What is Olive Oil’s Significance in the Bible and Biblical Times?


Not every food you enjoy today has existed since biblical times, but olive oil is certainly one of them that has. If it’s been a while since you’ve revisited the Bible, you may now be curious. Does this oil play a significant role in the Bible? What does olive oil represent?

In the Bible, olive oil is placed besides water, wine, and bread as a major Christianity symbol. With its significance, priests may receive olive oil during an anointment. The oil is a physical representation of a priest’s responsibility, glory, and authority. 

Need to brush up on your Bible reading? This is the article for you. In it, we’ll expand on the representation of olive oil in the Bible. We’ll also talk a bit about the history of olive oil as well as how it’s been used in Christianity. Let’s get started! 

How Long Has Olive Oil Existed?

For olive oil to have such a prominent role in the Bible, it must have been around for a while, right? Indeed, this oil has a long and storied history. Some believe the days of harvesting olives started sometime in the 8th millennium BC or Before Christ. The Mediterranean basin grew olive trees, but later, these appeared in the Fertile Crescent (in Mesopotamia), the Levant, and Asia Minor.

We know for certain due to studies from archaeologists that the first time olives got mashed into olive oil occurred between 6,000 and 4,500 BC. This happened somewhere near Haifa, an Israelian city. By 2,500 BC, it’s possible that those in Crete had begun growing their own olives. Certainly by 1,500 BC, there was proof of olive trees during the Late Minoan period. As Crete entered its post-palatial period, olive trees popped up more plentifully, boosting the economy of the area. 

Olive oil had many purposes during these times. Some used it for skincare and making soap, others to fuel their oil lamps (while this is not necessarily a Minoan lamp, this replica lamp made in Bethlehem by the Jerusalem Gift Shop gives you an idea of what an oil lamp was), and more still for medicines and rituals, often religious ones. In fact, the Minoans favored olive oil for that last purpose specifically. Those who could grow or buy olive oil had a reputation of wealth in Minoan society.  

What Does Olive Oil Represent in the Bible?

Okay, so we’ve talked about the history of olive oil in BC times. What about in the Bible? How significant were olives? Incredibly. They represent many different Christianity symbols which we’ll delve into now.

Olive Branches and Trees Are Synonymous with Peace

Olive trees and their long branches with growing olives have always appeared in the Bible as a representation of peace. For instance, during the drama of Calvary as well as Jesus Christ’s death, olive trees were there. Jesus was in the Garden of Olive and prayed there. As a redemption place, Jesus could feel God’s guidance and passion. 

On the day Jesus of Nazareth got to Jerusalem, to hail his arrival, the Jews had olive branches. This tradition has survived until modern times. On Palm Sundays, those who go to church will get olive branches blessed. Before this tradition came to be, most people would take an olive branch and put it on their bed’s headboard or display it on their balconies.

Olive Trees Stand for Triumph and Victory, Particularly with Life Over Death

While death is inevitable, Christians believe there’s a means of triumphing over it. They chose the olive tree for such a symbol. That’s why, in periods past, Christians who died would have their tombs covered in olive branches. This was meant as a sendoff into the afterlife.

Olive Oil Is a Huge Christian Symbol

As we touched on in the intro, there are four main Christian symbols, and olive oil is one of them. The others include water, wine, and bread. You can find such a passage in the Bible, particularly Exodus 30: 22-33. Here’s a portion of that passage that mentions olive oil specifically: “Take also for yourself the finest of spices: of flying myrrh five hundred shekels, and of fragrant cinnamon half as much, two hundred and fifty, and of fragrant cane two hundred and fifty, and of cassia five hundred, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, and of olive oil a hin.”

As a side note, cinnamon oil is great for diffusing. While many of us wait for the cinnamon pine cones to come around Christmas time, it is actually possible to enjoy the fragrance of cinnamon oil year round.

How Was/Is Olive Oil Used in Christianity?

Besides its many references in the Bible, olive oil also plays a significant role in Christianity in many ways. Here’s how. 

Anointing Priests with Olive Oil

As we covered in the intro, priests will get anointed with olive oil. This goes back to the Exodus 30: 22-33 passage we quoted above. The rest of the passage says: “You shall make of these a holy anointing oil, a perfume mixture, the work of a perfumer; it shall be a holy anointing oil.” When priests receive the anointment with olive oil, it gives them responsibility, glory, and authority to serve. 

