Mary, Myrrh, and the Oil of Chrism

By James David Audlin.  The following text comprises material from: The Writings of John the Presbyter Restored and Translated, published by Editores Volcán Barú. Copyright © 2014 by James David Audlin. All worldwide rights reserved. Reprinted here by permission of the publisher, Editores Volcán Barú.

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This small section of the Didachē, 10b:1-2, originally written for the leaders of the seven local congregations under the purview of John the Presbyter as regional bishop, and not for general readers in very different civilizations and centuries, assumes a shared knowledge, not written here, about the ointment and what it was used for; therefore, we today cannot be sure of what that shared knowledge was. So, to begin to form a strong hypothesis as to the meaning and use implied by this text, we turn first as we should to another writing on this subject from the Presbyter himself, I John 2:20 and 27, found on page ###. From these two verses we gather that the seven local congregational leaders were anointed (χρισμα, chrisma) in recognition of their graduation from the status of disciples, students, since they now “know all things” and “have no need of anyone to teach [them]”. The text tells us that this anointing came from the Holy One (τουαγιου, tou hagiou), God, and that it served to teach them about all things; a phrase that recalls John 14:26 (“But the Paraclete, the Sacred Spirit/Breath/Wind whom the father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of all the things that I said to you.”), and so was in John’s mind closely associated with the Paraclete, the Spirit of God. The Presbyter came to believe that the Paraclete was incarnated into (i.e., that its physical form was) the Gospel of John, which as he drafted I John was in the final stages of completion (he never would entirely finish it). Thus it is nigh impossible that all seven of these local congregational leaders had written copies of the gospel; John is in the letter referring rather to its oral equivalent, his witness (μαρτυρια, martyria) he has shared with them to the teachings and deeds of Jesus, which, in terms of content, was of course pretty much equivalent.

The Greek word translated “ointment”, μυρου (myrou), appears in Homer and Hesiod to mean a flow of tears and in Herodotus to mean an ointment. Both senses are intended here; the Greek word is etymologically related to the Hebrew (also Aramaic) words מֹר (mor, “myrrh”), referring to the resin of a thorny tree, harvested by wounding the tree until drop by drop it bleeds out its bitter lifeblood; מָר (mar, “drop”), as in a drop of myrrh resin but also by extension a teardrop; and הרמ (mara, “bitter”), which goes back to the root referring to the resin, but often by extension is used to describe tears. Myrrh, the ointment, was used as a narcotic, as an anæsthetic to induce deathlike unconsciousness for surgery, and as an embalming ointment. No wonder that the word in both languages was associated with death. Myrrh was also a component in ketoret, the consecrated incense used in the First and Second Temples at Jerusalem, according to the Tanakh and Talmud. The name of Mary, which of course is that of Jesus’s wife, is in Judaism traditionally explained as coming from the new name that Naomi (which means “sweet” or “pleasant”) gave herself when she was weeping bitter myrrhlike tears for the death of her sons and her husband (Ruth 1:13, though its actual origin lies in Egyptian theology; see The Gospel of John, pages 969-71). The “crown of thorns” put on Jesus’s head in John 19:2, really a wreath, was almost certainly made from myrrh branches, since there would have been plenty of myrrh in the area of the Temple in those final hours before Passover began for the compounding of ketoret. Ironic that Jesus dies just a year after his wedding to Mary, since Jewish bridal couples in that time wore wreaths. And myrrh was almost certainly in the narcotic palliative mixture given to Jesus in the sour wine (John 19:29), and was also part of the embalming mixture (John 19:39).

