Imposition of Hands

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The rite of imposing hands on the head of another is one of the most frequent in both Old and New Testaments and in Christian liturgy, although in very different circumstances and with different significations. The fundamental idea seems to be that of the transmission of some power or quality, in most cases beneficent and mainly by way of conferring a blessing.

Old Testament. In the books of the OT the rite occurs only once for the transmission of something not beneficent, namely, in putting on the scapegoat the iniquities, transgressions, and sins of Israel (Lv 16.2122). The belief that sin, disease, and the like can be transferred to living creatures, beasts, or birds, and so be removed from man, finds some analogy in Lv 14.47 (cf. also Zec 5.510).

A beneficent use of the rite occurs in Gn 48.14, where it conveys the blessing of Jacob-Israel to the two sons of Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh. The blessing imparted by the Patriarch is fecundity, so that the two blessed persons may grow into "numbers on the earth," "a multitude of nations."

A second beneficent use of the laying on of hands is present in the stories relating the installation of Joshua as successor to Moses. The tradition is not quite homogeneous. In Dt 34.9 the rite is attested, and Joshua's spirit of wisdom seems to be attributed to it. According to Nm 27.1830, which is considered a younger tradition, Joshua already possessed this spirit of wisdom, and the rite seems to be used only for the solemn and public installation of Moses' successor. It appears to be more in conformity with the views of the OT that the gift of the Spirit was not bound to certain external rites (cf. Dt 31.1415; Nm 11.25).

The rite appears as a purely indicative gesture in Lv 24.14 and Dn 13.34, as testimony against the presumed culprits.

Another use of the rite belonged to the offering of sacrifices. It was used in all sacrifices except the guilt offering, namely, the 'āšām that was prescribed in the Levitical system for cases involving restitution (see, for the holocaust, or burnt offering, Lv 1.4; 8.18; Ex 29.15; Nm8.12; for the peace offering, Lv 3.2, 8, 13; for the sin offering, Lv 4.4, 24, 29, 33; Ex 29.10; Nm 8.12; 2 Chr 29.23). There is much difference of opinion about the exact meaning of this rite in the sacrifice. Many hypotheses have been proposed: rite of liberation from slavery, of appropriation, of substitution. The texts do not provide sufficient information. The fundamental meaning seems to be an indicative gesture by which the offerer intends to make his own the sacrifice that the priests will present to God for him. The idea of substitution, which appears only very late in the OT, does not seem to have been present in the older period. The rite is said to have been present also in Mesopotamian rituals.

Sometimes it is supposed that laying on of hands was also part of the so-called ordination of the levites (Nm8.522). Though a laying on of hands is mentioned in the text, it does not indicate ordination. It is part of the text because the installation of the Levites is described as a sacrificial oblation, and all sacrificial offerings, with the exception of the guilt offering, included a laying on of hands.

Judaism. At the time of Christ, the documents of Judaism relate two additional applications of the old rite that are very important for understanding the rite in the NT. First, the rite was used for healing (see the Qumran document: N. Avigod and Y. Yadin, A Genesis Apocryphon [Jerusalem 1956] 20.22.29). Second, it was employed also in the Judaism of NT times as a ceremony for the installation of rabbinic teachers. (see rabbi.) According to the latest research (H. Mantel, "Ordination and Appointment in the Period of the Temple," Harvard Theological Review 57 [1964] 325346), one must distinguish between the appointment of judges "to judge cases involving fines" (an appointment called minnûi and not involving the laying on of hands) and the giving of permission (r ešût ) to teach, involving in Palestine, even at the time of the temple and of Christ, the s emîkâ, or imposition of hands.

If one looks for the fundamental symbolism of the rite, it must first be answered that it is quite a natural gesture. Reference should also be made to the Hebrew concept of man (see A. R. Johnson, The Vitality of the Individual in the Thought of Ancient Israel [Cardiff 1964]).The Israelites regarded man as a psychophysical unity. Hence the hand is not merely an instrument but is in some way an extension of the self, especially of its power. Hence the "hand of God" stands for the power of God. The "hand" becomes nearly equivalent to the personal pronoun, and in Is 45.12 it is used to emphasize this pronoun: "It was I, my hands."

