Thursday, December 22, 2005

Frankincense & Myrrh and Biblical Lore Surrounding the Birth of Jesus

In the Christian tradition of Christmas, we often see nativities that display Mary, Joseph (if you're lucky), some shepherds, baby Jesus in a manger (of course), angels, assorted barn animals and... wise men and the camels they rode in on. What's wrong with this picture?

The wise men didn't show up until Jesus was living in a house (see Matthew 2:11). Of course, Mary and Joseph were only staying in the stable temporarily. It's to be assumed they'd want to move out and get back home as soon as possible. (IMHO there's something else wrong with this picture, but I'll discuss it at another time).

Why were they in the stable?

Because there was a census taking place (see Luke 2) and all citizens were required to return to their birthplace during that census. Bethlehem was where Joseph was from and so naturally he took his pregnant fiance with him for the census because once you were engaged, you were seen to be as good as married. Since all the houses and inns were full, they ended up staying in the stables.

This was probably very common (though not much fun) for many of the travellers at that time. And because homes and inns were often structured around the animals, there wasn't much privacy. The animals were kept below, and some households lived in a level up from the animals, but exposed to the animals at all times.

Excavations have shown an arrangement where the house was made entirely out of mud and stone with a large pit in the middle of the house where the animals were kept. Then another level (up and out from the animal level) was where the family slept and cooked their meals. Picture it as shaped almost like a bowler hat, upside-down. It was often a convenient way to live because animals are warm in the winter and warm air rises. Often families slept on the rooftops in the summer.

So, Mary and Joseph were probably sleeping downstairs, but within sight of others who were staying upstairs. Not a lot of seclusion for an expecting mother.

There are four gospels in the Bible (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) and each was written for a slightly different audience and by different authors, so each touches upon only what he thinks is important. Mark and John don't even feel that Jesus' childhood is significant, so there is no discussion of his birth.

The only mention of the wise men is in Matthew 2. Why is that?

The Book of Matthew was specifically targeted toward the Jews. The aim of the author was to tell the Jews that it was OK to believe that Christ was the Messiah predicted in the Old Testament. Since the Old Testament prophesies pointed to Jesus as being King of the Jews, it was very important to establish his lineage. How do you do that, if you're Matthew?

You discuss Joseph's ancestors, since the right to kingship is passed through the father's side. Mary also seemingly had a royal lineage, and it's possibly detailed in Luke (although there's debate about that).

You also discuss how important his birth was to everyone, and how it was heralded and even indicated by signs: "Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the King, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying "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." (Matt. 2:1-2)

So who were these magi, where did they come from, and why did they bring " of gold and frankincense and myrrh"? Matthew doesn't give us a lot of details.

We know they came from the east but we don't know how long they travelled to get to Jerusalem. So, they probably would have been of middle eastern or asian descent.

Frankincense and myrrh are both resins (dried tree sap) that come from trees of the genus Boswellia (frankincense) and Commiphora (myrhh), which are common to Somalia. But that doesn't necessarily indicate that any of them were from Africa (which was west of Jerusalem) since traders went everywhere. It also doesn't exclude any nationality, since people were known to travel far away from their birthplaces.

They all were considered to be very wise and possibly practiced some form of magic (the word magi is the root for the word magician). There's no indication that they were kings, and so I would definately question the hymn "We Three Kings" (although I still love it).

They probably would have studied together, and they must have taken their beliefs very seriously if they travelled so far to worship Jesus so it might even indicate a buddhist monastery. We simply don't know.

We know that some of their beliefs probably included astrology, since they took the star seriously. However, perhaps the star would have been taken seriously by anyone at the time but most people didn't guess what it indicated. We have no knowlege about it's appearance, so we can only surmise.

Additionally, we have no idea how many magi there were. They probably represented a community, and there may have been as little as 2 or they could have numbered in the hundreds. They certainly impressed Herod when they approached him, and it wasn't always easy to get an audience with him! In fact, Herod was impressed enough to kill every male (age 2 and under) in Bethlehem in order to eliminate the competition (Mary and Joseph had already whisked Jesus away to Egypt for a while).

Why the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh? I have been burning frankincense and myrrh daily, and it smells wonderful. But not only were they burned for fragrance, they were used in toiletries and oils. They were products that were very expensive, and they would have been considered a frivolity for anyone less than royalty. These were gifts that were fit for a King. And thus Matthew's case was made.


