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Laying on of Hands

Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible,
Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark) 3 (1900) 84.85

   Laying on of Hands (ἐπιθεσις χειρῶν Vulg. impositio manus or manuum), Ac 8,18; 1 Ti 4,14; 2 Ti 1,6; He 6,2 – The ceremony thus described is mentioned frequently both in OT and NT, where is appears in connection with religious acts of widely different character.

1. Old Testament
  • Rembrandt, Jacob blesses the sons of Joseph (a) It occurs as a symbol of benediction in Gn 48,14ff “Israel stretched out his right hand and laid it (וַיָּשֶׁת, ἐπέβαλεν <Note 1>) upon Ephraim's head … and Joseph said … Put (שִׂים, ἐπιθες) thy right hand upon his (Manassah's) head.” In giving the high priestly blessing to the congregation “Aaron lifted up his hands towards the people” (Lv 9,22 וַיִשָׂא, ἐξάρας); but the action, though ritually distinct, <Note 2> seems to have had in this case the same significance as the imposition of hands upon an individual (cf. Nu 6,27 καὶ ἐπιθήσουσιν τὸ ὄνομά μου ἐπὶ υἱοὺς Ισραηλ, καὶ κύριος εὐλογήσω αὐτούς).


  • (b) The laying on of hands occupied an important place in the sacrificial system of P (Ex 29,10.15.19; Lv 1,4.11 (ⅬⅩⅩ) 3,2.8.13; 4,4.24.29.33; 8,14-18; 16,21; cf. 2 Ch 29,23). It is prescribed in the case of
    1. the bullock and the rams offered at the consecration of Aaron and his sons;
    2. private offerings of quadrupeds on all occasions;<Note 3>
    3. sin offerings made of behalf of the whole congregation, in the event of a common ἀγνόημα;
    4. the goat “let go for Azazel”.
  • (c) Witnesses laid their hands on the head of a person charged with a capital offence (Lv 24,14; Sus 34).
  • (d) The tribe of Levi at their dedication received imposition of hands from representative members of the other tribes (Nu 8,10).
  • (e) Moses appointed Joshua, to be his successor in the same manner (Nu 27,18.23; Dt 34,9).

In all these cases except (a), סמך, ⅬⅩⅩ ἐπιτιθέναι, is used.

It is not easy to grasp the common idea which underlies the various OT uses of this primitive ceremony. In (a) and (e) the laying on of hands seems to denote the imparting of a personal gift or function; see Dt, l.c. “Joshua … was full of the spirit of wisdom, for Moses had laid his hand upon him.”<Note 4> But in (b), (c), (d) the prominent thought is that of the devotion to God of the object on which hands are laid, to which must perhaps be added in the case of certain offerings the idea of a transfer of responsibility or guilt to the victim (Lv 16,21: cf., however Schultz, OT Theology, Eng. tr.I.391ff. and W.R. Smith RS2,422f.). On the whole, it would appear that the fundamental meaning of the symbol was identification by contact, with the subsidiary idea of transference, whether from man to man, or from man to God. By laying his hands on a child or disciple, the patriarch or prophet signified that he desired to impart to the younger life powers or gifts which had been committed to himself; by laying his hand on an offering, the offerer solemnly identified himself with the victim which he dedicated to the service of God; by laying their hands on the head of a criminal, the witnesses of the crime delivered him over to judgment.

