Hebrew and Christian Ointments
Many other religions, in addition to the Egyptian religion, used fats and fluids taken from corpses. The fluids were used to make an unguent (salve or balm) that could be applied to the lips of the dead (but there is no reason to believe that it was limited to the dead and dying). According to famed Egyptologist Sir J. Gardner Wilkinson, the Egyptians applied the balm to the lips of the dead by “moistening the ring finger of the left hand with various sweet ointments” and then applying the balm (v.3, 420). Very likely, this ointment also contained spikenard, which is mentioned several times in both the Old and New Testaments.
Among the Hebrews a special “Oil of Gladness” was used to anoint the dead in a “last unction.” Wilkinson notes that this kind of anointing was common “in Egypt, no less than Judaea” (v.3, 363). Early on in their history, the Hebrews almost certainly added bodily fluids to their holy oils--following the Egyptian practice--but they probably stopped using bodily fluids early in the post-exile period (586 BCE-210 CE) when the old Mosaic/Egyptian rites fell out of favor. But in the post-exile period their “Oil of Gladness” probably still contained a powerful mixture of drugs, including cannabis, which in Genesis is called “Kaneh-Bosem” according to the official recipe. These special oils would be considered vital to the dying believer by providing physical comfort and perhaps a vision that would guide him or her in the next world.
The Hebrew priests were very specific about the oil’s ingredients and its use in rites. By the time the Book of Exodus was compiled, the use of some “special” holy ointments was already being limited to the priesthood. This can be gleaned from Exodus 30:31-33.
And thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel, saying, “This shall be an holy anointing oil unto me throughout your generations. Upon the flesh of man shall it not be poured, neither shall ye make any like it, according to the composition thereof: it is holy, and it shall be holy unto you. Whosoever compoundeth any like it, or whosoever putteth any of it upon a stranger, he shall be cut off from his people.”
The word “stranger” could mean “outsider,” though this passage came to be interpreted by the priests as meaning that anyone who is not a priest of Yahweh must not be anointed with this special oil. In any case, this passage in Exodus demands that any unauthorized person should be punished for making the oil or putting it on anybody. To most of us, in any case, the punishment seems extreme, unless the sacred oil is more than just oil. Obviously, it must contain some very special ingredients.
The sacred oil, heavily spiked with cannabis, could benefit a dying person by relieving his physical suffering. And when hallucinogens are added to the oil, the anointing could also provide a powerful vision of the afterlife. Apart from these practical benefits, the act of anointing would be a pointless ritual of little real physical benefit to the dying, aside from whatever psychological consolation it might provide to the dying believer. The anointing would be of no value at all to someone who was already dead, unless the oil was necessary for the process of “germination”--as the Egyptians understood this.
We also know that, like the Hebrews, the early Christians had a similar anointing practice, probably derived from early Hebrew and Egyptian recipes. The powerful supernatural qualities of this Christian ointment were endorsed by an early Christian apologist, Minucius Felix (150?-270? BCE), who claimed that the Christians of his time anointed their dead and dying with a special salve-like unguent.
The same holy balm was almost certainly applied to the lips of the living--that is, to people who were being initiated into the most holy and secret beliefs of the Christian cult. This practice was common to both the pagans and the Christians. Furthermore, we know that the practice of anointing the lips with a supernatural unguent persisted in the Christian church for several centuries, at least to the time of the emperor Constantine. A contemporary of Constantine, Julius Firmicus, describes applying an unguent to the lips of Christians, while comparing it to a similar balm used by the pagans. According to Firmicus, “the balm used by the pagans is no better than grease,” while the balm used by Christians is made with “an immortal composition.”
After praising the supernatural qualities of the Christian ointment, Firmicus quickly follows this claim with the rather odd statement,
This ointment frees the decaying limbs of mankind from the snares of death, so that when the first man is buried, straightway from the same person another man may be born in happier case. And to explain this more manifestly, we must unfold the mysteries of the Sacred Scriptures.
This passage perhaps hints at what I have already suggested about how Christians transmitted the sacred flesh of Jesus from one generation to the next. Unlike the Egyptians, who were using decaying fluids taken from the dead in their sacred ointments, the Christians were doing something else. Many people today might read the passage as simply a metaphorical description of the deceased being born into eternal life. But because this idea of death as a doorway to heaven was commonly held at the time by many pagans, including the Egyptians, it would hardly need to be explained, much less described, as one of the great “mysteries of the Sacred Scriptures.”