Monday, November 30, 2015

Another Response To Colin Nicholl

Sometime yesterday, apparently, he updated his response to me at his web site. The response is mostly the same, but some parts have been changed. He's added a section to the opening expressing a desire to be gracious, and some of the language has been changed so as to be less critical of me. That's good. He interacts with some of what I said in my response to his article. He occasionally says that he's interacting with that response, and a note at the end of his article mentions that the article was updated on November 29. But most of the changes he's made aren't identified as such, and somebody reading his article for the first time might come away with the impression that nothing significant has been changed. As I recall, he doesn't ever explain that my blog response to him was a response to the first edition of his article. People who have been reading both sides of our exchange should know that, but others might not.

I want to respond to what I think are the most significant changes in his update. There are some changes he's made on topics that are significant, but which I think Steve Hays and I have already covered adequately. What I'll do below is address a few points I don't think we said enough about previously.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Islam, rape, and the fate of Western women

Memories of Santa

Some random thoughts about Halloween and Christmas. Some Christians oppose Halloween due to its allegedly heathen roots. You also have some Christians who oppose Halloween because it has its historical basis in the dogma of Purgatory and prayers for the dead. A Catholic holiday. 

The basic problem with that line of objection is that the history of a holiday is irrelevant to its contemporary significance. The very fact that some Christians feel the need to give people a history lesson on the real or alleged background of the holiday ironically illustrates the irrelevance of their objection. For if people don't know the history of the holiday, then that has absolutely nothing to do with why they celebrate the holiday. It doesn't factor in their thinking at all. 

And even if they did know about its historical origins, that isn't what motivates them to celebrate the holiday. Halloween has evolved. For instance, there was a time in the second half of the 20C where it was influenced by horror flicks. But currently it seems to be influenced by superhero flicks. Halloween represents whatever the pop culture makes it to be at any particular time. 

Now that's not a reason to celebrate Halloween. That's just debunking a bad reason not to celebrate Halloween. 

Nowadays there are seasonal stores that hawk Halloween paraphernalia. I don't object to professional Halloween costumes. But I can't help thinking back to my childhood when kids had homemade halloween costumes. That's more meaningful than taking the kid to the store and buying something off the shelf. That's something mothers used to make for their kids. It made it more of a family experience. Admittedly today's kids are probably spoiled by professional superhero costumes, so they'd sneer at anything homemade. 

As a kid, I think what I most enjoyed about Halloween was being outside at night. That was exhilarating. Although I have fond childhood memories of Halloween, there isn't much riding on that holiday one way or the other. It's a very thin holiday. 

Then there's Christmas and Santa Claus. Although some Christians oppose Santa Claus, here's an atheist (Louise Antony) on the topic:

I have a very strong opinion about this, one that puts me seriously at odds with some of my very best friends: I think that there are no good arguments for teaching a child to believe in Santa Claus, or for not telling the child the truth the first time he or she asks.  
Prima facie, one shouldn't lie to one's children. More seriously, one has a duty not to try to convince them positively of things that are beyond false–that are preposterous…In the case of Santa Claus, the risk of losing trust in one's parents' testimony is, I think, not trivial. Finally, when a parent actively tries to get a child to disregard perfectly sound arguments against a certain proposition, there's the risk that rationality will itself become devalued and the child will get the message that making sense is not terribly important. "But does a reindeer fly?" "It's magic!" Alexander George, ed. What Would Socrates Say? Philosophers Answer Your Questions About Love, Nothingness, and Everything Else (Potter Style 2007).

i) Although she doesn't quite come out and say so, what do you bet the subtext is her concern that childish belief in Santa Claus conditions kids to believe in (gasp!) God (shudder! shudder!).

Of course, one obvious problem with the implied analogy is that all kids outgrow belief in Santa Claus, whereas there's no correlation with regard to kids outgrowing belief in God. Indeed, some kids are raised in a secular environment, but then grow into faith in God as adults. 

ii) In fairness to Antony, I agree with her that if a kid expresses doubts about the existence of Santa, it's a mistake to argue with them. It's a good thing that they doubt his existence. That should be encouraged, not discouraged. 

iv) I don't agree with her that we should simply tell them the truth the first time they ask. Rather, I think it's more useful to draw them out. Ask them why they have doubts about Santa. Discuss their reasons with them. If they have a good reason, explore it and commend it. If they have a bad reason, explain why that's a bad reason. Don't co-opt their reasoning process, but help them to clarify their reasoning process. 

