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.
 


 
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?

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


 
This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in December 2011.
 


 

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

Witnessing the Divine: The magi in art and literature by Robin M. Jensen

Christmas Stories in Christian Apocrypha by Tony Burke

Bible Scholar Brent Landau Asks “Who Were the Magi”?

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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  • Christine says

    In the extrabiblical text of Adam and Eve, when they were expelled from the Garden and were wrought with grief, says God allowed them to take three things from the garden, gold, frankincense and myrrh. These three gifts were passed down to David who then instructed his children on the stars and what to look for when the Messiah was to come and bring the gifts to him as a sign of God’s promise. The gold, frankincense and myrrh were from the garden.

    • Joshua says

      Wow…if I wanted to do more research on this subject where would I start? Thanks.

  • Rose says

    Thank you for speaking the truth about who the so called wise men really we’re!
    After learning who the child was the astrolergers did not return to tell the bad king.
    The child being the long awaited Messiah.

  • deleWeye says

    Somehow it seems unlikely the Magi would have brought an arthritis remedy to an infant or toddler. While that may have been one of its uses, I doubt it was the primary reason.

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