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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
up vote 6 down vote accepted

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

ISTM that the main way this Jewish practice has been appropriated is in the "ordination of elders" which is an inappropriate (unscriptural) commandeering:

  • in Judaism, elders are not "ordained" but rather are the alpha males of the various families as in other Semitic cultures:

Gen_50:7 And Joseph went up to bury his father: and with him went up all the servants of Pharaoh, the elders of his house, and all the elders of the land of Egypt,

  • Laying on of hands is associated with healing:

Mar_5:23 And besought him greatly, saying, My little daughter lieth at the point of death: I pray thee, come and lay thy hands on her, that she may be healed; and she shall live. Mar_16:18 They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.

  • and with giving of the holy breath:

Act 8:17 Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit [breath]

  • Paul never created such an office

  • the elders laid hands on Timothy who was apparently a young man (1 Tim 4:14):

1Ti 4:12 Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. 1Ti 4:13 Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. 1Ti 4:14 Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you.

But beyond endorsement there is an example of complete dedication to Yehovah's service:

Num 8:9 And you shall bring the Levites before the tent of meeting and assemble the whole congregation of the people of Israel. Num 8:10 When you bring the Levites before the LORD, the people of Israel shall lay their hands on the Levites, Num 8:11 and Aaron shall offer the Levites before the LORD as a wave offering from the people of Israel, that they may do the service of the LORD. Num 8:12 Then the Levites shall lay their hands on the heads of the bulls, and you shall offer the one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering to the LORD to make atonement for the Levites. Num 8:13 And you shall set the Levites before Aaron and his sons, and shall offer them as a wave offering to the LORD. Num 8:14 "Thus you shall separate the Levites from among the people of Israel, and the Levites shall be mine. Num 8:15 And after that the Levites shall go in to serve at the tent of meeting, when you have cleansed them and offered them as a wave offering. Num 8:16 For they are wholly given to me from among the people of Israel. Instead of all who open the womb, the firstborn of all the people of Israel, I have taken them for myself. Num 8:17 For all the firstborn among the people of Israel are mine, both of man and of beast. On the day that I struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt I consecrated them for myself, Num 8:18 and I have taken the Levites instead of all the firstborn among the people of Israel. Num 8:19 And I have given the Levites as a gift to Aaron and his sons from among the people of Israel, to do the service for the people of Israel at the tent of meeting and to make atonement for the people of Israel, that there may be no plague among the people of Israel when the people of Israel come near the sanctuary." Num 8:20 Thus did Moses and Aaron and all the congregation of the people of Israel to the Levites. According to all that the LORD commanded Moses concerning the Levites, the people of Israel did to them.

The Levites became a "wave offering" replacing God's claim on the firstborns of all of the families of Israel and were dedicated to God's service.

The practice of "ordaining elders" is misguided for so many reasons. Elders were the tribal leaders, not some office Paul invented. An elder could be ordained to a task, but a non-elder could not be "turned into an elder" from a woman or child.

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