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Paul mentions in his letters to Timothy a couple times about the laying on of hands: once in 1 Timothy 5:22 and again in 2 Timothy 1:6. Hebrews 6:1-2 seems to list it as one of the elementary teachings about Christ.

Are all these passages talking about the same thing, and if so what happens with the laying on the hands? Lastly, why does Paul instruct Timothy in 5:22 not to be hasty in laying on hands?

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My children might have a different perspective of this phrase... –  Richard Nov 3 '11 at 12:52
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As GalacticCowboy's answer suggests, the phrase seems to be related to commissioning elders. Given that Paul was a student of Gamaliel (Acts 22) and the author of Hebrews seems deeply knowledgeable about Jewish sacrificial rites and uses arguments similar to Paul's in Galatians, it seems possible that both are referencing the rabbinic practice of semikhah to pass on authority. Wikipedia says there are three types of semikhah of which the first seem most relevant:

Yoreh Yoreh

The recipient of this semikhah demonstrated sufficient education and proper judgment to be able to render halakhic judgments on matters of religious law as it pertains to daily life such as kashrut, nidda, and permissible or forbidden activities on Shabbos or Yom Tov.

(Don't ask me what all the Hebrew words are—I'd need to look them up.) Halakhic judgments include not only interpreting Jewish law, but applying it to day-to-day living. It's a big deal and a massive amount of authority. Paul's relationship to Timothy seems very much like the relationship between a senior rabbi and his disciple. According to Wikipedia, the passing of semikhah represented an unbroken chain of rabbis and elders all the way back to Moses.

The verb translated "laying on" (epithesis <1936>) is used another time in Acts 8:14-19 (NET):

Now when the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. These two went down and prayed for them so that they would receive the Holy Spirit. (For the Spirit had not yet come upon any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.) Then Peter and John placed their hands on the Samaritans, and they received the Holy Spirit.

Now Simon, when he saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, offered them money, saying, “Give me this power too, so that everyone I place my hands on may receive the Holy Spirit.”

In this case, the practice somehow relates to baptism and receiving the Holy Spirit. While there are plenty of interpretations of this passage, placing hands was not reserved for elders, but offered to all believers. It seems to have closer ties to John the Baptist and the Essenes, though that's just my speculation. Even so, placing hands on the Samaritans represented a transmission of authority. The word translated "power" (exousia <1849>) has a connotation of authority.

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In 1 Timothy 5:22, the context (starting from verse 17) appears to be focused upon the appointment of elders (presbuteros). It seems from various passages (Acts 6:6, 13:3; 1 Timothy 4:14) that this act (laying on of hands) symbolized the dedication or commissioning of an individual to a task - in this case, leading the church.

2 Timothy 1:6 apparently refers back to Timothy's commission, mentioned previously in 1 Timothy 4:14.

In Hebrews 6:1-2, we don't have the same context since we don't precisely know the author or the readers. Too, this passage seems to merely mention this act in passing. However, the entire list appears to be a number of items that the author considers foundational to the Church. (An alternative reading of this passage might suggest that these are the "advanced" topics for mature believers.) Two of the four things in verse 2 are acts or rites, while two are matters of belief or understanding. However, that's all we really get directly from the text.

As to Paul's caution in 1 Timothy 5:22, if we take this passage as referring to the designation of elders for the local church, his caution is reasonable - don't be too quick to give someone this responsibility, only to discover shortly that they can't handle it.

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As a side note, it appears that some denominations or faiths see this act as more than symbolic - that an actual transfer of grace, power, etc. is conferred to the recipient. –  GalacticCowboy Nov 3 '11 at 16:36
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