2. New Testament
  • (a) This symbol was once employed by our Lord in an act of benediction (Mt 19,13.15 = Mk 10,13.16 = Lk 18,15): “then were there brought unto him little children that he should lay his hands on them and pray … and he laid his hands on them.” As the desire originated with the friends of the children, it must have had its origin in the custom of the time (cf. Buxtorf, de Synag.,138). The blessing of the ascending Lord was given to the Eleven in the manner prescribed to Aaron (Lk 24,50 ἐπάρας τὰς χεῖρας αὐτοῦ εὐλόγησεν αὐτούς).
  • (b) Our Lord habitually laid His hands on the sick as a sign of healing (Mt 9,18 = Mk 5,23, Mk 6,5; 7,32;8,23.25; Lk 4,40; 13,13); we may probably add the passages where ἅπτεσθαι is used in similar contexts with or without ἐκτείνας τὴν χεῖρα (Mt 8,3 = Mk 1,41; Lk 5,13; Mt 8,15; 9,29; 20,34, Mk 7.33; Lk 22,51).<Note 5> This practice was continued by the apostles and their followers (‘Mk’ 16,18; Ac 9,12.17; cf. Irenæus, ap. Eus. HE 5,7, τοὺς κάμνοντας διὰ τῆς τῶν χειρῶν ἐπιθέσεως ιῶνται,).
  • (c) The Apostles used the laying on of hands with prayer in the act of imparting the Holy Spirit to the baptized (Ac 8,17.19; 19,6). The Lord had breathed upon them when He communicated the Spirit (Jn 20,22), and this ἐμψύσησις was peculiarly appropriate (Jn 3,7, cf. Gn 2,7); but as it symbolized a divine power and a personal relation to the Spirit of God which was incommunicable, no attempt was made to repeat it; when the Apostles passed on to others believers the gifts which they had received, they were guided to the ordinary symbol of benediction. It is to this use of the imposition of hands that reference appears to be made in He 6,2 βαπτισμῶν διδαχὴν ἐπιθέσεώς τε χειρῶν (cf. v.4 φωτισθέντας γευσαμένους τε τῆς δωρεᾶς, κ.τ.λ.).
  • (d) The imposition of hands was also used by the Apostolic Church on certain occasions when members of the Church were set apart to a particular office or work (Ac 6,6; 13,3; 1 Tim 4,14; 2 Ti 1,6). The occasions specified are those of the appointment of the Seven, the sending forth of Barnabas and Saul, and the subsequent sending forth of Timothy to accompagny St. Paul (Hort, Ecclesia, 215f.). Of the use of the rite in the ordination of presbyters and deacons there is no direct effidence, if we except 1 Ti 5,22 (on which see below); for in Ac 14,23 χειροτονεῖν doubtless refers to the election of presbyters in the various churches, and not to the ceremony of their admission to office. Nevertheless Dr. Hort points out, “Jewish usage in the case of Rabbis and their disciples<Note 6> renders it highly probable that (as a matter of fact) laying on of hands was largely practised in the Ecclesiæ of the apostolic age as a rite introductory to ecclesiastical office.” In the post-apostolic Church the rite was practically universal; the exceptions which have been observed admit of an intelligible explanation.<Note 7>
  • (e) The context of 1 Ti 5,22 (χεῖρας ταχέως μηδενὶ ἐπιτίθει, μηδὲ κοινώνει ἁμαρτίαις ἀλλοτρίαις) has led some eminent expositors (Hammond, Ellicott, Hort) to see in hat verse a reference to the use of the imposition of hands in the reconciliation of penitents. The custom was undoubtedly early, if not primitive; cf. Eus. HE 7,2; Const.Ap. 2,41; Cypr.de laps 16, ep.15. On the other hand, the main current of patristic interpretation is against this explanation of St. Paul's words, and it is not impossible to explain them in reference to ordination without doing violence to the context; see e.g. Theod.Mops ad loc.: “non facile ad ordinationem quemquam producas sine plurima probatione … si (inquit) te ut convenit probante ille deliquerit, non est tuum crimen.”

For the post-apostolic history of the ceremony see Morinus, de Ant. Eccl. Rit. (passim); Suicer, Thes. s.vv. χειροτονέω, χειροθεσια; Dict. Chr. Ant. art. “Imposition of Hands”; Mason, Relation of Confirmation to Baptism.


Note 1: ἐπιβαλεῖν τὰς χεῖρας usually — in the New Testament always — implies hostile action.

Note 2: Cf. Dict. Chr. Ant. I,757f.

Note 3: See Dillmann on Lv 1,4; 7,2.

Note 4: A somewhat different account appears in Nu 27,19, “take thee Joshua … a man in whom is the spirit [lit. ‘there is spirit,’ i.e. the necessary endowment for the office in view], and lay thine hands upon him.”

Note 5: In several of these instances hands were laid upon the part affected and not upon the head. The communication of healing power by contact (Mk 5,30f.) is probably the thing signified.

Note 6: See Buxtorf, Lex Chald. et Talm. s.v. סְמִיכָה; Hamburger, Real-Encyclopädie, s.v. ‘Ordinirung’: a Rabbi could make his scholar a Rabbi by the use of a formula wich was ordinarily accompagnied by imposition of hands.

Note 7: On the occasional ommission of the ceremony in the ancient Church (Hatch, Organization,133f.) see T.A. Lacey, L'imposition des mains dans la consécration des évêques, Paris 1896.