The Gifts of the Magi

The Magi mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew 2:1-12 have become a recognizable part of a contemporary Christmas and the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh have become symbolic of the Nativity of Jesus Christ. However the reason that the Gospel mentions those three items is by no mere chance. Each one of the Magi’s gifts was on a list that God had given to Moses in the Book of Exodus.

Adoration of the Magi (Fra Angelico and Filippo Lippi)

Adoration of the Magi (Fra Angelico and Filippo Lippi)

The Gifts of the Magi are very symbolic in the context of ancient Judaism and they are designed to show that Jesus was indeed a chosen one of God. This was important since the core message of Jesus to the Jews was that he was offering a fulfillment of ancient religious prophecies. During the time when the Gospels were written early Christianity was still predominantly an offshoot of Judaism and as such every effort was made to connect Jesus to the ancient Judaic traditions. One of the most obvious aspects of this outreach is in the use of the title of Christ and the story of the Gifts of the Magi reinforces the claim to this title.

The Anointed One

The name Christ is derived from the Greek Khristos which means “anointed one.” In its original Biblical form the Hebrew noun, mashiah, speaks to a literal anointing with sacred oil; which makes the noun Maah, normally written as “Messiah” denote one who has been anointed with sacred oil.

Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh

When the word first anointed appears in the Biblical Book of Exodus 25:6, it is in regard to the gifts that should be received by Moses, on the behalf of God, from the Israelites. The first of these gifts is gold, farther down the list are spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense. The first of those spices required for the anointing oil, as listed beginning in Exodus 30:22, is myrrh. Specific instructions are given for the use of gold in shaping the incense altar in Exodus 30:3-4, and then the incense, ritually prescribed in Exodus, 30:34 is to be based on pure frankincense, which was known in Hebrew as levonah. Here we find the gold, incense and myrrh, attributed as gifts to the infant Jesus by the three Magi in Matt 3:11, contained in a list of key components needed in order to properly worship Yahweh and consecrate his priesthood.

The use of the word anointed to refer to priests begins with Lev 2:4. At the same time, the word continues to be used to describe objects that were consecrated for ritual use, usually an altar.
In the Book of Samuel, things change with the entrance of Saul. When Saul is anointed in Samuel 10:1, he has a flask of oil emptied on his head, Samuel then pro-claims, “has not the Lord anointed you leader over his inheritance.” It is not until Saul is presented to the people in Sam. 10:24 as the man the Lord has chosen, and he comes forth from hiding among the baggage, that the people shouted long live the king.

This subtlety should not be lost upon the reader. God anoints, people crown. The act of anointing is clearly related to the consecration of people and objects into the service of God. In this context it is clear that the story of the Gifts of the Magi – gold, frankincense and myrrh – was designed to remind early Christians and potential converts from Judaism that Jesus was God’s anointed one from the moment of his birth.

Sources

Holy Bible: (New International Version) Containing the Old Testament and The New Testament. Colorado Springs: International Bible Society, 1973.

Strong, James. Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers,1990.