The star of Bethlehem

by Dirk Husfeld

© Copyright 1996 December 7, 1996
Dear reader,

welcome to my little narration that mixes tales with imagination and facts with fiction. Let me carry you away through centuries past into lands far away, and let me bring you back into familiar surroundings. Very different times, very different environments. What ties them together is a common theme, which is ..., but you will find that out soon anyway. Here goes:

Richard Rosen and his children, 10-year old daughter Rebecca and son David, almost three years old, are walking over to Rebecca's school where there will be a Christmas singing. Rebecca is a member of the choir and over the past days has infected the family with her excitement. For David, however, the prospect of candies is even more charming.

The path leads them through a small park area. At six o'clock in the afternoon, it is already dark. The sky is sparkled with stars. This does not impress David who vents his extra energy hustling always ten to twenty meters ahead of the others. Rebecca, however, seems to be somewhat occupied by the night sky. She keeps looking around as if she is searching for something.

Finally, she asks: "Daddy, one of our songs is about the star of Bethlehem. But I don't know which one this is. Is it in one of the constellations that you showed me the other day?"

Richard hesitates a bit with his answer: "No, Rebecca, I don't think you can see the star of Bethlehem nowadays. It was visible when Christ was born, about 2000~years ago."

"And all the other stars that Christ had seen in his days are also gone by now?"

"No, they are all still there. Stars usually live much much longer than 2000 years. But this one, the star of Bethlehem, was special. It became bright, stayed so for a few weeks or months, and then dimmed away. Astronomers call something like this, I believe, a supernova."

David, who has not payed particular attention to the conversation, suddenly stops in his tracks. His ears picked up a word that sounded familiar. With eyes wide open, he stares at his father until he dares to ask: "Superman?"

David enters the school yard singing cheerfully, followed by his father and his sister. Of course, the arrival of the Rosen family is met with amusement. The art teacher, Mrs. Gold, welcomes the visitors at the entrance.

"Hello, Rebecca, good evening, Mr. Rosen. The entrance of your little son was so pleasant. Would you tell me what he was referring to?"

"Good evening, dear Mrs. Gold. Well, actually it is a misunderstanding. Rebecca asked about the star of Bethlehem, and I told her that it probably was a supernova."

"Oh, I see. But you surprise me a bit. I thought that it was a comet. I know of a painting of Giotto di Bondone in a church in Padua, Italy, where a comet with a long tail hovers over Bethlehem." After a moment of reflection, she adds: "Wasn't there even a comet named after Giotto? I seem to remember something like this from some years ago."

"Now that you say that, Mrs. Gold, I too remember this notion of a comet. But I must correct you about this particular incident. It was not a comet named after Giotto but a spacecraft which was sent to Halley's comet."

"Ah, you are probably right, Mr. Rosen. So Comet Halley was the star of Bethlehem?"

"Well, that's possible. But it could have been any other comet as well."

Rebecca suddenly remembers something she had seen once in the workshop of Mr. Krauss, the janitor. She is tugging at her father's sleeve.

"Daddy, Mr. Krauss there has a telescope. Maybe he knows about the star of Bethlehem."

Mr. Krauss is busily pouring out punch and chocolade drinks to visitors.

"Good evening, Mr. Krauss. My daughter here tells me that you own a telescope. Are you an astronomer or something?"

"As an amateur, yes, I am. Gives me pleasure to gaze at the sky now and then."

"Then perhaps you can settle a question. I was just talking to Mrs. Gold and we cannot remember whether the star of Bethlehem was a supernova or a comet. Would you know the answer?"

"Hmm..., well, both possibilities have been put forth at some time. They are neither proven nor disproven. And there's yet another proposal: The star of Bethlehem might have been a close conjunction of bright planets. You know, astronomers speak of a conjunction when two planets appear close together on the sky. Of course, there are still hundreds or thousands of million kilometres between them in space, but seen from Earth they appear in the same direction. There was a conjunction of planets Jupiter and Saturn in the year 7 BC and an even closer one between Jupiter and Venus, the two brightest planets, on the 7th of June in the year 2 AD. If one accepts the likely possibility that the year of Christ's birth was misdated, one of these might have been the star of Bethlehem."

"Oh, my dear, this is getting confusing. We apparently opened a can of worms with this question."

"Quite frankly, yes. And there is a further twist: Has it occured to you that the star of Bethlehem only appears in the Gospel of Matthew? It is not mentioned in the other Gospels of Luke, John and Mark. So it might not have been a reality after all. Matthew may have included it just as a legendary trait, referring to older traditions. This at least is the interpretation of most historians today."

Mr. Krauss cannot help but notice the disappointment creeping into the faces of his listeners. David surely has not been able to follow the explanation but he senses that he is about to lose something exciting. He utters one word, as much a question as it is a protest:


"Ah yes, David," Mr. Krauss pets the little boy's head, "I think we can be so generous as to accept the final possibility that the star of Bethlehem was the home star of Superman."

A final note (for the record): I have taken my liberties with this story. I have brought the term "supernova" into it where in fact the word "nova" belongs. It did it for (what I think are) obvious reasons. I will not explain the difference between a nova and a supernova here, but would like to point out that the possibility of a supernova causing the "star of Bethlehem" can be fairly certainly ruled out.