Originally published in Evangelical Quarterly 61 (1989): 99-108; bibliography and some ancient references updated in 2008.
“Are any among you ill? Let them summon the presbyters of the Church and let them pray over them after anointing them in the name of the Lord with olive oil. And the prayer offered in faith will deliver the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and if they are in the state of having committed sins, they will be forgiven them. Therefore confess (your) sins to each another and pray for each other so that you might be healed.” James 5:1-16a (author’s rendering from the Greek)
Jas 5:14-16 is intriguing on several counts: (1) because it seems to give an unqualified promise of answered prayer, as in Jn 14:13-14; (2) because it involves physical healing; (3) because the Catholic Church bases two of its sacraments on it; (4) because anointing with oil seems exotic to many Protestants. The need for a careful study of Jas 5 is all the more valid in an age when medical technology has taken on religious connotations of its own, when religion and science are neatly divided into Cartesian categories, with healing generally being claimed by the category of science. The issue is further heightened with the latter-day spread of holistic treatment and the Health and Wealth Gospel with its sometime rejection of medical technology, movements which soften the distinction between supernatural healing and natural law.
The very strangeness of James’ instructions may trigger an emotional bias which will force us to conclude that ‘James cannot mean that’ to the violation of our own interpretive principles. This is a plea, therefore, not for a renewal of the healing charisma, but for an approach to Jas 5:14-16 which sees the passage as the battleground for a sound hermeneutic.
In 5:14 we have the third piece of advice James gives to people in different situations in the Church (en humin, “among you,” is used five other times in Jas 3-5 to speak of the “congregation”). James’ question and his instructions for the ill continue the thought of 5:16a. He uses a common word for sickness (astheneō, “to be weak, sick”) which here denotes physical ailment, not spiritual distress (cf. v. 13a); its meaning is confirmed by the participle of kamnō (“the one who is ill, sick”) in v. 16.
His prescription is to “summon” the elders of the Church. The fact that it is the body of presbyters that is called is suggestive; he is circumventing the charismatic healer in favor of Church officers. He has the patient summon his or her own presbyters, the very people who would be best equipped to enquire about hidden sins (15b).
The elders are called upon to anoint the subject with “olive oil” (elaion); the aorist participle “having anointed,” probably denotes an action antecedent to prayer. They are then to invoke the name of the Lord. The name of the Lord Jesus is surely meant here (see Mk 16:17 [longer ending]; Ac 3:6, 16; 16:18); the invocation of his name stamps the use of oil as a Christian religious act, “an opening to the power of God for him to intervene.”
Let us examine four possible interpretations of the function of the anointing with oil: 1. the oil is purely medicinal; 2. the oil is sacramental; 3. the oil is a psychological reinforcement; 4. the oil is a symbol of divine favor.
1. The Oil is Purely Medicinal
Olive oil was widely used both for hygienic and medicinal purposes. It was popular as a sort of body rub or lotion for use after bathing or between baths (cf. 2Sa 12:20). It was also used in the treatment of flesh wounds, skin afflictions, sciatic pain, and violent headaches. In such cases the oil would be applied to the part of the body where it would do good. In the Roman world, some healers anointed to drive out the spirit that was thought to have caused the illness. The Jews too seem to have used oil as a part of exorcism; in the pre-Christian Jubilees 10:12-13, herbal medicines warded off the dangers of evil spirits.
This datum turns problematic when some infer that in the first century olive oil was used as a cure-all. Supposedly, James is promoting the best of both worlds: good medicine in conjunction with prayer. Therefore, the arguments runs, a modern Christian should seek the best medical attention (certainly not olive oil!) while praying for healing.This interpretation coincides well with our Western regard for the medical profession. Likewise, the apocryphal Sirach directs its readers to confess their sins, pray for healing and also to call for the physician (Sir 38:1-15).
