Gold, frankincense, and myrrh were the richest of gifts that could be offered to a newborn king, but their significance lies not so much in their religious symbolism, nor in the fabulous wealth they represented. Instead the gifts themselves are clues to the identity of the wise men…

mystery of the magiIn a recent, good-natured Christmas grumble in these pages, I moaned that the much-loved Christmas carol, “We Three Kings of Orient Are” was bogus. In other words it’s more like “We Three Kings of Orient Aren’t.”

I suppose you can take the boy out of fundamentalism but you can’t take fundamentalism out of the boy. What I mean is that I still respect and believe the Bible. I think it’s based in history not mystery, and the fact of the matter is Saint Matthew never says there were only three wise men, and he doesn’t say they were kings, and he doesn’t even say they went on a long trek across the desert on camels following a mystical magical star.

All that came later as the story was embroidered, and preachers theologized and added preaching points to the tale. The favorite preaching point about the gifts is their mystical meaning. The preacher will tell us that gold stands for the Christ child’s kingly status, frankincense for his divinity, and myrrh for the anointing at his sacrificial death. That is all well and good, but again, there is nothing about it in Matthew’s gospel.

Instead, as I was researching Mystery of the Magi, it became clear that the real significance of the three gifts is not their theological symbolism, but their provenance. The gifts confirmed my theory that the wise men were magi from the court of the Nabatean king Aretas IV.

The Nabateans controlled the Arabian peninsula and therefore the vital trade routes from Yemen in the East to the port of Gaza, and from Egypt in the South to Syria, Asia Minor and East to Persia. Their capital, Petra, was at the crossroads of these two lucrative trading routes. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh were not only the Nabatean’s cash crops, but they were also representative diplomatic gifts.

The gold mines of Arabia and East Africa were famous in ancient times, and gold is still mined in Saudi Arabia today. In the Nabatean region of Northwest Arabia (also called “Hejaz”) is the ancient, incredibly wealthy gold mine called the Mahd adh Dhahab, or “Cradle of Gold.” Archeologists have discovered at the site “huge quantities of waste rock… left by the ancient miners, still containing traces of gold. Thousands of stone hammers and grindstones used to extract the gold from the ore litter the mine slopes.”

The value of gold is timeless, but the precious quality of the wise men’s other two gifts is not immediately obvious to people of the twenty-first century. To understand the immense value of frankincense, one needs to grasp the universal practice of religion in the ancient world.

Everyone was not only a believer in the supernatural realm, but virtually everyone practiced his religion. Part of their religious duty was to burn incense in the temples of their gods and goddesses. The first mention of the use of incense in worship is in Egyptian texts from the third millennium BC. Its use spread to Mesopotamia, and by Roman times, in pagan temples across the empire, incense was offered to the gods daily.  Historian Jane Taylor observes, “The growth of Rome had ushered in a period of almost obsessive incense burning.  Besides its uses in medicine and worship, no Roman funeral was complete without vast quantities of frankincense whose fragrant smoke was thought put in a good word to the goods for the welfare of the departed.”

Like frankincense, myrrh was made from a gum resin, dried and compressed and burnt to produce an aromatic smoke. In addition to the fragrant smoke it was also used as a rich perfume. Myrrh was also used to treat conditions ranging from battle wounds to skin inflammations. Jesus was offered wine mingled with myrrh as a pain killer at the crucifixion.

The frankincense was tapped from trees that only grew in Southern Arabia and limited areas of East Africa. The myrrh came from a wider area in Southern Arabia, but both frankincense and myrrh could only be harvested once a year. The production was labor-intensive and the yield small. Nevertheless, the quantities of frankincense and myrrh the Arabians produced were huge.

Gold, frankincense, and myrrh were, without a doubt, the richest of gifts that could be offered to a newborn king, but their significance lies not so much in their religious symbolism, nor in the fabulous wealth they represented. Instead the gifts themselves are clues to the identity of the wise men.

Throughout the ancient Middle East, gifts were given and received as diplomatic gestures. Josephus records how, when Herod completed building the city of Caesarea Maritima in 9 BC, envoys from many nations came to Palestine with gifts. The gifts would not simply be luxurious, they would also represent the finest produce from the country of origin.

Likewise, when a military leader conquered a country, the neighboring rulers would approach him to offer gifts of tribute, hoping that he would not invade their territory and impose heavy taxes. The expert on Persia, Pierre Briant, records the gifts made to King Cambyses after his successful invasion of North Africa: “The Colchians and Ethiopians sent a hundred boys and a hundred girls as slaves. The Ethiopians brought “two quarts of unrefined gold, two hundred logs of ebony, and twenty elephant tusks. The Arabians brought a thousand talents of frankincense.”

When the psalmist writes, “Kings of Tarshish and the isles shall bring him tribute, The kings of Saba shall offer gifts,” the Jews would have understood these royal treasures as offerings acknowledging heir allegiance to the king. Furthermore, not only were tribute gifts given to conquering kings, but it was customary for neighboring monarchs to offer gifts at the birth of a future king.

In 6 BC, the political situation between the Nabatean King Aretas IV and Herod the Great was exactly what you would expect for tribute gifts to be made. Aretas’ claim to the throne was shaky. Herod had just worked with the lawyers in Aretas’ court to persuade the emperor Augustus that a joint enemy of Aretas and Herod was a scoundrel. Aretas had already sent tribute gifts to Caesar, and only grudgingly had Caesar Augustus finally accepted the gifts and given his approval to Aretas IV’s claim to the Nabatean throne. If Aretas sent sweeteners to Caesar, it makes sense that he would do the same for Herod when the proper opportunity arose.

Furthermore, Augustus had returned the crucial port of Gaza to Herod, so it was vital for Aretas IV to remain in Herod’s good graces in order to get his goods across Judean territory to the port. When the wise men of his court announced that they had discerned from the stars that a new King of the Jews was to be born, Aretas IV would have had every motive to send envoys to Herod’s court in Jerusalem to present gifts that were not only rich and regal, but also representative of the wealth and power of Aretas’ Nabatean kingdom.

So while it makes a good preaching point that the gold, frankincense and myrrh stood for Christ’s kingship, divinity and sacrificial death, the true significance of the gifts is that they support the thesis that the wise men were Nabatean sages from the court of Aretas IV on a diplomatic mission to Judea.

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