Category Archives: John W. Welch

Why Did the Wise Men Give Gifts of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh?

by John W. Welch

Little is known about the Wise Men. The Gospel of Matthew says they came from somewhere east of Jerusalem. The early Christian writer Justin Martyr said that they were Jewish men who came from Arabia, southeast of Judea. They may have been among the many Jewish people who were looking for the fulfillment of Israelite prophecies about the coming of the Messiah, such as Daniel’s 490-year prophecy.

Jewish traditions also spoke of temple priests who had gone into exile in Arabia awaiting a chance to return. The Jerusalem Talmud, Tacanit 4.5, mentions priests who had fled from Jerusalem and settled in Arabia around 625 B.C. Other priests may have been expelled by King Herod when he built his own magnificent temple in Jerusalem.

So, it is possible, as Margaret Barker first pointed out in her book Christmas: The Original Story (London: Continuum, 2008), that the Magi came from these priestly groups or from other groups of watchful priests awaiting the coming of the Lord of Holiness. If so, their three gifts could not have been more perfectly suitable, given by priests to their new High Priest.

 

Temple of Herod, model, in Jerusalem

Temple of Herod, model, in Jerusalem

The gift of gold would have sparkled like the gold that was required in the Temple. According to scripture, the inner doors, altar, table for the bread of the Presence, lamp stands, bowls, censers, utensils and implements of the Temple and the paneling on the walls of the Holy of Holies were to be made of pure gold or were gold-plated (1 Kings 7:48-50). Gold was incorruptible and did not rust. It was thought to have absorbed and embodied the radiance of the sun. Shiny gold objects reflected radiantly the heavenly glory of the sun.

Frankincense, a resin gathered from trees in south Arabia, provided fragrance in the Temple. The Holiness Code required incense to accompany every sacrifice “offered by fire to the Lord” (Leviticus 24:7). Its sweet, billowing smoke was thought to carry prayers up to heaven. It was burned in the Temple to invite and invoke the presence of the Lord.

Isaiah 60:6 prophesied that camels would bring gold and incense from southwestern Arabia, but what about myrrh? Myrrh is another resin, drawn from the life-sustaining sap of another desert tree. It was a key ingredient in preparing the sacred oil that imparted holiness. The recipe for that anointing oil is found in Exodus 30:23-24. It calls for 500 shekel-weight of myrrh, 250 of cinnamon, 250 of calamus, and 500 of cassia to be mixed in a hin (about one gallon) of olive oil. That anointing oil was uniquely used to sanctify the temple, the ark of the covenant, and the temple vessels, menorahs, and altars. Most of all, it was used to anoint and consecrate the High Priest, and it could not be used outside the Temple (Exodus 30:26-33).

The holy myrrh had disappeared from the Holy of Holies and been hidden away in the time of Josiah according to the Babylonian Talmud, Horayoth 12a. It represented Wisdom (Ben Sira 24:15), and because of its preservative qualities it was used in preparing the dead for burial.

But more than that, this myrrh oil was known as the “dew of resurrection,” and it had anointed the royal high priests after the order of Melchizedek and transformed them into sons of God. One early Christian, Pope Leo the Great, said: “He offers myrrh who believes that God’s only begotten son united to himself man’s true nature.” That uniting of divine and human was the mystery of the myrrh oil in the Holy of Holies. Old traditions also spoke about Adam receiving gold, frankincense, and myrrh from three angelic messengers, so that he could offer proper sacrifices when cast out of Eden.

By giving Jesus these three essential, holy, and precious gifts, the Wise Men prepared Jesus, “the last Adam” (1 Cor. 15:45), to offer the ultimate sacrifice as the new and everlasting High Priest, bringing eternal light, life, and God’s presence from heaven above to earth below.

 

 

 

The Trial and Death of Jesus

By John W. Welch

Of the numerous things that could be said about the so-called trial and the death of Jesus, I want to emphasize ten personal reflections. These ten points center around two perplexing questions: Why was Jesus killed? and Who was responsible? As the world marks this year’s Easter season, it would seem especially appropriate to think about his death, since “for this cause came [he] into the world” (John 18:37).

Reflection 1. Latter-day Saints, and all people, should approach this subject with humility and cautiousness. It will long remain impossible to give a definitive description of the so-called “trial of Jesus.” Too little is known today about the laws and legal procedures that would have been followed in Jerusalem during the second quarter of the first century A.D., and too little is known about all that was done so long ago for any modern person to speak with any degree of certainty about the legal technicalities of this case. As Elder Bruce R. McConkie has written, “There is no divine ipse dixit, no voice from an archangel, and as yet no revealed latter-day account of all that transpired when God’s own Son suffered himself to be judged by men so that he could voluntarily give up his life upon the cross” (Bruce R. McConkie, The Mortal Messiah [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1981], 4:142). We are usually more glib about this subject than we intellectually or spiritually ought to be. Continue reading

The Question of Authority and Jesus’s Parable of the Two Sons in Matthew 21

John W. Welch

Deeply valuable symbolism is embedded in all of Jesus’s parables, and his parable of the willing and unwilling two sons in Matthew 21 is no exception. As Jesus entered the Temple the morning after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the Chief Priests approached him and demanded to know: “By what authority doest thou these things? and who gave thee this authority?” (Matt. 21:23). Jesus answered these questions about his authority by telling a simple story about a man who had two sons. When asked to go down and work in the vineyard, the first son, initially refused, but then he went, while the other initially said yes but then does not go (21:28-30), or so it seems. Continue reading

Raising Lazarus: Jesus’s Signing of His Own Death Warrant

By John W. Welch

The celebration of Easter usually begins with Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. But the events of Passion Week cannot be understood without backing up to the event just a few days earlier in Bethany, just over the hill to the east of Jerusalem. That event was the raising of Lazarus at the home and at the behest of Martha and Mary. That personal favor, offered by Jesus to Mary, Martha, and Lazarus whom he loved (John 11:5), is reported is detail in John 11, right before his entry into Jerusalem in John 12.

Without seeing this as background, it is hard to imagine a reason why a large multitude of people would have followed Jesus into Jerusalem shouting Hosanna! Save us now! It was widely known that he had saved Lazarus from the grave. Many of the leading Jews in Jerusalem had come out to Mary’s home “and had seen the things which Jesus did” and they “believed on him” (11:45). John makes it clear that the crowd was especially excited by the raising of Lazarus: The people who were “with him when he called Lazarus out of his grave, and raised him from the dead” were talking openly and strongly and did “bear record,” and because of that, “for this cause” the people in the city came out and “also met him, for that they heard that he had done this miracle” (12:17-18).

In addition, without seeing the raising of Lazarus as background to the Passion Week, it is perhaps even harder to imagine why the chief priests turned Jesus’s popularity into utter abandonment and were able to move so quickly and tactically to arrest him, condemn him, take him to Pilate, accuse him, get permission to execute him, and complete the crucifixion, start to finish, all within about ten hours’ time.

How could that have happened? Perhaps the raising of Lazarus, which was the greatest and most closely observed of all of Jesus’s miracles, was simply too powerful, too convincing, too threatening, or too unusual, and at the same time too close to Jerusalem for it have been ignored, one way or the other. Either it was the greatest manifestation ever seen of divine power in the Temple district, or it was the most deceptive act ever imagined by a clever imposter. While many saw it the first way and believed on Jesus, others continued to fear that Jesus had tricked or “deceiveth the people” (John 7:12, 47) and “some of them went their ways to the Pharisees, and told them what things Jesus had done” (11:46). This report, which must have been tantamount to the filing of an official complaint, galvanized the deep division between the two extremes that confronted Jesus as he humbly rode into Jerusalem on the day after his last ordinary Sabbath.

Indeed, before that triumphal day arrived, other important legal steps had already been set into motion. John 11:47 reports: “Then gathered (synēgagon) the chief priests and Pharisees a council (synedrion).” More than just getting together for an informal conversation or committee meeting, this assembly must have been something of an official gathering, the calling of a session of the Sanhedrin with both parties, the chief priests (the Sadducees) and the Pharisees involved. What was their concern? They wondered “What do we do?” They felt the need to take action. They readily recognized that Jesus had not just worked miracles, but that his many miracles constituted signs, pointing to something more than just doing good. The Sanhedrin found that Jesus in fact had given “many signs” (polla sēmeia). If these signs or wonders led people to “go after other gods,” those miracles were evil and that wonderworker “shall be put to death” (Deuteronomy 13:2, 5).

As they discussed the case, some argued, “If we let him thus alone (aphōmen),” or if we allow him to go on in this way, or forgive him, or condone his conduct, everyone (pantes) will believe on him (pisteusountes eis auton, or trust and have faith in him), “the Romans shall come and take away both our place and nation” (11:48). They fear that “the place” (ton topon, or the temple) and the people (to ethnos, the people of Israel) would be arousin, that is, destroyed, taken away, swept off, conquered by force, even by killing.