The “best medicine” approach to Jas 5 has several important flaws. First, oil was by no means regarded as a panacea in the first century; we need not suppose that the medical profession of those days was that primitive. While oil was helpful in some cases (as in giving immediate roadside treatment for wounds, Lk 10:34, but combined with wine as a disinfectant!), it would have been next to worthless for broken bones, heart trouble, or infectious diseases such as leprosy. Why too would James invite the charge of quackery by having Church elders give whatever medicine they thought best? This is especially pertinent in a society where a variety of other more suitable cures was recommended. Anointing is not the best medicine, and in most cases it is far from being good medicine.
The modern misunderstanding of anointing arises when one culls the ancient references in Strack-Billerbeck’s Kommentar or in the entry on aleiphō in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament by Schlier, who is himself almost wholly dependent upon Strack-Billerbeck. Some authors refer the reader to the first century Celsus, who in his De Medicina, Books I-IV, gives some attention to anointing with oil. Wilkinson thus quotes from De Medicina II, 14, 4 (Spencer’s translation) “it is desirable that even in acute and recent diseases the whole body should be anointed” to prove that anointing was a panacea. But not only does Wilkinson disregard the fact that Celsus used all sorts of natural oils (not necessarily olive oil), he quotes only the positive part of the opinion; Celsus goes on to say “…but only during remissions and before food. But prolonged rubbing is unsuitable in acute and increasing diseases – it should never be applied whilst a fever is increasing.” He recommends anointing for headaches and for pain in a bodily member, but not when the pain is at its peak. No one who reads Celsus’ intricate remedies could assert that he thought of oil (let alone olive oil) as a cure-all. Galen’s approach in his On the Natural Faculties is similar. Philo (On Joseph 33) observes that “a physician does not apply one and the same means of cure to every sick person, nor even to one person if his disease varies in its character, but watches the periods of its abatement, and of its intensity, and of its becoming full or empty, and the alterations of the causes of the sickness, and so varies his remedies as much as possible to secure the safety of his patient, applying one remedy at one time and another at another.”
The Jews’ approach to medicine was relatively arcane, based on herbal remedies. The texts show that they had an ambivalence toward herbalism, implying that the good it offers may be offset by its temptation to sorcery. Some pre-Christian examples include:
- 1 Enoch 7:1 – in its comments on Gen 6, the “daughters of men” ensnared the sons of God “and they taught them charms and enchantments, and the cutting of roots, and made them acquainted with plants.”
- Sirach 38:4, 7-8 “The Lord created medicines out of the earth, and the sensible will not despise them…By them the physician heals and takes away pain; the pharmacist makes a mixture from them.”
- Josephus Wars 2.136 – “[The Essenes] also take great pains in studying the writings of the ancients, and choose out of them what is most for the advantage of their soul and body; and they inquire after such roots and medicinal stones as may cure their distempers.”
- Jubilees 10:12-13 – “And we [sons of Noah] explained to Noah all the medicines of their diseases, together with their seductions, how he might heal them with herbs of the earth. And Noah wrote down all things in a book as we instructed him concerning every kind of medicine. Thus the evil spirits were precluded from hurting the sons of Noah.”
- Philo, On the Sacrifices of Cain and Abel 70-71 – Although Philo gives the physician his due respect (On Husbandry 41), he also rebukes people who do not pray but turn to the “assistance of created things, of physicians, of herbs, of the composition of drugs, in a carefully considered plan of life, and in any other aid which may be derived from mortal man.”
Therefore, both Hellenistic and Jewish sources indicate that a first-century author could easily have said “use the best available medicine, then let the elders pray” if that is what he meant. With that in mind, is it feasible to claim that oil was the best medicine available and thus provide an analogy to modern medicine? Would it not be equivalent to a modern pastor telling the sick to take two aspirin and pray about it?
Second, it is the prayer that saves the sick, not the oil; the Greek word order places “the prayer of faith” in an emphatic position. In the plan for healing in Jas 5, oil or medicine simply play no efficacious role. James is certain that prayer saves the sick. Of course, he does not rule out medicine either.
Third, some of the illnesses in question are caused by a spiritual problem – by the Lord’s chastisement for unconfessed sins. Anointing does no good for disciplinary illness if confession and repentance are lacking.
