Why Did the Magi Bring Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh?

Medicinal uses of frankincense may help explain the gifts of the magi

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in December 2011. It has been updated.—Ed.


 
Why Did the Magi Bring Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh?Were the gifts of the magi meant to save Jesus from the pain of arthritis? It’s possible, according to researchers at Cardiff University in Wales who have been studying the medical uses of frankincense.

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). Although Matthew’s gospel does not include the names or number of the Magi, many believe that the number of the gifts is what led to the tradition of the Three Wise Men.
 


 
Interested in learning about the birth of Jesus? Learn more about the history of Christmas and the date of Jesus’ birth in the free eBook The First Christmas: The Story of Jesus’ Birth in History and Tradition.
 

 
Why Did the Magi Bring Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh?

The traditional gifts of the magi—gold, frankincense and myrrh—may have had symbolic as well as practical value. Researchers believe the medicinal uses of frankincense were known to the author of Matthew’s gospel.

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—an interpretation made popular in the well-known Christmas carol “We Three Kings.”

Still others have suggested that the gifts of the magi were a bit more practical—even medicinal in nature. Researchers at Cardiff University have demonstrated that frankincense has an active ingredient that can help relieve arthritis by inhibiting the inflammation that breaks down cartilage tissue and causes arthritis pain. The new study validates traditional uses of frankincense as an herbal remedy to treat arthritis in communities of North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, where the trees that produce this aromatic resin grow. Did the Magi “from the East” know of frankincense’s healing properties when they presented it to young Jesus?

——————

Based on Strata, “The Magi’s Gifts—Tribute or Treatment?” Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 2012.
 

 

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Did Jesus Exist? Searching for Evidence Beyond the Bible: Lawrence Mykytiuk’s full article from the January/February 2015 issue of BAR with voluminous endnotes

How December 25 Became Christmas: Andrew McGowan’s full article from the December 2002 issue of Bible Review

Christmas Stories in Christian Apocrypha by Tony Burke

Where Was Jesus Born?

Who Was Jesus’ Biological Father?

Has the Childhood Home of Jesus Been Found?

Frankincense and Other Resins Were Used in Roman Burials Across Britain
 


 

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  1. Elias says

    Please watch emmanuel tv

  2. Larry says

    So, are there historically a lot of babies born with arthritis?

  3. Benjamin says

    How would this be a practical gift for a baby? They would have to possess prior knowledge that an arthritic baby was being born. Or was arthritis such an ailment that they could just assume?

    And since this baby was proclaimed as the son of god, why would this son of god be born with arthritis?

    What about the “power of prayer?”

    With all the healing power of these gifts, wouldn’t the son of god have even more healing power?

    This article explains nothing.

  4. Rich says

    How about this theory?

    1) Frankincense was / still is a common anointing oil for birth;
    2) Myrrh was commonly used for embalming the dead;
    3) Gold was / still is necessary to live.

    So with these 3 gifts the magi provided Jesus with all that is needed for each stage of life: birth, adulthood, and death.

  5. Johnny says

    I hate BCE. I usually move on from a site when I read it in use.

  6. Janet says

    well, in my spirit I feel a connection between un- forgiveness and arthritis. First a hurt, or offence, the comes anger, then carrying the hurt which is un-forging which gives root to bitterness and the Word of God say is bitterness to the bones. It may be the anointing with Frankincense was the preparing for the cross, Jesus lived in human flesh which as we know takes a lot of work to keep in check. The last thing Jesus ask Father God was Forgive them. These are my thoughts on this. Thank you for everyone’s input, Janet

  7. brandon says

    I love Jesus

  8. Al says

    First of all, nowhere in the Old or New Testaments of the Christian Bible is there any indication of how many “wise men” (properly translated “Magi”) came to worship the Christ child, nor do the Scriptures name them. The names were assigned to the “three wise men” based on the nations from which the three gifts most likely originated, not from any Scriptural source.The assumption that they were three in number is assumed, again, from the number and types of gifts presented to Mary, the mother of the Messiah.

    The translation “wise men” in the King James Version of the Bible is more accurately translated as “magi”. Magi were priests of the Zoroastrian religion, which sprang from the visions and prophecies of the Persian prophet Zarathustra. The Magi, in addition to studying and following the prophecies and teachings of Zarathustra, also studied the Hebrew (Jewish) prophets and prophecies. Zoroastrians and Hebrews both worshiped the Creator of the universe. Zarathustra called the Creator “Ahura Mazda”, while the Hebrews called the Creator “YHVH” (Yahveh). As a result of their studies of the Hebrew prophecies concerning the Messiah and the signs of His birth into human form for the remission of sins, the Magi were watching and waiting for the appearance of the star that would lead them to the Messiah at the time of His birth (Numbers 24:17). When that star appeared, and they recognized it for what it was, they packed gifts and the necessary gear for travel and set out on their trek to follow the star that would lead them to the young Messiah.