A Christian objection I've run across is that Santa Claus is a godlike figure. A figure with divine attributes. So it's a short step from losing faith in Santa to losing faith in God. However, that's a bad objection for a couple of reasons:

i) It's an argument from authority–parental authority. That's fine for young kids, but teenagers need to have a better reason for believing in God than faith in their parents' opinion. 

ii) It's a very bad analogy. I remember, as a very young boy, sitting at a little table in my grandmother's little kitchen, asking her where God was. She exclaimed that God was everywhere. So, pointing to the teaoit on the table, I asked her if God was in the teapot. She assured me he was.

Much as I adored my grandmother, even at that age I didn't believe God was in the teapot. I never confused God with Santa. I never thought of God as that kind of being. I didn't view God as an embodied being. To me, God existed outside our world. 

iii) I don't think parents have a duty to inculcate the Santa narrative. Although I think it's harmless, I don't see much value in that. I think both opponents and proponents make the issue more important than it is. 

Kill at your own risk

On the internet, I see Christians praising Garrett Swasey, the policeman who was shot and killed by Robert Dear. In one respect, that makes sense. People who hate Christians are blaming the attack on Christian extremism–although, from what I've read, there's no evidence that Robert Dear was theologically motivated. So the counter is that a prolife Christian (full-time policeman and volunteer copastor) died attempting to save the lives of others from the crazed gunman.

That's a good counter in the sense that it answers the critics on their own terms. It does, however, raise ethical questions. I suppose a policeman has a professional duty to go wherever the dispatcher tells him to go.

However, this is the larger issue: Is there a moral duty to intervene to save the life of a killer? Suppose Pablo Escobar is wheeled into the ER with a pulmonary embolism. Do the physicians have a moral obligation to save his life? You see, by saving his life, they ensure that he will kill even more innocent people. You patch him up on Friday and he goes back to ordering hits on Monday.

Refusing medical intervention in that case isn't the same as killing him. The doctor didn't cause his pulmonary embolism. The doctor didn't inject him with potassium chloride. The doctor simply let nature take its course.

Sometimes letting person die is equivalent to killing him, and sometimes not. That depends on the circumstances.

But there's no moral obligation to save the life of a contract killer. People in the business of taking innocent lives should kill at their own risk. They are not entitled to protection. You can't obligate others to rescue you in that situation.

James White in the middle

James White had a recent discussion of how Christians should view Muslims. Well worth watching:

It raises a number of issues I'd like to interact with. I'm going to summarize or paraphrase his position, because I'm interpreting his statements. 

1. He alluded to Donald Trump's recent suggestion that there ought to be a database to track Muslims in our country, we should require religious ID for Muslims, we should deport Muslims, we should monitor mosques, or simply shut them down. 

There's some dispute about what Trump actually said or meant. But we can bracket that since White is simply using his comments to illustrate a point of principle. 

i) White objected on the grounds that such a policy would empower a secular gov't that's already hostile to religion. Our gov't would use the same tactics to suppress Christian freedom of expression. 

ii) I think that's a valid concern. At the same time, we need to avoid sending the message that all religions should be treated alike because all religious are alike. 

If, say, devotees of Santeria began to practice human sacrifice, gov't ought to move against that! Likewise, gov't ought to crack down on Muslim practices like pederasty, honor killings, female genital mutilation, &c. And it's not as if the First Amendment was ever intended to protect religious practices like that

We need to avoid staking out the defensive posture that any official attack on any religion is an attack on every religion. For one thing, even if Christians stick up for Muslims, they won't return the favor.

In addition, we're certainly entitled to disassociate ourselves from the actions of another religion's followers. Expressing solidity can be counterproductive. Atheists are only too happy to lump us all together. We reserve the right to distance ourselves from the behavior of Muslims, not just on pragmatic grounds, but because there really are fundamental differences between Christianity and Islam. 

iii) This goes to the underlying problem: it's a mistake to invite people into your country that you need to monitor. If you think they pose a security risk that justifies surveillance, then don't invite them to come here in the first place. 

