2015-12-25

Why Did Matthew’s Nativity Story Have References to Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh?

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by Tim Widowfield

Whenever I hear the word “myrrh,” I can’t help but remember a comedy bit by Cathy Ladman (note: you may not be able to view that video in your region). She tells us:

My best friend is Lutheran and she told me when Jesus was born, the Three Wise Men visited him and they brought as gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Myrrh? To a baby shower?

So in my head, “myrrh” is always pronounced with a New York/Brooklyn accent.

But seriously, why did those mysterious men from the East bring those three particular gifts to Bethlehem?

St. Albans Psalter, The Three Magi following t...

St. Albans Psalter, The Three Magi following the star (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Gifts fit for a king of kings

In general, modern scholars have explained Matthew’s choice of the three gifts as simply items fit for a VIP. We shouldn’t worry too much, they argue, over their specificity. For example, in his commentary on Matthew, John Nolland says:

No particular symbolism should be attributed to the individual items making up the present from the Magi: as expensive luxury items the gifts befit the dignity of the role for which this child is born. An allusion to Is. 60:6 is possible: Israel being glorified in the person of the messiah by the wealth of the nations. (Nolland, 2005, p. 117)

According to this view, Matthew intended no deeper meaning. And yet we still have that nagging suspicion that something more is going on here. After all, as Nolland himself notes more than a thousand pages later, Mark wrote that Jesus, while hanging on the cross, had refused wine mixed with myrrh. But Matthew changes the story so that the wine contains gall instead of myrrh, and rather than simply refusing it, Jesus tastes the mixture before turning it down. Did Matthew consciously move the myrrh from Jesus’ death scene to his nativity?

Myrrh oil for anointing

Margaret Barker, in Christmas, The Original Story, reminds us that myrrh was originally a vital component in the oil of the temple, however:

The myrrh oil, kept in the holy of holies for anointing kings and high priests, had been hidden away in the time of Josiah, during the great changes in the temple. This too had to be restored for there to be an anointed one, a Messiah. No high priest of the second temple was anointed; the description of Joshua being made high priest in the second temple mentions only his vestments, but not his anointing (Zech. 3.1–5). (Barker, 2011, p. 28)

If Barker is correct, the three gifts of the Magi are closely related as integral components of Temple ritual. The vessels were made of gold; the sacred incense contained frankincense; and the holy oil of anointing contained myrrh.

Frankincense to invoke the presence of YHWH

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Take for yourself spices, stacte and onycha and galbanum, spices with pure frankincense; there shall be an equal part of each. (Exodus 30:34, NASB)

God warns in the previous verse that anyone caught making this mixture of spices with frankincense and putting it on anyone other than a priest must be “cut off from the people.” It was a special blend, and its use coincided with the invocation of God’s presence. In a footnote, Barker tells us that:

When Solomon consecrated the temple, a huge amount of incense was burned. ‘It was the sign of the presence of God … and of his dwelling with them in this newly built and consecrated place.’ [Josephus, Antiquities 8.4.] (Barker, 2011, p. 96)

Hence, for Barker, Matthew’s story of the Magi’s gifts reminds of three vital items related to the duties of the high priest. Here we recall the symbolism from the book of Hebrews in which Jesus is referred to more than once as a “priest forever.” For example, in chapter 5:

5. So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”;

6. as he says also in another place [Psalm 110:4], “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.” (ESV)

Temple restoration

If the gifts refer to the Temple, then they are bound up in the lore surrounding the restoration of the Temple.

Popular belief was that the second temple was temporary, destined to be replaced with a permanent temple to which the converted Gentiles would come. The temporary temple, the corrupted priesthood and the long exile were all part of the same problem.

The new temple would be built by the Messiah, or in the time of the Messiah. Memories persisted in the Jewish community well into the Christian era that the restored temple would be furnished with all that had been missing from the second temple: the fire, the ark, the menorah, the spirit and the cherubim. In John’s vision of heaven, he saw the original temple restored: the ark (Rev. 11.19), the seven-branched menorah (Rev. 1.12), the sevenfold spirit (Rev. 4.5) and the cherubim, the living creatures around the heavenly throne (Rev. 4.6). (Barker, 2011, p. 28)

Further, if the gospels were written directly after the Temple’s destruction, and I think they were, then we have to wonder how that event affected the evangelists. It meant they had to address the corruption of the second temple and how their Jesus predicted its demise. It also meant that Christians believed they were living in an interim period — after the destruction of the tainted, temporary temple and before the return of the Messiah who would create a new one “made without hands.”

