The laying on of hands was a ceremonial act that conferred a special favor or function on the person for whom it was performed.
In the Hebrew Bible the ceremony often conveyed a personal blessing or function. Israel (Jacob), with his hands crossed on their heads, blessed Ephraim and Manasseh (Gen. 48.14–16). Several ideas are related to this. Aaron's outstretched hands conveyed a blessing on the people (Lev. 9.22), and the psalmist was enraptured after he felt God's hand laid on him (Ps. 139.4–6).
Sometimes the ceremony conveyed the transfer of authority from one person to another (Deut. 34.9). Witnesses laid their hands on criminals to testify against them before judgment for crime (Lev. 24.13–14; Sus. 34–40).
In sacrificial worship either officials in the Temple or the sacrificers themselves laid their hands on the animals before they were slaughtered (Exod. 29.10; Lev. 1.1–4). The basic idea was that of dedicating the victim to God to obtain the forgiveness of sins. With the scapegoat the ceremony signified the transfer of sins from the sacrificers to the victims (Lev. 16.20–22; see Azazel).
In the New Testament the laying on of hands served some of the same functions. Laying his hands on them, Jesus blessed the children (Mark 10.16; cf. Gen. 48.14–16), and while lifting up his hands he blessed the disciples (Luke 24.50; cf. Lev. 9.22).
The ceremony occurs most frequently in stories of healing, both by Jesus (Matt. 9.18; Mark 5.23; 6.5; 8.22–25; Luke 4.40; 13.13) and his followers (Acts 28.8; cf. 9.10–17), reflecting the belief that through the ritual act of a person with divine favor healing power passes to a sick person. (See also Medicine.)
According to Acts 8.14–19; 19.6, the ceremony was understood as supplementing baptism by the giving of the Holy Spirit. The act also conveyed authority to persons who already had the Holy Spirit: the seven (Acts 6.3–6) and Barnabas and Saul (Paul; Acts 13.2–3; cf. Rev. 1.17).
The ceremony became more formal (Heb. 6.2), and officials used it to impart spiritual gifts (1 Tim. 4.14; 2 Tim. 1.6), or, perhaps, as a reconciliation of sinners who no longer were in the church but who wanted to return (1 Tim. 5.22). It is still used in ecclesiastical ceremonies such as ordination and the sacrament of confirmation.
Edwin D. Freed