Historical Origins And Development Of Anointing The Sick With Oil

Themes: Biblical, Christian Year, History, Scholar, Theology

Anointing with oil is one of the oldest human rituals. It is frequently mentioned in Scripture and played an important role in the life of the early church. This article traces the history of this sacred action, concentrating on the ancient and medieval periods.

Ancient peoples used olive oil in several ways. Shepherds poured it on the scratched and wounded heads of sheep entering the fold at eventide (Ps. 23:5). Kings, prophets, and priests were anointed as a consecration to their sacred tasks. In the Scriptures, Aaron and his sons are anointed at the initiation of the Levitical priesthood (Lev. 8:30); both Saul and David are anointed to their kingships (1 Sam. 10:1; for Saul; and 1 Sam. 16:13; 2 Sam. 2:4; 5:3; for David); and Elijah was instructed to anoint Elisha as a prophet (1 Kings 19:16). Both men (2 Sam. 12:20) and women (Ruth 3:3) employed oil as a cosmetic. It appears that a good host was expected to pour oil on the heads of his guests as a courtesy. Jesus administers a rebuke to the Pharisee who fails to anoint his head when he goes to dine in that man’s home (Luke 7:44–46).

Anointing for Healing

By New Testament times the medicinal use of oil was common. Jesus tells the story of a Samaritan who finds a robbery victim left for dead along the roadside and pours wine and oil on his wounds (Luke 10:33–34). The wine was probably used for disinfecting, and the oil as a healing agent.

It is not clear when anointing with oil began to be practiced for affecting supernatural healing. The Gospel writers do not record any instance in which Jesus used oil for this purpose; although in one case, he applied a mud plaster (John 9:6). Mark’s gospel states, however, that Jesus’ disciples were to anoint sick persons with oil for healing when they went out to proclaim the appearance of the kingdom of God (Mark 6:13).

In the first century, anointing with oil was clearly associated with prayer for healing. Referring to a practice with which his readers were obviously familiar, James directs that persons afflicted with illness call for the church elders to pray for them and anoint them with oil (James 5:14), adding that the sick person will be raised up and his sins forgiven through these actions (v. 15).

Early Christian writings contain accounts of both exorcisms and healings of persons, who were deformed, paralyzed, and afflicted with illnesses which were not imminently fatal, as a result of anointing with oil and prayer. Although the James passage is not specifically cited in these accounts, it is reasonable to assume that this passage provides the background for them.

Rituals of Anointing

Historically, the church has differentiated between anointing as a liturgical act and the gift of healing mentioned by Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 12:9, 28, 30). In his Liber de praescriptionibus, Tertullian condemns the heretical practice of allowing women to teach, cast out evil spirits, and promise healing (chap. 41 [PL 2:69]). Since Tertullian would have understood that the gift of healing as given by God and, thus, not regulated by the church, his polemic must have been directed specifically against the institutional practice of healing by the laity.

By the beginning of the third century, the blessing of oil for use in healing rituals had become an established Christian custom. A reference in the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus contains a prayer to be used in the Mass in which God is requested to imbue the oil with healing power. Hippolytus does not specify whether people applied the oil to themselves, ingested it, or were anointed by a religious official. In the Sacramentary of Serapion, there are prayers to be said over both oil for anointing and water to be consumed for the healing of illness and casting out of demons (De visitatione infirmorum 2:4). A similar prayer for consecrating both oil and water is found in the Testamentum Domini nostri Jesu Christi. No liturgy can be found for applying the oil or drinking the water. This absence may indicate that the efficacy was thought to be in the elements themselves. Thus, they could be administered by the common people as well as by clerics.

Although directions are given for praying over the sick, there is no direct reference in the third- and fourth-century Canons of Hippolytus to anointing with oil. An allusion to anointing can be inferred, however, from a mention in canon 222 of preparing vases for the sick (see L. Duchesne, Origins of Christian Worship [1904], 537–39); it is possible that these were vases of anointing oil.

The Council of Laodicea (a.d. 367) provided for the anointing of repentant heretics in order that they might be received back into the fellowship of the church. This practice is not linked with James’ instruction and is apparently not derived from his epistle.

From the fifth to the eighth century, anointing with oil was commonly used for both healing and exorcism. Some documents from this period specifically relate anointing to the forgiveness of sin. It appears that the oil had to be blessed by the bishop in order to be considered effective, but the act of anointing was often carried out by the lay people. Although no instructions are given for the method of anointing, it was usually accompanied by prayer or invoking the name of the Lord. Sometimes the oil was applied to the afflicted person; sometimes he or she merely touched it; and on some occasions it was consumed as a drink.

In both the Eastern and Western church, anointing for healing was widely practiced from the eighth century to the Middle Ages. However, during this period it began to be viewed as preparation for death, rather than being primarily a means of healing. Subsequently, anointing was usually accompanied by the sacraments of penance and/or Communion. The many liturgies that developed for such anointings frequently required the reading of a psalm or litany or the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer; some required the laying on of hands. In addition to the shift in emphasis, a change took place in laws regulating its administration. All of this period’s documents that are available indicate that only the priests were allowed to perform what was now considered to be a sacrament of the church.

Sacramental Practice

The theology of anointing for extreme unction, which began with liturgical reform under Charlemagne, became formalized during the Middle Ages. The emphasis of this sacrament was on forgiveness of sin. Many instructions were written on the way this sacrament was to be administered. These instructions allow for the possibility that physical healing may take place as a result of this sacrament, since the removal of sin would necessarily have a beneficial effect on the body. However, spiritual healing was of primary concern, since the sacrament was performed only in extreme cases when death was probable.

The emphasis on anointing for extreme unction rather than for physical healing is still apparent in the Roman Catholic church. Indeed, its official interpretation of James’ instructions for anointing and prayer for healing is that they refer to preparation for death. Since this anointing is considered to be a sacrament, the church allows only ordained priests to administer it.

Many Protestant churches which do not anoint in extremis practice anointing for healing in accordance with James 5:14–15. Anointing is a regular occurrence in churches of the Pentecostal and charismatic traditions, which believe in supernatural healings as a gift of the Holy Spirit.

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