The Gifts of the Magi

There are numerous reasons to believe in an Arab origin of the Magi in the nativity story over other common theories. These next two articles will briefly outline two strong evidences: the most likely and common sources of the 3 gifts presented to the Christ-child followed by a discussion on the Star of Bethlehem and astrology in the ancient East.

Incense: the Ancient Oil of Arabia

From ancient times the Arabian Peninsula was known for its supremacy in the spice trade. As early as the fifth century B.C. Arabia specialized in the production of frankincense and myrrh. In this regard, the historian Herodotus (fifth century B.C.) wrote, “Arabia is the most distant to the south of all inhabited countries: and this is the only country that yields frankincense and myrrh and casia and cinnamon and gum-mastich. All these but myrrh are difficult for the Arabians to get.”

Image Credit National Geographic

In addition to Herodotus’s testimony, the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder (first century A.D.) makes very significant statements regarding the monopoly of Arabia in the production of frankincense and myrrh….

The Sabaeans mentioned by Pliny here come from Saba’, which should be associated with biblical Sheba, and are the “most distinguished branch of the South Arabian family.” The Sabaeans dominated the incense trade for centuries and probably for millennia before Christ. However, toward the end of the first millennium B.C. the power of incense marketing shifted northward to the Nabataean kingdom.

Strabo, the first-century A.D. geographer, divides the country of Arabia into five divisions, two of which are myrrh-producing sections and frankincense-producing sections. He identifies Cataban as the frankincense-producing area and Hadramawt as the myrrh-producing land, both of which are located in south Arabia. Thus, it was an established fact in the ancient world that all of Arabia spread a very delicious fragrance, and that south Arabia in particular was the aromatic country par excellence. Therefore, two of the three gift items that the magi presented to Christ formed a primary source for the economic power and wealth of the country of Arabia over a very lengthy period of time. Due to these important natural resources, the kingdom of Sheba became, according to Diodorus, the wealthiest kingdom in the ancient world.

The Precious Gold of Arabia

The fame of the gold of Arabia is well confirmed in biblical references (1 Kings 10:10; Ps. 72:15; Isa. 60:6; Ezek. 27:22; 38:13) and classic writers as well. Diodorus Siculus (first century B.C.) again testifies to the fact that gold was a great source of strength for ancient Arabia….

Psalm 72 as related in the Septuagint clearly predicts that the Messiah of Israel, Son of David, will be given of the “gold of Arabia.” This confirms that the gold of that land was very famous and much sought after.

Classical sources and Scripture references mentioned earlier make it clear that gold was also a much sought after trade item in Arabia because of its abundance and the degree of purity it was famous for.

Due to the strong historic connections of the three gifts of the magi to the Arabian peninsula and their documentation in numerous sources, this critical detail in the story of the nativity leads us towards a wondrous conclusion. The Magi are likely to have come from the ‘People of the East’, the Abrahamic line of Ishmael who settled there. Not only does this mysterious visit fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy (Isa. 60:1-6), it also seems to answer Abraham’s prayer: “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!” Indeed a stunning thought that among the first to realize the royal implications of the birth of the Christ child were peasant Jewish shepherds and their Abrahamic cousins, Arab royalty.

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About Tony Maalouf

Dr. Tony Maalouf is a professor of World Christianity at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and serves as an adjunct or visiting professor at numerous other institutions across the globe. His areas of interest in teaching include Arabs in biblical history and Muslim/Christian relations. Dr. Maalouf has written extensively on Ishmael, including a book titled "Arabs in the Shadow of Israel" about God's plan for the line of Ishmael.

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