Olive oil and the olive tree have a very strong religious symbolism. An incredible number of references to olive oil in the religious scriptures of Judaism, Christianity and Islam and in the sacred texts of Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome are a proof of its immortality and spiritual significance. Olive oil is referred to more than 140 times in the Bible, and the olive tree is mentioned over one hundred times. In the Quran and the Ahadith (sayings and actions of the Prophet) and in the Hebrew Bible, there are numerous references to olive oil as well.
Olive oil is one of the four most important symbols in Christianity along with bread, wine and water. “And God blessed man with wine that maketh glad the heart of man, and oil to make his face shine, and bread which strengthen man’s heart” (David, Psalm 93).
The first biblical references are found in the Book of Genesis, when God visited Adam in the Garden of Eden and gave him the gift of an olive tree to be planted there. God gave precise directions how to care for the tree in order to produce “oil which would heal man’s wounds and cure all ills”. The Book of Genesis also contains the story of Noah and the Great Flood. Noah was chosen by God to construct an ark and save the most honest and virtuous members of his family, and different species of animals, both male and female. It rained for forty days and forty nights, water covering even the highest mountains. After 150 days, the Ark came to rest on the Mountains of Ararat. Noah sent a dove to see if the danger was over and when the dove returned, it was carrying an olive branch in its beak, signifying the end of the Great Flood and a return to safety, peace, regeneration and abundance.
In the Old Testament in the Book of Exodus we can find the first oil extraction methods. It is written that oil was hand squeezed from the olive fruits and was stored in special containers guarded by priests. Also, in the Book of Exodus are shown the first origins of the relation between olive oil and Christianity. God spoke to Moses and commanded him to mix spices with olive oil and use this oil for anointment, “You shall make of these a holy anointing oil, a perfume mixture, the work of a perfumer; it shall be a holy anointing oil [...] You shall anoint Aaron and his sons, and consecrate them, that they may minister as priests to Me. You shall speak to the sons of Israel, saying, ‘This shall be holy anointing oil to Me throughout your generations. It shall not be poured on anyone’s body, nor shall you make any like it in the same proportions; it is holy, and it shall be holy to you. Whoever shall mix any like it or whoever puts any of it on a layman shall be cut off from his people’” (Exodus, 30: 22-33). God also instructs Moses that the Israelites should “bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly. It shall burn from evening to morning before the Eternal. It shall be a due from the Israelites for all time throughout the ages” (Exodus 27:20). The olive oil lamps symbolize the light in the world to guide the Christians in a world of shadows.
Olive oil was used to anoint priests and give them the authority and responsibility to act on behalf of God and the Holy Spirit. This honor was also given to kings to confirm their power and strength from God. Nevertheless, anointment predates Christianity. It is generally known that olive oil was used for anointment before it was used as food or fuel.
Olive oil is the oil used to prepare three different types of sacred oils: the oil of the sick, the oil of the catechumens (used for the acts of exorcism in order to keep the bad and sins away) and the holy chrism (myrrh). As stated in the Bible, only virgin olive oil was appropriate to prepare the sacred ointment. The Holy Chrism (myrrh) is the oil mixed with balm or scent. It is used for the ordination and consecration of priests and bishops, for Baptism and for consecration of symbolic objects.
The name, Christ, which means “the anointed one”, comes from the Greek word chrism, which means “to anoint with oil”.
The olive tree and especially its oil have a great significance in Islamic religion as well. The Holy Qur’an refers to Zaitoon (olive) in several verses like 6:99 and 141, 16:11 and 24:35. The olive tree is described as a sign of peace and friendship. “God is the light of the Heavens and the Earth. An example of His light is like a lantern inside which there is a torch, the torch is in a glass bulb, the glass bulb is like a bright planet lit by a blessed olive tree, neither Eastern nor Western, its oil almost glows, even without fire touching it, light upon light.” Qur’an also mentions the olive in the following verse: “By the fig and the olive, and by the Mount Sinai and the city of security’.
Olive oil was recommended by prophet of Islam, Muhammad to apply it on the body and he, himself poured oil on his head. “Eat olive oil and massage it over your bodies since it is a holy (mubarak) tree. Abu Hurairah mentions that the Prophet stated: “Consume the olive oil and apply it (locally), since there is cure for 70 diseases in it, one of them is leprosy.”
It is said that when Muhammad died, the trees mourned by shedding their leaves except the olive tree. When the olive tree was asked why it did not mourn, it answered: “You show your sorrow by external signs, but our grief, who care not for the opinion of others, but only that Allah, who reads the secrets of the heart, should approve of our motives, is no less sincere, though inward. Should you cleave my trunk open, you would find that at its core it has become black with grief.”
In Judaism olive oil is the oil used in the celebration of Chanukah, when an eight branched candelabra (Menorah) is lit to commemorate the great miracle: the oil, enough for one day, lasted eight days. On this day the Jewish celebrate the victory of Maccabees over Antiochus in 198 BC which means freedom of Judaism.
Olive oil is used in the seven branched Menorah in the Mishkan service as well. Mishkan, according to the Hebrew Bible, was the portable dwelling place (a sanctuary or a tent of meeting) for the divine presence during the Exodus. The oil was obtained by using only the first drop from a squeezed olive and was consecrated especially for this observance by the temple priests and it is believed that the expression pure olive oil originates from here, meaning stored in special holy vessels.
Olive oil is also used in Jewish religion for anointing the kings of the Kingdom of Israel, originating from King David. One unusual use of olive oil is for bad breath, by creating a water-oil-salt mouthwash.
The place where Jesus stood, and prayed was the Mount of Olives and in the Garden of Gethsemane, a Hebrew word that translates as “the garden of the oil press”, Jesus prayed and was arrested before he was crucified.