Likewise, we can't have a situation where the Bill of Rights is selectively applied to some American citizens rather than others. If some naturalized citizens pose a security risk, they shouldn't be naturalized in the first place.

2. White also made the point that some members ISIS do horrific things, not because they are religious, but because they are sociopathic. They are sociopaths who happen to be religious rather than religionists who happen to be sociopathic.

i) And it's true that some movements are a magnet for sociopaths. Their religious identity is incidental. Sociopaths are on the lookout for opportunities to commit murder and mahem with impunity. Oftentimes, war gives them that opportunity. 

In their case, the relationship between religion and terrorism is adventitious. Religion gives them cover, gives them a pretext, to do what they were spoiling to do all along. 

Depending on when and where they live, if they weren't Muslim sociopaths, they'd be Nazi sociopaths, or Khmer Rouge sociopaths, or Bolshevik sociopaths, or Shining Path sociopaths, &c. 

ii) That said, sometimes it's the other way around. You can have a culture whose social mores foster a sociopathic outlook. Cultures that inculcate vice rather than virtue. Social conditioning can be a force for good or evil. And many Muslim societies are factories of psychopathology. 

3. I'd also like to make a point about "moderate Muslims." At one level, I'm sympathetic to the plight of moderate Muslims. They maintain a low profile because they're understandably afraid to speak out against militant Muslims. If they stick their neck out, it will be chopped off–literally! So I appreciate why they keep their head down–figuratively as well as literally.

But I'd like to compare that to how Columbia dealt with the Medellín cartel. It was taking over. The drug lords bribed police and gov't officials. Those they couldn't bribe they murdered. If a politician opposed them, he was putting a bullseye on his back, and putting his own family at risk.

Yet there came a tipping point when the gov't understood that this situation was simply intolerable. It was us or them. The gov't waged all-out war against the Medellín cartel, and broke the cartel.

That was extremely risky, but sometimes you have to take the risk. Muslims in authority need to do the same thing.

4. White raised the issue of whether Christians have a double standard. "Who speaks for Christianity?" We distinguish between the true faith and heretical cults. If a professing Christian commits a terrorist act, many Christians will either say he's not a true Christian, and/or say that his action doesn't represent the Christian faith. Indeed, is contrary to the Christian faith. Yet we don't make the same allowance for Muslims. 

To what degree should we let religionists to define what their faith-tradition represents? To what degree should we defer to their self-identification? This isn't confined to Islam. Catholicism is another good example. 

That's a good question, but a complicated question, because I don't think there's a one-size-fits-all answer:

i) Some religionists are deceptive propagandists. They intentionally misrepresent their faith to outsiders. Take CAIR. 

ii) What about sincere religionists? Suppose an adherent explains me what he believes. How he views his religion. 

That self-identification is valid in the sense that it tells me what he stands for. What it means to him

And in friendship evangelism, it's good to listen to people explain to you what they believe and why they believe it. 

That's a valid self-representation. How an individual understands his own faith-tradition. It would be a mistake to impute to him beliefs that he doesn't affirm. 

iii) That, however, is different from whether he's a good representative of the faith he claims to embrace. Many religionists are ignorant about their faith-tradition. Deeply confused. 

They are too uninformed to define what their faith-tradition stands for. They are poor spokesmen, poor representatives, in that objective sense. 

iv) Indeed, Christian apologists may use that as a wedge tactic. Pointing out the disconnect between what they believe and what they are supposed to believe, if they were true to the faith-tradition they claim to espouse. 

v) There's an asymmetry between truth and falsehood. Which faction represents the authentic successor to Joseph Smith: the LDS or RLDS? Was Ali the true successor to Muhammad? Is Francis a pope or antipope?

This generates a certain paradox. If the founder was a false prophet, then is there any meaningful distinction between a true and false successor? In that context, the illegitimate founder delegitimates any successor. These are all just variations of error. What is needed is to make a clean break with the past. Make a U-turn. 

If, by contrast, the Christian faith has a foundation in truth (e.g. Jesus, the apostles, the Bible), then we can and should distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate developments, between true and false interpretations. There's a disanalogy between the true religion and false religions, on the one hand, and divisions within a false religion or between false religions, on the other. In that respect, it's not a double standard when Christians make allowances for their own faith which they disallow for adherents of a false religion. 