Always questioning said...

Great post Saur. It's funny how people get a picture based on the current use of english words, such as "inn." My kids thought that meant the local "Holiday Inn" was full. lol

I have great interest in the Jewish roots of Christianity. This is a wonderful post for this time of year.

michelle said...

Excellent post! Thank you.

(go check out mine Saur, not nearly and well thought out as yours.)

Kathleen said...

Thank you Saur. Great post and something I will share with my family.

Merry Christmas

Some Random Girl said...

Wow! What a wonderful post! May the birth of Christ awe inspire you daily and not just through Christmas! Thanks for such an inspirational and thoughtful post!

BarbaraFromCalifornia said...

What a great, informational post. I knew none of this.

Wishing you and your family a joyful holiday, Saur.

Senor Caiman said...


Don’t faint, but I actually know all this. But since you are so omnipotent, I have a question that I was too chicken to ask in Bible Study last week. I’m a “C” student at best. In Luke 2:21-24 when reference is made to “Law of the Lord” it’s my understanding that purification of the mother takes 40 days following the birth of a son and 80 days following the birth of a daughter. I’ve read Leviticus 12:5 and 27:3-8, but my question is are there any other interpretations of how many days it takes? I was sitting in a service a couple weeks ago and the preacher used a different number of days. Please help. You can post on Mr. Gator if you don’t want to put on your site.

Jamie Dawn said...

I think people have represented there being three wise men because there are three gifts mentioned. I like that the lordship of Baby Jesus was recognized by lowly shepherds as well as the Magi. The Good News is for everyone.

Just an aside, one of the nicknames my dad uses for my mom is Magi.

Ellen said...

Once again, you do not surprise me with your knowledge. It is as beautifully written as it is informative. Thanks for sharing your knowledge with us... we are blessed to come by your posts, making us one day smarter than the day before.

Tan Lucy Pez said...

I think you know that I'm a Unitarian, and don't believe in the Bible as literal truth. But my church does do a nativity play at church during this season. In fact we do three. Because there are different versions in the Bible, as you point out.

Paul (who came along after Jesus was dead) apparently knows nothing of the virgin birth, for he states only that Jesus was "born of a woman" (Galatians 4:4) and was "descended from David, according to the flesh" (Romans 1:3), thereby implying a normal birth.

It's a lovely story anyway.

Saur♥Kraut said...

TLP, I know the theory. But the argument against your interpretation is that Paul was once again asserting Jesus' claim to royalty (as Matthew did). It's as if Paul's saying "Hey, he didn't come from outer space. He really WAS descended from royalty. So he fulfills the predictions."

I am aware of the Unitarians (and that you are one) and have even attended one of the churches. I just don't understand why (if there's nothing to believe) anyone would bother attending a service there. It is more like a nice country club meeting where everyone gets together to talk about much of nothing.

I'd rather spend my Sundays doing other things than sitting in a stuffy church if no one believes in anything. But that's me, and there are still Unitarian congregations that survive! I have some very nice colleagues that are Unitarians as well.

Ellen, thank you! I am sincerely appreciative.

JD, I think you're right. And Magi is such a cute nickname! She must be something special to merit that.

Barbara, thank you! I was actually thinking of you as I wrote it. I'd like to do a post on Channukah, but I'm not as knowlegeable about that.

Jules, thank, sweetie! And the same to you! Merry Christmas!

Kathleen, you're very welcome. And Merry Christmas to YOU!

Michelle, it's been a CRAZY day! Maybe I'm being punished for taking off a couple hours to have a decadent lunch with YOU ...chock full of calories! ;o) But I'll check it out tonite!

Always Questioning, Thanks! Funny about Holiday Inn, because that's exactly what my daughter says, too! ;o)

Saur♥Kraut said...

Mr. Gator, I don't have much time to study those passages, but are you aware that the last passage has nothing to do with purification? Of course you may have made an intentional jab that I'm not picking up on (women worth less than men)?

As for the passage in Luke, you need to read the corresponding passage in Leviticus ch. 12 entirely. There you'll see where the mother is seen as 'unclean' for the first 7 days after a birth and on the 8th day the boy is circumcised. Then she needs to continue her status of 'unclean' for an addt'l. 33 days (totalling 40). In Luke, it mentions the first 7, but doesn't preclude the additional days. In fact, Luke 2:22 mentions that there were additional days of purification required.

