Oil of Life

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There appears to have been a tradition in certain circles according to which the tree of life in the Garden of Eden was an olive tree (a tradition which is not found in Talmud or Midrash, cf. Ber. 40a; Gen. R. 15:7). As a result there emerged the belief that immortality is gained by anointing with oil. According to Apocalypsis Mosis 9:3, 13:1–2, when Adam fell ill Seth went to the garden to request "the oil of mercy" with which to anoint Adam and restore his health. His entreaty was refused, but the angel Michael promised that oil would be granted to the righteous at the end of days. In the parallel passage in the Latin Vitae Adae the oil is referred to as "the tree of mercy from which the oil of life flows" (ch. 36, cf. 40, 41). The same tradition is to be found in the Acts of Pilate (Gospel of Nicodemus iii (xix). This oil is perhaps to be identified with the heavenly oil with which Enoch is anointed and which transforms him into a heavenly being. Called "the good oil," it is shining and fragrant (ii En. 9 = 22:8–9, cf. 14 = 56:2). A further reference to the tree of life in the Garden of Eden as an oil-yielding tree may be found in iv Ezra 2:12 – "lignum vitae erit in illis in odorem unguenti" – and this idea is also perhaps to be discerned in the Acts of Thomas §157. The furthest circulation of this concept is to be observed in Pseudo-Clement, Recognitiones 1:45 which again refers explicitly to the oil of the tree of life. The legend of Seth's quest for the oil had various later developments and acquired considerable importance in Christian legend and art.


Ginzberg, Legends, 5 (1925), 119; E.M.C. Quinn, Quest of Seth for the Oil of Life (1962).

[Michael E. Stone]