In the early days, monarchs and kings would also receive an olive oil anointment. For instance, Samuel, a prophet and Israeli monarch, was the second to get anointed with this oil.  

Although anointments of this nature feature heavily in Christianity, they date back to Pagan times. Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians would all use olive oil for this purpose, too. 

Olive Oil For Curing

We live in an age of modern medicine, but it wasn’t always like that. In those times, olive oil had medicinal purposes as well as religious ones. These curing rituals involved the church, sacred lamps, and olive oil. Michael Pellicer is one such person who received a ritual. His case is known as the Miracle of Calanda.

Pellicer had had an amputation to his leg. He experienced a lot of pain from the procedure. To relieve it, he used sacred lamp olive oil, venturing out to Zaragoza’s Temple of Pilar daily. While it took two years, when Pellicer finally left Zarazoga for Calanda, he got his leg restored through the Virgin Pilar. 

Olive Oil For Exorcisms

If someone had to receive an exorcism, then the sacred oils would be used for such a purpose. Three sacred oils exist. These are the oil of the holy chrism or myrrh, the oil of the catechumens, and the oil of the sick.

The oil of the holy chrism will be used for confirmations or baptisms, while the oil of the catechumens has a role in exorcisms. The oil of the sick may cure illnesses and diseases as we covered above.

The oil of the catechumens can supposedly ward off sin and other bad elements of life, thus making it ideal for exorcisms.

Olive Oil For Baptisms

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s baptisms. The oil of the catechumens makes a reappearance for baptisms because it can erase sin. The person getting baptized will also receive the oil of the holy chrism once the bathing stage ends. 

Olive Oil For Confirmations

When those in the Christian church receive their confirmation, the bishop or priest will use a scared olive oil here as well. This time, it’s the oil of the holy chrism. This has a fragrance and a scent or balm combined with it. 

Each year, a Chrism mass occurs on Holy Thursday. On this day, all three holy oils get blessed while priests will renew their religious vows. 

Related Questions

What is a Gethsemane olive press?

Near the Old City of Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives, one could come upon eight olive trees at the Garden of Gethsemane. The name Gethsemane refers to the word gat semane, the term for “olive press” in Aramaic. 

Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane with the disciples once the Last Supper wrapped up. Here, he intended to pray, but Judas betrayed him. Jesus was then arrested. Thus, the land is very crucial in the Bible.

What oils are mentioned in the Bible?

Overall, the Bible has 188 references to various types of oil, including olive oil. That’s quite a lot! The other oils that get many a mention include spikenard, rosemary hyssop, myrrh, and frankincense. These were all considered healing oils.

Also, as you may know, when Jesus was first born, the three wise men traveled great distances to bring him gifts. What were those gifts? Why, myrrh and frankincense, of course. These essential oils, while not serving the same role as olive oil, still have large parts in the Bible. 

What are the other healing oils mentioned in the Bible?

While we said that olive oil was used for healing in Biblical times, it wasn’t the only one. There are 12 other healing oils featured in the Bible that we should briefly discuss. Some of these include (all oils linked if you wish to purchase any):

  • Spikenard: An oil made into a perfume, spikenard may have anointed Christ himself. It’s written about in the Old Testament.
  • Rose of Sharon: Despite its name, the Rose of Sharon was probably used for its oil. While no one’s quite sure which flower it refers to, some believe it’s a cistus ladanifer, rockrose, lily, tulip, or crocus
  • Onycha: As part of a recipe for anointing oil, few people seem to know much more about onycha than that. It may come from a Styrax benzoin tree, but that’s unproven. It does appear in a passage in Exodus 30:34.
  • Myrtle: From the Myrtus communis, a type of plant, myrtle may offer protection and provision. You can still find it in Jerusalem. 
  • Myrrh: We’ve talked about myrrh a few times in this article. It has roles as an ingredient in wine, and you can use it as a food (when combined with spices), incense, perfume, and an ointment.
  • Hyssop: The plant hyssop or Hyssopus officinalis can treat insect bites and combat bacteria and funguses. It may not be the same Hyssop oil as that which appears in the Bible, though. 
  • Galbanum: In the temple’s heart, galbanum and other oils got mixed together and used. A Ferula family gum, a reference to galbanum appears in Exodus 30:34.
  • Frankincense: We also talked about frankincense earlier in this article. It was often traded, used as a wealth symbol, and even had a place in anointments for priests according to Revelation 18:13 and Exodus 30:34.

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