    It was a custom at that time among many cultures to present gifts to the parents to celebrate the birth of a prince or other child of rank. For the Magi, though, this was no ordinary child of rank. It was the Messiah; the Supreme Ruler and Savior of the world who would suffer and die as a fitting, sinless sacrifice for the remission of our sins. The Magi understood what even the somewhat complacent and arrogant Jewish priests had apparently (and perhaps conveniently?) forgotten.

    From the time the Magi began their journey from Persia to the Holy Land until their arrival was approximately two years. We know that from the account in Matthew 2 of Herod’s interrogation of the Magi and subsequent decree to slay all male Jewish children of the age of two years and under born in and around Bethlehem (later called “The Slaughter of the Innocents”)(v.16). We also, in that chapter, see the Magi arriving at “the house” (v.11) where they found “the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him…” This verse makes it clear that Yeheshuah (Jesus) was no longer an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a feeding trough (manger), but a toddler living in a house by the time the Magi arrived.

    The significance of the three gifts, “gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (v. 11) is not hard to decipher when the culture and symbolism of the era are understood. As previously stated, the Magi recognized that the child that they sought was no ordinary child of rank, but the incarnation of the King of the Universe. Knowing that, they chose the most precious and costly gifts to present to the Savior and Lord; gifts befitting a King.

    The Supreme station of this child was not their only consideration, however. In studying the prophecies, they understood that this Messiah, the King and Creator of the universe, was to suffer the weight of the sins of everyone who had ever lived and would ever live, would die in undeserved shame and disgrace, and would rise from that death to conquer sin and death itself on our behalf. Thus, the gifts that the Magi chose reflected that knowledge and their gratitude for what this child would suffer for their sakes.

    As with everything that the Creator brings about, the gifts that the Magi bestowed were to serve a greater purpose in the life of the Messiah.

    Immediately after the Magi left the holy family to go home “by a different way”, Herod announced the decree to slaughter every child born in and around Bethlehem who was two years of age and under.

    At the same time that the Magi were leaving, Joseph was also warned by an angel to take Mary and the child and flee into Egypt. Joseph did as the angel had instructed. There they remained until Herod’s death and the end of his murderous decree. Being poor people, it was the gifts of the Magi that made their flight into Egypt, their stay there, and their return to Israel possible.

    Although Joseph was a carpenter and likely found work after arriving in Egypt, there was the expense of traveling, paying for lodging during their journey, and food, rent, and other living expenses after they arrived. Then there was the expense of traveling back to Israel and setting up a new home in Nazareth, approximately 80 miles (129 km) north of their former home of Bethlehem.

    Without the gifts of the Magi, it is unlikely that any of that would have been possible.

    There are several esoteric philosophies that assign mystic and spiritual significance to the gifts of the Magi in order to romanticise or assign new prophetic significance to the gifts, but none are supported by Scripture. The one gift that may have had deeper significance for the Magi than the other two was the myrrh, which was used in preparation of the body of the deceased for the tomb. The Magi knew from the prophecies that the Messiah would be crucified, laid in the tomb for three days, and would arise the third day. The myrrh may well have been, and probably was, their way of acknowledging that sacrifice and paying their respects in advance.

    The real significance of the Magi’s gifts was that the Magi–the first Gentiles, and the first human beings on the planet to do so–gave thier gifts in adoration, because they recognized the Messiah for who he was and accepted Him as their Savior and Lord. By their presentation of their gifts and their worship to the Messiah, they fulfilled the prophecy, “I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the end of the earth”, Isaiah 49:6.

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Continuing the Discussion

  1. Wisdom for the Holidays: The Gifts of the Wise Men « Christian Mission Control linked to this post on December 5, 2012

    [...] 3. Why Did the Magy Bring Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh? Online article at http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/people-cultures-in-the-bible/jesus-historical-jesus/why-did…. [...]

  2. Wisdom of the Magi: A Special Journey | Chicago Citizens Inspiration Initiative: NO SIDES CHICAGO! linked to this post on December 6, 2012

    [...] 3. Why Did the Magy Bring Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh? Online article at http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/people-cultures-in-the-bible/jesus-historical-jesus/why-did…. [...]

