No doubt you have heard the old preaching points that the magi’s gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh represented Jesus identity: gold for kingship, incense for his divinity and myrrh as a pointer to his death. Well, ok. But these are symbolic meanings added by preachers after the event. There is nothing wrong with that necessarily, but it wouldn’t be right to read those symbols back into the story.
In researching my book The Mystery of the Magi-The Quest to Identify the Three Wise Men I uncovered a wealth of fascinating information about the gifts the wise men brought to Jesus. First of all, these were diplomatic gifts. Records show that bringing rich gifts on diplomatic visits to a neighboring kingdom was the custom all across the ancient Middle East. These were tribute gifts–showing submission to a greater ruler.
Especially valuable were the gifts of incense, spices and gold. This is referenced in the two great prophecies of the magi visit in the Old Testament–Isaiah 60 and Psalm 72:
Herds of camels will cover your land,
young camels of Midian and Ephah.
May the kings of Tarshish and of distant shores
bring tribute to him.
May the kings of Sheba and Seba
present him gifts. Long may he live!
May gold from Sheba be given him
11 May all kings bow down to him
and all nations serve him.And all from Sheba will come,
bearing gold and incense
and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.
Furthermore, the rich gifts were typically representative of the countries from which they were given. So Arabians would offer camels, Africans are recorded as making gifts of ebony, elephants and ivory.
With this in mind, we can see that the true significance of the gifts is that they tell us where the magi came from. They were not from Persia as most people suggest. I explain why in my book, but one of the pieces of evidence are the gifts themselves.
Gold, frankincense and myrrh were cash crops of the Nabateans who were the occupying power of what is now Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Have you ever heard of King Solomon’s Mines? These were the gold mines in western Arabia–the remains of which have been excavated by archeologists within the last couple of decades. The gold from these mines–and mines in Northeast Africa-(the area of Sheba)-was considered to be the finest and purest in the ancient world. Thus gold was one of the representative gifts from the Nabatean kingdom in Arabia.
Frankincense was made from the gum from the sap from bushes that only grew in eastern Arabia. Huge farms existed there for the lucrative incense trade in the ancient world. During the time of Christ’s birth the Nabateans had a virtual monopoly of the incense trade and their trade routes criss crossed the Arabian desert bringing goods from the Red Sea ports to the Mediterranean and out to the rest of the Roman Empire.
The bushes from which myrrh was made were also native to the Arabian peninsula and were another cash crop of the Nabateans.
Considering that the magi went first to King Herod, they were clearly looking for a King of the Jews who was the heir of Herod. My thesis is that the magi were diplomats from the court of the Nabatean king Aretas IV to King Herod. They were bringing gifts of tribute in the belief that an heir had been born to Herod. This does not mean they were purely secular. A separation of church and state was unknown in those days. They may have come to Herod, but they would also have been aware of the prophecies of coming Jewish messiah.
So the real significance of the gold, frankincense and myrrh is that they confirm what Justin Martyr wrote in the early second century–that the magi came from Arabia. Furthermore, this also confirms the accuracy of the Old Testament prophecies because Sheba, Midian and Ephah are all in the territory of the Nabateans of Jesus’ time.
If you haven’t read it already make sure you get a copy of The Mystery of the Magi -The Quest to Identify the Three Wise Men