These are just some things to think about as you celebrate (or don’t celebrate) Christmas this year. Have a safe and happy holiday season, everybody!

22 Comments

  • Reader
    2015-12-25 02:16:53 UTC - 02:16 | Permalink

    Hi Neil and Tim,
    A Merry Christmas to you guys and your families and all the best for the new year!

    • Tim Widowfield
      2015-12-25 17:35:20 UTC - 17:35 | Permalink

      Thanks, Reader!

  • Kelly Wellington
    2015-12-25 02:55:12 UTC - 02:55 | Permalink

    The question I have had about that scene is not about the gifts, but those presenting them. Specifically, why it was that the author of Matthew had made the ‘magi’, ‘from the east’, ‘following a star’, which I had interpreted as being Zoroastrian priests, as the first to acknowledge the divinity of the main character. I found it curious.

    I think Barker’s points about the nature of the gifts travels rather well with the presenters. Who else might have had truer access to such remarkable gifts than representatives of those who had freed and returned the exiled, sponsored the temporary temple, and garnered the attribute of having been the people of the Lord’s prior messiah….Cyrus?

    • Neil Godfrey
      2015-12-25 09:20:03 UTC - 09:20 | Permalink

      The answer to your question that has appealed to me is that Matthew was weaving gentile allusions for theological reasons into the early part of the gospel narrative. We have Christ coming from Egypt; the genealogy mentions a Moabite and a wife of a Hittite. Then the visitors “from the east” — as per Isaiah’s prophecy. This is the beginning of the gospel for all nations, Matthew appears to be saying.

      The author of the Gospel According To Luke appears to have disapproved of Matthew’s take and rewrote the introduction to exclude all reference to gentiles at the beginning of the gospel. Luke structured the narrative so that Jesus was the product of Israel alone, and the ceremonies at the Temple (dedication and circumcision) and gentiles are not introduced until the second volume of the work, Acts.

      Most scholars, I should add, embrace the Q hypothesis and do not think “Luke” knew “Matthew”, so this is a minority view, I believe. I also side with those scholars who believe there were two stages of the Gospel of Luke. There was an ur-Luke, a prototype, that was much later (second century) rewritten by the same person who wrote Acts. (See my Tyson archive for details if interested.)

      • Luke Burrage
        2015-12-25 11:43:47 UTC - 11:43 | Permalink

        Also I think Luke wanted to write out all references to Egypt so people wouldn’t confuse Jesus with the Egyptian Prophet, something he also addresses in Acts.

    • Tim Widowfield
      2015-12-25 19:20:37 UTC - 19:20 | Permalink

      Kelly, I’ve also thought that Matthew intended us to think of them as Persians, and probably Zoroastrians. But more specifically, the story seemed to me to be a fusion of one story about astrological portents and another about an actual visible marker in the sky. Recall as well that a comet was supposed to have appeared when Mithridates of Pontus was born. According to one source the comet burned for 70 days — so intensely that the whole sky seemed to be on fire.

      Barker, on the other hand, thinks the Magi came from closer by, maybe Petra, and that they may have Essenes. Oddly enough, the Qumran version of Micah 5:2 says the messiah will not come from Bethlehem. So, according to this theory, they received the prophecy (somehow), but were confused by their version of Micah. So, they traveled to Jerusalem to ask the scribes what their version looked like. “Hey, where do you guys think the messiah will be born?”

  • 2015-12-25 12:01:27 UTC - 12:01 | Permalink

    Hello Tim:

    Your article raises several interesting points to ponder.

    In my book, The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry (pp. 242-243), I examined in greater detail one point that you astutely raised: Matthew’s choice of the three gifts as simply items fit for a VIP.” The question that this detail raises is, how much money was involved with the myrrh brought to the infant? Unfortunately, Matthew does not provide any information about the quantity or quality of the myrrh. Nonetheless, there exists sufficient data to make some rough estimates. John 12:5 reports that 300 denarii is equal to a year’s wages. Therefore, one denarius is almost the equivalent of a day’s wage, 365 days in a year.

