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Imposition of Hands

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

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a ceremony used by most Christian churches in ordination, and by others in confirmation. The expressions generally used in the Scriptures for the rite of imposition of hands are: םשַׂים or ם ‹סמ ִ שַׁית with םעִל םיד etc., in the O.T.; and ἐπιτιθημι, τίθημι χεῖρα τινί, ἐπί τινα, ἐπίθεσις χειρῶν in the N.T. (See HAND).

I. Origin and synbolical Meaning of the Act. The practice of the imposition of hands as a symbolical act is of remote antiquity. It is "a natural form by which benediction has been expressed in all ages and among all people. It is the act of one superior either by age or spiritual position towards an inferior, and by its very form it appears to bestow some gift, or to manifest a desire that some gift should be bestowed. It may be an evil thing that is symbolically bestowed, as when guiltiness was thus transferred by the high-priest to the scape-goat from the congregation (Leviticus 14:21); but, in general, the gift is of something good which God is supposed to bestow by the channel of the laying on of hands." The principle of the practice seems to rest on the importance of the hand itself, both in the bodily organism and in the moral activity of man, in its power and in its action. Thus we find the hand raised in anger, extended in pity, the avenging hand, the helping hand, etc. In Greek a distinction exists between the hand extended to shelter or protect (χεῖρα ὐπερέχειν), and the hand held out imploringly (χεῖρας ἀνασχεῖν ); consequently between the powerful, directing hand of God, and the imploring hand of man.

The Biblical signification of the imposition of hands rests, in general, on the consideration of the hand as the organ of transmission, both in the real and in the symbolical sense. This results from the fact that not only did the party offering sacrifice bless the offering by the imposition of hands, but by the same act he, as sinner, imparted to it also his sins and his curse (see Leviticus 1:4; Leviticus 3:2; Leviticus 8:14 sq.; Leviticus 16:21; Leviticus 16:24). Bä hr (Symbolik d. moscischen Cultus, 2, 339) rejects this idea of transmission of sin by the laying on of hands on the expiatory victim; he considers it only as a symbol of "renunciation of one's own," and argues from the fact of a like imposition of hands in the case of thanksgiving offerings. According to Hofmann (Schriftbeweis, 2, 1, p. 155), the imposition of hands in sacrifices signified the power of the party offering it over the life of the victim. Baumgarten, on the contrary (Comanentar z. Pentateuch, 1, 2, p. 180), and Kurtz (Das mosaische Opfer, p. 70; Gesch. d. A. B. p. 332), maintain the idea of transmission. The imposition of hands on all offerings presents no difficulty when we adhere to the general notion of transmission; the thanksgiving offering is by it made the recipient of the giver's feelings. This idea of transmission is especially manifest in the imposition of hands in consecration or blessing. Thus, "in the Old Testament, Jacob accompanies his blessing to Ephraim and Manasseh with imposition of hands (Genesis 48:14); Joshua is ordained in the room of Moses by imposition of hands (Numbers 27:18; Deuteronomy 34:9); cures seem to have been wrought by the prophets by imposition of hands (2 Kings 5, 11); and the high-priest, in giving his solemn benediction, stretched out his hands over the people (Leviticus 9:22). The same form was used by our Lord in blessing, and occasionally in healing, and it was plainly regarded by the Jews as customary or befitting (Matthew 19:13; Mark 8:23; Mark 10:16). One of the promises at the end of Mark's Gospel to Christ's followers is that they should cure the sick by laying on of hands (Mark 16:18); and accordingly we find that Saul received his sight (Acts 9:17), and Publius's father was healed of his fever (Acts 28:8) by imposition of hands."

II. Classification of Biblical Uses. More particularly, the imposition of hands, in the O.T., may be divided into (1) the patriarchal-typical laying on of hands in blessing; (2) the legal-symbolical, in consecration to office; and (3) the prophetico-dynamical in healing. The former (see Genesis 48:14) is a sort of typical transmission of a promised hereditary blessing continued, through the party thus blessed, on his posterity; the second (see Exodus 29:10; Numbers 27:18) is a legal figurative imparting of the rights of office, and a promise of the blessing attached to it; the third is the transmission of a miraculous healing power for the restoration of life (2 Kings 4:34). Yet in the latter case we must notice that the prophet put his hands on the hands of the child, and covered it with his whole body.

