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If you look across the Bible, there are many instances where oil is used. The anointing of Saul and David; Jacob pouring oil over the rock where he had his dream of the staircase to heaven(?); Maria pouring oil on Jesus, etc. Was oil expensive back then or something?

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might be better on BH.SE? –  Thomas Shields Apr 15 '12 at 2:04
    
@Thomas BH FAQ specifically states that Jewish life and learning are not the question to ask there. Sorry. :P –  Sȱɳɨȼ Ʈħe ǶḝÐɠḝħȱɠ Apr 15 '12 at 2:10
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Like I said, if it is about Jewish lifestyle, ask on Judaism.SE –  Thomas Shields Apr 15 '12 at 2:25
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@Thomas some oils were super expensive, sure. Some were more mundane. Many cultures have used oils for ritual or other purposes (medicine, for example - and perhaps with reason: picking an example, myrrh has been shown to have natural antiseptic and analgesic properties) –  Marc Gravell Apr 15 '12 at 8:48
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FYI: This question (tagged with "history" and perhaps an example passage or two) would be perfectly acceptable on Biblical Hermeneutics. The key is that it comes from a desire to understand the meaning of a Biblical passage (or passages) rather than a question about Christian or Jewish practice. It seems the FAQ trips people up more than it should. (Note to self: think about how it could be improved.) Ping @Thomas. –  Jon Ericson Apr 16 '12 at 20:21
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The short answer is yes, oil was expensive. It was used in ceremonies both because it was often perfumed to have a pleasing aroma and because the financial sacrifice was an act of humility.

You mentioned several good examples, but I figured I would offer you one more: Elisha providing for a widow (2 Kings 4:1-7). In this scenario, Elisha is able to provide the woman with enough oil that she can pay off all her late husband's debts, and she and her sons are able to live on the rest.

Now, this passage doesn't explicitly state that oil was expensive, but a little common sense will tell us it can't have been cheap. Elisha sends the woman's sons for empty vessels, and not too few, so he was clearly preparing to give her a large volume of oil, but it's fair to guess that the number ended up being in the 20-50 range (obviously just an estimate) as opposed to in the hundreds or thousands. For that amount of oil to be enough to pay off debts and set multiple people up for life means that oil had value, far more than it does today (imagine how much olive oil you'd need to hoard to be set for life).

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"because the financial sacrifice was an act of humility" that sounds quite the opposite, and actually "a way of showing off wealth"... not humble at all...? –  Marc Gravell Apr 16 '12 at 15:02
    
@MarcGravell That's a good point - I debated leaving that line in, and considered expanding on it as well. To elaborate, I think that part of the purpose God (and Moses) had in requiring oil in sacrifices, rituals, and donations was to remind the Jews that they owed all they had to God. Just as sacrifices called for animals without blemish (give your best instead of your worst), the oil was a meaningful sacrifice. Though the showing off of wealth became the motive for many in Jesus' day, I was thinking in other terms. –  asfallows Apr 16 '12 at 15:45
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@Marc: Certainly some people used financial sacrifices in that way, (and continue to do so today--just look at Bill Gates!) but when done with the proper spirit they're exactly what Asfallows said: a sign of humility and submission to God. See the story of the widow's two mites for one example where Jesus commented directly on the phenomenon. –  Mason Wheeler Apr 16 '12 at 16:21
    
@Mason woah, back up there a sec... Someone pledges to give virtually all his money ($58B) to charity, not spending it on showy symbols (oil) or for his own "eternal salvation" - but just to help other people- and that isn't "the right way"? What would be, I wonder...? Would it be the "right way" if he was Christian giving to the Church and/or Christian charities? You attack Mr Gates' donations quite unjustly. If he were Christian you would be parading him as a symbol of Christian good - look me in the e-eye and tell me honestly you wouldn't. –  Marc Gravell Apr 16 '12 at 16:49
    
@Marc: Admittedly, I haven't kept up on what he's been doing lately, but it was his highly-conspicuous pattern of giving away several million dollars to some cause or another every time Microsoft found itself in legal trouble, back when I was in high school, that taught me what Jesus truly meant by "sounding a trumpet before you." –  Mason Wheeler Apr 16 '12 at 17:23
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I've always thought of it as more of an issue of versatility and approachability. Oils can be used for everything. The only thing on earth which is more useful is water (unless you're willing to start debating gasses &c., in which case I'm going with Hydrogen and Oxygen for the win). But, unlike water, which will often suppress fragrance and flavor, oil will absorb and augment it. Smell a child after a Catholic baptism or confirmation (and I know there are other denominations who do the same, but I am looking only for an example). In addition to that, it also has use as a material to light the home (no symbolism there).

Oil, if it is properly stored, also has a remarkably long shelf-life. Look at the expiration date on your next purchase of olive oil. It won't be any time soon. Oil also has medicinal use.

So, we have oil associated with light and with food, it lasts a long time, it can heal, it is something which can be fragrant, and it can be gotten relatively easily (except in times of drought) as it is one of the major uses of olives (something not exactly uncommon in that area). Is there any wonder that it is significant?

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Oil is a healing substance rubbing it all over you will literally strengthen your skin and thereby giving you strength to carry on. That's one of the reasons oil is an excellent symbol for the Holy Spirit and furthermore why it's used all over the Old Testament.

Any time you read oil, wind, water or fire you can read "Holy Spirit" unless otherwise indicated.

I know that in a historical/economical sense, this is not an answer to your question. But if you wanted a non-doctrine answer you probably should ask on BH.SE. According to Catholic Doctrine, blessed oil is a sacramental; and in this case it is the means by which actual graces can be conferred and we have a few distinct oils that are used for this. One for Anointing of the Sick; another for consecrating priests and altars; and another for baptizing and confirmation.

So, following biblical traditions and ancient cultural practices, oil has always been used in this way. As far as the woman perfuming Jesus' feet and the gifts of the Magi, the value of their oils were in the substances mingled with the oils. Oil itself would have had to been a fairly common substance since it was used to make bread (ala 1 Kings:17).

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