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Ointment in Scripture

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That the use of oily, fragrant materials to anoint the body is a custom going back to remote antiquity is evidenced by the Old Testament as well as other early literatures. Likewise the ceremonial and sacred use of oil and ointment was of early origin among the Hebrews, and, of course, was much elaborated in the prescriptions of the later ritual. The particularly rich unguent known as the "holy oil of unction" is frequently referred to in the "priestly" sections of the Pentateuch and in Paralipomenon. Its composition is minutely prescribed in Exodus, xxx, 23, 24. Besides the regular basis of olive oil, the other ingredients mentioned are chosen myrrh, cinnamon, calamus, and cassia, all of which are to be used in stated quantities. The making or the use of this holy oil by unauthorized persons was prohibited under pain of sacrilege. In many of the references to ointment in Scripture perfumed oil is meant, and it may have in some cases consisted of oil only. Oil and ointment however, are distinguished in Luke vii, 46: "My head with oil thou didst not anoint; but she with ointment hath anointed my feet." Identical or similar preparations, in which myrrh was an important ingredient, were used in anointing the dead body as well as the living subject ( Luke 23:56 ). Ointment of spikenard, a very costly unguent, is mentioned in Mark, xiv, 3, "an alabaster box of ointment of precious spikenard" (cf. John 12:3 ). So prized were these unguents that they were kept in pots of alabaster, and among the Egyptians they were said to retain their fragrance even for centuries. For the oil spoken of by St. James, v, 14, see EXTREME UNCTION.

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