Aloe and Myrrh
Modern day analysis on the most ancient of herbs. Known for being applied to Jesus once in the tomb and assumed to be part of an embalming process, what role do these herbs play in the world today?
Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jews. With Pilate's permission, he came and took the body away. He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds.Taking Jesus' body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs." John 19:38-40
For thousands of years the herbs Aloe and Myrrh have held special relevance in the Christian world. Even modern day encyclopaedias mention the events of the Crucifixion of Jesus in their analysis of the herbs. These herbs are mentioned as being used in the burial of Jesus, for instance we find an entry for Myrrh stating:
"Myrrh is a constituent of perfumes and incense, and was highly prized in ancient times. Myrrh was one of the gifts of the Magi to the baby Jesus in the story told in the Gospel of Matthew. Myrrh was used as an incense in funerals and cremations, a fact alluded to in the Christmas carol We Three Kings" (www.Wikipedia.com - online encyclopedia)
Other sources outline how Aloe was thought to have been used during the embalming process of the Egyptians 1 What becomes interesting, however, is what is actually said about the medicinal properties of the herb. It is often cited that one of its famous occurrences is in the Gospel of John during the burial of Christ and this event may have shaped people's perceived view of its uses. Upon examination of its documented properties all sources talk about its remarkable healing properties. It is accepted that even the Greeks and Romans as early as 300BC were aware of the healing properties of aloes:
"Aristotle was aware that the healing properties of aloe would be invaluable to soldiers wounded in battle and advised his student Alexander III ("the Great") to conquer all lands that grew it, especially the island of Socotra off the coast of eastern Africa... Pedanius Dioscorides, a physician in the Roman army, mentioned medicinal aloes in his encyclopedic Greek herbal De Materia Medica (Approximately around 75 BC). " 2
"The healing benefits of aloe were recognized in the ancient Indian, Chinese, Greek, and Roman civilizations. It is traditionally used to heal wounds, relieve itching and swelling, and is known for its anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties." 3
Myrrh also is a herb that although often linked to Jesus and his burial was clearly recognised at the time as a healing agent. Aloe is talked about as having properties that help wounds heal and aid the reformation of skin, where as Myrrh is used more for anti inflammatory and anti bacterial reasons:
"In the past myrrh was used by many cultures for religious ceremonies and as a healing agent. It was mentioned in the Bible as a gift at the birth of Christ. The Egyptians believed in its healing powers: they burned it every day as part of their worshipping rituals. In the Greek culture when soldiers went to battle is was an essential part of their combat gear because of myrrhs extremely high antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties. It was used to clean wounds and to prevent infection. It was also used to prevent the spread of gangrene in already infected parts of the body. " 4
Were the herbs not used for embalming the body of Jesus? From the sources seen so far the idea of embalming using aloe has only surfaced in the Egyptian world. It is thought that pharaohs were buried along with aloes. Was Jesus being embalmed? The problem occurs when Jewish burial practices are examined. Jewish burial involved simply washing the body and burying it, there was no embalming. For a body to be embalmed incisions needed to be made. This was understood by the people of the time, and for Jews to make such incisions would not be acceptable. Upon the advent of the passing away of Judah, one of the ancestors of modern day Jews, he is recorded as having stated:
"I die this day at the age of one hundred and nineteen years before your eyes. None shall bury me in a costly garment, nor shall ye cut my body to embalm it, but ye shall carry me to Hebron." Having spoken these words, Judah sank into death.5
It seems unlikely that the aloes present were for embalming, also having myrrh there also in large quantities was not consistent with this hypothesis. If the viewpoint is taken that Jesus could possibly have still been alive at this point, and that Joseph of Arimithea and Nicodemus who were tending to him had knowledge of herbs, then the possible role of these herbs becomes clear.
Could they have been used to treat Jesus and to help him recover from his ordeal?
Modern Day Use
Today there is an increasing amount of usage of Aloes in products. Gillette series shaving foam now contains what the can calls "Soothing Aloes", and a wide range of aloe-based creams and gels are available mainly for healing of the skin 6.
Perhaps the most definitive answer on the properties of aloes comes from a book written by medical experts. "Aloes: The Genus Aloe (Medicinal & Aromatic Plants S. - Industrial Profiles)" edited by Tom Reynolds represents the most details study yet in to this fascinating herb. Detailed analysis of the herb is presented and an entire part is devoted to exploring "therapeutic activity and includes chapters on aloe's role in wound healing, skin cancer, and the immune system.7
Diane Gage has chosen to title her book on the subject "Aloe Vera: Nature's Soothing Healer" and her text discusses the biological properties of aloe vera, explaining its power to heal the human body, and traces the ways the plant has been used throughout history.
Aloe and Myrrh appear to be ideal herbs for treating someone who had suffered an ordeal such as crucifixion. Their reported presence at the crucifixion does arouse some suspicion as to the events that followed Jesus' removal from the cross.
Were they used simply for embalming or fragrant use as is traditionally understood, or were their excellent healing and antiseptic properties employed instead to help heal Jesus' wounds and to aid his recovery from an ordeal he survived?