Matthew 2:1–12 recounts how wise men from the East, called magi, were guided by a star to the town of Bethlehem to visit the baby Jesus: “They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (verse 11, NLT).
By the time the magi arrived, Jesus was probably about two years old. The family had moved from the stable into a more suitable “house” accommodation. The magi bowed down and worshiped the Child, presenting Him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Each of these gifts was extremely valuable. Gold and costly spices like frankincense and myrrh were gifts reserved for high-ranking figures, such as kings and queens (1 Kings 9:28; 10:2).
Immediately following the visit of the magi and presentation of their gifts, God spoke to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Get up” and “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him” (Matthew 2:13). That same night the family departed for Egypt and stayed there until the death of Herod.
The Bible does not say what Mary and Joseph did with the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, but many scholars have remarked that these gifts would have likely helped finance the family’s material needs during their trip to Egypt and beyond.
Matthew does not specify the exact value or quantity of each gift, but the items were known to be treasured commodities in ancient times. Gold, the most valuable of all precious metals, was the standard currency of the day (see Acts 3:4–6; Matthew 10:9). It was used in jewelry (Genesis 24:53; Exodus 35:22; 1 Peter 3:3), in the priestly vestments (Exodus 28:4–5; 11–15), and extensively in the furnishings of the tabernacle (Exodus 25:11–13; 38:21–24; 39:37–38) and temple (1 Kings 6:28, 30, 32, 35; 7:48–51; 1 Chronicles 22:14). It is no stretch of the imagination to think that Joseph would have used the magi’s gift of gold to pay for the family’s expenses.
Frankincense and myrrh, both aromatic resins, were used in worship because of their intensely fragrant properties. God instructed the Israelites to use frankincense as one of the pure ingredients of the most holy blend of incense reserved exclusively for ritual purposes. No other incense mixture was permitted on the altar of the Lord (Exodus 30:9, 34–38). Pure frankincense was set near the bread of the presence (Leviticus 24:7) and sprinkled in with the grain offerings (Leviticus 2:1–2). It was also used in perfumes (Song of Solomon 3:6; 4:6, 14).
This spice was expensive and precious for a couple of reasons. First, it had to be gathered from far-off regions of India, North Africa, and South Arabia and transported long distances by camel caravan back to Israel. The processing of frankincense was complex, taking months to harvest and distill.
Myrrh was another valuable spice used by merchants for trading in Bible times (Genesis 37:25; Revelation 18:11–13). It was considered a sacred anointing oil (Exodus 30:22–28). Myrrh was also used to make perfumes (Song of Solomon 1:13; Psalm 45:8), medicine (Mark 15:22–23), beauty treatments (Esther 2:12), and for anointing the dead (John 19:38–40). Like frankincense, myrrh production was time-consuming to process, and the raw material had to be imported from distant lands.
Any of the gifts the magi brought to Jesus could have been sold or traded for supplies, accommodations, and living expenses. Some traditions speculate that Mary saved the frankincense and myrrh to use as ointments to anoint Jesus’ body for burial. But the Bible doesn’t mention this. Instead, John’s Gospel states that Nicodemus brought “about seventy-five pounds” of a perfumed mixture of “myrrh and aloes” to anoint Jesus’ body for burial (John 19:39–40). Since the Bible does not reveal what Joseph and Mary did with the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, the best readers can do is hazard a guess.