    Calculations by Malina and Rohrbaugh (Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John; 2003, 383) report: “Two denarii (see Luke 10:30–35) would provide 3,000 calories for 5–7 days or 1,800 calories for 9 to 12 days for a family with the equivalent of four adults. Two denarii would provide 24 days of bread ration for a poor indigent. This calculation is for food only; it does not take into account other needs such as clothing, taxation, religious dues, and so on.”

    From my text (p. 243):

    Nigel Groom of the British Museum authored “Trade, Incense and Perfume” (pp. 88-101) in the text Queen of Sheba: Treasures from Ancient Yemen. His research based on the writing in Pliny’s Natural History (12.51–70) attempted to determine the value of spices in the Mediterranean between 40 and 70 CE. Pliny wrote that when the incense finally arrived in Rome from the southern Arabian Peninsula, “Roman citizens paid 6 denarii a pound for top quality frankincense, more than most of them could earn in a fortnight [[two weeks or 14 days]], while a pound of myrrh, of which there were many varieties, cost the perfumiers and apothecaries between 11 and 16 denarii.” (p. 91)

    If the Magi brought with them “just” ten pounds of myrrh, its value would approximate 110 to 160 denarii. Of course, they could have brought more than “just” ten pounds.

    Finally:

    Assuming that John was aware of the tradition of the wise men bringing gifts to the young Jesus, verse 39 may have been written as a literary device, an illusion creating the form of a literary bookend. Or as Goulder [JSHJ 3(2) 2005, 192] offers, “Matthew invented the gold, myrrh and frankincense in Matthew 2 on the basis of this chapter.”

    Sincerely,

    Michael Alter [michaeljalter.wordpress.com]

    • Tim Widowfield
      2015-12-25 19:29:22 UTC - 19:29 | Permalink

      I’m reminded of John’s gospel (19:35), which says that Jesus was buried with 75 lbs. of myrrh and aloe. In other words, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus must have shoveled the stuff in until it they were up to their elbows.

      For the evangelists, I don’t think amounts and values are the point here. It’s the substances themselves and what they refer back to.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2015-12-25 20:12:53 UTC - 20:12 | Permalink

      Such an approach brings us back to the question of genre and functions of the text itself. Given that the author does not provide any details concerning the amounts of each gift, one can argue that the author had no interest in conveying the idea of the superabundant value of the gifts. On the other hand, there is evidence (that Tim points to) that the author was interested in the symbolic meaning of the gifts.

      • 2015-12-25 21:55:51 UTC - 21:55 | Permalink

        Hello Neil (and Tim):

        I definitely share your opinion that “the author was interested in the symbolic meaning of the gifts.” Possible solutions to the meaning of the gifts are only limited by the human imagination. Tim provided a few examples. Additional examples, culled from the “beloved” Internet include the following.

        Its first mention in the Bible would suggest that the definitive use for myrrh was in the holy anointing oil. The priests were to be “anointed” with a special oil, the main ingredient of which was myrrh. This type of special ritualistic anointing was also applicable to kings and prophets
        (1 Samuel 10:1; 16:13; Psalm 89:20). God told Elijah: “Elisha … shalt thou anoint to be prophet” (1 Kings 19:16). [http://www.chrysaliscafe.com/2007/12/symbolism-of-gifts-of-magi.html]

        Moses used the holy myrrh oil to anoint Aaron a high priest. The high priest used the myrrh oil to anoint priests as well as kings like Solomon (1 Kgs. 1:39). The names Messiah (Hebrew) and Christ (Greek) mean anointed one. [http://sviewp.com/RC-Sup-2%20Gifts.html]
        Together, the three types of gifts represent three roles of Jesus the Messiah: His kingly office is represented by gold, His divinity by frankincense, and His manhood by myrrh. “They offered him incense as their God; gold as their king; and myrrh, as united to a human body, subject to suffering and death.” [Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh A Sermon by Dr. Neil Chadwick]

        According to an ancient legend, this choice of gifts was to ascertain whether the mysterious stranger that they were going to worship was a king or a prophet or God Himself. If he were a king, he would select gold ‘ he he were a poor man, he would choose the myrrh ; but if God, He would take the incense. As both God and man, the King of kings veiled in humanity, He accepted from them all three of their gifts. [The History, Principles and Practice of Symbolism in Christian Art. By Frederick Edward Hulm. 1892. P. 163]

        Conjectures, guesses, speculations, suppositions… Does anyone actually know the correct numbers for Florida’s next lottery?

