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; if so, see http://jokes.cc.com/funny-god/9xm00l/cathy-ladman–gold–frankincense-and-myrrh). 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?
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)
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!
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