Why Did the Magi Bring Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh?

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

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.
 


 
Learn more about the history of Christmas and the date of Jesus’ birth in the free e-book The First Christmas: The Story of Jesus’ Birth in History and Tradition.
 

 
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.”

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.

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?
 


 
Explore the date of Christmas in Andrew McGowan’s popular Bible Review article “How December 25 Became Christmas,” available for free in Bible History Daily.
 


 

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

Posted in Jesus/Historical Jesus.

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  1. Shane says

    I think this is reading rather too much into this charming Matthean fable. Maybe the anti-arthritic properties were to be used to counteract the deformative consequences of the swaddling bands (but then that’s crossing over to Luke!).

  2. Gary says

    The Bible does not tell us the reason, but it does tell us to not go beyond what is written. The account is not a fable even though some people would like to believe it is so. There has always been people who ressist the Holy Spirit and try to minimize the gospel.

  3. Barry says

    I consider myself to be a fairly spiritual person, a person of faith, but for the life of me I can not figure out how a reasonable person could read these insightful and well researched and documented articles and then resort to bashing them in the name of fundamentalist literalism. If really understanding scripture is your goal then read on and be enlightened.

  4. Gary says

    I am not bashing the article. The article is good. We don’t know what the wise men’s intent was; we only know how it could be seen as significant. Archaelogy helps to develop insight into the Biblical time period.

  5. Marilyn says

    Are they serious! What a load of rubbish, I cannot believe that intelligent people at a university can come up with this. They must not have enough to do with their time.

  6. David says

    I’m curious Marilyn, do you work at a university?

  7. Marilyn says

    No I don’t David, but I do read my Bible and I know what it says and what it does not say. No wonder Jesus chose mere fishermen to be his disciples, maybe He knew something?

  8. Donna says

    Barry, you are right on of course and poor Marilyn just doesn’t seem to get it, the fishermen were chosen because they were simple people so easily led like sheep even turned on him at the end predictable.

  9. gabe says

    The Magi were by all accounts polytheists and recognized what John wrote of: the word (prophecy) became flesh and dwelt among us. Intrinsically his birth and existence is both spiritual and practical for such a caravan of astrologists. They were multidimensional in their actions because aside from being polytheists they were human and as human beings it’s not uncommon or abnormal to have multiple uses and interpretations of a gift especially in the time in which they lived. Religion was practical. Example: hand washing is both practical as for hygiene and symbolic of spiritual cleansing.

  10. gavin says

    The Magi were Zoroastrian priests, who were no less monotheistic than Jews or Christians – though Judeo-Christian scholars derogatorily label them “dualists” for their emphasis on the two opposing principles of good and evil. The dualistic “monotheism” of the “Abrahamic” religions probably descends directly from the Zoroastrianism of Achaemenid Persia – which could point to another another meaning of the Christmas story: the original monotheists are shown giving their blessings to the newest one.

  11. Marc says

    Assuming there is no relationship between the gifts and the temple worship, perhaps they were just practical “gifts” of medicine. Gold was used to fill teeth in ancient Egypt (http://www.bib-arch.org/e-features/medicine-in-the-ancient-world.asp) maybe the baby Jesus had arthritis and bad teeth and these were just the gifts he needed to heal him of his physical infirmities (He certainly never complained about joint pain or toothaches). And the wise men (following a mysterious, heavenly light all the way to the baby’s home) knew that. Because that makes sense.

  12. Frank says

    The Magi’s valuable gifts, fit for a king, enabled Joseph to have the resources to flee into exile in Egypt escaping from Herod’s assasins.

  13. Rolando says

    As a practical person I think the gifts were not only meant for Jesus but for the whole family, frankincense and myrrh was also for Mary who just gave birth and need something to stay healthy and clean both spiritually and physically. Gold has both economic and spiritual value.

  14. Rhett says

    Gary, Marilyn,

    You both refer to what the bible says but you don’t reference where to find what you’re talking about. I’d be curious to know more about your thought process.
    Personally, I will rely on the words of the center of this and so many other debates….the Bible itself.

    1 Thes. 5:21
    Test everything. Hold on to the good.

    To truly believe anything, you must first question it. Until you have thoroughly examined something, you are blind.
    Blind faith has become a plague and a powerful weapon used for the opposite of what “Jesus would do”.
    We will allow doctors to prescribe chemicals that tend to have as many side effects as our initial root problems, but somehow are unwilling to look into natures long term side effect free, gifts that keep on giving and always have for ages, that are clearly highlighted in the biggest Bible story of them all?
    Did God say in the bible, “anti-depressants”, “botox”, “contact lenses”, “life saving laser bypass something or other surgery” ? No….but we believe in our doctors and our medicines heavily. Did God say in the bible, “techno gadgets?” No….but we not only believe in it but rely on those gadgets every day. With all the testing done on those products to make them the success that they are…why wouldn’t we look into ANY possible benefits from these properties that are clearly historically significant?

