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Gifts brought to the baby Jesus reveal he was accepted as a king by Gentiles, WFU professor says

By Vanessa Urruela Willis
(336) 758-5237
December 4, 2000

With the exception of gold, the three gifts the Wise Men brought to the baby Jesus probably aren't high on most people's Christmas lists. Frankincense and myrrh aren't widely valued in Western culture today. But, a Wake Forest University professor says those gifts reveal that Jesus was revered as a king not only by Jews, but also by Gentiles who lived in the Middle East.

At the time of Jesus' birth, gold, frankincense and myrrh were traditional gifts given to royalty in the Middle East, says Fred Horton, John T. Albritton Professor of the Bible at Wake Forest.

Though they were presented to a baby born in a Bethlehem stable instead of one born in a royal palace, the presents signified loyalty and reverence for a king. Gold, frankincense and myrrh were very highly valued in Middle Eastern culture at that time.

"Most Palestinian Jews of the first century would have been unable to afford such gifts," Horton says.

Gold, which is frequently mentioned as a gift for kings in the Hebrew Bible, was as precious in the first century as it is today. Frankincense and myrrh, fragrant gum resins extracted from trees in South Arabia and Ethiopia, were used to make fine perfumes and anointing oils during the era of Jesus' birth in the Middle East.

"Oils were used extensively in the Middle East to restore moisture after bathing and to protect skin from the dangerous rays of the Middle Eastern sun," Horton said.

But the reverence for frankincense began long before Jesus' time. The Egyptians used hundreds of pounds of it per funeral. When King Tutankhamen's tomb was opened 3,000 years after his death, the scientists found the smell of frankincense was still heavy in the air.

Greeks used the resin to honor their heroes, and the Romans later used it to cure soldiers' skin infections and bruises. The Chinese sent their precious porcelain to Africa by boat to trade it for frankincense which they used to improve respiratory health.

Sweet-smelling frankincense also had historic religious importance. It was one ingredient in the incense burned in the temple of ancient Israel and other holy sites. It is still thought today by some that the smoke of incense carries prayers up to God.

Myrrh was far more rare in the era of Jesus' birth. Arab men drank it mixed with fragrant liquids to cure baldness. In India, the resin was used to cure obesity and prolong life. The Chinese mixed it with breastmilk to cure diaper rash.

Because the resin from both frankincense and myrrh were used by so many ancient cultures, some scholars say the two resins were probably at their height of value around the time of Jesus' birth. Many estimate that at that time, translated into modern money, frankincense would have cost $500 per pound. Myrrh would have cost $4,000 per pound.

While much is known about the gifts themselves, the bearers, known as the Magi or "Wise Men," remain somewhat mysterious to modern scholars.

"The Gospel of Matthew, which is the only Biblical document that tells us about the Magi, does not mention how many there were, nor how they got from place to place," Horton says. "We do know something about Magi in the ancient world, however. Often the word 'Magi' refers to wandering Mithraic priests."

Archeological excavations in Caesarea, a city on the coast of the modern state of Israel, have uncovered clues to the identity of the Magi mentioned in the Bible. In 1973, a group found a mithraeum, or place for worshipping the god of Mithras, there. Horton has led several digs in Caesarea since 1976.

Horton says Matthew's mention of this ancient religious group in his Gospel was no accident.

"The author makes it clear that the birth of Jesus was an event not just for the Jews, but for the whole world."


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