        • Tim Widowfield
          2015-12-25 22:22:51 UTC - 22:22 | Permalink

          Michael: “Together, the three types of gifts represent three roles of Jesus the Messiah: His kingly office is represented by gold, His divinity by frankincense, and His manhood by myrrh.”

          Barker says that’s what Marco Polo tells us the Persians (or was it the Arabs?) claimed the gifts meant. However, she rejects “divinity” as a possible meaning Matthew could have had in mind.

          I do think it’s interesting that myrrh shows up at the birth, death, or burial of Jesus, depending on which gospel you read.

  • 2015-12-25 18:10:01 UTC - 18:10 | Permalink

    Myrrh , frankincense and gold sounds like Egyptian embalming fluid .

  • David Ashton
    2015-12-25 19:31:29 UTC - 19:31 | Permalink

    Zoroastrian expectation is a major key to the Matthean narrative.

  • stuart
    2015-12-25 21:12:31 UTC - 21:12 | Permalink

    is the book of sirach signed and dated?

    does it definitely pre-date the gospels?

    • Tim Widowfield
      2015-12-25 21:39:45 UTC - 21:39 | Permalink

      Are you asking me?

    • 2015-12-25 22:35:54 UTC - 22:35 | Permalink

      Do you mean the book of “Wisdom of Jesus son of Sirach “? It was all written during Greco -Roman times . Gospels are later production , they contain passages from ” Sirach ” .

    • Bee
      2015-12-26 22:48:00 UTC - 22:48 | Permalink

      Like all biblical and apocryphal books, its dates are in question. My position however is that it contains at least some material, independently confirmable historical references, that reflect the period around say 290 to 90 BCE.

  • Bee
    2015-12-26 17:55:54 UTC - 17:55 | Permalink

    Basically we are seeing the Bible wanting to hint that Jesus was a full, properly anointed priest, or even savior. But since this was controversial among Jews, and the timing and so forth remained controversial to Christians, the Bible often didn’t make any such claims directly.

    But it coukd make symbolic hints. It could sat, show non Jews, Magi, performing acts associated with say, a king’s typical annointing/initiation ceremonies.

    As formalism and Anthropology often told us, much of the Bible is concerned with following ancient ritual forms. In order to assure us that Jesus was properly installed, as a conventional and possibly exceptionally high authority. Though exactly which authority, and when, was left somewhat variable. The Bible seeking to avoid committing or cornering itself, in still undetermined positions, as to the final status of Jesus.

  • 2015-12-26 21:28:35 UTC - 21:28 | Permalink

    The figure of Jesus from the book of gospels is based on Philo’s theory “word made flesh ” ( Philo “On Confusion of Tongues”; 146) and ” … the image of God is Word …” (Philo ” The Special Laws I “; 81) . This wasn’t ever controversial for Jews – they invented it , as well as they had acknowledged Jesus the Nazarine being a rabbinic teacher in Talmud ; Abodah Zarah , 17a .

    • Bee
      2015-12-26 22:54:44 UTC - 22:54 | Permalink

      Undoubtedly. But specifically the anointing and so forth were also consistent with many ANE or Ancient Near East initiation or monarch installation rituals. Probably Von Rad or Tom Thompson mention this somewhere.

  • 2015-12-28 04:32:41 UTC - 04:32 | Permalink

    That’s true , Bee , anointing rituals ( as well as circumcision , which is off this topic ) are ancient Egyptian practices – probably the oldest among nations of antiquity .

  • Greg G.
    2016-01-03 00:40:20 UTC - 00:40 | Permalink

    Exodus 30:1-5 commands the use of gold as an overlay for the incense altar. Exodus 30:23-25 is the recipe for using myrrh to make holy anointing oil. Exodus 30:34-38 is the recipe for using frankincense to make the holy incense.

    However, I think Matthew was looking at Antiquities of the Jews 3, which describes the priestly practices. Gold is mentioned repeatedly in sections 6 and 7. The use of frankincense is described in section 6 while the use of myrrh is described in section 8. Josephus mentions them in the same order that Matthew lists them.

    Matthew seems to have used Antiquities of the Jews 2 chapter 9, sections 2, 3, and 4 for the slaughter of the innocents, the pregnant wife, and the dreams (the dream by the father is not in Exodus). He seems to have used Antiquities of the Jews 17.2.4 for examples of Herod being provoked to murder by prophecies and of wise men with foreknowledge.

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