Dear Brothers and Sisters,
You may have heard that the magi’s gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh represent Jesus’ identity: gold for kingship, incense for his divinity, and myrrh as a pointer to his death. It’s not wrong to see them as symbols, but historically they would have been tribute gifts from one kingdom to another. Records show that bringing rich gifts on diplomatic visits was the custom all across the ancient Middle East. Furthermore, the rich gifts were representative of the countries from which they were given. So, Arabians would offer camels, and Africans are recorded as making gifts of ebony, elephants and ivory.
With this in mind, we can see that the true significance of the three gifts is that they tell us where the magi came from. They were not from Persia as most people suggest. Gold, frankincense and myrrh were cash crops of the Nabateans who were the occupying power of what is now Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Have you ever heard of King Solomon’s Mines? These were the gold mines in western Arabia–the remains of which have been excavated by archeologists within the last few decades. The gold from these mines–and mines in Northeast Africa (the area of Sheba), was considered to be the finest and purest in the ancient world. Thus, gold was one of the representative gifts from the Nabatean kingdom in Arabia.
Frankincense was made from the gum from the sap from bushes that only grew in eastern Arabia. Huge farms existed there for the lucrative incense trade in the ancient world. During the time of Christ’s birth, the Nabateans had a virtual monopoly of the incense trade and their trade routes crisscrossed the Arabian desert bringing goods from the Red Sea ports to the Mediterranean, and out to the rest of the Roman Empire. The bushes from which myrrh was made were also native to the Arabian Peninsula and were another cash crop of the Nabateans.
Considering that the magi went first to King Herod, they were clearly looking for a King of the Jews who was the heir of Herod. This does not mean the magi were purely secular. A separation of church and state was unknown in those days. They may have come to Herod, but they would also have been aware of the prophecies of coming Jewish messiah.
So, the real significance of the gold, frankincense and myrrh is that they confirm what Justin Martyr wrote in the early second century–that the magi came from Arabia. This also confirms the accuracy of the Old Testament prophecies (Isaiah 60 and Psalm 72) which we read at Epiphany, because Sheba, Midian and Ephah mentioned there are all in the territory of the Nabateans of Jesus’ time.