    Peace

  15. Tony says

    One of the enduring mysteries to me is what happened to these most valuable gifts. They could have set Joseph up pretty well but after the giving we hear no more of them.

  16. Tim says

    The Zoroastrians believed that Ahura Madza, the good god of light, was going to send a Messiah to be born in the darkest days of winter. This Messiah was to be conceived by a virgin, after she bathed in a lake. The Zoroastrian Magis lived in opulent wealth away from their followers. Which is the reason why when Islam entered Persia, it steamrolled over Zoroastrianism. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh were precious commodities at that time and was used to aid digestion — it is edible, — arthritis, healing wounds, and its aroma meant life. It was used by the ancient Egyptians for mummifying the dead, and later by Jews, Christians, and Muslims who used them in oil to anoint newborn infants.

  17. lafonda says

    i dont get it

  18. Noneofyourbuisness says

    I think this is very interesting Lafonda. It tells us about the 3 wise men

  19. Bill says

    I have no problem accepting unbelievers. The problem in these conversations clearly reveal those that “think themselves to be wise” but reveal they believe accepting what the scripture says is less than scholarly. I don’t know if there was 3 or 5 or more of the Maji,, I only know what the Word says confirming their presence and presents. If it took 14 months or so in following the star…so what. All the speculation may be for good argument or perhaps interesting preaching. It’s what it is.

  20. Richard says

    The gifts had significant meaning as to who Jesus was, the gifts represented the Magi’s acknowledgement of the fact:
    http://planetholy.wordpress.com/2007/12/10/why-gold-frankincense-and-myrrh/

  21. Ray says

    I read the comments by Gabe and seems to me to be very balance and open minded. Would like to here more from ‘gabe’ on dec 25, 2011

  22. Mary says

    Cardiff University were researching the properties of frankincense as a potential help for sufferers of arthritis. They were not making a connection to the Magi – that has been made by others. An interesting jump but it is a jump nonetheless. So, Marilyn, I think they were using their tie wisely as they were attempting to alleviate pain rather than making wild comments on the Bible

  23. Garth says

    As a believer in Jesus Christ and a believer in a Supernatural God or God who is beyond our finite minds (how dare I ) I believe one of the reasons that scripture allows these events is that just as we are called Sons of God and Jesus took on the role of Son of Man, Just as He died to give us immortal life Just as His divine Covenant with us has positive role reversals Just as Abraham basically (in his heart crucified his only son Isaac and Jehovah gave us His only begotton Son Jesus we see Jesus in Ehpesians chapter 4 giving the church gifts on His ressurection from the dead the role reversal. And the gifts in my opinion mean to me that He must be valued, prayed to and remembered for His atoning death on the cross of calvary. A lady told me in a government building yesterday that she unlike me does not believe in a Supernatural God thats OK (not really) you have to believe in something

  24. wandering says

    Myr is used during the morning. Its incense is a natural counter attack against bad sprits. The smell of it irradiates the bad and hurt that may latch itself upon the child. It deters the bad demons/sprites/mana/chi of which was created by a being from attacking the child into hurt and confusin. There are good sprits that enjoy the smell and they will come vist and give their blessings and signs of learning oppertunities. It kills all bacteria and fungus that can claim the child and Its smoke aids the child to breath deeply and calms the confused soul to allow observation and understanding practices from a young age. Frankensence is used during the night. Its properties are the same but for sprites of the night. It allows communication with your divine soul. Giving you oppertunities to understand the confusing dreams. (Of which is a skill to know). Once dreams are understood the future is known and the soul is aware. Gold is one of the greatist conductive metal known. Its properties not only a rising cost and value of currency but it allows focus of the mind when worn. As goes other minerals with aiding values, spiritual usses and sickness. The Bible wont tell you how to heal but to train the mind like you train how to walk.

  25. paul says

    i want us also to focus on other issues like who was truelly behind the visit of the three astrologers or as some say (wise men).

  26. Sharon says

    It says in the Bible, now we see through a glass darkly, and also our thoughts are futile, one day we will know all, but until then, we just have to believe, and have faith in that Jesus came, He loved and loves us all, and died for our sins that we may have Eternal life, and that on that third day He Arose again Victorious, and one day He will return again, the dead in Christ will arise and the ones who are still alive will meet Him in the air, what a Glorious day that will be. Amen and Amen.

  27. Ray says

    The reason for the gift of Gold Frankincense and Myrrh is as follows, Gold was given to Jesus to symbolize that he was the king of kings, frankincense was given to Jesus as a baby to purify,
    bless, and protect his surroundings and Myrrh was given to dispel evil spirits and negative energies, the reason for this was that the devil and his evil followers wanted Jesus dead from he was an infant, (it is as simple as that)

  28. Elizabeth says

    I read through all of these comments to get to Ray’s, which, I believe, is most accurate and biblically as well as from a common sense point of view. I am Catholic and not super- familiar with the Bible, I use essential oils and have a decent amount of knowledge of them.