In Temple-based Judaism oil was used to consecrate: animal sacrifices, and also people, usually to the priesthood. But there was a shift in its sacramental purpose: Jesus’s disciples used oil to heal (Mark 6:13), which suggests Jesus taught this use, even if no surviving text says so. Indeed, he must have emphasized it, since the use of anointing oil to heal persisted among among the early Jerusalemite congregations, those overseen by James and John and Simon (James 5:14); there is no clear reference in the Pauline letters to this practice. What is the connection between oil as consecrating and oil as healing? The connection probably is that the oil was administered in order to heal the catechumen of the many illnesses and cleanse away the many pollutions that had collected in the catechumen over a lifetime living in the κοσμος, the human world of cheating and lying and hating – illnesses and pollutions both physiological and psychological; in classical thinking there was little difference between the two, since in those days unlike our post-Cartesian times, the mind/soul and body were seen as intimately connected. Thus, healed of these illness, the catechumen was a “perfect sacrifice”, fit to be recognized as a sacred witness to God’s revelation through Jesus.

In his teachings the Presbyter would have associated this oil for anointing the catechumen with Mary because of all the homophonic connections it would evoke with myrrh and teras and her very name, as just discussed, and especially because Mary anointed Jesus as Messiah and king just before his death (John 12:3) and was prepared to do so afterward (John 20:1) but anointed him instead with her tears of joy (John 20:16-17). Oils and ointments are still used today to alleviate pain and promote healing; in the first century they were used the very same way with both humans and animals. Mary also was Jesus’s healer: she drew him forth from the waters of the Jordan (John 1:32), she anointed him with healing balm (John 12:3), and after the resurrection, so the texts tell us, she continued to take care of him (see The Gospel of John, pages 208-10).

Likewise, John would associate the waters of immersion (baptism) with Jesus, because of John’s immersion of Jesus (John 1:30-34) and Jesus’s washing his disciples’ feet (John 13:3-11). Therefore, for John, these two together, the oil and the water, would have invoked the living presence of Mary and Jesus: the catechumen was welcomed into the community by Mary and Jesus, the sacred couple who together image Elohim, through those who knew them, such as John, and through the text in the Didachē read aloud over the catechumen for his or her edification, through those who knew those (like John) who knew them.

It was just as much a truism in the first century as it is now that “oil and water do not mix” – but the miracle here is that they did and do when they are symbolic of Mary and Jesus the primal couple. They became one through death and rebirth, and the administration of oil and water to invoke their presence was likewise intended to make the catechumen one with them.

We know very little about the bridal chamber ceremony that was evidently central to these Jerusalemite congregations, just the few hints we can cull especially from the Gospel of Philip (see the references listed at page 1082 in The Gospel of John). But these hints suggest that catechumens entered into the spiritual community as couples, as husbands and wives, and I think they were anointed with the oil and water as part of the bridal chamber ceremony, since oil and water represented that primal couple Mary and Jesus who at the resurrection became one person in the image of Elohim. The ceremony also apparently involved coïtus as the commentaries to John 20 (q.v.) make clear.

This Didachē passage tells us the μυρου – the bitter tears, the ointment, the myrrh of lifesaving operations and death, the bitter tears of Mary, the stone of dreams – was made known to John and his people through (δια, dia) Jesus. Thus to be anointed with oil is to be recognized as a priest or king or prophet; to be anointed with myrrh, associated with death, is to be made a living record of the story of Jesus’s life, a living gospel, a μαρτυρια, martyria, witness, a living ευαγγελιον (euangelion, “gospel”, literally, the reward that was given to a messenger for delivering good news). It did not matter that technically speaking (so far as we know) none of John’s disciples had ever even seen Jesus as he had; what was important was that in accepting John’s own testimony into themselves they made his testimony theirs too, and so they were also witnesses to Jesus. This, ultimately, was Paul’s mistake: the fact that he never had met Jesus was not really an issue, but his refusal to listen to the witness of those who had listened to Jesus, and his insistence on pontificating about Jesus as if he were one of those who had listened to him, such that Paul’s disciples took in this false testimony as their own and spread the false testimony to their disciples, and on and on over the generations to our day today: that was for John and James and Simon Peter the real issue. They would have been glad if Paul had come to them and learned the truth from the eyewitnesses, and had become himself a proper living witness to the truth about Jesus, and then put his extraordinary skills at rhetoric at the service of giving others that true witness; but, alas, this he did not do, because he wanted to be in full charge.

