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Medical anointing, not necessarily with oil, was customary for the sick and wounded (Isa.1.6; Luke.10.34). Mark.6.13 and Jas.5.14 speak of the use of anointing oil by disciples of Jesus.——SB

History of the Practice


Robertson Smith (Religion of the Semites, 2nd. ed., pp. 233, 383ff.) thinks that the religious rite arose from nomadic sacrificial practices. Perhaps it developed from a custom of smearing the sacrificial fat on the pillar (Maṩṩebah) as part of a communal meal (or feast with totem animal). Others feel it is an out-growth of the secular use of anointing for medicinal and cosmetic purposes.

Pre-Hebraic examples.

The practice of anointing is well attested in Babylonian and Egyptian customs well before Biblical times. The specific practice of anointing a king is mentioned in the 14th cent. b.c., Amarna Letter # 37. One text from Ras Shamra refers to anointing Baal (Gordon, # 76; ANET. p. 142a; Baal & Anat, Syria, XVII [1936] pp. 150-173).

Hebraic customs.

Anointing is attested throughout all periods of Heb. history, cf. references below.

Sacral practice in pre-monarchic period.

The earliest usage in pre-monarchic times seems to be that recorded in Genesis 28:18 (cf. Gen. 31:13) where Jacob anointed the pillar he had erected at Bethel. During the time of the Judges it was assumed that a king was inducted into office by anointing (Judg 9:8, 15).

Sacral practice during the monarchy.

Non-sacral practice in OT.

Non-sacral usage in OT times is widely attested from the period of the Exodus (Deut 28:40) to exilic times (Ezek 16:9).

Postexilic and Christian usage.

In Zechariah 4:14 the postexilic successor to David’s claim to the throne, Zerubbabel, is called the “anointed.” Here, as in Isaiah 45:1 where the Pers. king, Cyrus, is called the Lord’s anointed, the reference may be metaphorical rather than literal. In intertestamental and NT times literal anointing for medicinal purposes is attested in Judith 10:3; 16:10; James 5:14; Revelation 3:18. As a mark of hospitality or special honor, guests were anointed (Luke 7:37-46; John 11:2).

Meaning of the practice

Literal usage.

Persons were anointed (1) to give relief from the sun (Ps 104:15), (2) as part of the toilette (Ruth 3:3; 2 Sam 12:20; 2 Chron 28:15; Dan 10:3; Amos 6:6; Mic 6:15), (3) as part of the care of newly born infants (Ezek 16:9), (4) Other medicinal usages see I, C, 4.

Metaphorical usage.

Objects anointed


Non-cultic objects may have been anointed. Some interpreters see such a practice in 2 Samuel 1:21 and Isaiah 21:5, KJV. However, two other possibilities are present; (1) that anointing the shields may be part of the ritual “to sanctify a war”; (2) that the reference is simply to a preservative measure (so RSV tr. of Isa), but this does not fit the context of 2 Samuel.


Persons anointed




Although Elijah was commissioned to anoint Elisha as his successor (1 Kings 19:16), there is no record that this was ever done. Père deVaux thinks the reference here is metaphorical, as is clearly the case with the anointing of the speaker in Isaiah 61:1. The spirit of Elijah was given to Elisha, and thus is fulfilled the commission to anoint him. However, the obvious parallelism of Psalm 105:15 to 1 Chronicles 16:22, when taken in context seems to indicate the possibility that some prophets were anointed, unless, again, “anointed” means the Hebrews as God’s representatives on earth, rather than an individual.

Metaphorical usage

Persons endowed with God’s Spirit.

They are called God’s “anointed” (Ps 28:8; 84:9; 89:38, 51; Hab 3:13). In the NT the descent of the Holy Spirit is a metaphorical anointing (2 Cor 1:22; 1 John 2:20, 27).

Technical term for the Messiah.

See Christ; Messiah; Ointment.


J. Pedersen, Israel, III/IV (1940, 1959), passim; P. deVaux, AIs (1961), 103-106; W. LaSor, “The Messianic Idea in Qumran,” Studies and Essays in Honor of Abraham A. Neuman (1962), 343, 364.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)


Jacob W. Kapp