Fourth, the “best medicine” view cannot explain the parallel passage in Mk 6:13 – “And (the apostles) were casting out many demons and were anointing with oil many sick people and healing them.” Since these apostolic healings were miraculous, it must be asked why the apostles would use the best medicine if they were healing through the direct power of God? Anointing in Mk 6:13 is hardly as a perpetual sacrament (since it is the only such reference in the gospels to anointing), nor is it medicine. While we have said that the healing in Jas 5 was not charismatic, the role of the oil is similar: James underscores the fact that it is the prayer which elicits the healing, not the oil.
Fifth, the anointing is to be accompanied by the invocation of the name of the Lord, implying that the oil does no good without the Lord’s intervention. Jay Adams, however, claims that “what James advocated was the use of consecrated, dedicated medicine…But when medicine is used, it must be used in conjunction with prayer. That is why James said that the prayer of faith makes the sick well.” But why then, we must ask, does modern medicine cure those who do not pray?
Sixth, a whole-body anointing offends our sense of propriety if male elders performed it themselves (the participle implies that they do).
Here is where a problem of hermeneutical presupposition must be raised. Might we not be assuming that James advocates the “best medicine” along with general prayer precisely because that is what we twenty-first century Christians do? The evidence against that position is all but insurmountable, and it behooves us not to assert its truth against the clear data.
2. Oil denotes the Sacrament of Extreme Unction
The Catholic Church formally made Extreme Unction (the so-called “Last Rites,” but known since Vatican II as the Anointing of the Sick) a sacrament in AD 852, and reaffirmed it at Trent (Session XIV, 1); it also drew the sacrament of Auricular Confession from Jas 5:16. This sacramental anointing accompanies a final confession of sins before death. God will forgive these last sins, he will be “saved” and “raised up” (i.e. resurrected).
This sacerdotal view contradicts James’ expectation of healing, not of a better state of preparedness for the after-life. The illness is not necessarily life-threatening,and a soteriological understanding of “save” and “raise up” damages James’ discussion of physical healing through 16.
Sophie Laws suggests that those who rule out a medicinal meaning for oil are making too sharp a distinction between medicine and sacrament in the first century mind. While the point is well-taken, the Jewish literature certainly knows of the distinction, although it is not as sharply defined as it is in our own century.
3. Oil was used as a Psychological Reinforcement
In this interpretation the oil is “a supplementary aid for awakening faith” in a suggestible mind, comparable to Isaiah’s fig poultice (2Ki 20:7) or Paul’s handkerchief (Ac 19:12). This viewpoint is fraught with problems as well. First, 2 Kings is vague on the point of whether or not Isaiah used a placebo, and Paul’s use of cloths was as proof that the healing came from Paul’s God. Second, neither Isaiah nor Paul recommended their tokens as a universal practice in the way that James does with oil. Finally, it is the elders who must pray in faith in this passage (14), not the patient.
4. Oil was used as a Symbol of Divine Favor
The interpretation which is here recommended is that anointing was neither medicine nor Extreme Unction, but rather a sign of God’s healing presence. Anointing as the pouring or smearing of oil on the head was an ancient ritual in Israel. Priests (Ex 29:7) and kings (1Sa 10:1) were anointed when they were set apart unto God. Oil was a general symbol of God’s special presence, election, and good favor.
The standard argument against our view goes that if James had been speaking of a religious-symbolic use of oil he would have used chriō (“anoint sacramentally”) rather than aleiphō (“anoint”). It must be said first of all that such a rigid distinction comes from an idealism about language which was popular before the advent of modern linguistics. But even then, it is noteworthy that a master of the old school such as Richard C. Trench, does not rule out the possibility that aleiphō might refer to religious-symbolic anointing: “Aleiphein is used indiscriminately of all actual anointings, whether with oil or ointment; while chriein…is absolutely restricted to the anointing of the Son.” Trench points out that in the LXX aleiphō is used of “religious and symbolical anointings” twice (of priests in Ex 40:13 and Nu 3:3; we should add Gen 31:13), examples which disprove the “secular” meaning of aleiphō .We might say that chrio is usually restricted to religious anointing, while aleiphō can refer to any anointing.
