Three Motifs in Early Christian Oil Anointing

Daniel Becerra, “Three Motifs in Early Christian Oil Anointing,” in BYU Religious Education 2009 Student Symposium (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2009), 3–15.

Three Motifs of Early Christian Oil Anointing

Daniel Becerra

Daniel Becerra is a senior in ancient Near Eastern studies.

Early Christian ritual was rich with symbolism and mystery. Such ritual practices as baptism and the Eucharist taught initiates about Deity through symbolic words and actions that most often pertained to the mortal life of Jesus Christ. One important practice that took place was the ritual of anointing with oil called “chrism.” The word xrisma in Greek derives from the verb xriw, meaning “to anoint, rub or touch on the surface.” Scholars have debated the specifics of the ritual. The purpose of my paper will be to show three recurring themes in the writings of early influential Christians during the first four centuries of the church. My study paints a clearer picture not only of the ritual itself but what it symbolically meant. The three themes are first, a literal anointing; second, a symbol for the reception of the Holy Spirit; and third, an endowment of knowledge or power.

Spanning over a period of about four hundred years, the writings we have concerning the chrism vary somewhat. This could be due to differing manuscript traditions, later glosses, scribal errors, misinterpretation, or simply the evolution of doctrine in the beginning centuries of Christianity. Nevertheless, these three prevalent motifs suggest a uniform belief among the early members concerning the meaning and performance of the chrism ritual. These themes are likewise significant for the Latter-day Saint in that they reflect aspects of present-day temple worship.

John the Apostle, Tertullian, and Cyril, bishop of Jerusalem, all wrote concerning the ritual, and thus their writings can be seen as useful in the reconstruction of the doctrinal and pragmatic emphases. Aside from these three individual’s writings, references to the chrism are limited to the “heretical” texts, like the Gospel of Philip and Hippolytus’ treatment. It should be understood that “heretical” is a term given retrospectively to the writings of individuals not in harmony with the most prominent and numerous Christians of later centuries.[1]

The first difficulty one faces is the lack of references to the chrism. John wrote but two verses concerning it, and Tertullian only about a paragraph. Cyril, who wrote the most on the subject, did not write until the fourth century. But regardless of the date of these treatises, the understanding of these three aspects of the chrism appears to have been the same and was shared by the community of believers.


The Christian ritual of oil anointing finds its origins in early Israelite cultic practice. John the Beloved, Tertullian, and Cyril of Jerusalem make allusions to the Old Testament and Mosaic tradition. Fourth-century patriarch and theologian Cyril wrote, “You must know that this Chrism is prefigured in the Old Testament. When Moses, conferring on his brother the divine appointment, was ordering him as high priest, he anointed him; . . . thenceforward he was called ‘Christ.’”[2] The word “Christ” is an anglicized version of the Greek xristos, meaning “anointed one.” The word mshykh is the Hebrew equivalent, from which we get the word “Messiah.” Tertullian (c. 160–225) who wrote some years before Cyril, likewise described chrism as a practice originating much earlier: “the old discipline . . . ever since Aaron was anointed by Moses.”[3] Eusebius wrote, “It was not only the high priests, symbolically anointed with oil, who were designated among the Hebrews with the name Christ, but also the kings.”[4]

Early Israelite anointing was performed for a prophet, king, or high priest. [5] In other words, he was an individual who spoke for or mediated between God and man. The high priest was anointed “by pouring oil on the head, while the priest family as a whole is anointed by splashing oil . . . on men and garments together.”[6] The ritual was performed in order to give power or majesty, enthrone, sanctify or set apart, prepare an individual or object to enter the presence of God, endow with a quality of Deity, and establish and finalize office and vocation.[7] Those who were anointed would one day become kings or high priests or would be prepared to enter, symbolically or literally, into the presence of the Lord (the temple). The ark, table, lamp stand, utensils, incense altar, main altar, and washbasin, were all anointed. Furthermore, Aaron, Saul, David, and Solomon were likewise anointed. The Bible attests to the practice primarily during the first temple period and then becomes silent concerning the matter due to the subsequent eradication of the ritual at the time of Josiah’s reforms.[8]

A Literal Anointing

Scholars have argued whether the chrism was an actual or symbolic anointing. Raymond Brown writes concerning the Johannine anointing, “The two possibilities are: (a) a ritual action in which the Johannine Christian was physically anointed; (b) a figurative anointing or illumination.”[9] There is no reason why both cannot be true. The chrism was “an earthly copy of a heavenly reality and model.”[10] Tertullian explained that the oil “runs carnally, (i.e. on the body,) but profits spiritually.”[11] All rituals practiced in early Christianity had a symbolic aspect reminiscent of some act during Jesus Christ’s life.[12] The Apostle Paul taught that being buried in baptism, or submersed and brought out again from the water, represented the death and resurrection of the Savior (see Romans 6:3–11). Also, when an individual literally arose from the font waters, he was symbolically cleansed from all sin. The Eucharist, which represented the body and blood of Christ, was ingested as the individual literally and symbolically became one with him by renewing their commitment to him (see Luke 22:18–20; Matthew 26:26–28). These were all physical rituals that represented a parallel spiritual occurrence. The chrism was no different.