  29. Ralph says

    The gifts were given by the Magi as a witness of their belief that Jesus was the King of the Jews. Perhaps, as learned men from the area they came from, they recalled the life of the very excellent government administrator, Daniel, who wrote of this some 500 years earlier. Very opulent and practical at the same time. In reference to the Isaiah passage, Jesus life, death and resurrection paved the way for this restored righteousness (new covenant) for mankind where our sins would not be held against us as Jeremiah said in Chapter 31. As the propitiation for man’s sin, Jesus priestly role was that of a ‘lamb’ slain fo the sines of the world. The priestly significance of myrrh is a the burial preservative that signifies Jesus’ death. The book of Hebrews is an excellent read for this. Moses predicted (prophesied in Deuteronomy 18: 15) that one from the Jews (or Israel), like Moses, would rise up and the people needed to ‘listen to him’. This speaks of Jesus’ role as a prophet, one who speaks God’s Word to the people for their salvation/edification. The frankincense is representative of the prophetic office that the Lord Jesus oversees. Since the gifts were for the King of the Jews gold is the perfect gift representing the Kingship of Jesus. This title goes much further than that in that Jesus is not just the King of the Jews, but the King of Kings and Lord of Lords whose rule and reign is over everything in heaven, on the earth and under the earth and is everlasting and. See the book of Revelation! One other practical note is that these valuable gifts help fund Mary and Joseph’s trip to Egypt to escape Herod’s death squad of boys 2 years and under in Bethlehem (see Jeremiah- again- chapter 31: 15) May you be blessed in the reading and sharing of the Scriptures!

  30. Francisco says

    The gift of the magi is not as present for a baby. it is not for the purpose of healing or whatsoever. The coming of Jesus is not of the material or physical issue but for spiritual. How could anyone think that Jesus needs medicine or is sick, that’s ridiculous.

    The gifts are in acknowledgement of what is to come, His Kingship, His priesthood and his death.

    These wise men from the east are called, it shows what is to come, That salvation is not limited to the Jews only but also for the Gentiles as the Magi are not Jews. It shows that those from afar will seek Him and will worship HIm. It shows that rulers will bow unto Him and will honor Him as the King of kings and the Lord of lords.

    Why is that so, because God plan it this way for His own glory.
    If it is not so, meaning everything is accidental.

  31. Reneer says

    Uh, they brought these gifts because they knew he was the KING. That’s it. No hidden reason, no stupid medical secrets. Lol
    Since Christ dies at the ripe old age of 33, I’d say he probably didn’t have arthritis, but more like several pains in his back from so many people trying to betray and stab him there.
    Arthritis. Lol.

  32. sandra says

    Gold represented a heart of gold, Faith. Frankincense represents healing. And Myrrh represents healing and was often used in ancient time to heal.

  33. Arnold says

    Something puzzles me, the wise men came from the east and saw a star in the east, yet they traveled west, obviously I gather, so wouldn’t they follow the star to the west? Who can explain this to me.

  34. Kevin says

    Arnold: It appears the star was visible at two different times; one being when they first saw it (then, in the East) then again as they were drawing closer to where Jesus resided. Personally, I think it was a comet going around the Sun. The comet ISON did such a thing and there was a gap of days between the trip toward the sun then nothing then the exit on the other side of the sun on the other side of the sky (namely, from SW to SE).

  35. Arnold says

    Kevin: That could probably explain it. Please don’t think I am doubting the bible but I do think that certain things are lost in the translations. There are more things in the bible that I wonder about. For instance: Jesus spoke to the multitude, seems difficult without amplification etc.

  36. walter says

    hello there,
    Have read in the Lost Book of Eden about gold, frankincense and myrrh that have been in a cave where Adam and Eve lived outside the garden of Eden. Hope might contribute to the discussion.
    Peace.

  37. Lourie says

    It is easy to see only symbolic meaning in everything that is ancient. We can only guess why these 3 particular things were chosen as gifts but there is no reason to deny medical benefits of all 3.
    Just do a research an you will find that Frankincense and Myrrh essential oils are beneficial for healing a lot more than just arthritis from cancer to depression and eczema and so on…. Even gold in colloidal or atomic form is used for different medical purposes from delivering cancer fighting agents to cells to building medical nano bots.

