To touch, smear, or rub an object or person with oil. The use of scented oils on the body was enjoyed as a cosmetic luxury in Near Eastern and Hellenistic societies (and sometimes condemned as such, Amos 6.6). It was especially used on festive occasions and, conversely, refrained from in times of mourning (2 Sam. 14.2; Dan. 10.3) or fasting (Matt. 6.17). The soothing qualities of oil made anointing part of medical practice (Luke 10.34), but as most medicine involved an invoking of divine power, anointing in that context might have the character of a religious rite (Mark 6.13; James 5.14; Rev. 3.18). Similarly, the anointing of corpses for burial (Mark 16.1) might be viewed both as a last gesture of affection toward the dead and as part of the religious ritual of burial. The woman who anointed Jesus with precious scented oil probably did so as an extravagant gesture of joy at his presence, and he receives it as such in Luke 7.36–50, while in Mark 14.8 and John 12.7 he sees it as an anticipation of his death.

Anointing has a firm place in religious practice. Objects are anointed as a sign of their dedication to the deity, such as Jacob's pillar at Bethel (Gen. 28.18; 31.13). The book of Exodus prescribes the anointing of the tabernacle and its furnishings, especially the altar (Exod. 29.36; 30.22–29; 40.9–11). With the institution of kingship in Israel, anointing rather than coronation was the ceremony in which the king took office. This rite was widely practiced in the ancient Near East; the Amarna letters suggest that anointing was a rite of kingship in Syria‐Palestine in the fourteenth century BCE, and Jotham's parable assumes its familiarity (Judg. 9.8, 15). Once kingship was established, the anointing was probably performed by a priest, as Zadok anointed Solomon (1 Kings 1.39). Samuel, a prophet and probably also a priest, is said to have anointed Saul and David (1 Sam. 10.1; 16.13), though according to 2 Sam. 2.4; 5.3, David was anointed by the people of Judah and Israel respectively (cf. 2 Kings 23.30). According to 1 Kings 19:15–16, Elijah the prophet is instructed to anoint Hazael as king of Damascus and Jehu as king of Israel; Elisha carries out the latter task by proxy (2 Kings 9.1–13). The king's anointing symbolized his special relationship with God and was seen as the occasion when he received God's spirit; it therefore made his person sacrosanct, so that David, with Saul in his power, will not touch “the Lord's anointed” (1 Sam. 24.6,10; 26.9–11,16,23; cf. 2 Sam. 1.14–16; 19.21; Lam. 4.20).

The anointing of priests is prescribed only in the later, Priestly, strata of the Pentateuch. The anointing of the high priest (Exod. 29.4–7; Lev. 8.12) probably began in the postexilic period, when the high priest assumed many of the leadership functions that had belonged to the king. It was only perhaps later still extended to other priests (Exod. 28.14, 30.30, 40.12–15; Lev. 7.35–36; Num. 3.3). The ritual was not practiced in the Roman period in Herod's Temple, where the high priest's institution was by investiture.

As anointing symbolized the special responsibility and relationship to God of king and priest, so the language might be used metaphorically of anyone thought to stand in a similar position. Thus, the prophet of Isaiah 60.1 is said to be anointed (though for the possibility that prophets were actually anointed, see 1 Kings 19.16; Ps. 105.15). King Cyrus of Persia is God's anointed in Isaiah 45.1, as is the whole people of Israel in Habakkuk 3.13 (cf. Ps. 105.15). Jesus is described as “anointed with the Holy Spirit and with power” in Acts 10.38.

By the Roman period, some Jews had come to hope that God would restore them a king, and because anointing was remembered primarily as the sign of kingship, this hope was expressed as hope for the “anointed one,” Hebr. māšîaḥ (English “messiah”), Grk. christos (John 1.41). The Qumran community looked for two “anointed ones,” priest and king, the Messiahs of Aaron and Israel (cf. Zech. 4.14). A more generalized hope for a future leader whose precise functions were unclear might still be expressed as hope for a “Messiah,” but the primary association of the title with kingship would inevitably suggest political aspirations, and it may be for this reason that Jesus appears reluctant to accept the title for himself (Mark 8.29–30; Luke 23.2–3).

Anointing remains an essential part of the English coronation ritual, in direct dependence on the Bible.

Sophie Laws