Anointing was used in antiquity in three chief connexions: (1) as a part of the toilet, to beautify, strengthen, and refresh the body; (2) medicinally; (3) as a part of religious ceremonial. From the last-named sprang (4) the use of terms of anointing in a metaphorical sense to signify, e.g., the imparting of the Divine Spirit, whether to the Messiah or to the Christian disciple.
- So far as the first use is concerned, examples within our period may be found in the anointing of the Lord’s feet (Lk 7:38, 46, Jn 12:3) and in Mt 6:17 ‘anoint thy head, and wash thy face.’
- Instances of the second occur in Jn 9:6, 11, Rev 3:18 ‘eyesalve to anoint thine eyes,’ and are generally found in Mk 6:13 ‘they anointed with oil many that were sick, and healed them,’ and Ja 5:14 ‘Is any among you sick? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.’ The commentators on these texts generally quote passages to prove that the use of oil was well known in medicine, and leave it to be understood that the apostles in the Gospel and the elders in the Epistle are thought of as making use of the simplest healing remedy known to them. This method of interpretation does not seem satisfactory, because the parallels quoted do not bear out the point. In Is 1:6 and Lk 10:34 oil is used as a remedy for wounds, not for internal sickness. Herod in his last illness was placed in a bath of warm oil (Jos. BJ i. xxxiii. 5), but this was only one amongst several methods of treatment used in his case, and was no doubt employed because of the open and running sores on his body. Galen (Med. Temp., bk. ii.) speaks of oil as the ‘best of medicines for withered and dry bodies,’ but that does not mean that he would have advocated the indiscriminate use of oil in cases of sickness due to various causes. Philo’s praise of oil for imparting vigour to the flesh (Somn. ii. 8) must not be pressed into an advocacy of it as a panacea against all forms of disease. It must remain doubtful whether the two NT passages can be reasonably understood to mean that oil was used as a simple medical remedy without deeper signification.
- The use of anointing in religious ceremony was very varied. It was applied both to persona—as, e.g., to the kings and high priests—and to inanimate things. This is not the place to investigate the original signification of the act of anointing in religious ceremonies (see Robertson Smith, Rel. Sem. 2, 1894, pp. 233, 383; ERE, HDB, SDB, EBi, art. ‘Anointing’), but it seems clear that it came to signify the consecration of persons and things to the service of God, and also the communication to, e.g., the kings, of the Divine Spirit (see E. Kautzsch, in HDB v. 659). That is to say, anointing had in part the nature of a sacrament. And it seems probable that something of this sort underlies the passages Mk 6:13, Ja 5:14. The anointing oil was not merely medicinal, but consecrated the patient to God, and, together with prayer, was the means of conveying to him the Divine healing life. We may compare a passage in the Secrets of Enoch (22:8), where Enoch, when carried into the presence of God, is anointed with holy oil, with the result (56:2) that he needs no food, and is purged from earthly passions.
- Instances of the metaphorical use of anointing to signify the communication of the Divine Spirit are to be found in 1 Jn 2:20, 27 ‘ye have an anointing from the Holy One,’ ‘his anointing teacheth you all things.’ ‘Anointing’ here means the material, not the act, of anointing, and so the grace of the Holy Spirit. The same metaphorical use is found in 2 Co 1:21, ‘He that hath anointed us is God’; and in the passages in which Christ is spoken of as having been anointed, Ac 4:27; 10:38, He 1:9 (OT quot.). A passage in the recently discovered Odes of Solomon (36:5), ‘He hath anointed me from his own perfection,’ may be referred to here. It is uncertain whether the speaker is Christ or the Christian. Allusions to a custom of anointing dead bodies are found in Mk 14:8 and the parallels, and in Mk 16:1.
Lastly, reference should be made to the abstention from anointing by the Essenes (Jos. BJ ii. viii. 3). This is explained by Schürer (HJP ii. ii. 212) as a part of an attempt to return to the simplicity of nature; by Bousset (Rel. des Jud.2, Berlin, 1906, p. 442) as a protest against the priesthood, whose authority rested upon anointing.
Literature.—See the artt. ‘Anointing’ in ERE, HDB, and EBi; and, for the development of the doctrine of Extreme Unction in the Church, J. B. Mayor on Ja 5:14 (Ep. of St. James3, 1910); see also ExpT xvii.  418ff. and the literature there cited.
Willoughby C. Allen.
BJ Bellum Judaicum (Josephus).
HDB Hastings’ Dict. of the Bible (5 vols.).
SDB Hastings’ Single-vol. Dictionary of the Bible.
EBi Encyclopædia Biblica.