Anointing the Sick and the Dying in Christian Antiquity and the Early Medieval West

  • Frederick S. Paxton


After the apostolic period, in which miraculous healings announced the coming of the kingdom of God, the Christian communities of antiquity developed two modes of response to the presence of sickness among their members.1 They prayed directly to God for the recovery of the sick and they performed rituals of healing, either through the laying on of hands or through anointing with oil. Both activities had their roots in Judaism, which distinguished itself among the belief systems of antiquity in the depth of its faith in the one God as the source of all sickness and cure. But Yahweh was not the only healing god of antiquity, and appeal to divine intervention was a common recourse in the lands bordering the Mediterranean. Similarly, both Jews and non-Jews had long used oil in a variety of medical and ritual circumstances.2 Thus, for those who saw a structural connection between sinfulness, ritual impurity, and sickness, bodily health could follow upon ritual purification with water, blood, or oil. Although Jesus sometimes criticized such attitudes within Judaism, his healing miracles often comprised a forgiveness of sins as well as a restoration of health. The apostle James, moreover, by mentioning the forgiveness of sins in the context of a recommendation to anoint the sick with oil (James 5:14–15), inextricably linked the two. Consequently, some later Christian prayers and rituals for the sick emphasized the forgiveness of sins, others the cure of the body, and still others both.


Bodily Health Divine Intervention Ritual Tradition Spiritual Transformation Regular Duty 
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© Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Toronto 1992

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  • Frederick S. Paxton

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