Cyril of Jerusalem, writing in the late 300s, confirms this understanding of I John 2:20 and 27 and Didachē 10b by saying about the oil of chrism that και τω μεν φαινομενω μυρω το σωμα χριεται, τω δε αγιω και ζωοποιω Πνευματι η ψυχη αγιαζεται. (“while with the apparent ointment the body is being anointed, with the holy and life-giving Spirit the soul is sanctified”; On the Mysteries, 3:3). The Coptic Orthodox Church teaches that confirmation was in the beginning performed by the laying on of hands by the first apostles; but as it was believed the ability to confirm by this means could not be transferred to the recipient, John Mark, the son of Jesus, began their tradition of using instead a mixture of the spices used to anoint Jesus’s body, together with oil, to form what they called forming the first mayrun (cognate to the Greek and Hebrew words given above). The Constitutions of the Apostles and Cyril of Jerusalem both say the person was stripped naked, then anointed with oil, says Cyril, “from the hairs of the head to the soles of the feet”, and then led by the hand to the baptismal waters. Even in modern Orthodoxy this understanding survives: Metropolitan Kallistos Ware says in The Orthodox Church (1963), “Through Chrismation every member of the Church becomes a prophet and receives a share in the royal priesthood of Christ; all Christians alike, because they are chrismated, are called to act as conscious witnesses to the Truth.”

As a side comment, it is sad that today so much of Christianity, especially in the West, especially in Protestantism, has lost and forgotten the ritual of anointing oil: this seems to me intimately connected with Christianity historically forgetting how Mary and Jesus were united as one being at the resurrection, and demoting Mary from his wife and co-Messiah, his κοινωνος, his συνεκλεκτη, into a humble prostitute begging his absolution.

The term מָשִׁיחַ (mashiach, garbled into English as “messiah”) means “anointed one”. In early times it was used in reference to historical leaders the Israelites believed had been sent by God to bring the people to freedom. In later ages it became a standardized ritual means of investing kings and Temple priests by anointing them over the head with oil (cf. Psalm 23:5b), signifying their adoption by God, and therefore they were called “sons of God” (cf. e.g. II Samuel 7:14 and Psalm 2:6-7). John believed an anointed one, a Jewish king or priest, for instance, was an ordinary human being consecrated to God, who thus followed God’s will, the Logos. John himself had not only been an anointed Temple priest but sometimes, Polycrates a student of Polycarp and bishop in Ephesus tells us, “wore the petalon”, meaning he occasionally filled in as high priest (see The Gospel of John, pages 207-09). He must have adapted the Temple investiture of priests that he remembered to invest his own “bishops” as witnesses and prophets to Jesus, to the gospel, to the Logos.

This much gives us the general picture. But the details are unknown. Did this ceremony now known as chrism to the Roman Catholic Church and chrismation to the Orthodox Church extend only to John’s local bishops, or to all of the members of the seven communities? By Cyril’s time, it seems every confirmed Christian was first anointed with oil and then baptized in water (later the order was reversed, and later yet the Protestants eliminated the oil of chrism altogether) – but that was after this Jewish movement of Jesus followers had become a new, separate religion, after mikvah (ritual immersion) had become baptism, and after the Johannine theology, the original teachings of Jesus, had been squelched in favor of the doctrines of Paul, a man who had never met Jesus. So such questions will probably remain forever unanswered.

 

James David Audlin (89 Posts)

Born in the Thousand Islands. Retired; after decades as a pastor, newspaper editor, university professor, caregiver, musician, editor. Most recently lived in southern France; now lives in rural mountainous Panama; married to a Spanish-speaking local lady. Two children in Vermont. Author of 18+ books, with a dozen more on the way.


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