The discussion of whether aleiphō can denote a religious symbol becomes academic in that the word was used in Mk 6:13 to refer to miraculous healing accompanied by anointing. In Jas 5 the prayer of faith takes the place of an apostolic miracle and once again oil is deprived of any inherent healing properties.
An advantage to the view of oil as religious symbol is that we need not imagine the Twelve or the presbyters using oil as a body lotion. Even apart from the issue of propriety, it is impractical to picture the Twelve anointing multitudes in the open air and in the villages. They must have used the other method of anointing, which was carried on in the Early Church: that of pouring or rubbing the oil onto the head. James confidently predicts the results of these actions:
- The prayer offered in faith will rescue the sick;
- The Lord will raise him up (from sickness);
- If he has committed any sins, the Lord will forgive them.
There is clearly a spiritual side to the healing, that the Lord (not the medicine!) will forgive “if he is in the state of having committed sins” (perfect periphrastic participle). In some cases, forgiveness and healing must go together. We gather that the elders will inquire about unrepentance before they pray (cf. Jn 5:14, 9:3; 1Co 11:28-30). James knows that not all illness is caused directly by sin, but the possibility is real.
James does not say whether or not the healing is instantaneous; he does say that it is forthcoming unless, presumably, there is some extenuating cause for the affliction. He does refer to the “prayer of faith” in 15, which he commends in 1:6, 4:2-3, 5:16b-18. He contrasts this faith with double-mindedness both in 1:8 and 4:8, with “doubt” in 1:6, and with praying with pleasure seeking in 4:3; James does not allow the possibility that a desire for health is a poor motive for prayer. The context of James negates the opinion of Rendel Short, viz., faith in Jas 5:15 and in 1Co 12:9 are the same thing, a kind of temporary supernatural endowment which is God’s to give and not available when healing goes against God’s will. Short labels any other prayer for healing “false optimism”; he thus contradict James’ teaching about faith in Jas 1. The prayer of faith in 5:15 is a prayer in which the elders pray for healing and believe that healing will result.
James concludes this section in 16a with a general exhortation: “Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.” James is moving to the daily life of the congregation (he switches from aorist jussives to present imperatives): if all Christians were to be admitting their sins to each other and praying for each other, the ultimate remedy of summoning the elders might be averted.
In summary, we may glean from James this course of action:
1. the sick Christian should summon his or her own elders
2. the elders should ask about past sins and urge repentance
3. the elders should anoint (rub oil on the head) in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ
4. the elders should pray for healing, believing that healing will be forthcoming
Anointing with oil and praying for healing was practiced for some time in Church history. Tertullian refers to a certain Proclus, who anointed and healed the emperor Severus around the year 212 (To Scapula 4). In 416, Innocent I refers to Jas 5, and says that oil blessed by the bishop can be used by laypeople without a priest present.
In contrast to Jas 5:15 and the unequivocal promise of healing, the Biblical record implies that God does not always heal: Trophimus is probably best known to us for having been “left sick at Miletus” (2Ti 4:20). At the very least, all Christians before the Parousia will succumb to final illness and death. Christians are guaranteed final healing in the resurrection, and are also assured of God’s concern to heal in this age.
In this age, calling for the elders is a grace from God that we should receive with gladness. It is not the same as going to a faith healer, nor are we seeking healing through the so-called “natural laws” of non-Christian mystical healers. Modern “faith healers,” self-healers, and mystical healers do not urge their adherents to call for their own elders for anointing and prayer. Christians should take heart from Jas 5 and not be pulled away from it because of its unusual appearance.
