The spring semester will soon begin at Hastings College and this means that I will once again be teaching an introductory course in the New Testament, something I look forward to with great anticipation every year. There's nothing I enjoy more than delving into the religious and cultural context of Roman-occupied Palestine and encouraging students to appreciate the enormous complexity of the material that they will be studying until the month of May (and hopefully thereafter). But there is one obstacle that invariably stands in the way of this endeavor, something I like to call "the Ouija board approach" to reading scripture. If this reference is less than self-explanatory, imagine trying to persuade a group of Christians – whether in college or in the church – to read the book of Isaiah on its own terms and not as a kind of visionary foretelling of events that come to fruition in the birth, life, and death of Jesus Christ.
With respect to Isaiah 60:1-6, for example, I can conceive of impressing upon the class the importance of historical context, the fact that the prophet is offering a destitute people newly returned from Babylon a sign of hope amidst unfathomable ruin. In sixth-century BCE Jerusalem, a place whose glory had long since disappeared, the Jews could look forward to little else but darkness and despair. But Isaiah's words present an alternative vision of light shining forth from the land itself and attracting both the attention and respect of the other nations.
To this radiant city on a hill the leaders of the world will come, proclaims the prophet, bringing the abundance of the sea and the treasures of the earth. Though it sounds less than appealing to us, all the camels of Midian and Ephah and Sheba will flock to the altar of the Lord. Perhaps most important of all, the affirmation of the people as both a royal and priestly nation will be made evident by the gifts that will be bestowed upon them: gold – a precious metal synonymous with kingship – and frankincense – a substance associated with the aroma of the sanctuary (Ex. 30:34) and a regular accompaniment to animal sacrifices in the Temple (cf. Lev. 2:1, 16; 6:15; 24:7). As Malachi 1:11 informs us, the latter was also a symbol of the divine name and thus an appropriate offering for the people of God.
How frustrating then to learn from more than a few Ouija board Christians that this series of verses can be understood only as a prophetic prediction of the birth of Christ in Bethlehem over five hundred years after the words were uttered. "Look," they will say, "it is all very clear: the light shining in the darkness (Is. 60:1) is obviously the star that will lead the nations – the Magi – to the Christ child; they will come riding on camels, just as the prophet foretold (60:5); and they will bring precious gifts to lay before the king. Isaiah even tells us what these will be: gold, frankincense, and myrrh."
Never mind, of course, that the third of these oblations is never mentioned – not in Isaiah, at least.
It is apparent that when writing his gospel the apostle Matthew went to great lengths to demonstrate the continuity between the birth of Christ and the messianic hopes of the Jewish people. In the two chapters that precede the Markan core of his text, there are a number of clear references – as well as a few important inferences – to what came to pass in order that "the scriptures might be fulfilled." It is all the more interesting then, with Matthew's great attention to detail, that we find this curious addition to the text of Isaiah 60. Whence, and why, this inclusion of myrrh in the story?
A simple response would be to propose that at the time of Matthew's writing the myrrh trade in the Near East was at its peak; the substance was valued among the wealthy and royalty in a way that it had not been five hundred years earlier. As myrrh was often used in conjunction with frankincense, Matthew simply felt obliged to bring his gospel up to date culturally. Certainly the Christ child was just as worthy of the highly-prized aromatic as any of the well-heeled citizens of Rome, so it was only right that he include it. But while all of this may be true historically, it is not sufficient to reveal the depth of Matthew's thinking on how the scriptures were not entirely fulfilled by the birth of Jesus. Indeed, to play on Hamlet's famous quip, "the myrrh's the thing" that reveals to us fully the God who was made known to the nations that night in Bethlehem.
Proponents of the so-called two-source hypothesis tell us that when writing his gospel Matthew (as well as Luke) used a copy of Mark as a reference – a literary foundation, if you will. This being the case, he was able to develop and explain to his Jewish-Christian community various aspects of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ that he found lacking in the earlier manuscript. His familiarity with Mark, for example, may have led him to reflect on what might otherwise seem like an insignificant incident that took place at the foot of the cross: "Then they brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means the place of a skull). And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh; but he did not take it. And they crucified him…" (Mark 15:22-24a). He may have also been familiar with another tradition found in John where Nicodemus brings "a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds" (Jn. 19:39) to anoint the crucified body of Christ.
What seems clear in all this is that Matthew, in his account of Jesus' birth, directs his readers symbolically to the conclusion of his gospel by taking a few liberties with the Isaiahic text, and in doing so points us toward our own epiphany about the meaning of God's manifestation in the world. Introducing a substance associated with the embalming of bodies into the story of a child's birth may seem like a macabre literary device, but Matthew wants his Jewish-Christian audience to know precisely what they are in for if they venture any further into his text. Further – and this point is easily lost on us during the Christmas season – he wants them to realize that there is at least one way in which the coming of Jesus into the world did not fulfill what the scriptures had spoken.
Whereas the people of Israel looked forward to the coming of a righteous king, or perhaps a faithful priest in the line of Aaron – men, that is, who were worthy of the nations' gifts of gold or frankincense – what they did not expect was a messiah who would also fulfill the long-neglected vocation of God's prophet, with all the dubious rights and privileges accruing thereto, including an intimate knowledge of the funerary use of myrrh. As Walter Brueggemann has noted, Isaiah's prophecy, when compared to the events recorded in Matthew, is in fact nine miles off the mark. While the people of God expected a king to come in glory amidst the splendor of Jerusalem, what they got – and what the evangelist wants to establish emphatically – was a humble servant born just a short geographical, albeit a long theological distance away in the unassuming town of Bethlehem.
I am a little hesitant to admit it, but whenever I hear the story of the Magi visiting the Christ child I cannot help but be reminded of the Monty Python film, The Life of Brian, in which a version of this story is comically rendered. Believing themselves to be in the presence of the long-awaited messiah, the wise men offer their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, to the infant Brian, much to the bewilderment of the boy's mother. As the three kings are about to leave, she thanks them for their tribute, making special note of how pleased she is with the gold and frankincense. The myrrh, however, she could do without and even tries to give it back to the visitors, feeling that such a gift is inappropriate for her new-born child.
But in this lies the "joke," if you will, and Matthew is especially concerned that his readers get it. The myrrh's the thing, the gift that reveals the God of the Israelites for who God truly is: a Creator willing to empty Godself and take on the form of a vulnerable child, thus becoming one with all of humanity and creation. We lose sight of this significant aspect of Epiphany if we, following Isaiah's lead, focus our attention primarily on the gold of Jerusalem's kings and the frankincense of the Temple priests. The good news must finally, and paradoxically, be rounded out by the messianic role of the rejected prophet, suffering in solidarity with both a broken humanity and a steadfast God, always mindful of the ever-present fragrance of death