Glittering Gold, Medicinal Myrrh and Fragrant Frankincense -- By: Gary A. Byers
BSP 11:4 (Fall 1998) p. 93
Glittering Gold, Medicinal Myrrh and Fragrant Frankincense
We are all familiar with the Three Kings of Christmas. The day of their visit to the baby Jesus is celebrated annually on January 6, the Feast of Epiphany. Tradition says they arrived on camels and their names were Caspar, Melchoir and Balthazar, who was black. Their bones are said to be buried behind the high altar in the Cologne Cathedral and their three gifts are stored for safe-keeping at the Monastery of St. Paul on Mount Athos in Greece. Yet, the Bible does not call them kings, but wise men (magi); the Bible does not mention three men, just three gifts; and neither their names or their camels are mentioned in the text (Mt 2).
Of the three gifts brought by the wise men, today we are most familiar with gold. An element, it is number 79 on the Periodic Table of Elements. Gold is a naturally-occurring metal that, since the dawn of recorded history, has been singled out for its attractiveness and value. During both the Old and New Testament periods, it was the most valuable commodity of exchange. At the time of Christ’s birth, a pound of gold was valued at about $600. Today, gold brings up to $8,000 a pound. Interestingly, gold was listed with both frankincense and myrrh among the oldest known prescriptions in the Egyptian Papyrus Ebers.
A second gift from the magi was myrrh. It is first mentioned in the Bible as one of five ingredients of the holy anointing oil of the Tabernacle (Ex 30:23–24). Coming from both Hebrew (mour) and Greek (smurna) words meaning bitter, that is exactly how myrrh tasted. In addition to being offered to Jesus shortly after His birth, myrrh was also offered to Him at the time of His death (Mk 15:23). It was also used in His burial (Jn 19:39).
Historically, myrrh was utilized for both medicinal and cosmetic purposes. Applied externally on wounds and internally for fever, dropsy, asthma and diarrhea, myrrh was served as an analgesic(painkiller) and for skin inflammation. Cosmetically it was a favorite ingredient in perfume, oil and incense. Today, myrrh is used in the manufacture of toothpaste and mouthwash. The most valuable of the three gifts offered to baby Jesus, myrrh was worth as much as $4,000 a pound. Unlike gold, its value has plummeted and today a pound of myrrh is worth only about $15.
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