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 2011.—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?

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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

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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  • Douglas says

    Both Frankincense (Ru Xiang) and Myrrh (Mo Yao) are used Chinese medicine as “Blood invigorating and Stasis removing herbs”.
    Both activate blood circulation and relieve pain.
    I believe that Jesus was given the gift of healing.

  • Abel says

    1.Frankincense is still used in Indian Villages – when Frankincense is powdered and put in firewood the smoke thus produced has a property of healing the baby from infection produce by cold.This is aways done after bathing.
    2.Frankincense smoke also used in Cows shed for the same -to eliminate infection caused by moisture.
    3.It is also used in temples (as smoke) to the idols.Idols are kept inside a place where sunlight is often absent. Again moisture and fungus play role.
    In all of the three uses the most common use is to remove fungus caused by the moisture.
    All three I have seen by my own eyes.I hope this info is useful for somebody.

  • david allen says

    they were not magi, they were “magistrates” ‘from babylon’, and the descendents of the disciples of Daniel; bringing the booty given to Daniel by the leaders of babylon & medo-persia that the prophet determined was for Messiah’s arrival; trip to Egypt, and maybe even his execution for er see it predicted in Dan ch 9 vs 25&26. that is why;
    for your enlightenment, education and edification >
    https://independent.academia.edu/SouthDavidAllen
    all the best to you and yours

  • David says

    I hope someone didn’t get paid for this drivel.

  • Joseph says

    John (12-16-14 ) is right. God bless him. I do the same. Al (01-06-15) is obviously a very intelligent man. I did a paper in college on the birth and death of Jesus. Much of what Al stated is true. I would seem to me that the gifts were given as gifts to a King, a Priest, and a prophet ( they were usually murdered) so death is evident in its symbolism. Great article. And I don’t think Jesus had arthritis…ever. God bless everyone.

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