John. Though the evidence is somewhat slim, it is quite possible that the earliest Christian chrism to which we have reference, the Johannine, was a literal anointing. Though it is not explicit in the text, Raymond Brown, referring to the time Jesus himself was anointed,[13] suggests that Jesus’ followers “might have ritually imitated such an anointing.”[14]As explained, virtually every Christian ritual is reminiscent of an action performed at one time or another by Jesus Christ himself. Furthermore, many scholars believe that the Greek xrisma, which can be translated as “anointing” or “unction,” “can certainly denote the action of the verb,” in that “nouns ending in -ma generally indicate the result of a verbal action.”[15] A good example of this would be the word pragma, which “is a thing done and therefore a deed or doing,” or rema which is a thing said and therefore a “saying.” Brown further noted that “no matter how the Greek or Hebrew phrases were originally meant, they came to be understood as referring to an oil for anointing.”[16] Therefore, when John wrote the words to xrisma ho elabete[17] using the aorist form of the verb lambanw, he was referring to a specific,[18] literal oil anointing that had taken place (see 1 John 2:27).

Tertullian. The evidences of a physical anointing are much more prevalent in the writings of Tertullian. Tertullian, who wrote in the late second to early third centuries, often wrote in response to the misunderstandings or “heresies,” of those whom he deemed heretics. It is entirely possible that the issues which he expounded on—namely, the physicality of the anointing, its origin and spiritual significance—were somewhat mysterious or unclear in the mind of early Christians and therefore needed some clarification. Walter Wagner wrote, “Tertullian’s theology emerged as a coherent response to the challenges that faced the church.”[19] In his treatise On Baptism, judging solely from the allusions to the literal anointing of Aaron, one can see that he saw the chrism as a physical ritual rather than figurative metaphorical occurrence.

He wrote, “When we have issued from the font, we are thoroughly anointed, with a blessed unction,—(a practice derived) from the old discipline, wherein on entering the priesthood, men were wont to be anointed with oil from a horn, ever since Aaron was anointed by Moses.”[20] He also made overt mention of the anointing that “runs carnally, (i.e. on the body,) but profits spiritually; in the same way as the act of baptism itself too is carnal, in that we are plunged in water, but the effect spiritual, in that we are freed from sins.”[21] Tertullian, like John, understood the chrism to be an actual ritual that included a physical anointing with oil.

Cyril. Of all the writings that survive concerning the chrism, Cyril, the Bishop of Jerusalem, wrote the most comprehensive treatise. Cyril, who also responded to the heretical viewpoints that were common among the early Christian communities, wrote around 347 CE, and even admonished his catechumens to “hate all heretics.”[22] Writing a century later than Tertullian, he unmistakably understood the anointing to be literal and not figurative. He both makes allusions to the physical anointings of Aaron and Solomon and goes so far as to name the parts of the body that are to be anointed with the “visible oil.”[23] The very fact that he found it necessary to specify that it was “visible” oil that was to be used suggests that this was an issue that needed to be clarified.

Furthermore, he wrote, “You must know that this Chrism is prefigured in the Old Testament. When Moses, conferring on his brother the divine appointment, was ordaining him high priest, he anointed him.”[24] Building on the allusion to the Mosaic chrism, he adds, “With this ointment your forehead and sense organs are sacramentally anointed . . . first upon the forehead, . . . then upon the ears, . . . then upon the nostrils, . . . then on the breast.”[25] In addition, illustrating his literal interpretation, he concluded that the chrism is a “heavenly protection of the body and salvation for the soul.”[26]

The Reception of the Holy Ghost

All three accounts of the chrism share metaphors and symbols suggesting not just a literal anointing but a spiritual parallel. The spiritual aspect of the chrism that the literal anointing represents is the reception of the Holy Spirit.

John. By reading 1 John 2 in conjunction with the Gospel of John, we see the implication for the reception of the Spirit. According to Raymond Brown, the first epistle of John was written “most likely after the Gospel,”[27] and therefore an allusion to his previous book would not be unlikely. John mentions the chrism twice in his first epistle, once in verse 20 and once in verse 27. He writes, “But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth. . . . The anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit—just as it has taught you, remain in him” (New International Version, 1 John 2:20, 27). He makes an obvious reference to chapter 14 of his Gospel,[28] verses 16 and 26. They read, “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you forever. . . . But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things, and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (New International Version, John 14:16, 26).

