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.