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?


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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  • Leonilo says

    It is hard for me to agree that gold #metal has relation to both frankincense and myrrh since these two were both herbal in nature I therefore think that is not really a metal gold but just in nature gold in color and also herbal in nature.

  • Jessica says

    I like Rich’s theory!!!

  • Cedilla says

    ok well people need to look up what essential oils are all about before commenting!
    FRANKINCENSE: Rejuvenates skin – the skin on a new born is often dry because it’s body is not in the amniotic fluid in the womb. Also helps with healing the umbilical cord and diaper rash. It is also known to support healthy cellular function. And Frankincense also promotes feelings of peace, relaxation, satisfaction and overall wellness… sounds like something a newborn needs?
    MYRRH: Cleansing properties – Mouth and throat and used in toothpaste. Babies will often have thrush on their tongues and throat. Mixed with honey or agave it will ease the stomach. And helps promote awareness and lift your mood… sounds like something a baby needs?
    GOLD: (Colloidal Gold?) Stimulating the life force and raising the level of vibration on all levels, healing capabilities for the heart and improve blood circulation… again something a baby needs!
    These are also daily needs and help through colds and disease and most of all daily child care. I use many essential oils for my children and for the whole family. And remember, these gifts were just as useful to Jesus as they were to Mary.
    These three Kings gave them what they probably couldn’t afford to care for their child Jesus. What a great gift!

  • Geoff says

    Al comments in post #8:
    “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.”

    Leaving aside the question of whether Joseph was actually a carpenter [the Greek “tecton” (Mark) or “tekton” (Mathew) is a common term for an artisan/craftsman, in particular a carpenter or wood-worker or builder], as the value of the three gifts was no doubt considerable (fit for a King?) there is a good chance there was plenty left over after the family holiday in Egypt.
    On their return, Joseph and Mary would have been the most wealthy residents of Nazareth, and able to give Jesus a very comfortable childhood.
    Incidentally, despite Al’s concern for Joseph and Mary’s traveling expenses; nobody else in the Bible, from Abram-Abraham.to Paul, seems to have had such a problem as they traveled between “the four corners of the earth.”

    Alternatively, there is a chance that this didn’t actually happen.
    The birth narrative only appears in the Gospel of Matthew (one out of four) and, importantly, not in Mark; which most scholars now regard it as the earliest (hence, the most credible?) of the gospels

    Or, given that there are always three possibilities (“Yum, Yuk and Yikes”- Tom Robbins, 1980), maybe Joe and Mary, assuming they found a responsible baby-sitter, blew all the dough on partying hard in nightclubs of Egypt?

  • Henry says

    I came across your article and website in a search for information on gold, frankensence and myrrh. I was dismayed at your opening comment. It defies credulity. Why would cures for arthritis be given as tokens or gifts to a infant? had not Jesus robust and excellent health? Sadly your nonsense introduction negates all confidence in what the rest of the article might say. I read no further.
    Henry Cooper

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