Both texts refer to a knowledge of all things that is acquired by “teaching.” In the epistle it is the “anointing” that does the teaching, while in the gospel it is the “Holy Spirit.” In both instances the anointing and Holy Spirit are received by the hand of God and both “abide” in the individual. The parallel equates the chrism to the reception of the Holy Ghost, which is given by the Father.

Tertullian. In Tertullian’s description of the chrism, he draws a parallel between the physical anointing and the individual being “‘anointed’ with the Spirit by God the Father; as written in the Acts.” His comparison is to the chrism of Jesus Christ. He writes, “Whence Aaron is called ‘Christ,’ from the ‘chrism,’ which is [the Greek for] ‘the unction;’ which, when made spiritual, furnished an appropriate name to the Lord, because He was ‘anointed’ with the Spirit by God the Father; as written in the Acts; ‘For truly they were gathered together in this city against Thy Holy Son whom Thou hast anointed,’ Thus too, in our case, the unction runs carnally, (i.e. on the body,) but profits spiritually.”[29]

This chrism should be interpreted both in a physical and spiritual sense. Matthew 26 records the literal anointing of Christ. It reads, “There came unto him a woman having an alabaster box of very precious ointment, and poured it on his head” (Joseph Smith Translation, Matthew 26:7). The spiritual anointing of Jesus was understood to have taken place after his baptism in the Jordan River. Matthew wrote, “And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him” (Joseph Smith Translation, Matthew 3:16).

According to Tertulian, Jesus obtained the title Christ by being physically anointed as the high priests were (see Matthew 26:7; Acts 4:27). He was anointed spiritually in that his Father’s Spirit descended on him. He stated, “So also in our case, the anointing flows upon the flesh, but profits us spiritually.” This “spiritual profit,” he refers to is equated to the reception of the Holy Spirit.

Cyril. The parallels to the reception of the Holy Spirit are likewise plainly spelled out in Cyril’s “Third lecture on the Mysteries.” He wrote, “Now you became Christs by receiving the antitype of the Holy Spirit. . . . His [Christ’s] Father, appointing Him Savior of the whole world, anointed Him with the Holy Spirit.”[30] The spiritual comparison in Cyril’s chrism is also to that of Christ, who was anointed by his father with the Holy Spirit. He wrote, “Beware of supposing that this ointment is mere ointment. . . . This holy oil, in conjunction with the invocation, is no longer simple or common oil, but becomes the gracious gift of Christ and the Holy Spirit, producing the advent of His deity.”[31] He then continues drawing on the language of his apostolic predecessor John, saying, “Keep this Chrism unsullied; for it shall teach you all things if it abide in you, as you heard the blessed John declaring.”[32] A sensible interpretation of Cyril’s writings suggests that he, just as John and Tertullian, saw the chrism as a literal action representative of the reception of the Holy Spirit.

Endowment of Knowledge and Power

Finally, all three examples of the chrism refer to a special endowment of knowledge and power that comes to the anointed. In each instance, the added gift or power is used to protect the individual in some way from the influence and power of the adversary. Because the chrism is so closely associated with the reception of the Holy Spirit, more often than not the endowment is simply a list of spiritual gifts that come from an experience with the Holy Spirit.

John. In 1 John, his mention of the chrism is introduced by the following verses. He writes, “Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrists shall come, even now there are many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time. They went out from us, but they were not of us, for if they had been of us they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us” (Joseph Smith Translation, 1 John 2:18–19). Here John is informing the members of the community of the situation at hand. He tells them they are in the last times and during these times antichrists will and have emerged. John then describes the chrism as a gift by which the “anointed ones” might discern between true followers and the antichrists.

Their having received the chrism endows them with the knowledge that enables them to know and distinguish all truth from falsehood. He wrote, “But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth. I do not write to you because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it, . . . the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit” (New International Version, 1 John 2:20–21, 27). The things that John does not need to teach is the fact that there are antichrists and how the faithful can recognize them. He has no need to teach them these things because “even the same anointing” has endowed them with this knowledge (see v. 2:27).

Tertullian. Tertullian is a little more vague and mysterious in his explanation of the spiritual endowment received by the anointed. He simply writes that the individual is made spiritual or that the effect of the chrism “profits spiritually.”[33] He later on equates this spiritual profit to “simplicity and innocence . . . [and] the peace of God, sent out from the heavens.”[34] In opposition to the carnal man, Tertullian’s chrism transforms the anointed into a spiritual man, endowing him with the attributes of Christ and helping to cleanse him from sin.

