In Matthew 2, magi from the east present the child Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Why did they give Jesus those particular gifts?
Here are three items. The first two items draw from Tim Widowfield’s post on Vridar, “Why Did Matthew’s Nativity Story Have References to Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh?” The third item is from my reading of the fifth-ninth century C.E. Christian work, “The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan.”
A. Matthew 2 could be alluding to Isaiah 60:6, which states: “The multitude of camels shall cover thee, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah; all they from Sheba shall come: they shall bring gold and incense; and they shall shew forth the praises of the LORD” (KJV).
Isaiah 60:6 is about what will occur after God glorifies Israel: Gentiles will bring Israel gold and incense. According to biblical scholar John Nolland, Matthew’s allusion to Isaiah 60:6 depicts “Israel being glorified in the person of the messiah by the wealth of the nations” (page 117 of Nolland’s 2005 book, The Gospel of Matthew).
There are various things to consider:
First, Isaiah 60:6 is part of Third Isaiah, which may not even have Messianism. At least I agree with biblical scholar Paul Hanson that it does not, for the idea of a Davidic king is absent from Third Isaiah. At the same time, Matthew most likely was unaware of the different ideologies within the Book of Isaiah. Matthew could have interpreted Isaiah 60:6 messianically, even if that was contrary to Third Isaiah’s ideology.
Second, were Midian, Ephah, and Sheba located east of Israel, which is where the magi were from? Sheba was probably located to the south of Israel. Midianites could have been located southeast of Israel, however, in southern Transjordan (Numbers 22; 25; 31; I Kings 11:18).
Third, were there magi in Midian? Well, the sorcerer Balaam in the Book of Numbers served the Midianites, who were mixed with the Moabites. Could Matthew 2 be positing a reversal of the Balaam story: magicians from the east are not trying to subvert Israel, as Balaam did, but are honoring her Messiah with gifts? Perhaps. Yet, the first century Jewish philosopher Philo praises magi who were in Persia (Special Laws 3.100-101; Every Good Man Is Free 74). Not surprisingly, many have maintained that the magi who visited Jesus (in real life, in the story, or in both) were from Persia.
B. Tim Widowfield’s post on Vridar draws from controversial scholar Margaret Barker’s book, Christmas, the Original Story. Barker maintains that the magi’s gifts relate to the anointing of the Messiah and the eschatological Temple. Myrrh was used for anointing. Frankincense was used in the worship at the Tabernacle (Exodus 30:34). Josephus in Antiquities 8:4 states that a lot of incense was burned when Solomon was consecrating his Temple. There were Jewish traditions about the Messiah building a new Temple, different from the inadequate and (according to some) corrupt Second Temple. Could the magi’s gifts relate to that?
C. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh feature prominently in “The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan.” They are present in Book I, Chapters 30-31, and Book II, Chapter 8, verses 17-19.
Adam and Eve are trying to adjust to their rough life after they have been exiled from the Garden of Eden. God gives them incense and myrrh from the Garden of Eden, and golden rods from the Indian sea, to comfort them.
Adam at first does not find these gifts too comforting. He thinks that they serve to remind him of the glory that he lost in Eden: that the gold symbolizes the Kingdom of God in the Garden, the incense recalls the bright light that was once a part of Adam’s nature, and the myrrh concerns Adam’s present sorrow.
God, however, tells Adam that these gifts are intended to comfort him, both symbolically and functionally. God says that kings will bring God these gifts when God comes in the flesh. The gold represents God’s kingdom. The incense represents Christ’s divinity. The myrrh is a token of Christ’s suffering and death, which will save humanity, including Adam.
The gifts also have a practical function. The gold is a sort of nightlight for Adam and Eve when they sleep in the cave at night. Adam and Eve are having difficulty becoming accustomed to the darkness of night, especially after leaving Eden, a place where there is no night. The incense provides a sweet smell, and the myrrh can comfort Adam and Eve in their sorrow. Adam and Eve place these gifts around their cave, which is their home, a place of prayer, and, eventually, a place of burial for the righteous.
Later, Adam on his deathbed is exhorting his righteous son, Seth. Adam instructs Seth to preserve the gold, incense, and myrrh, for they are a sign from God. They symbolize the same things that God told Adam earlier, but Adam also presents an alternative symbolism: the gold symbolizes Christ’s defeat of Satan; the incense symbolizes Christ’s resurrection and exaltation above all things; and the myrrh symbolizes the bitter gall that Christ will drink as well as the torment that Christ will suffer in hell from Satan.
Adam says that the gifts are to be taken aboard the Ark during the Flood, along with Adam’s corpse, and they are to be buried with Adam. A long time afterwards, Israel will be conquered and spoiled, and these gifts will be taken to another land. These gifts will last for centuries, until kings will bring them to the Christ child. The idea seems to be that this gold, incense, and myrrh end up in Persia after Israel is exiled, and the Persian magi later bring them to the child Jesus.
How do these items symbolize what they symbolize? Gold probably had royal associations, so that could be why it symbolized God’s kingdom. Incense may have symbolized Christ’s divinity in the sense that incense is sweet, and Christ’s divinity sweetened his humanity. It may have symbolized Christ’s resurrection because the sweet smell of incense rises, as Christ rose to heaven. Christ, according to many Christians, was a sweet offering to God: Christ righteously obeyed God and pleased God in so doing, and Christ’s sacrifice was an atonement for sinners that God accepted. The myrrh may have symbolized Christ’s passion because of its bitter taste; at the same time, Christ on the cross refused to drink wine mingled with myrrh, which could have alleviated his pain (Mark 15:23). Perhaps the myrrh in “The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan” recalled that scene at the passion.
Merry Christmas, for those who celebrate it. For those who do not, have a good day.