Thankfully, we no longer must adhere to such stringent restrictions.

Senor Caiman said...

You’re giving a “C” student way too much credit. Thank you.

Daniel Hoffmann-Gill said...

The other problem with the picture is that Jesus and his parents are white.

Saur♥Kraut said...

Mr. Gator, *g* NP!

Daniel, bingo!

Three Score and Ten or more said...

Enjoyed the post. A second, sometimes postulated rationale for frankincence and myyrh is that they were (and they WERE) items related to the death and burial, and that this was, in some way, an indication that the wise men were prescient about the upcoming death and resurrection.

As far as the anachronistic sense that they were white, several of the tribes of Israel, particularly Judah were occasionally referred to as "fair of face", and either Justin Martyr or Josephus (as close as we come to contemporary history except for the gospels) described Jesus as having auburn hair and beard. He also made some comment about eye color, but I don't remember what it was. I personally feel that haggling about Jesus' ethnicity is a bit silly. I suspect that, taking the comment in Genesis that God created man (Adam and Eve) in His own image, in His own image, created he them, results in all of us seeing the Lord as a reflection of ourselves (or vice-versa). I saw a magnificent production last weekend of Langston Hughes' BLACK NATIVITY, directed by a good friend (who also directed me in A CHRISTMAS CAROL, in spite of which we are still friends). The opening vision of Mary, in Labor, carried by Joseph would have been just as beautiful if the actors had been Purple (which of course, they were not). Whatever color, they kept me clapping, dancing and weeping for over two hours.

Saur♥Kraut said...

3 Score & 10,'re right, that is yet another reason they may have brought the frankincense and myrrh: as a foretelling. But it doesn't say in the scriptures, it's only our guess. I thought about including that too, but this post was long enough!

As for his ethnicity, you have to realize that by the time anyone noted Jewish complexions, it was wayyyy past Jesus' time and there had been the opportunity for other cultures to interbreed. I suspect he was quite dark and swarthy, which would have been seen as unattractive in that day. Remember, Isaiah the prophet was inspired of God to write the future King of the Jews: "He hath no form nor comeliness; and when we see Him, there is no beauty that we should desire Him." (Isa. 53:2).

So he certainly wasn't the washed out pretty boy that we see in most depictions.

Remember, he was also a carpenter so he would've been calloused and muscular and probably short.

Saur♥Kraut said...

P.S. I know it wasn't Josephus that described Jesus, because he hadn't been an eyewitness. He just made a passing reference to the story briefly.

Julie said...

Absolutely fascinating post, Saur. Thank you!

Saur♥Kraut said...

Thanks, Julie! I like your post today, BTW!

AP3 said...

Good post. Very educational! Great summary.

I personally like nativities that have the shepherds (from Luke, our populist) and the wise men (from Matthew, who's, uh, refined?) all together... Hey, why not? Mix and match and all that.

ts said...

sorry i joined late, but the china daily "newspaper" recently published an article about a nativity ingraving found in china, dated to around 200ad.

here's the link:

FTS said...

This is a great post. There are so many things we *think* we understand, yet there is still much to learn.

One of my pastors was speaking about Jesus' robes, for instance. He noted that they were of one material, not several different pieces sewn together. This was reflective of someone having a bit of wealth, as they would be the only ones able to afford such a garment. That's why the soldiers, who were about to rip it up while he hung on the cross, decided instead to draw lots for it.

Jesus was not as poor as some believe. He had to have money in order to travel, and he put in charge of it the disciple most likely to steal. There are lessons to be learned in everything.

Well done. :)

Daniel Hoffmann-Gill said...

He would've been calloused and muscular and probably short.


Liquidplastic said...

This was a most enjoyable read. Growing up in the South the Bible was the "book". If you didn't read it you got your butt whipped. I have read the Bible from front to back serveral times .. it is filled with wonderful stories, and some that brought me nightmares.

Oh how I love frankincense and myrrh? I burn it almost daily during meditation.

Saurkraut you are a wonder ...!

Aunt Jo said...

Our pastor suggests that the frankincence and myrrh were sold or traded to fund their passage into Egypt.

Great post.

The Lazy Iguana said...

Yes there is something else wrong in the picture.

A pregnant virgin. Every man's nightmare.