Since the 1600s, people have used astronomy, history, and the Bible to try to identify the Star of Bethlehem.
So was the star something real, seen in the heavens as a sign of the coming Messiah? Or was it, as some say, merely made up by the early Church?
The Heavens Declare the Glory of God
With today's telescopes, the grandeur of the skies is more visible than ever before. Yet even with the naked eye the Psalmist proclaimed "the heavens declare the glory of God."
How can he do that? Could the Star of Bethlehem be an example in announcing the Messiah? Or -- is this some kind of misguided astrology?
"The Bible comes down extremely hard on astrology. Reverence for the stars, the idea that stars order your life or guide you or whatever - did you know it was a killing offense in the Old Testament?" Star of Bethlehem expert Rick Larson said.
But the Bible also says that God put signs in the sky. Perhaps the Star of Bethlehem was like a thermometer.
"A thermometer can tell you if it's hot or cold but it can't make you hot or cold -- because it's not an active agent. Stars are like that. According to the Bible they can tell you things; they can be signs from a higher power, from God on high. But they can't make you do anything, they're burning balls of gas, you know," Larson said.
A new DVD documents Larson's discoveries that came after a decade of studying the mysteries of the "star of wonder."
A number of experts consider his conclusions the most plausible in a subject full of opinions.
And some even think Larson has gone far beyond what astronomer John Mosley and historian Ernest Martin told CBN News in 1994.
"Even Virgil in the 1st Century in his fourth Eclogue mentions this messianic personage who was to come, who was to rule all the nations," Martin said.
Mosley said, "I thought that this happened in such a known period of time and such a public place - the Roman Empire - that people would have figured this out long ago. That's not the case. It's very controversial."
Larson has analyzed what heavenly signs in the book of Matthew brought the wise men to Bethlehem. He found nine testable points.
"My idea is that if the Bible has nine characteristics and I find something in the sky that has, you know, eight of them, it might be interesting, but it's not the star. It's got to line up with Scripture or it doesn't do the job for me," Larson said.
Using astronomy software, he then searched the ancient skies for matching events the Magi would have seen in the time around the birth of Jesus. That era was from 3 to 1 BC.
The Identities of the Three Wise Men
But who were these mysterious wise men? One ancient Jewish writer speaks of them.
"He (ancient Jewish writer, Philo) describes a particular school of Magi, calls it the Eastern school and these Magi he praises. He says these guys understood the natural order and are able to explain the natural order to others. And they were, according to Philo, probably what we might call proto-scientists," Larson explained.
Consider the Magi seeing Jupiter, the king planet, in the night sky one mid-September evening of 3 B.C.
"This is Jupiter; the smaller object is a star. It has a name; it's called Regulus -- that's the same root word as our word "regal." The Babylonians called Regulus Sharru which means king," Larson said.
This close proximity is called a conjunction. Larson explains what it would have looked like: "Jupiter passed Regulus, changed it's mind, stopped and went back for a second close approach. That's two, passed Regulus again..."
And that's three.
This took place in the constellation of the Lion, associated in ancient times with Israel. And the magi, attuned to such proclamations in the sky, might well have started thinking that a mighty king was to be born in Israel.
But there's more: following Jupiter into the sky is Virgo the Virgin," and she's clothed in the sun and she has the moon at her feet," Larson said.
Sound familiar? That's from the last book of the Bible, Revelation 10 which reads, "A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet." And she's described as pregnant.
Theologians recognize this passage as John having a vision of the Virgin Mary with Jesus in her womb.
"When you see that in the sky, and realize that John wasn't just recounting a vision. His vision involved actual astronomical events. That really got me. When I saw Virgo rise clothed in the sun with the new moon birthed at her feet, it stunned me," Larson said.
The Significance of Rosh Hashana
That new moon marks the onset of Rosh Hashana - the Jewish New Year - the day God is said to have created the world. Larson says the evidence supports this day as the time when the Holy Spirit conceived Jesus.
So is there another sign?
"Nine months after that first conjunction -- nine months -- the gestation period of a human," Larson said. "We see Jupiter and Venus come together to form the brightest star anyone had ever seen."
That's mid-June of 2 B.C. - again near Regulus in Leo.
"This is such an unusual conjunction that I can tell none of your viewers have ever seen such a conjunction because none have occurred in the 20th century. They're that rare, extremely rare," Larson said.
This coin represents how impressive the star was - as the Romans placed the star in the upper left. Of course, the Romans thought it was all about them -- a sort of Star of Rome rather than the Star of Bethlehem. And that's probably what made the Magi ride toward Israel.
Larson said, "So they ride to Israel's capital, Jerusalem, and say to the ruler Herod, 'We've seen his star in the East. Where's the baby king?' And he says, 'Bethlehem.'"
"As they're riding out toward Bethlehem, they look up in the sky and there's Jupiter, the king planet, over the little town of Bethlehem," he said. "They ride down and find the baby boy, there are three gifts, they have the first Christmas."
The date: Dec. 25, 2 BC.
"Of course, they didn't use our calendar -- you know December 25th meant nothing to them. They never heard of December, but to us it could be a sign and it is interesting that the gifting did occur on December 25th," he said.
There are indeed more signs -- many of which revolve around the death of Jesus on the cross. But that's an Easter story -- and can be found on Larson's DVD as he explains Good Friday's celestial events.
While the mortal Augustus has long passed from history, Jesus is worshipped by millions around the world as the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End, The Eternal One Who created the heavens - and the signs of His own coming.