not to say that God is condescending but that he speaks down to the cognitive ability of his human audience.” He offers this example: “Just as a father uses simple vocabulary and analogical language to communicate complex ideas to his children, so the heavenly Father accommodates his language to his children by speaking to his audience’s mother tongue and also employing analogical language.” Applied to biblical cosmology, accommodation entails that God speaks to Israel and its surrounding culture in terms of a three-tiered universe because that is what it believed. Were God revealing himself to our culture, he would accommodate himself to our cosmological speculations.

Over the centuries, accommodation has proved to be a fruitful line of thinking for Christians wrestling with the issues raised by a better scientific understanding of the physical universe. That doesn’t mean it is problem free. One wag has defined accommodation as “the theory which states that God goes along with the commonly accepted story even though he really doesn’t believe it.” Accommodation assumes that we can neatly distinguish between what culture assumes about a given topic and what Scripture teaches about it. Christians largely agree that accommodation is a good strategy when the Copernican Revolution is on the table, but Christians vehemently disagree when evolution is. Perhaps this indicates that while accommodation is a good interpretive strategy, it doesn’t necessarily decide all scientific cases.

Regardless, I commend Scripture and Cosmology for its in-depth look at the specific issue of biblical cosmology. It is well versed in the Bible and the texts of the ancient Near East, as well as cognizant of Scripture-science discussions throughout church history. And it is a thoughtful, irenic presentation of how to navigate the tensions between ancient cosmology and modern science.

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A Pentecostal Way Forward Through the Challenges of Science*


Every day, it seems, scientists uncover new wonders — both large and small — in our world. These wonders redound to God’s glory, for He created them all. And among those wonders, surely the human mind ranks high. Aside from the angels, only humans are able to perceive God’s handiwork and praise Him for it.

Yet many humans do not. Instead, they “suppress the truth by their wickedness” (Romans 1:18). Consequently, “although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened” (1:21). By they, of course, I mean we. Ingratitude for God’s gracious gifts mars every human heart.

Because creation is wonderful and the human heart wicked, I am ambivalent about science.

On the one hand, I benefit from advances in science. For example, I use Enbrel — a TNF inhibitor drug — to treat my ankylosing spondylitis. My iPhone, iPad, and laptop are indispensable tools in my work and my graduate studies. Their apps and programs make use of complex mathematical algorithms to produce, store, and communicate information. Energy efficient air conditioning and heating keeps me and my family cool in the summer and warm in the winter, at low cost. I could go on with more examples, but you get the point: Science has its benefits.

On the other hand, advances in science seem to portend retreats in faith. A 2009 Pew Forum poll of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science found that “scientists are roughly half as likely as the general public to believe in God or a higher power.” According to David Kinnaman, 25 percent of “18- to 29-year olds who have a Christian background” indicate that the belief, “Christianity is antiscience,” is “completely or most true of me.”

I don’t believe Christianity is antiscience. How can God’s Word and His world contradict one another? But many people — including many Pentecostals — believe Christianity is antiscience. How, then, should we as Christians live between the benefits of science and the challenges it seems to pose to our faith?

First, we must be filled with the Spirit. One of Pentecostalism’s greatest strengths is its empirical quality. For us, God is not a concept we ponder or a historical Actor whose past deeds are interesting to archive (though pondering Him is wonderful and recounting His past deeds is encouraging). Rather, God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — is a living Person who invites us into fellowship with Him, changes our character at deep levels, and empowers us supernaturally to speak and to act on His behalf. Our experience is evidence — proof, even — of the realities our faith lays hold of. Perhaps that is why Psalm 34:8 says, “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” If you find your faith questioned by science or anything else, the answer always begins with a prayer: “Come, Holy Spirit, I need You.”

A focus on Pentecostalism’s empirical quality does not mean that arguments are unimportant. We are people of the Spirit, yes, but we are also people of the Word. Jesus Christ is the Logos of God (John 1:1–3,14), His Word, Reason, and Logic. If science or anything else challenges our faith, we must mount a tough-minded apologetic. Paul’s ministry is exemplary in this regard: “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). Since God exists, any scientific or philosophical argument that denies He exists is a bad argument, and we should be able to demonstrate this through close reasoning. Paul did not merely evangelize the lost, he reasoned, explained, and proved Christ’s vicarious death and victorious resurrection to them (Acts 17:2,3).

Third, we must interpret both Scripture and nature humbly. Scripture and nature are God’s self-revelation (Romans 1:20; 2 Timothy 3:16). Theology is primarily our interpretation of God’s revelation in Scripture, while science is primarily our interpretation of God’s revelation in nature. God is infinite, we are “the grass [that] withers and the flowers [that] fall” (1 Peter 1:24). God is all knowing, “we know in part” (1 Corinthians 13:9). God is all good, our “heart is deceitful above all things” (Jeremiah 17:9). Given the distance between God’s perfection and our imperfection, we need to interpret both His Word and His world humbly, always ready to learn more about Him through them.

A new baptism in the Holy Spirit, confidence in the truth of Jesus Christ, and humility in the light of our limitations is a Pentecostal way forward through the challenges that science seems to pose to faith, even as we enjoy the many benefits it confers.

*This is my editorial in the fall 2012 issue of Enrichment.

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