This Epiphany season begins with the recounting of the visit of the Magi to the young Jesus. Their journey “from the east” occurred at a time unspecified in the only Bible account (Matthew 2:1-12) but within about two years of Jesus’s birth.
The Magi were apparently Persian astrologers, for the ancient term magus refers to priests of the religion of Zoroaster who studied the stars. The traditional understanding of Epiphany, or “manifestation,” is the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles, or non-Israelite nations. The plan of God for Israel was always that, through the family of Abraham, all people would know the blessing of God in a restored creation. The homage of the Magi to Jesus prefigures the extension of the Christian message of new life in Christ to all nations of the earth.
Another theme, however, underlies the account of the quest these “wise men” undertook for the king of the Jews, or Messiah. That motif is the search for truth. It’s to be noted that the Magi were looking for truth in two places: in the Hebrew Scriptures, and in the cosmos or starry universe. They didn’t know the location of Messiah’s appearance — they had to ask Herod’s scholars for the details — but they knew the Jewish Scriptures would provide the clue. At the same time it was a cosmic event — the appearance of a star, perhaps a supernova — that alerted them to the significant event that had occurred.
The story of the Magi should remind us that truth is one, wherever we find it. There isn’t one “religious” or “spiritual” truth, and another “natural” or “physical” truth. For the Magi, if something was true it was true in both realms; or, more correctly, there was only one realm of truth regardless of the source. Today we speak of the “supernatural” as a realm of truth beyond the natural, but perhaps that’s a serious error. The distinction wasn’t known in biblical times; if something happened, it happened, period. It might be a “sign,” an unusual or unique occurrence, but it was an event in the realm of human experience like any other happening.
So perhaps what we call the supernatural is only an aspect of the natural that we don’t understand. Scientists deal only with the natural or material, and disavow the so-called “spiritual” as either nonexistent (a philosophy termed “naturalistic reductionism”) or beyond their concern. But then they encounter phenomena that can’t be explained within the parameters of known physical “laws” or conventionalities. Examples are gravity, which no one really understands, or “dark energy,” the bulk of the mass of the universe that can’t be detected electromagnetically but only through its gravitational effects on other phenomena. Another example is the appearance of digital information in the genetic code of the cells of living organisms. The physical universe, which cosmologists, astrophysicists and other scientists study, displays a number of “spooky” features that have thus far defied explanation in terms of the dominant scientific world view of “naturalistic reductionism.”
So the distinction between the “supernatural” and the “natural” appears to be misleading. Yes, truth is one, wherever we encounter it. Christians consider the Holy Scriptures to be the truth; as Jesus prayed, “Thy Word is truth” (John 17:17). At the same time, as the Magi believed, the cosmos or physical universe also reveals truth to those who study it. Hence there can’t be any fundamental disagreement between what the Bible tells us and what science tells us; if we think we’ve found a discrepancy, it’s only because we’ve failed to understand what is really being said either by Scripture or by the results of scientific inquiry.
The search for knowledge in any direction reveals truths about God and the universe he has created. As the apostle Paul states, “Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:20). We need to undertake a serious project of biblical and scientific under- standing, in order to show that truth is one, regardless of how it comes to us. That’s a challenge for the days and years to come.