Medicinal uses of frankincense may help explain the gifts of the magi
Since the early days of Christianity, Biblical scholars and theologians have offered varying interpretations of the meaning and significance of the gold, frankincense and myrrh that the magi presented to Jesus.
The common belief is that these valuable items were standard gifts to honour a king or deity in the ancient world: gold as a precious metal, frankincense as perfume or incense, and myrrh as an anointing oil.
As an side it’s also interesting that Matthew’s gospel does not include the names or even number of the magi and the perceived wisdom that there were 3 is only based on the number of gifts presented to the infant Jesus – some sources even say there were scores of magi – see our article The Magi – a new revelation ? .
In addition to the honour and status implied by the value of the gifts of the magi, scholars think that these three were chosen for their special spiritual symbolism about Jesus himself—gold representing his kingship, frankincense a symbol of his priestly role, and myrrh a prefiguring of his death and embalming—an interpretation made popular in the well-known Christmas carol “We Three Kings.”
However others have suggested that the gifts of the magi were a bit more practical—even medicinal in nature. Researchers at Cardiff University have demonstrated that frankincense has an active ingredient that can help relieve arthritis by inhibiting the inflammation that breaks down cartilage tissue and causes arthritis pain. The new study validates traditional uses of frankincense as an herbal remedy to treat arthritis in communities of North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, where the trees that produce this aromatic resin grow.
Did the magi “from the East” know of frankincense’s healing properties when they presented it to young Jesus? – we may never know but it’s certainly a possibility.