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In Matthew 2:11, the wise men bring gifts of Gold, Frankencense and Myrrh:

As they came into the house and saw the child with Mary his mother, they bowed down and worshiped him. They opened their treasure boxes and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

What is the significance and meaning of each item and the gift as a whole. This is obviously a recognition of the Kingship of Jesus, but in what way? Is this in any way similar to a coronation ceremony, or were these kinds of gifts traditional at the birth of a prince?

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    The Bible says nothing about them being three. – fdb May 16 '17 at 10:04
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    If consideration is given regarding Kings, then it might be plausible that the gifts might have pertained to Priesthood too. For example, the Holy Anointing Oil, (Exodus 30:22-31), or requirements for offering sacrifices, (Leviticus 2) - perhaps a specific service requiring all three ... – elika kohen May 16 '17 at 17:06
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    @elikakohen - I think that answers exploring priesthood or priest-king aspects and associations of Jesus via these gifts would be well within scope. – James Shewey May 16 '17 at 20:25
  • @JamesShewey I don't see any issues raised with either answer yet they aren't marked. Could you please either state your concerns or how it might be improved or mark an answer? Thanks. – Ruminator Sep 12 '17 at 23:50
  • @Ruminator - I believe that one of the gifts was used in embalming and some have posited that this gift looked forward to Jesus' death. Also, while the gifts may have been associated with monarchy, no one has made the connection that this meant that Jesus was viewed as a King - the King of Kings - Herrod's very fear. I was hoping to see more on these two points. – James Shewey Sep 13 '17 at 1:31
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Adam Clarke's commentary on the gifts of the wise men essentially takes the position that they were not symbolic of any attribute of Christ, but simply items of great value and esteem in their country.

Commentary on Verse 11

They presented unto him gifts - The people of the east never approach the presence of kings and great personages, without a present in their hands. This custom is often noticed in the Old Testament, and still prevails in the east, and in some of the newly discovered South Sea Islands.

Gold, and frankincense, and myrrh - Some will have these gifts to be emblematic of the Divinity, regal office, and manhood of Christ.

They offered him incense as their God; gold as their king; and myrrh, as united to a human body, subject to suffering and death.

Aurum, thus, myrrham, regique, Deo, Hominique, dona ferunt. Juvencus.

Rather, they offered him the things which were in most esteem among themselves; and which were productions of their own country. The gold was probably a very providential supply, as on it, it is likely, they subsisted while in Egypt.

No one went empty handed to visit a king, but always offered a valuable gift.

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Douglas Hare (Matthew, 2009, p 14) summarizes the common view of the gifts:

It was natural to associate gold with monarchy. Articles of gold have from earliest times been regarded as fit for a king (see I Kings 10:2, 25). Fragrant substances, often imported from distant lands at great expense, were also royal favorites. Myrrh appears on the gift list of I Kings 10:25. In [Song of Solomon] 3:6-7 we read that the king's litter was "perfumed with myrrh and frankincense." In addition to such function, myrrh was also employed in the high priest's anointing oil (Exod. 30:23-33). It is possible that royal oil contained the same ingredients. In this case it would have been particularly appropriate that the one to be known as "the Anointed One" (the Christ) should receive a gift of myrrh at his birth. According to Exod. 30:34, frankincense was employed in the holy perfume used in the sanctuary and nowhere else. [...] Another possible symbolic function of myrrh is suggested by John 19:39, where we read that Nicodemus brought "a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds' weight," for the preparation of Jesus' body for burial. It is this use which prompted the view that the gift of myrrh in the Christmas story ties the Messiah's birth to his death.

Ian Boxall (Discovering Matthew, 2014, p 87) makes note of, what I think is, a likely textual allusion to Isaiah:

The text does not give us much to go on, apart from potential echoes of Isaiah 60, which would interpret two of them as the eschatological gifts of the Gentiles.

Trito-Isaiah, picking up on a common theme in the older prophetic books, depicts an idealized future when the nations of the world finally recognize the supremacy of Yahweh and bring gifts to Israel for being God's chosen people. It has been argued this concern was the major driving force behind the apostle Paul's career, and that it can also be found in the Synoptic Gospels (especially Luke). The relevant passage from Isaiah 60 reads:

Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you [...] the wealth of the nations shall come to you. A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD.

It may be a case of reading the popular conclusion back into the text, but if the magi are indeed meant to be 'kings', or at least represent 'the nations', it would give strong precedence to this connection.

Boxall continues:

The interpretation of the myrrh as a bitter-sweet anticipation of the passion of Jesus (found as early as Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 3.9.2, and Origen Contra Celsum 1.60) connects with the artistic tradition, always ready to explore the connections between the magi story and Christ's suffering and death.

Amy Richter (Enoch and the Gospel of Matthew, 2012, p 190-192) offers a radically different perspective:

Many symbolic meanings have been attributed to these gifts and many biblical texts have been offered as possible references. [...] However, here I will focus on passages which have a potential connection with the Enochic template. The passage from Isaiah 60 just mentioned does share with 1 Enoch eschatological concerns. The gold and frankincense offered in this passage are part of "the first fruits of the eschatological pilgrimage of the nations and their submission to the one true God." [...] The connection between the magi's gifts and 1 Enoch is seen in the presence of frankincense and myrrh amongst the trees (1 En. 29:1) Enoch encounters on his journey to the Paradise of Righteousness (1 En. 28:1-32:6).

In other words, Richter makes a connection between the magi coming from the east with frankincense and myrrh, and Enoch discovering frankincense and myrrh as he journeys to the east.

Richter, drawing together a variety of sources (the Babylonian Talmud, Exodus, Esther), further argues that the forbidden arts the angelic Watchers taught to humanity in 1 Enoch included charms, cosmetics, and idolatry which made use of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. In her argument, the magi in fact continue the legacy of these forbidden arts, and so give to Jesus things they valued in their 'illicit skills':

The magi "see" the child and grasp his significance [...] As part of their worship of the child they offer gifts, each of which may be connected with the illicit arts taught by the watchers.
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While it is hard to argue definitively any theological significance to the gifts, I tend to find the connection to the articles in the temple compelling. Matthew tends to shape Jesus' history to look like that of Israel in the books of Moses. Jesus genealogy seems to follow the toledoth in Genesis. He flees to Egypt, then returns similar to the exodus. He spends 40 days tempted in the wilderness. Then expounds the law in the sermon on the mount.

Once it is seen that there could be a connection to the five books of Moses, there also seems to be a connection with the articles for the Temple. Gold Frankincense and Myrrh are all mentioned in Exodus 30. The gold is used to make the altar. Frankincense is used to make the incense. Finally, Myrrh is used for the anointing oil.

If this connection is truly the case, Matthew seems to be casting Jesus' body as a form of a tabernacle/temple. This could help clarify some of the other statements in Matthew also regarding the temple.

I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. Matthew 12:6

and

Finally two came forward 61 and declared, “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days.’” Matthew 26:60-61

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  • Good connections there. See also Matthew 23:17. – Michael Jul 26 '19 at 0:41

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