In ordination services today many religious groups practice the custom of laying hands on candidates for ministry. This is their moment of ordination in the religious group. The laying on of hands appears in the Israelite tradition for several purposes: to transfer the sins of the people to the scapegoat (Lev 16:21-22), to identify a blasphemer by those who heard him blaspheme God’s Name (Lev 24:14), laying hands upon bulls, one of which is selected as a sin offering (Num 8:12), to do physical violence to someone (Neh 13:21; Est 3:6), to appoint a new leader, following Moses, who (Num 27:15-23) would be full of the spirit of wisdom (Deut 34:9), and speak the words of Yahweh (Deut 18:18).
The practice of laying on of hands is referred to in several New Testament texts with no certain reason as to why hands are being laid on someone (1 Tim 4:14; 5:22; 2 Tim 1:6; Heb 6:1-2). In other cases, specific reasons are given: sick people are healed by having hands laid on them (Mark 6:5; 16:18; Luke 4:40; Luke 13:13; Acts 28:8), laying on of hands is an act done before praying for someone (Matt 19:13-15), laying on of hands is done to bring someone back to life (Mark 5:23), laying on of hands is a metaphor for doing physical violence to someone (Luke 21:12), hands are laid on someone to commission them (Acts 6:6; 13:2-3).
The most interesting reason for the laying on of hands is a feature that appears only in Acts. It is a means of giving the Holy Spirit. Peter and John are dispatched from Jerusalem to lay hands on certain people in Samaria who “had received the word of God” and had been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Yet, the Holy Spirit had not fallen on any of them. Peter and John lay hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:14-24; see also Acts 9:17; 19:6). Curiously the Holy Spirit apparently also operates independently of the human medium and the Spirit simply spontaneously “falls” on whomever it chooses (Acts 10:44-48; 11:15).
This curiosity (Spirit by hands/no hands) raises several questions. Why didn’t the Holy Spirit spontaneously fall on those in Samaria (Acts 8:14-24)? Why was human mediation needed in that particular instance? Does a necessary relationship exist between the hands of Peter and John and the gift of the Holy Spirit? In other words, do the Apostles control the giving of the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands?
It is not surprising that there should be Greco-Roman and Near Eastern parallels before the Christian period for the laying on of hands. Hands are laid on to heal, to exorcise demons, to install officials, and to consecrate.1 I am more interested in the Apostles as a reservoir of the Holy Spirit than with the other reasons why hands are laid on in these pre-Christian parallels. Is there a Greco-Roman parallel for special persons being infused with divine power? Apostles (Acts 11:24) were said to be “full of the Holy Spirit,” as were the seven chosen to administer the distribution of food to widows (Acts 6:1-6, 7:55). Even disciples bestowed the Holy Spirit through the laying on of their hands (Acts 9:10, 17). If these persons in the early church were “full” of God’s Spirit, we should likely think of the Spirit residing in them in a fashion similar to that in the possession by evil spirits, for example, in the story told by Jesus (Luke 11:24-26=Matt 12:43-45). In other words, God’s Spirit possessed the Apostles, rather than the Apostles possessing the Spirit.
We should not think of God’s Holy Spirit as an appendage to God, or as a second entity so that one may distinguish it as an entity independent from God; for “the Lord is the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:17-18). Hence, the depiction of the Apostles being possessed by God’s spirit is a kind of “divine” possession similar to the slave girl who had a “Pythian Spirit” in Acts 16:16. The Pythia was an “inspired” oracle through whom the God Apollo spoke. “She was the instrument of the God’s revelations at Delphi” in ancient Greece.2 “Crowned with laurel, she sat on the tripod [of the God Apollo], became possessed by the god, and, shaking a laurel, prophesied under divine inspiration.”3 In like manner the Apostles and other disciples are thought to be possessed by “God, who is the Spirit,” to perform their mighty deeds, as indeed was Jesus (Luke 4:1).
Except for the name of the authority under which the act occurs, there is little difference between The Pythia’s possession by Apollo for prophetic utterances, the slave girl’s possession by the Pythian spirit, or the Apostles’ possession by the Holy Spirit. They were all thought to be possessed by divine power (Acts 1:8, 8:19, 10:38; Rom 15:13). That people can be possessed by spirits both good and evil is simply part of the belief structure of antiquity. The only difference is the naming of the different authorities under which the various acts are performed.
How do you see it?
Missouri State University
1John Fleter Tipei, “The laying on of Hands in the New Testament” (PH.D. Thesis, University of Sheffield, July 2000), 81-95 https://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/3506/1/339937.pdf
2Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (3rd ed.; Eerdmans, 2003), 214. See also Hedrick, “Prophecy, Divination, and Fate,” Unmasking Biblical Faiths, 250-56.
3Christine Sourvinou-Inwood, “Delphic oracle” in The Oxford Classical Dictionary (3rd ed.; Oxford University Press, 1999), 445.