Of course, Muslims would say that begs the question in favor of Christianity. But right now I'm not attempting to make the case for Christianity. I'm just making a point of principle. 

5. In the video, White repeatedly refers to his Muslim "friends." That raises an interesting issue. We could say there are two kinds of friendship: one-sided and two-sided. Suppose I befriend somebody because he needs a friend. I don't befriend him on condition that he reciprocate my friendship. I simply do it for his own benefit, expecting nothing in return. 

That's a very pure, disinterested form of friendship. And it has a very significant place in Christian ethics and evangelism. 

By contrast, a two-sided friendship is like a mutual defense pact: you have my back and I have yours. 

Insofar as possible, a Christian can and ought to be a friend to Muslims; but whether they can be a friend to him is a different question. There's the problem of divided loyalties and ultimate loyalties. If push comes to shove, won't they break in the direction of their coreligionists? Isn't their final identity bound up with the Muslim community? If push comes to shove, do they have your back or do they have a knife in your back? 

That isn't hypothetical. Consider the number of Muslim American soldiers who've murdered their comrades. 

6. White mentions diversity in Islam. There are, of course, many competing viewpoints in Islam, past and present. The question is the degree to which these share a common core respecting their shared belief in the prophethood of Muhammed and the Koran as the Word of Allah. 

7. White mentions the need for Islam to reform itself. But, of course, that's a conundrum. There's a fundamental sense in which Islam is irreformable. The problem goes right down to the foundations. Short of repudiating the prophethood of Muhammed, there's only so much that can be done, and that's not nearly enough. Muslims must cease to be Muslim. And I doubt White would disagree.

White himself referenced al-Waqidi's massive chronicle (580 pages) on the military campaigns of Muhammad. That can't be domesticated. Either Muhammed is a good role model or a child of his times. 

In theory, Muslims could make all the same moves as liberal Jews and "progressive Christians." Indeed, Islamic modernism has been kicking around since the 19C. The Iranian Revolution was, in part, a reaction to Shiite modernism. 

But it suffers from the intractable inner tensions of religious modernism in general. An unstable intellectual compromise. 

Saturday, November 28, 2015

PP and freedom of the press

Abortion rights groups say threats against abortion providers rose sharply this summer in the wake of the undercover “sting” operation that produced the controversial videos.

A predictable response from the liberal establishment. To begin with, it's too soon to know what motivated Robert Lewis Dear. 

However, the logic of this objection is that we should suspend freedom of the press if news stories that expose wrongdoing might ever be linked to violence against the target of the news stories. We should outlaw undercover reportage, outlaw investigative reportage, outlaw sting operations, that might create a public backlash against the perpetrators. 

We should outlaw criticism of politicians, because that might create a public backlash, thereby putting them at risk. 

We should outlaw undercover reportage that shows a business dumping toxic waste into a river, because that might create a public backlash, thereby putting the CEO at risk.  

We should outlaw undercover reportage that exposes unsanitary practices in the meat packing industry, because that might create a publish backlash, thereby putting the CEO at risk. 

We should repeal the Freedom of Information Act, because that might create a publish backlash, thereby putting gov't officials at risk. 

Gov't agencies should never warn the public of a probable terrorist attack, because that might create a backlash, thereby putting the associated group at risk. 

Fact is, the PP videos simply documented, in their own words and actions, what PP does behind closed doors. Keep in mind that PP is massively subsidized by taxpayers. So we have every right to know what is done with our tax dollars. 

Don't blame the facts. We have nothing to apologize for when it comes to finding out what a business does with our tax dollars. It is not entitled to operate in secrecy. 

Recommended Recent Koine Greek Publications

In no particular order, here is my short list for recommended resources of recent publications on Koine Greek.

Christian Oxyrhynchus: Texts, Documents, and Source by Lincoln Blumell, Thomas Wayment

A Handbook on the Greek Text. Baylor University Press. Get them all.

