“house.” The magi were not at the birth of Christ. They came over a year later. Joseph and Mary were in a “house,” but the Scripture does not tell us whether they were staying with someone else or had their own house by then. Bethlehem was a small town, and the magi would have had no trouble finding the right house. No one would have forgotten what the shepherds had said less than two years earlier when Jesus was born, how angels appeared to them and said the promised Messiah had been born.
“child.” The Greek is paidion (#3813 παιδίον), which means “young child.” Jesus was no longer a “baby,” which is the Greek brephos (#1025 βρέφος), as he was in Luke 2:12, 16. Now, at over one year old, he is a young boy.
“with Mary his mother.” The Magi no doubt saw Joseph too, but Matthew’s focus is on the Messiah himself, and the woman who was divinely impregnated by God. Thus the record mentions Jesus and Mary, but not Joseph.
“paid homage.” See commentary on Matthew 2:2.
“frankincense and myrrh.” Frankincense and myrrh were two of the more common types of incense used in the ancient world. The Magi brought incense, which made a wonderful gift because it was very portable, quite expensive, and easy to sell. Incense of various kinds was used in all kinds of things, for example in most temples, and places of worship, and also it was burned regularly in many homes.
Wendell Phillips writes, “Today we can scarcely appreciate the role of incense in the ancient world because, for one thing, it is difficult to imagine the odors of that world, requiring clouds of sweet-smelling smoke to cover them.”a
Basically, the whole ancient world smelled terrible, and there were lots of reasons for that: smelly people, smelly clothes, human and animal excrement all over, dead animals (and people) rotting in the open, and garbage and more garbage everywhere you looked.
Most of the people in the ancient world bathed seldom if ever, so we can imagine what they smelled like. While there were public baths in some of the Roman cities, a lot of people did not get to take much advantage of them and there was no truly effective deodorant soap. Furthermore, the vast majority of the people did not or could not wash their clothes. For the most part, the people and their clothes stank.
Also, very few places had an effective way of handling the bodies of dead people and animals, human and animal excrement, of which there was a lot, and normal garbage, which ended up being dumped everywhere. We must remember that there was no “public works department” of the government that took care of sewage, dead bodies, and garbage.
Gregory Aldrete writes about Rome and other larger cities which had very large problems but the same basic problems as other smaller cities and towns:
“The streets of Rome were breeding grounds for numerous disease-causing organisms due to the widespread presence of human and animal cadavers in various states of decomposition as well as the copious quantities of raw sewage deposited in the streets.
“The normal course of events produced enormous numbers of dead bodies, many of which were not properly disposed of. The truly impoverished who could not afford to join a burial club or who lacked nearby family members to cremate or bury their bodies, along with Rome’s large population of homeless and beggars, simply lay where they dropped or else were thrown into the Tiber [River] or into open pits just outside the city. It has been estimated that the city of Rome produced perhaps 1,500 such unclaimed [human] bodies per year [and many animal bodies as well].
“A number of literary anecdotes vividly illustrate the presence of both bodies and scavenging animals in the streets of the city. The poet Martial describes the gruesome death of a beggar whose last moments are spent trying to fend off the dogs and vultures that have gathered to feed on him (Martial, Epigrams 10.5).
“Although Rome possessed some sewers, their purpose was more to provide drainage than to actually carry away waste. While latrines were sometimes present in buildings…most often they were not, suggesting that people relieved themselves in the streets or in chamber pots. Unfortunately, most city inhabitants appear to have emptied their chamber pots by simply dumping them out the windows of their dwellings. Much of Rome's garbage and sewage seems to have ended up in the streets. This was no small problem since, at its height, Rome’s human inhabitants were producing about 50,000 kilograms [over 55 tons] of excrement each day. … Rome’s animals certainly also contributed to the general level of filth. Thus the streets of the city probably more closely resembled open sewers than our modern notion of roadways.”b
The fact that the ancient world stunk produced a great demand for incense. For example, the Beloved in Song of Solomon speaks of a sachet of myrrh between her breasts, which would have given off a pleasant odor. The golden incense altar in the Tabernacle/Temple was to be burned twice a day every day (Exod. 30:7-8). The fact is that cities stunk up until our modern age. As long as things and people moved by horse and carriage there was always some amount of dung in the streets, and truly modern toilets and sewers were not commonly used until the mid-1800s.