Postscript: Let the consumer beware of high-priced olive from Israel; or from some special tree; or that has been blessed by some faith healer. Here is some special King David Anointing Oil that sells for a whopping $18.95 per ounce. Many of these companies also advertise that their oils are mixed with myrrh or frankincense. One reason I find these products objectionable is the implication that their oils have more “oomph” than regular oil. I am also appalled that ill people might be duped into paying inflated prices out of some misplaced confidence in a premium grade ointment. By no means: James spoke of olive oil, and you can buy a half gallon of oil for the same price as an ounce of the King David brand and use it to anoint hundreds of sick people. The oil doesn’t have to be from Israel. Although I use olive oil, it’s possible that that is merely incidental: it happens to have been the kind of oil they used every day in Bible times. But all in all, it’s not the oil that is magical! It’s God who is powerful.
Cf. esp. Bruce Barron, The Health and Wealth Gospel (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1987) for an excellent critique of the latter idea.
John Wilkinson, Health and Healing (Edinburgh, 1980), 148, shows that physical, not demonic, affliction is intended by astheneō. So also L. T. Johnson, The Letter of James, AB: 37A (New York: Doubleday, 1995), 330; J. Cantinat, Les Epîtres de Saint Jacques et de Saint Jude, SB (Paris: Gabalda, 1973), 247. Cf. the attempt to read this in terms of spiritual weakness by Carl Armerding, “‘Is Any Among You Afflicted?’ A study of James 5:13-20,” BSac 95 (1938): 195-201.
Contra Cantinat, 248-49.
Although note K Seybold and U. B. Müller, Krankheit und Heilung (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1978), 161, who assign a late date to James and conclude that the gifts of healings and miracles in 1Co 12:28 had become institutionalized in the presbyters. Calvin assumes that the charismatic gift is in view here; so do A. B. Simpson in The Gospel of Healing (London: MacMillan & Scott, 1915) and A. J. Gordon in The Ministry of Healing (2nd. ed., Harrisburg: Christian Publications, 1961), although they argue that the gift of healing is still available to the Church today.
Note the frequent references to visiting the sick in the Babylonian Talmud (ed. I. Epstein): b. B. Mes. 30b; b. Sabb. 127a – ‘There are six things, the fruit of which man eats in this world, while the principal remains for him in the world to come, viz.: hospitality to wayfarers, visiting the sick,’ etc.; b. Ned. 39b-40a. R. Akiba compares neglect of visiting the sick to the shedding of blood, since the visitor’s prayers might have healed a dying man; there are guidelines for whether one should stand or sit with the sick (b. Ned. 39a) or when not to visit the sick (if the ailment is embarrassing – such as bowel trouble – or if it would be exacerbated by talking, b. Ned. 41a); note the concern about healing on the Sabbath, which seems to have been restricted to life-threatening ailments such as open wounds (b. ‘Abod. Zar. 27b-28b), there are warnings against crying out in prayer for the sick on the Sabbath, lest the rabbi be guilty of the work of healing (b. Sabb. l27a); note too, that Polycarp thinks that good presbyters should ‘care for all who are sick’ (Pol. Phil. 6.1; see Sir 7:35).
Cf. Sophie Laws, Epistle of James (San Francisco, Harper & Row, 1980), 227-29; C. L. Mitton, Epistle of James (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1966); Peter Davids, Epistle of James, NIGNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 193-94.
Schlier, ‘aleiphō,’ TDNT I: 231.
In the later Midrash on Ecclesiastes, Hanina is put under a spell (by a Galilean Jewish Christian) and rides an ass on the Sabbath; his uncle Joshua anoints him, whereupon he recovers from the spell (cf. Midr. Qoh. I, 8)Cf. the Midrash Rabba on Ecclesiastes, tr. A. Cohen (London, 1939). Dibelius and Greeven, James (Philadelphia: Augsburg Fortress, 1976), 252, assert without evidence that ‘the whole procedure is an exorcism.’
