Something apropos to the time of the year appearing by happenstance in a book that has been long on my shelves and finally decided to read through: Jean Seznec's The Survival of the Pagan Gods: The Mythological Tradition and Its Place in Renaissance Humanism and Art (trans. Barbara F. Sessions, Princeton UP 1953, 1981; published under Bollingen Series XXXVIII). I'm not terribly far into the book, but I'm confident that if the title at all catches you you will enjoy the read.
It's a long excerpt; to keep it from being even longer I'm starting just a touch in the midst of things.
One of my favorite intellectual events is when a book or a speaker takes two 2s that I have had about forever and a day and puts them together to make a 4, but not just any 4, a 4 that is so astoundingly obvious I am dumbfounded as to how I never put those two 2s together on my own up to that point. Greatly, my pleasure lies in that the event – and especially the experience of the event – speaks that new paths of understanding have been opened, far beyond what but those two 2s offered: many 2s were being connected. But that's another discussion.
Here, to get to the point, a simple realization. Of course, when the Mediterranean peoples of two millennia ago looked up into the night sky, they did not see physics: mass, matter, distance, burning stars, orbiting planets, rocks hurtling themselves into the atmosphere as the earth moved through their unfathomably huge cloud. Their vision of the sky was of their time and place, understood through the context of the beliefs of the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Persians: lights of preternatural if not divine being, of divinely spiritual being. Lights that were themselves willing entities or were identified with such beings, beings that had influence over the world and its inhabitants. Their view of the sky was not astronomical, it was astrological
But, equally, their view of the night was not "astrological" as we use the word today. For their understanding of the sky was their "science", their factual explanation of that which arced over their heads. Though they looked to the sky and saw lights that were the embodiments of divine or preternatural entities (be they good or evil), and that understanding was their astronomy. Astronomy and astrology were at the time deeply interwoven, in a manner that probably almost assuredly cannot be understood – except in a clinical sense, not an experiential – by a person of this age.
But that does not mean that it does not inform our understanding of the time. As is the case with the Star of Bethlehem. When the story of the star was written, it was understood that such a star was a divine event – similar to the story as it is understood by many Christians today. The story was not of the magical appearance of some physical object in the sky, near enough to the planet so as to be able to mark with it position and brightness the location of Bethlehem. It was a divine event.
But it was yet an astronomical event. For there would be no fundamental difference – except for its timing and positioning – between that star and any other star. Lights appearing in the sky – comets and meteorites – were divine events; but so were the stars themselves. Saying it again, lights appearing the sky – comets and meteorites – were events of natural science. Just as there is a history of belief that comets are preternatural foretellers of disasters, so also is there a history of stars appearing briefly to mark positive events. (The story of the Star of Bethlehem was not made out of whole cloth.)
Which puts Christians who insist on reading the Bible as an historical/theoretic text rather than a spiritual/mythic text in something of a bind. You cannot take the incident out of its context. For it to be understood as it was meant to be understood requires there to be in that understanding and belief no small amount of astrology. And astronomy. Astrological astronomy. Astronology. And there's no way around it; not without without making it unbiblical.
For advanced study: Giordano Bruno applies here. I always wonder if the people who uphold Bruno as a "rationalist" scientist understand that his astronomy was astronological? (I wonder if Seznec brings him up. If he does I'll let you know.)