The Letter to the Romans: A Linguistic and Literary Commentary by Porter

Linguistic Analysis of the Greek New Testament: Studies in Tools, Methods, and Practice by Porter

Fundamentals of New Testament Textual Criticism by Porter and Pitts

Structural Lexicology and the Greek New Testament  by Todd L. Price

Revisiting Aspect and Aktionsart: A Corpus Approach to Koine Greek Event Typology by Francis G. H. Pang

Modeling Biblical Language: Selected Papers from the McMaster Divinity College Linguistics Circle

The Multilingual Jesus and the Sociolinguistic World of the New Testament by Hughson T. Ong

Hellenistic and Biblical Greek: A Graduated Reader by McLean (the best Koine Reader out there IMO).

Biblical Indexes For Christmas Apologetics

In 2007, I posted the text of the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke with links to relevant Triablogue posts. For example, you could click on the text of Luke 2:1 to read a post about Luke's census account. Earlier this year, I updated both indexes:


The indexes now include links to posts from the years since 2007.

What's the purpose of having these index posts? They gather together a large number of our posts on Christmas issues in a way that's organized in accordance with the infancy narratives. If you're studying the passages, or you're doing something like preparing to teach a Sunday school class on a relevant subject, these indexes will allow you to work your way through the text in an easier and more thorough manner. Instead of looking through our archives for each passage and trying to judge which post is best to consult for each text, these indexes gather some of our best material and make it easy to find in one place. A lot of our posts on Christmas issues aren't included, and I may have misjudged which posts would be best to include, but these indexes should be useful. And you can supplement them with Google searches, running searches on Blogger, emailing me to ask where to find something, etc.

Friday, November 27, 2015

2016 Bible Reading Plan: Read the New Testament in Greek!

If you want to start learning Greek so you can read the New Testament in Greek (as well as the OT/LXX), I am expanding my private teaching at the beginning of the year.

You can learn about my one-on-one, tutoring, Greek course at my Greek page here:

Also related, I just got back from a full week of the annual Society of Biblical Literature and Evangelical Theological Society meetings in Atlanta. I picked up some excellent volumes on Greek. So once I find time, I will post what I think are must-have recent publications on Koine Greek.


Alan E. Kurschner

Chic pacifism

I recently got into an impromptu debate with another pacifist. Pacifism is chic in some "progressive Christian" and/or hipster evangelical circles. I don't know how widespread that is. Seems to be a theological fad that's been popularized by folks like Gregory Boyd, Preston Sprinkle, and Stanley Hauerwas.  Of course, these are typically folks whose pacifism has never been put to the test. It's an issue that crops up in debates over immigration, "refugees," and counterterrorism. 

The world's Muslims

Poll of U.S. Muslims Reveals Ominous Levels Of Support For Islamic Supremacists’ Doctrine of Shariah, Jihad

Dershowitz on tyrannical student protesters

"I've been becoming a bit more Reformed of late, and I blame that on the Catholics"

Christmas Resources 2015

Over the past several years, I've posted a collection of resources for each Christmas season. Here are the posts of previous years:


Since the 2008 post is foundational to the others, you may want to start with that one. Here's an archive of our posts with the Christmas label. Make sure you scroll all the way down and click on Older Posts to see more.

The following are some representative examples of our posts on Christmas issues:

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Snake evolution

I often run across the claim that pit vipers represent the apex of snake evolution. Although I've discussed this before, I'd like to say a bit more.

i) Infrared vision is clearly useful to a nocturnal predator. If, however, a particular snake species is diurnal, then that would be a useless refinement. 

ii) Are retractable fangs more advanced than fixed fangs? Certainly retractable fangs are way cool. To my knowledge, extant snake species have at least one of four kinds of fangs:

Vipers have retractable fangs that resemble hypodermic needles. They have to be retractable because they are so long, and located in the front of the mouth. 

The Stiletto has external fangs which enables it to strike sideways or backwards. Is that more or less advanced than the viper? 

Likewise, is the spitting cobra more or less advanced than the viper? 

Then you have elapids, with short, fixed fangs positioned in the front of the mouth. 

Finally, you have rear-fanged snakes (e.g. boomslang). 

iii) Is one design more efficient or advanced than another? I'm no expert, but here are some considerations that come to mind.

Retractable fangs deploy a rapid strike-and-release technique. That means it can envenomate with a glancing strike. Stabbing or scratching the skin. 

