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Synonyms of the New Testament :: Richard C. Trench

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xxxviii. ἔλαιον, μύρον (χρίω, ἀλείφω).

Some have denied that the O. T. knows of any distinction between ‘oil’ and ‘ointment;’ and this on the very insufficient grounds that the Septuagint renders שֶׁמֶן sometimes by μύρον (Prov. 27:9; Cant. 1:3; Isai. 39:2; Am. 6:6); though more frequently, indeed times out of number, by ἔλαιον. But how often in a single word of one language are latent two of another; especially when that other abounds, as does Greek compared with Hebrew, in finer distinctions, in a more subtle notation of meanings; παροιμία and παραβολή furnish a well-known example of this, both lying in the Hebrew מָשָׁל; and this duplicity of meaning it is the part of a well-skilled translator to evoke. Nay the thing itself, the μύρον (== ‘unguentum’), so naturally grew out of the ἔλαιον (== ‘oleum’), having oil for its base, with only the addition of spice or scent or other aromatic ingredients,—Clement of Alexandria (Poedag. ii. 8) calls it ‘adulterated oil’ (δεδολωμένον ἔλαιον1),—that it would be long in any language before the necessity of differencing names would be felt. Thus in the Greek itself μύρον first appears in the writings of Archilochus (Athenaeus, xv. 37). Doubtless there were ointments in Homer’s time; he is satisfied, however, with ‘sweet-smelling oil’ (εὐῶδες ἔλαιον, Od. ii. 339), ‘roseate oil’ (ῥοδόεν ἔλαιον, Il. xxiii. 186), wherewith to express them.

In later times there was a clear distinction between the two, and one which uttered itself in language. A passage in Xenophon (Conv. ii. 3, 4) turns altogether on the greater suitableness of ἔλαιον for men, of μύρον for women; these last consequently being better pleased that the men should savour of the manly ‘oil’ than of the effeminate ‘ointment’ (ἐλαίου δὲ τοῦ ἐν γυμνασίοις ὀσμὴ καὶ παροῦσα ἡδίων ἢ μύρου γυναιξί, καὶ ἀποῦσα ποθεινοτέρα). And on any other supposition our Lord’s rebuke to the discourteous Pharisee, “My head with oil thou didst not anoint, but this woman hath anointed my feet with ointment” (Luke 7:46), would lose all, or nearly all, its point. ‘Thou withheldeat from Me,’ He would say, ‘cheap and ordinary courtesies; while she bestowed upon Me costly and rare homages;’ where Grotius remarks well: ‘Est enim perpetua ἀντιστοιχία. Mulier illa lacrimas impendit pedibus Christi proluendis: Simon ne aquam quidem. Illa assidua est in pedibus Christi osculandis: Simon ne uno quidem oris osculo Christum accepit. Illa pretioso unguento non caput tantum sed et pedes perfundit: ille ne caput quidem mero oleo: quod perfunctoriae amicitiae fuerat.’

Some have drawn a distinction between the verbs ἀλείφειν and χρίειν, which, as they make it depend on this between μύρον and ἔλαιον, may deserve to be mentioned here. The ἀλείφειν, they say, is commonly the luxurious, or at any rate the superfluous, anointing with ointment, χρίειν the sanitary anointing with oil. Thus Casaubon (Anim. in Athenoeum, xv. 39): ‘ἀλείφεσθαι, proprium voluptuariorum et mollium: χρίεσθαι etiam sobriis interdum, et ex virtute viventibus convenit:’ and Valcknaer: ‘ἀλείφεσθαι dicebantur potissimum homines voluptatibus dedidi, qui pretiosis unguentis caput et manus illinebant; χρίεσθαι de hominibus ponebatur oleo corpus, sanitatis caussâ, inunguentibus.’ No traces of such a distinction appear in the N. T.; thus compare Mark 6:13; Jam. 5:14, with Mark 16:1; John 11:2; nor yet of that of Salmasius (Exerc. p. 330): ‘Spissiora linunt, χρίουσι: liquida perfundunt, ἀλείφουσι.’

A distinction is maintained there, but different from both of these; namely, that ἀλείφειν is the mundane and profane, χρίειν the sacred and religions, word. Ἀλείφειν is used indiscriminately of all actual anointings, whether with oil or ointment; while χρίειν, no doubt in its connexion with χριστός, is absolutely restricted to the anointing of the Son, by the Father, with the Holy Ghost, for the accomplishment of his great office, being wholly separated from all profane and common uses: thus see Luke 4:18; Acts 4:27; 10:38; 2 Cor. 1:21; Heb. 1:9; the only places where it occurs. The same holds good in the Septuagint, where χρίσις, χρίσμα (cf. 1 John 2:20, 27), and χρίειν, are the constant and ever-recurring words for all religious and symbolical anointings; ἀλείφειν hardly occurring in this sense, not oftener, I believe, than twice in all (Exod. 40:13; Num. 3:3).


1 Compare what Plutarch says of Lycurgus (Apoph. Lac. 16): τὸ μὲν μύρον ἐξέλασεν, ὡς τοῦ ἐλαίου φθορὰν καὶ ὄλεθρον. Compare too Virgil (Georg. ii. 466): ‘Nec casiâ liquidi corrumpitur usus olivi.’

[The following Strong's numbers apply to this section:G1637,G218,G3464,G5548.]

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