It seems clear that many writers plunder Ropes’ and Mayor’s commentaries on James for their selective references to anointing. Cf. James H. Ropes, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle of James, ICC (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, ), 304-07 y J. B. Mayor, The Epistle of St. James (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1892), 170-73. Thus counseling authority Jay Adams can boldly claim that ‘in fact, in biblical times oil was used as the universal medicine…James did not write about ceremonial anointing at all.’ Cf. Adams, Competent to Counsel (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1970), 107.
So argue Johnson, 343; Cantinat, 249; Adams, 108; cf. esp. Wilkinson, 153ff – he asserts that every method of modern healing is represented by some member of the Church today and that modern medical technology is thus the Church’s equivalent for anointing.
 Centuries later, the Babylonian Talmud records all sorts of remedies, of which anointing with oil plays a minor role. Oil is often cited as an aid to good hygiene, but healing is said to result from proper diet, hygiene, and herbal remedies, e.g.: ‘Six things cure an invalid from his sickness, and their remedy is an efficacious remedy: cabbage, beet, a decoction [i.e-, being boiled down] of dried poley, the maw, the womb, and the large lobe of the liver. Some add: also small fish (b. Ber. 57b).’ b. ‘Abod. Zar. 28b-29a recommends vinegar rinses and potions, a good diet, herbs and leaves.
sōzō, ‘save,’ is often used with non-soteriological meaning; note its use for physical healing in Mt 9:21. See the useful discussion by Douglas J. Moo, The Letter of James, PNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 240-41.
 Cf. Adams, 108.
 See Franz Mußner, Der Jakobusbrief, HTKNT: 13 (Freiburg, 1964.), 220 and Davids, 193, who take a sacramental view of anointing on the basis of the eschatological oils of Isa 61:3, Adam and Eve 36, and Apoc Mos. 9:3. But the oil of gladness’ in Isa 61:3 is clearly metaphorical; the ‘oil of mercy’ in Adam and Eve 30 (Apoc. Mos. 9) is not stated to be eschatological, and it is interpreted in a Christian interpolation at Adam and Eve 42 to he a metaphor of salvation in Christ. Wilkinson, 150, is more to the point: neither official authority nor charisma is present; the elders pray as representatives of the congregation, which according to James 5:16 has the authority to pray or healing.
Cf. Cantinat, 247.
See Calvin and Mayor for comments on Extreme Unction. Oil was used sacramentally in the early church, as part of baptism. In fact, the Apostolic Constitutions 3.2.16 deal with the impropriety of male deacons anointing female catechumens: speaks of the baptism of women: “For we stand in need of a woman, a deaconess, for many necessities; and first in the baptism of women, the deacon shall anoint (chriō) only their forehead with the holy oil, and after him the deaconess shall anoint them [all over] (aleiphō): for there is no necessity that the women should be seen by the men.” Basil the Great, On the Spirit 66 admits that that practice has no sure biblical basis.
See Laws, 227.
See Adams, 107.
Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament (9th. ed.; London, 1988), 137. chriō is so restricted in NT Greek, but the papyri show that chriō and aleiphō were used of rubbing oil on animals (Moulton and Milligan, Vocabulary of the NT, 21, 693).
See Wilkinson, 149, for a balanced picture of sin and sickness.
Cf. Mußner, 224.
Cf. R. Short, The Bible and Modern Medicine (London, 1953), 125.
See Adams, 105-27.
Cf. the unwarranted caution shown by the Reformed scholar A. W. Pink, Divine Healing: Is it Scriptural? (Swengel, PA, 1952), 24-25; he reasons that it is permissible to anoint with oil, but that he would not want to ‘dogmatize’ about it. He also concludes that modern elders are not spiritual enough to carry out such faithful prayer. Calvin, Institutes 4.19.18 (Beveridge): ‘even were we to grant that anointing was a sacrament of those powers which were then administered by the hands of the apostles, it pertains not to us, to whom no such powers have been committed.’ For a better-balanced Reformed viewpoint, note William Henry Anderson, Jr., Christianity Today Christianity Today 5 (Jan. 30, 1961): 69.
“Will God Heal Us? A Re-Examination of Jas. 5:14-16a,” by Gary Shogren, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica