Category Archives: Matthew 2

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 Chronicles of Mary and Joseph: part 4 of 4, Bethlehem and Beyond

By S. Kent Brown

           Matthew’s Gospel guides us into the events that follow Joseph’s and Mary’s visit to the Jerusalem temple. During the six weeks between Jesus’ birth and Mary’s sacrifice in the temple, Joseph seems to have secured needed housing for his young family, perhaps through family members. For Matthew writes of “the house” (Matthew 2:11). From this point, it seems that Mary and Joseph settle into a rhythm in Bethlehem. Joseph likely plies his considerable skills as an “artisan” who works with wood, stone, and metal in the ongoing temple renovations. This is the proper understanding of the Greek term tektōn which is translated “carpenter” in Matthew 13:55. Continue reading

The Wise Men and Their Priestly Gifts

by John W. Welch

            Although it is possible that the Wise Men came from Mesopotamia as Zoroastrians or from points even farther east, the early Christian writer Justin Martyr said that they came from Arabia, closer to the Judean homeland. It would make sense, after all, that people near the land of Israel would have been most interested in the fulfillment of prophecies concerning the coming Messiah. At that time, according to the Slavonic Josephus, some Jews were arguing about the number of years left before the impending fulfillment of the 490-year prophecy of Daniel.

Another thread of anticipation running through the times surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ was a tradition about temple priests who had gone into exile in Arabia awaiting their chance to return. The Jerusalem Talmud, Tacanit 4.5, knew of this tradition about priests who had fled from Jerusalem and settled in Arabia after King Josiah reformed the rituals and performances of the Temple of Solomon around 625 B.C. King Herod may also have created enemies when he built his own temple, displacing some of the older priests from the Second Temple in Jerusalem which the Temple of Herod replaced.

Based on ideas such as these, Margaret Barker, Christmas: The Original Story (London: Continuum, 2008), has wondered if it might be possible that the Magi were a part of or related to these groups of hopeful priests watching for the coming of their Lord of Holiness. If so, one can argue that their gifts could not have been more perfectly suitable, given by priests to their new High Priest.

Gold was required in the Temple. According to scripture, the doors and altar (1 Kings 7:48), the table for the bread of the Presence (1 Kings 7:48), the lamp stands and drinking vessels of the Temple (1 Kings 10:21) were to be made of pure gold. Many other implements of the Temple were gold-plated. Gold was incorruptible and was thought to have embodied the radiance of the sun.

Frankincense provided the fragrance required by priestly regulations for every sacrifice “offered by fire to the Lord” (Leviticus 24:7). Its sweet smoke carried prayers up to heaven. It was burned in the Temple to invoke the presence of the Lord.

Myrrh, another resin from the life-sustaining sap of a desert tree, was a key ingredient in making the oil of anointment that imparted holiness, which oil could not be used outside the Temple (Exodus 30:25-33). 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 was used in preparing the dead for burial. But more than that, this oil was known as the “Dew of resurrection” and, in the words of Barker, the myrrh oil had been used to anoint the royal high priests after the order of Melchizedek and to transform them into sons of God. Early Christians, such as Pope Leo the Great, said, “He offers myrrh who believes that God’s only begotten son united to himself man’s true nature,” the uniting of the divine and the human having been the great mystery of the myrrh oil in the Holy of Holies of the ancient Temple of Jerusalem.

Barker concludes with the point that 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. With these holy and exemplary implements—inherently precious, sacredly treasured, and eternally efficacious—Jesus, as the Second Adam, was prepared to offer the ultimate temple sacrifice as the new and everlasting High Priest, bringing powers and eternal life from heaven above to earth below.