Perfumes and anointing oils (John 12)

For several reasons people in the ancient world devoted great attention to the use of fragrance, perfumes and anointing oils:

  • They were keenly aware of the presence and suggestive powers of odours. Perfumes had a cosmetic function and served as an aphrodisiac (e.g. Song of Salomon 1:12-13), but there was also a kind of sacred perfume formula that was to be used only on Israel’s priests ans sanctuary objects (Exodus 30:22-33).
  • Oils served a hygienic purpose prior to the invention of soap and shampoo (e.g. anointing the scalp with oils killed head lice).
  • Oils were used medicinally. Greek physicians regularly massaged patients and athletes with oil, and James 5:14 recommends anointing the sick with oil.
  • Perfumes and spices were used for special purposes, such as for embalming the dead (John 19:39-40).

Most perfumes originated from plant sources. Examples include frankincense, myrrh, nard, saffron, aloes and calamus. Since none of these spices and fragrances were indigenous to the region of the Holy Land, they had to be imported from Arabia, Iran, India and elsewhere. These perfumes were therefore extravagantly expensive, as John 12:3-5 suggests.

The primary source of oils was the olive tree, which was widely cultivated throughout the Mediterranean world. In Greco-Roman times oils were scented with the fragrance of narcissus, cinnamon, saffron and other plants, and people regularly anointed themselves after a bath. Fragrances were obtained in a variety of ways, depending upon the nature of the plant source (be it a root, flower, bark secretion etc.), but often the raw material was either distilled or in some way pressed or crushed. The attention the New Testament gives to these ointments reflects something of the values of the culture of that time.

Perfume is thousands of years old. One of the oldest uses of perfumes comes from the burning of incense and aromatic herbs

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