“And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” Matthew 2:11
As a boy, I often puzzled over the gifts of the Magi. Gold was certainly a treasure. But what was myrrh, and who was Frank? Eventually, I realized that “Frank” was not a person but a nation; that Frank-incense was named for the Frankish crusaders who introduced this incense to Europe. But millennia before the crusaders, frankincense was already a prized commodity of the ancients.
The Babylonians and Assyrians used frankincense in religious ceremonies. Egyptians used it for incense, insect repellent, perfume, salve, embalming, and for making the black kohl eyeliner worn by Egyptian women.
Early on, frankincense was recognized for its healing properties. The ancients used it to treat a variety of health issues, including wounds, skin conditions, dental and gum disease, digestive issues, and respiratory problems. The Roman emperor Nero used frankincense-ointment to hide the “bags” beneath his eyes after a night of reveling.
And that which the ancients knew, modern science is rediscovering. Research has shown frankincense to be immune-enhancing, antibiotic, antifungal, antiviral, antiseptic, and anti-inflammatory, with potential use for treating some forms of cancer, colitis, Crohn’s disease, anxiety, asthma, arthritis, and more.
Frankincense comes from the Boswellia tree. There are several species of Boswellia: some scraggly, others stately, but all confined to the dry, sun-scorched deserts of the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa. The Greek historian Herodotus reported that Boswellia trees were guarded by flying serpents; though, in all likelihood, this legend was created by Boswellia owners to frighten away Boswellia poachers.
Harvesting frankincense was very time-consuming. Cuts were made in the bark of the Boswellia tree, from which seeped a milky white resin or sap. After drying for three months, the sap was scraped from the tree, sold, then either chewed as gum, steamed for essential oils, or burned as incense—a pleasing citrusy aroma.
Given the inhospitable clime of the Boswellia tree, the difficulties of harvesting and transporting it, and the growing demand for it, frankincense became extremely expensive. By the time Jesus was born, frankincense was worth its weight in gold. So great was its mystique, value, and healing qualities that many ancients viewed frankincense as a gift fitting for the “gods,” and Boswellia trees as the property of kings. Records show that King Seleucus II Pogon of Syria offered gold and frankincense to Apollo at the temple of Miletus in 243 B.C.
Frankincense is mentioned seventeen times in the Bible: fifteen times in the Old Testament and twice in the New1. The biblical words for frankincense—LEVONAH in Hebrew and LIBANOS in Greek—both mean “white”; a reference to the white sap of the Boswellia tree. It’s not surprising that frankincense is mentioned more times in the Old Testament than the New, especially in the Book of Leviticus. Its primary use in the Old Testament was as incense, whether sprinkled on burnt offerings, added to baked offerings, or included in a special incense mixture so sacred that to replicate the mixture for personal use was punishable by death. As stated in Exodus 30:38, “Whoever makes any like it, to smell it, he shall be cut off from his people.”
But for all the Old Testament mentions of frankincense, that New Testament reference in Matthew 2:11 remains the most familiar to us. Knowing the healing properties and extreme value of frankincense, we can better understand why the Magi and the ancient world viewed it as treasure; and why frankincense was an appropriate gift for the infant King of Kings.
Mark Weis is pastor of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Lemmon, South Dakota.
1 Exodus 30:34; Leviticus 2:1, 2, 15, 16; 5:11; 6:15; 24:7; Numbers 5:5; 1 Chronicles 9:29; Nehemiah 13:5, 9; Song of Solomon 3:6; 4:6, 14; Matthew 2:11; and Revelation 18:13.