New Testament. For his deeds of healing, Jesus made constant use of the rite. So did the Apostles. Mention of the gesture occurs in those texts that are called "summaries," covering in a concise manner the usual way of acting of Christ and his Apostles (Mk 6.5; 16.18; Lk 4.40; Acts 5.12; 9.17).

This use is illustrated by the above-mentioned texts of Qumran. The blessing of the children by Christ through the imposition of the hands (Mk 10.1316; Mt 19.1315; Lk 18.1517) poses no problem, since this custom continues that of the OT and is attested for NT times (see E. Tisserant, Ascension d'Isaïe [Paris 1919]). A special mention is due the blessing of the Apostles by Christ in Lk 24.50, because this blessing follows closely the promise of the mission of the Holy Spirit and so seems to be in some relation with the apostolic rite of giving the Holy Spirit.

Apostolic Age. In addition to the practices already mentioned in biblical literature and continued by the Church, this period reveals two new Christian uses for the laying on of hands.

Rite of Ordination. Apparently, by way of analogy to the use of this rite in Jewish circles, laying on of hands was introduced for Christian ordination. If Acts 13.13 is of dubious interpretation (the ceremony may connote only a blessing), the testimony of Acts 6.16; 1 Tm 4.14;5.22; 2 Tm 1.6 is perfectly clear. The ceremony was performed by Paul himself (2 Tm 1.6) or was to be performed by Timothy (1 Tm 5.22); the elders or presbyters collaborated in the rite (1 Tm 4.14). The ordination followed an election by the local church and was accompanied by prayer and a profession of faith on the part of those to be ordained.

A more complicated problem is whether those rites of ordination concern the various degrees of ecclesiastical ministry recognized by the Catholic Church. The ordination of Timothy by Paul was ordination to the ministry of bishop (2 Tm 1.6); the ordinations committed to Timothy (1 Tm 5.22) concerned the ministry of priests; and the ordination of the seven by the Apostles had to do with the ministry of deacons (Acts 6.16). Nevertheless, in the several texts that tell of the institution of presbyters (see Acts 14.22; Ti 1.5), it is difficult to determine whether the texts always meant priests or sometimes, only "older men" whose role was to preside over the local church as far as discipline was concerned. In the subapostolic age, the terms πίσκοποι, πρεσβύτεροι, and δίακονοι, indicate without doubt three orders of a hierarchy, endowed not only with disciplinary power but also with a liturgical one. At that time, they were bishops, priests, and deacons in the strict sense of those words. St. Jerome, however, still seems to understand the πρεσβύτεροι of Acts 20.17 as majores natu, i.e., elders.

The laying on of hands was kept for ordination universally in the Church both East and West. There was even a tendency to extend the rite to the consecration of virgins (see R. Metz, La Consécration des vierges dans l'Église romaine [Paris 1954]), but this untraditional use of the rite was quickly dropped. In the ordination of priests, the porrectio instrumentorum, i.e., the delivery of the symbols and instruments of the priesthood, won great prestige in the course of time, but the apostolic constitution Sacramentum ordinis (1947) firmly reemphasized the imposition of hands with the accompanying prayer as the essential sacramental rite.

Rites of Initiation. The second new application of the rite in the apostolic age was for imparting the postbaptismal gift of the Holy Spirit. Apart from a rather ambiguous text in Heb 6.13, there are two major witnesses to this new sacramental ceremony, namely, Acts 8.825;19.16. Apart from these three references, there is no other mention of this postbaptismal rite in the writings of the NT, and the Christian authors of the 2d century are almost silent about it.

This gives rise to several questions. Was the rite an ordinary or an extraordinary element of Christian initiation? Did the rite disappear under the influence of Pauline theology, which stressed already among the effects of baptism a giving of the Holy Spirit, and later under the influence of a new rite, the postbaptismal unction with chrism? If the rite was combined with baptism, did Christians continue to distinguish a twofold gift of the Holy Spirit and does the term sphragis signify the second one? What is the exact meaning of the postbaptismal gift of the Holy Spirit if such a gift is to be admitted?

