Jesus was given gold, frankincense and myrrh because they were gifts typically given to kings and deities at the time. These gifts were presented to Jesus by the three wise men.
Although historians and theologians agree that Jesus was presented with the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, they differ in their interpretation of why Jesus was given those gifts. Some say it was a symbolic gesture, while others believe it may have even been a way to alleviate physical pain due to their medicinal properties, according to the Smithsonian.
Origins of the Three Gifts to Jesus
In the bible, the Gospel of Matthew states that Jesus was presented with gold, frankincense and myrrh by the three wise men. All three items were considered valuable and significant in the ancient world for different reasons. Gold was a precious metal, frankincense was given as a perfume or a fragrance and myrrh was an oil used as an ointment. When combined as a gift, these items honored a noble king's or a deity's elite position in society. Ancient inscriptions led historians to believe that the same three gifts presented to Jesus were also offered by King Seleucus II Callinicus to the god Apollo in 243 B.C.E. Based on precedent, many historians believe that these gifts were presented to Jesus for the same reason of honoring his high status in society.
Interpretations of the Gifts' Meaning
Other historians believe that gold, frankincense and myrrh have special symbolic meanings specifically for Jesus. They believe that gold represents Jesus's kingship, frankincense symbolizes his role as a priest in society and myrrh symbolizes the prefiguring of his death and embalming. This interpretation is echoed in the lyrics of the Christmas carol "We Three Kings." Some historians believe that the three gifts presented to Jesus were done so for their practical reasons and healing powers. Frankincense, for instance, contains an active ingredient that helps break down the cartilage tissue that contributes to the pain and swelling associated with arthritis. Individually, the three gifts served various practical purposes. Gold was valued as a currency and as a precious metal. When bestowed to Jesus and Mary, gold would help pay for expenses related to parenting. Gold is also considered a symbol of divinity in some traditions, and it is therefore seen as an acknowledgement of Jesus representing God in human form. Frankincense is derived from Boswellia trees. Historically, it has been used to make perfumes and incense. It has also been used as a healing aid in some cultures. Some versions of the bible note that frankincense was used in worship ceremonies, where it represented holiness. In the New Testament, for instance, the gift of frankincense is likened to the sacrifice of Jesus for the greater good of humanity, just as frankincense itself was sacrificed for worship services and ceremonies.
The Wise Men
Although there are differences in opinion of why Jesus was given these three gifts, historians generally agree that they were a way for the three men to show devotion to their king. The three wise men were also considered symbolic figures in biblical history, as they were the first non-Jews to recognize and honor Jesus's importance. The men traveled a long distance to see Jesus and pay tribute to him before returning home. The wise men's gifts are seen as a symbolic gesture of goodwill towards Jesus's family.