That makes it easier to envenomate prey. By contrast, fixed-fanged snakes, and especially rear-fanged snakes, must bite into the prey and hold onto the prey or even chew on the prey to inject venom. 

I imagine it would be harder for a snake with fixed fangs to puncture a flat surface, round surface, or surface with a large circumference, if it can't open its mouth wide enough to puncture that surface.

However, many venomous snakes have a similar diet of small rodents, lizards, amphibians, birds, fish, or even other snakes. So I don't think it makes much difference when that's the quarry. The size and shape of the prey in those cases is conducive to either design.

In fact, there might be types of prey where the strike-and-release technique is disadvantageous. Take the boomslang. That's an arboreal snake that eats birds. Presumably, it would be less effective to let go of the bird, which might fly away or fall to the ground.

Likewise, take sea snakes. Releasing the fish would give it a chance to swim away or be eaten by another opportunistic fish. By the same token, King cobras eat other snakes, including cobras. But the strike-and-release technique would give the prey a chance to get away. 

Conversely, I've read that weasels are on the menu of Timber rattlesnakes. Weasels are predators in their own right. The strike-and-release technique might be beneficial when attacking prey like that, because a weasel could injure the snake if it had to hang onto the weasel until the prey become immobilized. Weasels are very feisty animals which would bite and claw the snake if it had to keep a grip on the prey to inject venom.  

So it isn't clear to me that one design is more advanced than another. They all have tradeoffs. They are all adapted to the nature of the prey. And particular kinds of prey may favor a particular envenomation mechanism. So I don't think that's evidence for macroevolution. 

Was the Star of Bethlehem a comet?

Colin Nicholl has written a testy response to Jason Engwer's review of his book. 

Not having read Nicholl's book, I don't have an informed opinion to offer on his book. In this post I'm not evaluating his book. Rather, I'm going to comment on some things he said in response to Jason. I don't have a firm opinion on the magi's country of origin, so I won't comment on that. Likewise, I won't comment on the patristic/apocryphal texts. That's just not my bailiwick. Finally, in this post I will refer to the Star of Bethlehem by the neutral term "prodigy". 

Let's begin by quoting some of Nicholl's statements that I wish to evaluate: 

As I point out in the book, the supernatural view is a last-resort view.
By contrast, Engwer proposes that his woodenly literal reading of Mt 2:9 (the Star went "in close proximity to" the Magi and stood immediately over the place where the child was) is obviously superior.
Jason Engwer insists that the Star disappeared after the "rising" and only reappeared on the final night of the Magi's journey. However, this is patently absurd.
There is no implication that the Star hadn't been seen since…As regards v9, the recollection of the "rising" most naturally makes the point that the very same Star that had prompted them to set off in search of the baby Messiah was now pinpointing the house where he was located, so that they could complete their mission. Again, there is not implication that the Star had been absent in the meantime.
If an object is present, then absent for a long time, and reappears in another region of the sky, the ancients simply would not have been able to identify it as one and the same item.
The very use of the astronomical word "rising" (see, for example, BDAG, Davies an Allison; and my book) refutes the idea that the Star immediately disappeared in the wake of the rising. After all, an astrological body's "rising" is the start of a new stage of its visibility (not invisibility) in the night sky.
…he also fails to appreciate that the Star at its "rising" had, by definition, to be a very great distance away from the Magi (outside Earth's atmosphere, in outer space, where, incidentally comets orbit).
That the Star is called a "star" (aster) and had "a rising" (an astrological term) and was observed by record-keeping celestial experts, who can tell Herod precisely when the Star first appeared make this point well.
However, his "highly local" Star is hard to reconcile with the word "star" and extremely difficult to reconcile with the "rising" language of v. 2, which, as we have just seen, implies that the Star was beyond Earth's atmosphere, not at all near the Magi.
To base a "highly local" Star on nothing other than a naive, wooden literalistic interpretation of v9 seems unwise. That many Christians some centuries after the event did the same is no excuse for making the same mistake today. We should know better.
If the Star was supernatural, why did the Star "appear" so long before the rising?…One could, I suppose, deny that the "appearing" and the "rising are distinct.
A "highly local" Star that is akin to "ball lightning" is unconvincing–if such a body was a short distance in front of the Magi and indeed stood immediately over the house, then are we really to accept that no one else saw it at the time?
Ignorance of astronomy no doubt contributed to the origin and popularity of the various supernaturalist opinions.
However, I explain what the Star did to persuade the Magi that someone had been born and to get them to turn to the Hebrews Scriptures in a bid to identify the newborn.
As regards the Star's "standing," Engwer evidently does not envision his Star as having a cometary tail…[but] comets can stand perfectly vertical over the horizon (e.g. the 1680 comet)…Nevertheless, it seems to me that a slightly offset comet streaking up from near the horizon towards the roof of the sky would certainly have been naturally paradigmed as "standing." 