Cyril. Cyril, once again, gives the most in-depth description of the effects of the chrism. He recounts each part of the body on which an individual would be anointed and the corresponding spiritual endowment he would receive. First was the forehead, “to rid you of the shame which the first human transgressor bore,” then the ears, “to receive ears quick to hear the divine mysteries.”[35] Third was the nostrils so “that, scenting the divine oil, you may say: ‘We are the incense offered by Christ to God, in the case of those who are on the way to salvation,’” and last on the breast, “that ‘putting on the breastplate of justice you may be able to withstand the wiles of the Devil.’” [36]

Like his progenitors, Cyril described the chrism as endowing the individual with spiritual cleanliness, knowledge, and protection against the power of the devil.


Because of the scarcity of writings on the subject, it is difficult to paint a uniform picture of the chrism ritual itself. The most one can hope for is an overview of the underlying recurring principles that the ritual emphasized. One can see that throughout the history of the early Christian church, the chrism was widely understood to contain these three important themes. As time went on, Christian writers would expound upon these three principles progressively becoming more descriptive in their treatises. This suggests perhaps an explicative response to misunderstandings or perversions of the practice. Or maybe it was simply an attempt to educate the assembly concerning something that was somewhat of a mystery to them. Whatever the case may have been, one thing is for sure, by the early fourth century, early Christians understood the chrism to be a literal anointing, a symbol for the reception of the Holy Spirit, and a spiritual endowment of knowledge or power.


[1] See Bart Ehrman, Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (Oxford: Oxford, 2003), 247–57.

[2] “Third Lecture on the Mysteries,” in The Works of Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, trans. Leo McCauley and Anthony Stephenson (Washington DC: Catholic University of America, 1970), 2:172–73. See also John Kaye, who wrote that an individual was “anointed with oil, in allusion to the practice, under the Mosaic dispensation,” The Writings of Tertullian (London: Gilbert and Rivington, 1845), 408–9.

[3] See also Tertullian, “On Baptism,” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995), 3:672.

[4] Eusebius: The Church History, trans. Paul L. Maier (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2007), 28.

[5] See Genesis 28:18; Exodus 28:41; 1 Kings 19:16.

[6] Daniel Fleming, “The Biblical Tradition of Anointing Priests,” JBL 117 (1998): 402.

[7] Fleming, “Biblical Tradition,” 407–8.

[8] See Margaret Barker, The Hidden Tradition of the Kingdom of God (London: Cambridge University Press, (London: Cambridge University Press, 2007) 40; and Fleming, “Biblical Tradition,” 408.

[9] See Raymond E. Brown, The Epistles of John (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1982), 343.

[10] See “Third Lecture on the Mysteries,” 2:168 n. 8.

[11] Tertullian, “On Baptism,” 3:672.

[12] For a few examples, see note 8 in “Third Lecture on the Mysteries,” Works of Saint Cyril, 2:168.

[13] See Matthew 26:6–13; Luke 7:36–50 and John 12:1–8.

[14] Brown, The Epistles of John, 343.

[15] Brown, The Epistles of John, 342. Brown also states on page 343 that “the aorist . . . suggests a specific experience.”

[16] Brown, The Epistles of John, 342.

[17] “The anointing which you have received.”

[18] Brown, The Epistles of John, 343.

[19] Walter H. Wagner, After the Apostles: Christianity in the Second Century (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994), 188.

[20] Tertullian, “On Baptism,” 3:672.

[21] Tertullian, “On Baptism,” 3:672.

[22] Cyril, Catechetical Lectures, VI, 20.

[23] “Third Lecture on the Mysteries,” 2:171.

[24] “Third Lecture on the Mysteries,” 2:172.

[25] “Third Lecture on the Mysteries,” 2:171–72.

[26] “Third Lecture on the Mysteries,” 2:173.

[27] Raymond Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament (ABRL; New York: Doubleday, 1997), 384 in box.

[28] It is generally accepted that the Gospel of John was written before 1 John. The Gospel was composed about 80–100 CE and 1 John about 100 CE.

[29] Tertullian, “On Baptism,” 3:672; see also Acts 4:27.

[30] “Third Lecture on the Mysteries,” 2:168–69.

[31] “Third Lecture on the Mysteries,” 2:170.

[32] “Third Lecture on the Mysteries,” 2:173.

[33] Tertullian, “On Baptism,” 3:672.

[34] Tertullian, “On Baptism,” 3:673.

[35] “Third Lecture on the Mysteries,” 2:171–72.

[36] “Third Lecture on the Mysteries,” 2:172. Quote from Ephesians 6:14, 11.