  3. Swaddling clothes, gold, frankincense and myrrh | Science on the Land linked to this post on December 22, 2012

    [...] gold, frankincense and myrrh? In the ancient world those three gifts were given to newborn kings and gods. Being more practical, the gold isn’t hard to explain: this baby was born into poverty. [...]

  4. The Christmas Magi | Third Millennial Templar linked to this post on December 25, 2012

    [...] Although the symbolism of these gifts may be obscure, I once heard that the three gifts symbolize Kingship (Gold), Priesthood (Frankincense), and Death (Myrrh), and this interpretation has become very popular. Myrrh symbolizes death because it was the very thing customarily used to embalm dead bodies, thus pointing ahead to Jesus’ vocation to die on a tree. In any case, the Gospel author, Matthew, does not let us in on what symbolism he might have perceived, if indeed he intended to recount anything other than history. Perhaps he as well wondered about the significance of such gifts, but could not himself discern a satisfactory account of all three gifts, and so wrote them into his narrative without writing in some interpretation of his own. Moreover, Isaiah had prophesied the Gold and the Frankincense:  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). ~Why did the Magi bring Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh? [...]

  5. Atlas Sound Money Project » Blog Archive » “Gold, and Frankincense and Myrrh” linked to this post on December 26, 2012

    [...] Of this passage the Biblical Archaeological Review says: [...]

  6. The St. George Jerusalem Society linked to this post on January 3, 2013

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  7. EMPATHY AWRY « CREDO Spiritual Blog — VENI linked to this post on January 25, 2013

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  8. Empathy Awry « CREDO Collection linked to this post on January 25, 2013

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  9. Gideons Win – For Now linked to this post on March 16, 2013

    [...] the three Gideon wise men had decided to emulate the three Wise Men of Christian myth and hand out gold, frankincense and myrrh, they would have made a greater contribution to [...]

  10. Churches are to burn incense in His Name - Page 5 - Christian Forums linked to this post on April 2, 2013

    [...] [Lett Appl Microbiol. 2012] – PubMed – NCBI Myrrh – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia Why Did the Magi Bring Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh? – Biblical Archaeology Society Other benefits as antimicrobial, etc. __________________ To view links or images in signatures [...]

  11. We Give Gifts | MicahGallant linked to this post on December 25, 2013

    [...] Posted by Micah on Dec 25, 2013 in General | 0 comments (function(d, s, id) { var js, fjs = d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0]; if (d.getElementById(id)) return; js = d.createElement(s); js.id = id; js.src = "//connect.facebook.net/en_US/all.js#xfbml=1&appId=483160225082125"; fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js, fjs); }(document, "script", "facebook-jssdk")); We give gifts, and its a pile of fun for sure. Why do we give gifts? We’re in a way doing what was done the first Christmas day , I suppose not technically when Jesus was born but the day the 3 wise men in the bible found the Christ child. They brought Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. 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—an interpretation made popular in the well-known Christmas carol “We Three Kings.”  www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/people-cultures-in-the-bible/jesus-historical-jesus/why-did-the-ma… [...]

  12. It’s Three Kings Day: Time for Fèves | No No Julia linked to this post on January 6, 2014

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  16. “Gold, Weiber und Moehren” | Übersetzen und Literatur, doch nicht nur linked to this post on August 23, 2014

    […] by Axel Hacke who collected amusing examples of mondegreens and misheard lyrics. One of these were the gifts of the Magi to the Christ child. Children misheard “gold, frankincense and myrrh” as gold, loose women, and carrots. […]

  17. The Gift is You, Not Your Presents | My Own For You linked to this post on December 4, 2014

    […] 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—an interpretation made popular in the well-known Christmas carol “We Three Kings.” (Source: Biblical Archeology.) […]

  18. Christmas Cardology (7): The Wise Men from the East linked to this post on December 13, 2014

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  19. Twelfth Night and Epiphany Jeopardy! « The Yule Log 365 linked to this post on January 5, 2015

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  20. Gold, frankincense and myrrh… a good present for a child? | jannettehicks linked to this post on January 20, 2015

    […] “offered him gifts, gold, and frankincense and myrrh.” According to Biblicalarcheology.org, these valuable items were standard gifts to honor a king or deity in the ancient world: gold as a pr… The wise men were not only proclaiming Jesus as King of the Jews but also proclaiming he was God as […]


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