A comet, an eclipse, a supernova, an alignment of planets - was the Star of Bethlehem, said to have led the wise men to the Baby Jesus, a real astronomical event? Some 2,000 years ago, wise men saw an incredible star shining over the Holy Land. It was their signal to embark on an epic journey to visit the new Messiah. But what exactly was the Star of Bethlehem?
Modern science is unravelling the mystery behind one of the most famous astronomical stories in history. New developments in technology allow astronomers to map the ancient night skies with extraordinary accuracy.
As they study the movements of the planets and stars, experts are challenging the traditional assumption that it was a blazing comet - instead there are several unusual astronomical events that the wise men could have seen in the skies. The Bible tells us remarkably little about the star, with only the Gospel of St Matthew mentioning it. He records the wise men asking: "Where is he who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east and have come to worship him."
No date or detailed description is given. Even the identity of the men is obscure. Rather than the kings of popular imagination, the wise men are thought to have been priests from Persia, known as Magi. Keen astrologers who looked to the stars for guidance, the Magi combined science with faith to predict the birth of a new Messiah.
So what prompted them to travel to Bethlehem? Most experts agree Jesus was born in 4BC or earlier, as King Herod, who ruled over Judea at the time, is recorded as dying in 4BC. Now astronomers have identified four celestial events in this period that could have been the Star of Bethlehem.