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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Oil (Olive)

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As the Greek name implies, the common oil of Scripture is olive oil. It is obtained from the ripe olive berries by crushing and pressure, aided sometimes by the use of hot water, and is used for food, light, soap-making, and for anointing the hair and the skin. In Revelation 6:6 ‘the oil and the wine’ refer to the growing crops of olives and grapes. In Revelation 18:13 oil appears in the list of the merchandise of the apocalyptic Babylon.

The remaining references to oil in the apostolic writings illustrate two special purposes for which it was employed.

1. Ceremonial.-The olive oil used in the consecration of priests and kings by anointing was compounded with various perfumed ingredients (Exodus 30:23-25). In this use of oil we have the basis of a number of figurative passages.

(a) In Hebrews 1:9 (= Psalms 45:7) ‘the oil of gladness’ suggests the honour that has been bestowed on the Exalted Christ. Elsewhere there is more distinct reference to His royal position as the Messiah or Anointed One, and to the Holy Spirit as the means of His consecration to this office (Acts 10:38; cf. Acts 4:27).

(b) The Holy Spirit given to Christians is represented as an anointing oil. The context shows that this is the meaning of 2 Corinthians 1:21. The same is true of the ‘anointing’ of 1 John 2:20 (Authorized Version ‘unction’).27.

2. Medicinal.-With this must be connected in some sense the much-discussed passage (James 5:14) where the elders of the Church are directed to pray over the sick brother, ‘anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.’ The general use of oil in ancient times as a remedy for disease and injury is illustrated in Isaiah 1:6, Luke 10:34. The treatment applied to Herod the Great during his last illness (Jos. Ant. XVII. vi. 5, Bellum Judaicum (Josephus) I. xxxiii. 5) is a well-known case in point. That the practice was associated from early times with a belief in magic is shown by S. Daiches (Babylonian Oil Magic in the Talmud and in the later Jewish Literature, 1913). The exact bearing of such facts on James 5:14 must remain obscure, but it is interesting to observe that the procedure here enjoined was anticipated by the Twelve (Mark 6:13), though without any express injunction from Jesus. One thing is clear, viz. that in James the healing of the sick is ascribed directly to ‘the prayer of faith’ (v. 15) and not to the anointing. The latter must be regarded as quite subsidiary, originating probably in compliance with custom, yet dissociated from superstition, since it is done ‘in the name of the Lord,’ and serving perhaps as a kind of sacramental help to faith. ‘It is easier to believe when visible means are used than when nothing is visible, and it is still easier to believe when the visible means appear to be likely to contribute to the desired effect’ (Plummer, St. James and St. Jude, p. 327).

There are few traces of observance of such a rite in the early Church, though the Emperor Septimius Severus believed himself to have been cured by oil administered by a Christian (Tertullian, ad Scap. 4). But from the 6th cent. onwards the practice was regularly established, and had different developments in the East and in the West. In the latter it was finally transformed into the sacrament of Extreme Unction, of which it need only be said that it is administered when recovery is supposed to be hopeless, whereas in James the anointing is expected to be followed by a cure. After the Reformation we find that the First Prayer Book of Edward VI. (1549) provides for the NT ceremony, ‘if the sicke person desyre to be annoynted.’ In the Prayer Book of 1552 this provision disappears. There has been a revival of the practice in certain Anglican circles in recent times (see F. W. Puller, The Anointing of the Sick in Scripture and Tradition, 1904).

Literature.-On the medicinal use see the Commentaries on James of A. Plummer (Expositor’s Bible, 1891), R. J. Knowling (Westminster Comm., 1904), and J. B. Mayor (31910).

James Patrick.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Oil (Olive)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/o/oil-olive.html. 1906-1918.

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Monday, December 9th, 2019
the Second Week of Advent
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