Thus this transmission points us, in its yet imperfect state, to the N. Test. The N.T. imposition of hands is symbolical of the transmission of spirit and life. Here, as in the O.T., we find three uses: (1) the spiritual-patriarchal imposition of hands by our Lord and the apostles; (2) the spiritual-legal, or official imposition of hands; (3) the healing imposition of hands. Christ lays his hands on the sufferers, and they are cured. But the bodily gifts he thus transmits are joined to spiritual gifts; he cures under the condition of faith (Mark 6:5). The more the people become imbued with the idea that the curative effects are connected with the material imposition of hands, the more: he operates without it (Mark 5:23; Mark 5:41; Mark 7:32). Sometimes he healed only by a word. The full grant of his Spirit and of his calling he represented in a real, but symbolical manner, when he extended his hands over his apostles in blessing at the Mount of Olives (Luke 24:50). This imposition of the hands of the Lord on his apostles, in connection with the imparting of his Spirit, is the source of the apostolical imposition of hands. It was also originally a blending of the symbol and its fulfillment (see Acts 8:17), as well as of the bodily and spiritual imparting of life (Acts 9:17). From this general imposition of hands, under which Christians received the baptism of the Spirit, came the official, apostolic imposition of hands (Acts 13:3; 1 Timothy 4:14). At the same time, the example of Cornelius (Acts 10) shows that the apostolical imparting of the Holy Spirit was not restricted to the forms of official or even general imposition of hands.

III. Ecclesiastical Uses. In the early Church, the imposition of hands was practised in receiving catechumens, in baptism, in confirmation, and in ordination. Cyprian derives its use from apostolical practice (Ep. 72, ad Stephan.; Ep. 73, ad Jubaean.)'; so also does Augustine (De Bapt. 3, 16). That the imposition of hands in receiving catechumens was different from that used in baptism, etc., is shown by Bingham (bk. 10:ch. 1). Its use in baptism was general as early as Tertullian's time (Coleman; Ancient Christianity, ch. 19:§ 4). This probably gave rise to confirmation. After that rite was introduced, imposition of hands became its chief ceremony. It was generally performed by the bishop, but elders were authorized to do it in certain cases, in subordination to the bishop. (See CONFIRMATION). In ordination, the imposition of hands was an essential part of the ceremony from an early period, but not in the ordination of any class below deacons. (See ORDINATION).

In the modern Church, imposition of hands is considered by the Romanists as an essential part of the sacraments of baptism, ordination, and confirmation (Concil. Tri Deuteronomy Sess. 23). "As in the ancient Church this rite existed in two forms-the actual laying on of hands, which was called chirothesia; and the extending the hand over or towards the person, which was styled chirotonia so in the Roman Catholic Church the former is retained as an essential part of the sacraments of confirmation and holy orders; the latter is employed in the administration of the priestly absolution. Both forms are familiarly used in blessing. In the mass, also, previous to the consecration of the elements of bread and wine, the priest extends his hands over them, repeating at the same time the preparatory prayer of blessing" (Wetzer's Kirchen-Lexikon, 4:853). The Church of England and the Protestant Episcopal Church employ it as a symbolical act, in confirmation and ordination; the Methodist Episcopal, the Presbyterian, and Congregational churches employ it only in ordination.

Great stress is also laid on the performance of this rite in the Greek Church. In the Russo- Greek Church there exist some sects without priests, "because in their idea the gift of consecration by laying on of hands, which had continued from the apostles down to Nicon (q.v.), had been lost by the apostacy of Nicon, and of the clergy seduced by him, and thus all genuine priesthood had become impossible" (Eckardt, Modern Russia, p. 261 sq., London, 1870, 8vo). It is particularly pleasing to notice the many ingenious devices of these sects to provide for a" priesthood descended from the apostles, in order to enable at least the performance of the rite of marriage, which they do not legalize unless performed by an accepted priest. The Jews assert that the laying on of hands, together with the Sanhedrim, ceased after the death of Rabbi Hillel, the "prince," who flourished in the 4th century. See Herzog, Real-Encyklop. 5, 504; Bingham, Orig. Eccles. bk. 2, ch. 22; bk. 3, ch. 1; bk. 12, ch. 3; Coleman, Ancient Christianity, p. 122, 369, 411; Apost. and Primit. Ch. (Phila. 1869, 12mo), p. 185 sq.; Augusti, Handb. d. Archä ologie, 3 222; Hall, Works, 2, 876; B. Baur, in the Stud. und Krit. 1865, p. 343 sq.; Rothe, Arfange d. christl. Kirche, p. 161, etc. For monographs, see Volbeding, Index, p. 74, 145. (See BENEDICTION).

Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Imposition of Hands'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tce/​i/imposition-of-hands.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.
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