Caiphas, the high priest, however, rejected these arguments (saying “Ye know nothing at all”) and made his case based on logic (logizesthe), that it would be better, advantageous, or helpful (sympherei) for us that one man die on behalf of (hyper with the genitive) the people and not the whole people be destroyed (11:50). This he did not say on his own personal authority, but acting officially as the High Priest (11:51) he actually and authoritatively (even if unwittingly) prophesied that Jesus would die for the people, and not just for the people but so that the scattered (dieskorpismena) children of God could be gathered into one (11:52).

This gathering and these words have a ring of legal finality to them, and thus the Gospel of John continues, “Then from that day forth they took counsel (or were legally resolved together, ebouleusanto) that they would kill him.

As people compare the account of the trial of Jesus in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, which occurs after the arrest of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, people wonder why there is no legal trial in John 18, when Jesus is taken from the Garden of Gethsemane to Annas and then is handed over directly to Pilate where he is tried. In the synoptic gospels, members of the Sanhedrin meet right after the arrest of Jesus and conduct something of a hearing, although not really a full trial.  But even less of a trial occurs before the high priest in John 18. Thus the question often asked is where is the Jewish trial in the Gospel of John? The answer may well be: In John 11 we have a convening of the Sanhedrin, formal accusations, deliberation, reasoning, and even reaching of a verdict. This reading of John is confirmed in several ways.

First, following this decision, an order was issued that anyone knowing of the whereabouts of Jesus needed to report that information so that he could be captured. “Now both the chief priests and the Pharisees had given a commandment, that, if any man knew where he were, he should shew it, that they might take him” (11:57).

Second, plans for the arrest of Lazarus were also contemplated: And “the chief priests consulted that they might put Lazarus also to death; because that by reason of him many of the Jews went away, and believed on Jesus” (12:10-11). Presumably, Lazarus was either an accomplice or at least a witness of what Jesus had done in raising him from the tomb, which some of the Jews thought was some kind of legally actionable trick or deception.

Third, although Jesus was not present at that hearing, none of the members of the Sanhedrin doubted the factual accuracy of the allegations against Jesus, and neither does the Gospel of John doubt that Jesus worked many controversial miracles. Upon his arrest, Jesus presumably would have been given some information about the legal determination that had been reached against him, with perhaps a chance to recant and change his behavior. Something like that opportunity was given to Jesus in John 18:19-23, but there would have been no need to reconvene the entire Sanhedrin to vote again at that time on something that the Sanhedrin had previously decided.

Finally, the determination and action of the chief priests would not have come as any surprise to Jesus. Entering the Temple the day after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Jesus was immediately asked by the chief priests and the elders, “By what authority doest thou these things? And who gave thee this authority?” (Matt. 21:23). These were questions Jesus had been asked before, when the scribes (lawyers) had come up from Jerusalem to Galilee at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry. On that occasion, the scribes came to investigate by which “authority” (Mark 1:27) Jesus was performing his miracles. If he performed miracles by the power of God and to God’s glory, his miracles were beyond reproach. But if it was “by the prince of the devils [that he] casteth he out devils” (Mark 3:22), then he was committing a capital offense for which he could be put to death.

By asking this very question once again of Jesus right after the raising of Lazarus, the chief priests and the elders would have been acting on the assurance that his many signs and wonders, and most recently of all his conspicuous raising of Lazarus, warranted his death. Having been confronted by this very challenge on previous occasions, Jesus could well have anticipated—as he walked toward Bethany to answer the plea of his dear friends to come and heal their dying brother Lazarus—that by openly raising Lazarus from the dead, he was effectively signing his own death warrant.

What on Earth are Swaddling Clothes?

by John W. Welch

            As is well known from the often told Christmas story found in the Gospel of Luke, Mary wrapped her newborn son “in swaddling clothes” (Luke 2:7). What on earth were swaddling clothes, and why would Luke have bothered to include this detail in his account of the birth of Jesus?

While we may not know for sure exactly what kinds of clothes were used or how they may have looked in Jesus’ case, it seems highly likely that all infants in the ancient Mediterranean world were tightly wrapped in long bands of cloth. So these bands were not “clothes,” like a shirt or pants or pajamas, and they were not just a diaper, but long strips of cloth wrapped all around the baby. Continue reading