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19 Matthew’s Star, Luke’s Census, Bethlehem, and the Quest for the Historical Jesus

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Chapter Summary

This chapter investigates the question of whether the Star of Bethlehem mentioned in Matthew 2:1–12 should be regarded as a historical phenomenon that must be taken into account in historical Jesus research. A short introduction describes the main problems of the historical evaluation of the sources about Jesus’ life in general. Then the under-theorized question of whether and under what circumstances astronomical data have the potential to provide a path towards more historical certainty in Jesus research is addressed. Three possible scenarios are discussed and related to instances where astronomical phenomena/data are (or seem to be) involved in a textually presented chain of events in Jesus’ life: viz., his birth and his death. Are we to conclude that we deal with (a) no verifiable astronomical event, but verisimilitude without historical basis; (b) one verifiable astronomical event, connected to relatively clearly defined historical events; or (c) a variety of astronomical phenomena that may or may not be connected to historical events that are more or less disputed? The last section concentrates on historical aspects connected to the star in Matthew’s narrative (the time and place of Jesus’ birth, his supposed Davidic descent) and evaluates their reliability in historical terms. A new understanding of the complexities of Luke’s chronology is proposed, which reckons with an erroneous interpretation of public (literary and inscriptional) information on the censuses conducted by Augustus and Quirinius. It is concluded that Jesus was possibly not born under Herod the Great, possibly not born in Bethlehem, and that the star most certainly must be considered a literary phenomenon.



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