i) Nicoll's response is deceptive. He misleads the reader by suggesting (more than once) that Jason's "woodenly literal" interpretation is eccentric. I daresay most laymen don't own or have access to major commentaries on Matthew, so they are just taking Nicoll's word for it when he dismisses Jason's interpretation as "woodenly literal" or "naively literal." But let's quote a few major commentators:

In light of this evidence, I conclude that the "star" is a miraculous and mysterious phenomenon whose precise identity cannot be ascertained. Knox Chamblin, Matthew: A Mentor Commentary (CFP 2010), 1:218-19. 
For a "star" (i) to disappear at certain times and then suddenly to shine again, and (ii) to lead directly to Bethlehem and then to stand fixed over the house where Christ lay "was not of the order of nature." Ibid. 219n18.  
The element in the story which most obviously invites skepticism is the guiding star with its apparently purposeful movement and stopping to indicate a specific location (see on v9).  
…those of us who are not astronomers may find it hard to envisage either of these phenomena first "rising," then "leading on" the magi, and eventually "coming to rest" in such a way as to indicate a specific location, even when due allowance is made for the phenomenal viewpoint of the storyteller's language. Despite the fascination of astronomical explanations, it may in the end be more appropriate to interpret Mt 2:9 as describing not a regular astronomical occurrence but the miraculous provision of what appeared to be a star which uniquely moved and then stopped (or at least which appeared to observers on the ground to do so), though of course there is no improbability in a natural astronomical phenomenon being the basis on which the magi made their initial deductions and set off on their journey.  
…it is hard to explain unless the star somehow indicated the actual house rather than just the village as a whole. It seems, then, that the star's movement gave them the final supernatural direction they needed to the specific house "where the child was." R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (Eerdmans 2007), 65, 69, 74.  
The conditions which the star must satisfy are the following: It must be the kind of star (a) for which the Magi might be considered to be on the lookout; (b) which on some basis or other could be identified as the star of the messiah of the Jews; (c) which can blaze a trail for the Magi to follow from Jerusalem; and (d) which can finally come to rest over a particular dwelling. 
While the first two conditions alone would point in the direction of astrological observation of the natural heavens, the third and fourth point only to a miraculously provided heavenly light. We appear to be dealing with a new light in the heavens which on the basis of location and/or time of emergence pointed in astrological lore to some special ascendancy of the Jews, but which goes away from its location in the heavens to lead the Magi from Jerusalem to the location in Bethlehem. The story itself provides no basis on which the Magi could have determined the identity of the star at its rising with the star which later went ahead to Bethlehem. The reader is left to depend on the superior knowledge (and reliability) of the narrator. 
The need to search or inquiry is preempted by the star, which at this point becomes (for the first time) a guiding star. Presumably the star confirms the correctness of looking for the child in Bethlehem, as well as guiding the Magi to the specific location. John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew (Eerdmans 2005), 110, 116. 

While these leading commentators don't necessarily agree with Engwer in every detail, or agree with each other in every detail, they clearly disagree with Nicholl. They interpret the "star" as miraculous or supernatural phenomenon that appears and disappears when needed, providing very specific direction to the magi.  

Nicholl can take issue with that, but it's unethical for him to insinuate that Jason's interpretation on these points is some backwood's reading that no serious modern Bible scholar would countenance. 

An Exchange With Colin Nicholl

I recently reviewed Colin Nicholl's book on the star of Bethlehem. He's written a response. The references in parentheses that follow are page numbers in Nicholl's response to me, unless otherwise noted.