Bas Krins
Being a Biblically faithful Christian today.

Gold, frankincense and myrrh – a suitable maternity gift?

In the Gospel of Matthew we read the following about the gifts of the wise men (magicians) to Jesus: “They entered the house and found the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves to do it honors. Then they opened their chests of treasure and presented the child with gifts: gold and frankincense and myrrh” (Mt. 2:11). Many have wondered why the gift consisted of these three valuables. Is this a suitable maternity gift? It is often thought that these were simply gifts of great value. And all three gifts were undoubtedly expensive. But it remains difficult to understand why the wise men did not simply give gold alone. Or is the meaning of the three gifts symbolic? We will see that the answer may be much simpler than it may initially seem.
Gold has always been a very precious material. We quickly think of Solomon, who brought enormous quantities from Ophir in Arabia to Israel. And in that respect, there is little discussion about the answer to the question of why the wise men took gold with them. It was actually a princely amount of money that they gave. More discussion yields the other two gifts: frankincense and myrrh.
Olibanum (frankincense) is extracted from a Boswelia tree. A tree that is at least 8 to 10 years old is cut. Where the bark has been removed, the resin forms as small droplets, which then harden into crystals. These crystals are scraped from the tree and collected. In ancient times, this material was produced in South Arabia, and it created great prosperity there. It was also produced in North Africa.
Myrrh is a similar product to frankincense. It is extracted from the Commiphora. The material is waxy as it flows from the tree and then hardens. Production took place in the area covering Yemen, Somalia, Eritrea and eastern Ethiopia.
Frankincense was used as a fragrance in the sacrificial service (Ex. 30:34, Lev. 2:1-16; 6:15; 24:7; 1 Chron. 9:29; Neh. 13:5,9; Isa. 43: 23; 66:3; Jer. 6:20; 17:26; 41:5). The smell is sweet. It was sometimes used with myrrh as perfume (Songs 3:6; 4:6,14). Frankincense was very expensive and a popular commodity (Isa. 60:6; Rev. 18:13).
Myrrh was also traded as a valuable product (Gen. 37:25; Ex. 30:23). Myrrh was used in the sanctuary (Ex. 30:23). The smell is bitter. In addition, myrrh was used as perfume (Est. 2:12; Ps. 45:9; Prov. 7:17; Song 1:13; 5:1,5,13 Isa. 3:20,). Wine with myrrh was an anesthetic (Mark 15:23). It was also used in the embalming of corpses (John 19:39). The Egyptians used it to embalm mummies.
But were the wise men from the East completely wise when they brought with them not only gold but also frankincense and myrrh?
Various theologians have seen a symbolic meaning in this. Gold is then the symbol of Christ and His glory. In the Holy of Holies everything was made of gold and in the Revelation to John heaven is also described as a golden city. Incense represents the fact that Christ's life is one great sacrifice for God. Myrrh is then an image for suffering and a reference to His burial. We already encounter this explanation in Origen ('Contra Celsum', written in 248): “gold, as for a king; myrrh, as to one who is mortal; and frankincense, as to God.” However, it is a sought-after explanation that was also known to Calvin. He rejected this explanation. According to him, the wise men simply brought the best they had.
If the meaning is symbolic, how did the sages come up with the idea of ​​bringing these gifts? Although they set out because of the birth of a king, they could not possibly have suspected that this child was a Son of God and would suffer and die for our sins. It is entirely possible that God prompted the wise men to bring gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But the text of Matthew does not show this, and there may be a much simpler explanation.
In ancient times, both frankincense and myrrh were used as perfume, fragrance, but also as medicine. Ingestion is done by chewing it like gum. When taken, myrrh provides a pain reduction that is even greater than morphine, and a fever-suppressing effect comparable to aspirin. It also promotes blood clotting and myrrh reduces blood loss after childbirth. The effect of frankincense is also antiseptic and antipyretic. Today we know that it also has a psychological effect comparable to Valium and Prozac, but it is not clear whether this was also known in ancient times. In ancient times, frankincense was used in combination with myrrh for many ailments, including after childbirth. It was believed that the combination with myrrh enhanced the effect.
So it is quite possible that the wise men not only took with them a very valuable gift, but also a very appropriate one. In addition to gold, expensive medicines for Maria. No doubt too expensive for the common people. It is striking in Matthew's description that in this pericope the child and Mary are mentioned, but not Joseph. That would undoubtedly have been there too. This may be an indication that the gifts were indeed intended for Jesus and Mary. In short, it is entirely possible that the sages not only brought a gift for the child, but also the best that their culture had to offer for the mother.


Bas Krins