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In Matthew 2:11, we read that the Magi or wise men brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Were these common gifts to be given at that time or did each of them hold significant meaning, perhaps unknown to the wise men themselves but part of God's sovereign plan?

And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. Matthew 2:11

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@Richard I'm not sure this fits better in Biblical Hermeneutics. The symbolism is perhaps not derived from biblical sources. –  Narnian Dec 1 '11 at 17:51
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I don't think this needs to be either doctrinally specific or moved to BH.SE, I think it's perfectly at home here as a tradition question. –  Caleb Dec 1 '11 at 18:32
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I believe this question is a list question; a vote contest. I can't explain why, but I can show you why. –  Richard Dec 1 '11 at 22:08
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@Richard This would be a good time for a good overview answer explaining a couple different ideas on the symbolism, explain any groups that hold specific views as doctrinal, and roughly how each idea was derived from the text, history, or other sources. Your multiple answer thing is contrived and deliberately an example of how things could go wrong here by making a vote contest. I think it's possible to answer this question with an exemplary overview answer. –  Caleb Dec 2 '11 at 10:21
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Good responses, but I want to correct the question--they were not given at birth. That's the nativity scene myth. The Bible says the magi came to the house where Jesus lived, perhaps more than a year after his birth. –  user1053 Dec 3 '11 at 0:26
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5 Answers 5

up vote 2 down vote accepted

We Three Kings

The verses to 'we three kings' are pretty wonderfully theological and wrap across most doctrines.

The gifts symbolize aspects of Jesus' ministry and purpose.

Born a King on Bethlehem's plain Gold I bring to crown Him again King forever, ceasing never Over us all to rein

Gold is the gift to honor a King. It is offered in acknowledgement that Jesus is the King of His Kingdom. Prince of Peace, etc...

Frankincense to offer have I Incense owns a Deity nigh Pray'r and praising, all men raising Worship Him, God most high

Frankincense is the incense burned in religious ceremonies. It is an offering to honor Jesus as God.

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume Breathes of life of gathering gloom Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying Sealed in the stone-cold tomb

Myrrh is the oil that is used to anoint a dead body before burial. It is offered as a prophecy of the way he would die.

Prefiguring the New Covenant

There may also be some symbolism in the three offerings in terms of Jesus as Priest, Prophet and King. Hebrews 9 says that inside the Ark of the Covenant was held a gold jar of Manna from Heaven, the Rod of Aaron which sprouted and the 10 Commandments.

These are also types for Jesus. Manna for Jesus as the Great Prophet, the rod for Jesus as the Eternal High Priest and the ten commandments for Jesus as the Lawgiver or King. And the Gifts reflect those items stored in the Ark. Gold for kingship, Frankincense for priesthood and Myrrh for prophecy.

They're offered to Jesus, but it is Mary, who accepts them as the Ark of the New Covenant.


Alas, I just read this in the Catholic Encyclopedia

The giving of gifts was in keeping with Oriental custom. The purpose of the gold is clear; the Child was poor. We do not know the purpose of the other gifts. The Magi probably meant no symbolism. The Fathers have found manifold and multiform symbolic meanings in the three gifts; it is not clear that any of these meanings are inspired

Apparently there is no inspired and obvious symbolism.

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I'd +1 this if the last sentence wasn't there. It seems to be making a point that wasn't called for in the question. –  Waggers Dec 1 '11 at 20:37
    
Well, I'm not gonna deny Our Lady her unique grace for +1, but I don't think any Ark of the Covenant symbolism makes sense unless it's recognized that Mary is the Ark. –  Peter Turner Dec 1 '11 at 20:50
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The gifts represent Jesus ministry, death, and resurrection

Frankincense

Frankincense comes from a tree of unusual hardiness--to the point where they have a reputation of growing out of solid rock. The hardiness of the tree signifies the times of the life of Jesus--that they will be difficult, tumultuous times and that Jesus will grow roots and flourish. Furthermore, the spice from the tree is used for incense, signifying his priestly role on earth.

Myrrh

Myrrh was a perfume and a burial spice used in ancient Egypt. This represented his death that he would have to endure.

Gold

It is the metal of kings. This signifies his kingdom that is established after his death. Furthermore, gold is a metal that does not rust or fade, signifying that his kingdom would be eternal.

The fact that this is the only gift of the three that is a metal signifies that the other two were temporary in nature (his life and his death) while the gold (his kingdom) was eternal in nature. Gold is eternal in nature compared to the two spices that were gathered from trees and burned or consumed.

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Mind me asking if you made that up or if it came from somewhere? I think it's pretty insightful, but the Frankincense/hardiness part is, in my opinion, secondary to His priestly role. Also his life and death being temporary, is definitely not Catholic doctrine, we think of those things as eternal (in a very real and important sense, it's what the Mass is all about), but on the surface it's a good point you make. –  Peter Turner Dec 1 '11 at 21:55
    
@PeterTurner Well, they are eternal in that they have eternal impacts and all eternity looks toward that time. However, they are temporal in that they occurred around 35 AD. –  Richard Dec 1 '11 at 22:06
    
Please identify a source for how this symbolism was identified or at least a reference to what church tradition holds this as doctrine. –  Caleb Dec 2 '11 at 10:17
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also - how did you end up with three answers that are almost identical? –  warren Dec 2 '11 at 15:30
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For they said: "If he takes gold, he is an earthly king; if frankincense, a god; if myrrh, a healer." ... The child took all three offerings...

Marco Polo The Travels: The Travels of Marco Polo, Translated and with an Introduction By Ronald Latham, Penguin Books Ltd., Harmondsworth, England, UK, 1976. page 59.

This shows that He was all three: king, god, and healer.

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Who is the "they" in this quote? –  curiousdannii May 31 at 22:29
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Traditionally, these gifts are seen representing a variety of things:

Gold

This is an expensive metal. This signifies his kinghood. It's a gift fit for a king and the wise men use it as a gift to signify that they consider Jesus a king.

Frankincense

Incense, to signify his priesthood. The wise men gave Jesus this gift in order to signify that they believed him to be the high priest.

Myrrh

This is another spice used as a burial spice. While Frankincense shows he was a priest and gold shows he was a king, Myrrh prophesies his death.

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This answer claims to represent tradition but fails to mention which tradition or reference any sources. –  Caleb Dec 2 '11 at 9:59
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While the gifts themselves have, throughout time, taken on meaning of their own, the wise men were not giving these gifts to signify any particular meaning other than they had at the time that they were given.

Matthew 2:2 (NASB)
“Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.”

Gold

Gold is a gift for a king--the metal of kings. They chose this gift because they came to worship a king. And gold was the appropriate metal made for a king.

Frankincense

Since the Jews were a religious people, they brought incense to signify his priestly role as King of the Jews. They knew that he would be a priest, since any king ruling over Jews would have to be a priest.

Myrrh

This was a burial spice, yes, but it was also a perfume--a rich, expensive perfume. The wise men brought this gift not to prophesy his death (he was, after all, just a baby at the time), but as an expensive perfume. This gift wasn't considered a gift of death at the time, but a gift of fragrances of the wealth.

Summary

These gifts may have, over time, acquired new meaning. However, they were not given specifically for any particular meaning. They were gifts--expensive, rich gifts--meant for a king. Had they brought other gifts, these other gifts would have gain other meanings over time and we shouldn't read into things too much.

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Sources? Who holds this view? –  Caleb Dec 2 '11 at 10:19
    
why would any king of the Jews have to be a priest? Surely in the history of Israel, most kings dared not take to themselves the role of priest - it was reserved to the Levites –  warren Dec 2 '11 at 15:30
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