A radical solution was adopted by some scholars who contend that in the beginning the gifts of baptism and of the laying on of hands (πίθεσις τ[symbol omitted]ν χειρ[symbol omitted]ν, χειροθεσία) were distinguished as the baptism in water for the remission of sins and the baptism of the Holy Spirit for full aggregation to the people and the Church of God. Paul was the Christian theologian who united the two gifts and connected both with baptism. The Pauline conception won general support and became dominant in the 2d century. The combination persisted in the Greek Church, but the baptismal gift of the Holy Spirit was more specially attributed to a newly introduced baptismal rite, the unction with myron or chrism. In the Latin Church the two gifts continued to be clearly distinguished and the laying on of hands reappeared as a distinct, postbaptismal rite.

The author of the treatise De rebaptismate adopts a position that is very near to the so-called primitive, pre-Pauline doctrine. The heretics can confer baptism, but they cannot give the Holy Spirit with the laying on of hands. Cyprian denied the validity of either Sacrament when conferred by heretics. Stephen I considered both valid Sacraments, but in his milieu there was introduced an imposition of hands for the reconciliation of the heretics.

Some people regard the laying on of hands as the reconciliation of the penitents in 1 Tm 5.22, but without sufficient foundation (see P. Galtier, "La réconciliation des pécheurs dans la première épître à Timothée," Recherches de science religieuse 39 [1951] 317320). The history of the rite of reconciliation in the first centuries is a complicated one (see A. Vacandard, La Pénitence publique dans l'Église primitive [2 v. Paris 1903]).

In the light of the documents still available, one can draw certain conclusions. In the very beginning there seems to have been a distinction between the gifts of baptism and the gift (which may be termed "pentecostal") of the Holy Spirit. This second gift was not always given in the same way. It appears that sometimes it was given without any rite; sometimes it was conferred by the laying on of hands; it is possible that it came to be imparted at the moment of baptism itself.

Paul seems to have conceived the initiation into Christianity as one complex thing. So the rite of laying on of hands is no longer explicitly mentioned, although it may have been practiced. Even if the rites were combined, Paul and those churches that followed him closely could still have distinguished the gifts to some extent and could have reserved, some scholars still maintain, the term sphragis (seal) to the special gift of the Holy Spirit. There is no doubt that later this term designated the postbaptismal gift.

Only if it is supposed that the Church was always mindful of this distinction can it be explained how the Greek Church introduced and put so much stress on the rite of anointing with chrism at the time of baptism. Although the postbaptismal laying on of hands is not frequently mentioned in the first centuries, there are some witnesses to it coming from the Church of Alexandria (SS. Athanasius, Cyril of Alexandria), and in some late Greek writers there is a tendency to return to the title of "laying on of hands" instead of "the chrism." There is, however, no reason to suppose that a notable change of practice was introduced (see the writings of Anastasius of Sinai, St. John Damascene, Oecumenius, Theophylactus), for the stress on the old terminology may be a result of their commenting on the Acts of the Apostles or the Epistle to the Hebrews. In sharp contrast with those of the Greek Church, the writers of the Latin Church gave much attention to the postbaptismal laying on of hands and distinguished more clearly between baptismal and postbaptismal gifts, although they did not succeed in proposing a clear and unanimously accepted view of the postbaptismal gift of the Holy Spirit.

Bibliography: j. coppens, L'Imposition des mains et les rites connexes dans le Nouveau Testament et dans L'Église ancienne (Paris 1925). n. adler, Taufe und Handauflegung: Eine exegetisch-theologische Untersuchung von Apg 8, 1417 (Münster 1951). e. lohse, Die Ordination in Spätjudentum und im Neuen Testament (Göttingen 1951). b. neunheuser, Baptism and Confirmation, tr. j. j. hughes (New York 1964). l. vischer, La Confirmation au cours des siècles, tr. j. carrÈre (Cahiers théologiques 44; Neufchâtel 1959). b. kleinheyer, Die Priesterweihe im römischen Ritus (Trier 1962). j. neumann, Die Spendung der Firmung in der Kirche des Abendlandes bis zum Ende des kirchlichen Altertums (Mettingen 1963). On the terms episcopos, presbyters, diaconos, see m. guerra y gomez, Diaconos helenicos y biblicos (Burgos 1962); Episcopos y presbyteros: Evolución semántica de los términos episcopospresbyteros désde Homero hasta el siglo segundo después Jesucristo (Burgos 1962). On the interpretation of sphragis, see j. ysebaert, Greek Baptismal Terminology: Its Origin and Early Development (Nijmegen 1962).

[j. coppens/eds.]