  38. Bonnie says

    When we give tithes we give our best…our first…symbolism of giving their best. The most costly of all things. Fit for a king…

  39. Sandra says

    I do believe the gifts represented something important BUT what really matters is not what these Wise men brought or how they got there. What matters is that they were watching and looking for the coming king! That is what made them wise. Are we watching and waiting for the coming king or are we too busy arguing about how and when he will come? Our job is to seek and worship him daily.
    Maybe we should spend some time figuring out what costly gifts we can bring to him in worship.
    He really just wants you to talk to him, not about him.
    Be blessed

  40. Mark says

    Beyond the symbolic and other possible meanings given above, there was another practical benefit. Someone mentioned that Joseph could have been well set since these were valuable items. Remember that immediately after this the family had to flee to Egypt for an extended time. God in His perfect plan had already made this provision…the financial toll would not devastate the family but afford them all that they needed.

  41. Lammie says

    Yes Mark…I agree. I also believe that the gifts funded Jesus ministy years later. When God calls us to do something He ALWAYS provides the means to do it. The wise men were extreemly wealthy so they could afford to give a fourtune to the Messiah. He was the King that they had been waiting for their whole lives. The Bible never says there were 3…there could have been many. I also believe that each gift is spiritually symbolic. The Lord is so creative and gives us ‘types & shadows’ throughout His Word. When we read it with an OPEN HEART…that is when it comes alive and we are blessed with living through the inter-twining layers of His love!

  42. Margs says

    I was given Frankincense from Yemen for Christmas this year!!! :) It has made me eager to read up on those gifts given by those wise men! Jesus’s arrival must have been incredible- angels worshiping God, the wise men celebrating the arrival of the forever King and the shepherds being in the thick of things as well. Why on earth did our creator God humble himself by “putting on flesh” to become a human and enter the mess we are in? In light of the prophecy (Isiah 60 and many others) and that He is our gracious God, all the praise and honor, frankincense, myrrh, gold and songs were right and fitting. A perfect way to celebrate this incredibly special person’s arrival! Have a blessed Christmas remembering a most remarkable event!!!

  43. BmoreWill says

    These gifts were more symbolic in nature, the represents Christ as the newborn king, the francincense symbolizes Christ a THE great Highpriest, and the myrrh represented the Annointed ONE. Gold is practically for providing provisions (food and so on), francincense for arthritis , the myrrh for embalming . These were WISE men or Magi who knew Jesus owns everything ,doesn’t get sick, and wouldn’t be expected to carry myrrh around for 33 years!

  44. Dell says

    The frakensense and myrh was part of the meat offering…the gold is wealth…ever notice how GOD always speaks of women children and cattle?…notice we have a thing called the Bull market…..investment’s… so familiar to today’s world…..Joseph means increase…..the name of Jesus earthly father….Joseph of armathea was a WEALTHY man…….and Joseph of Egypt interpreted Pharaoh’s dream of 7 cows…..I think the magi came in the month of may….remember ! All commodities come out of the Earth…..invest wisely in your studies’..then you shall see how to build your inheritance

  45. Olanma says

    Haha! I love reading comments about things like this. I am a Christian who believes in the Bible, I just want to get that out of the way. I would not be surprised if, apart from their deeper spiritual meanings, the gifts were presented to Jesus for practical reasons as well. Let us not forget that Jesus was human too, a child that could have had all the little ailments that infants usually have. The Magi could have also had the well-being of baby Jesus at heart as well as His purpose on earth. One problem I believe Christians have is that they fail to realize that the Bible can be very practical as it can be spiritual. The people in Bible times were also humans and it is very possible that Jesus was gifted with these things to honor him as well as to provide medicinal benefits.

  46. Cynthia says

    What Rhett said. Number 14. Don’t be foolish unbelievers.

  47. Dale says

    OK, how about this…..

    Symbolically Gold represents kingship. Christ was born to be a king.
    Symbolically Frankincense represented the divinity of Christ because as mentioned Frankincense was burnt as an offering to God. Frankincense is used as a perfume but mostly it was burned as a sweet incense during worship.
    Lastly, Myrrh was mostly used to embalm the dead because it had the property to preserve. Myrrh represents the bitter cup that Christ had to drink in suffering for our sins and the healing for us that his death brings.

    Thoughts…….

  48. Douglas says

    Being God, why would Jesus need a cure for arthritis?

  49. jacqui says

    These are and still remain our first earth medicine that God put here to heal us.their antiviral,antibiotics properties are matched by NONE. Clove and cinnamon bark are stronger than 500mg.of penicillin per 00 capsule. The antiviral properties in frankincense and sandalwood wards off flu,and spinalmenengitis. He did not leave us to play test dummy to the medical profession. What he left us was a legacy that can be trusted with his love not tested to see what side effects harm us. Add prayer to announcement over these oils and they increase in frequency by 20 percent.amazing how God provides for us.

Continuing the Discussion

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

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

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  14. Matthew 2 – The birth of Jesus and the death of Herod | Come Thou Count of Every Blessing linked to this post on April 3, 2014

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