Children everywhere will recreate the nativity this month, and bringing up the end of the star-led pilgrimage will be the Three Wise Men in shimmering dress-up robes, carrying a gift each. The Magi are part of our Christmas traditions, but there is a lot to learn about their contribution to the nativity; especially about gold, frankincense and myrrh.
According to BibleArcheology.org:
“Since the early days of Christianity, Biblical scholars and theologians have offered varying interpretations of the meaning and significance of the gold, frankincense and myrrh that the magi presented to Jesus, according to the Gospel of Matthew (2:11). These valuable items were standard gifts to honor a king or deity in the ancient world: gold as a precious metal, frankincense as perfume or incense, and myrrh as anointing oil. In fact, these same three items were apparently among the gifts, recorded in ancient inscriptions, that King Seleucus II Callinicus offered to the god Apollo at the temple in Miletus in 243 B.C.E. The Book of Isaiah, when describing Jerusalem's glorious restoration, tells of nations and kings who will come and ‘bring gold and frankincense and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.'” (Isaiah 60:6) (1)
The gifts of the Magi – gold, frankincense, and myrrh – were carried a great distance specifically for the new King that their star-watching indicated. Since then, scholars have mused and debated over them. Who were the Magi? What was the significance of the gifts? Were they for the infant Jesus or for a much bigger purpose?
Fact is we will never know (for sure) the truth about gold, frankincense and myrrh; nor why the Magi travelled half-way across the world to bless the Christ Child with them. We do have some ideas, though, and it's a fun topic to investigate…
Biblical Account of the Magi
The Magi – meaning something like magician but often translated wise man – appear in Matthew 2, having traveled from “the east” in search of the Baby King. They were obviously astronomers of some sort, because it was the Star of Bethlehem that indicated the birth.
When they made it into Jerusalem, they went right to Herod to ask where the Baby might be. Interestingly, Herod seems to know right away that the prophesies about the Messiah were connected, because he asked his scholars where Messiah was to be born. We don't know exactly when the visit occurred, but we do know that they had been tracking the star for some time – up to two years. This is important to note when we look at the potential uses for the gifts in a moment.
Gifts from the East – Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh
Unlike the images we conjure of three men with a gift each, the Magi aren't numbered. Church history and tradition have expanded on the story to name the men who actually gave the gifts – Melchior bringing gold, Caspar with frankincense, and Balthasar with myrrh. (2) Even so, depictions of the Magi vary from their earliest versions, with no one quite agreeing on the number of visitors in total.
In Matthew's account, they “opened their treasures” to give the young Jesus gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We aren't talking about single birthday gifts here – no matter the exact names and numbers, these were clearly wealthy men in a caravan of sorts, with much reputation and much to offer.
It has also been suggested that, In addition to the honor and status implied by the value of the gifts of the magi, scholars think that these three were chosen for their special spiritual symbolism about Jesus himself—gold representing his kingship, frankincense a symbol of his priestly role, and myrrh a prefiguring of his death and embalming.” (1)
Because the Magi were coming to hail the new king, gold makes sense as an acknowledgement of royalty. Gold was valuable, beautiful, and long-lasting. Scholars generally agree that the gift of gold represented Jesus as a king with an everlasting throne. It was a treasure befitting royalty, albeit royalty in the home of a young, poor family.
As an interesting theory that is somewhat on the fringe, some believe the gold was entirely different. Instead of precious metals, the theory explains that frankincense and myrrh were both precious resins used for fragrance and were both derived from the same region – from the east. Gold seems out of place – one of these things is not like the other – unless it was gold-en spice like turmeric, as some like to claim that it was. This line of thought can even trace to balsam oil, derived from the resin of the balsam trees in the same climate and region as frankincense and myrrh's origination.
Arabic balsam, or Commiphora gileadensis, is also considered the Balm of Gilead, used to anoint the kings of Israel and containing a compound “known for its anti-inflammatory, local anaesthetic, and antifungal properties.” (3)
In either view, the kingly connotations remain, and the message of the Magi is clear: this little baby was to be honored as royalty, no matter what the circumstances suggested!
There's no major surprise here – no fringe theory that suggests something shocking. Only an ancient incense that is still beneficial today.
The gift of frankincense is said to have been an acknowledgement of Jesus' priesthood, setting him apart from a typical king. Frankincense was used in the temple routines, burned ceremonially by the priests. It was not native to that region, however, so obtaining frankincense from the east was costly. This gift was precious in both meaning and value.
Because we now can analyze the properties and modes of action that substances like frankincense resin and its essential oil maintain, we can see further benefit beyond fragrance and ceremony.
Traditional healing suggests frankincense for anti-inflammatory, anti-arthritic abilities. We now see that this could be connected to immune modulating effects that might explain uses for both inflammatory illness and antimicrobial purposes. (4)
The most bittersweet of the gifts, myrrh had been imported to Egypt in droves for embalming rituals, and the practice filtered out through the surrounding areas. Even without the mummification process, myrrh was connected with death and burial. A disheartening gift for a new mother to hold, yet beautiful in light of her understanding of his purpose.
But was that all the myrrh was for?
While the Middle Eastern regions used myrrh ceremonially, the Far East was using it for healing purposes. Ayurvedic medicine, which dates back thousands of years, used myrrh for wound healing, digestive health, and to balance women's issues. China used myrrh for similar purposes – wound healing and to slow bleeding.
With this in mind, one wonders whether the Magi were bringing healing substances for Jesus' after birth – cord healing, etc. – as well as for Mary in her postpartum discomfort. Prophetic words often had both immediate and long term connotations, so these gifts could have followed a similar dual pattern.
Of course, if they arrived two years after he was born, as the text may suggest, this theory loses a bit of weight. In any case, it's interesting to entertain – the intricacies of Scripture never cease to amaze! (5)
It's worth noting that frankincense and myrrh together – both used in temple rituals – comprise a synergistic antimicrobial combination. (6) While both the temple and Jesus' makeshift cradle were filled with aromatic substances, they were also fighting disease and protecting the inhabitants. What joy there is in seeing the beauty of God's design underscored with practical protective measures!
Some early church history writings claim that the three named Magi came together years later to celebrate Christmas together, shortly before they died. I imagine a delicious meal, the laughter of old friends, and a fragrant incense burning to remind them all of that one, incredible journey when they carried gold, frankincense, and myrrh to a newborn king.