Oils of the Bible and Why Today's Essential Oils are not the Same Thing
It smelled like eastern spices - or what I guessed eastern spices might smell like. A sharp mix of cloves and cinnamon reminiscent of the thin, brown sticks my hippie friends once burned known to me only as incense.
That’s what I had imagined frankincense to be. Frank-incense. Room fresheners didn’t seem like a practical gift for the Christ child, and certainly not as high-end as gold, but I could accept the idea of the wise fellows offering signature goods from their land.
But this tiny, copper-colored bottle of oil that I had been given to sniff suddenly transformed the Christmas story. For the first time in my life, I knew what frankincense was, and I understood why the wise men had brought it. Supposedly valued more highly than gold in those days, it had powerful healing properties.
As time went on, I would tell people that what had first captured my interest in essential oils was a friend’s fever vanishing after one swipe to the neck of peppermint essential oil. But when I look back now, I know it was the frankincense.
In fact, no miracle healing story I ever heard about essential oils kept my loyalty bound to them the same way as my belief that I was using products that God Himself handcrafted and put into the earth for our well-being. They even appeared in the Scriptures! Essential oils were also supposedly in their purest form. In my mind, I was literally using the medicine of the Bible, and nothing excited me more.
But happy stories come to an end, too.
My loyalty to essential oils turned out to be a byproduct of my loyalty to God. Eventually, I erroneously assumed that to trust in any other sort of medicine above “God’s medicine,” first and foremost, was surely folly. God eventually set my mind straight, and I no longer use essential oils. (See why here.) Yet from the moment I first held a piece of the Christmas story in my hands, my heart had embarked on a quest.
I became determined to understand the complete story of Biblical medicine. I would leave no stone un-turned until I had the truth. I found out about the herbs of the Bible (here), and medical practices in Bible times (here), and the wonder of olive oil and all it's symbolism (here). Below is the story I had wanted to know the most. This is the truth about oils of the Bible.
Essential Oil Misconceptions
Essential oil advocacy literature asserts that essential oils are found in the Bible, such as frankincense, myrrh, spikenard, cloves and cinnamon. We already know that true oils of the Bible were infused oils, but can we be certain that essential oil products were not available?
In order to understand why today’s essential oil products are different from yesterday’s, some misconceptions about essential oils need addressed.
First, one biologist, Dr. Petra Ratajc, submits in her blog The Phytovolatilome, that essential oils, as some understand them, do not exist. The aromatic substance within plants that we understand to be essential oil is called “volatile organic compounds” (VOC). VOC’s are produced in all parts of the plants from petals to leaves, roots and stems and are stored in specialized structures (depending on each plant’s biological role), then released into the environment by different mechanisms (also depending on each plant’s biological role). This means that VOC’s do not flow or circulate in plants as some type of circulatory system. They are not an “essence,” and especially not a “soul,” like some aromatherapy literature still teaches. [xxii]
For example, note the spiritually dangerous, New Age language in the following excerpt…
The essence is the most ethereal and subtle part of the plant, and its therapeutic action takes place on a higher, more subtle level than that of the whole, organic plant, or its extract, having in general a more pronounced effect on the mind and emotions than herbal medicine…What we are really talking about here is qualities, or vibrations…The more we develop our intuition the more we will be able to see the order and perfection of the universe.
- Robert Tisserand, The Art of Aromatherapy
For more information on the occult dangers of Aromatherapy, see my article here.
Next, Ratajc also demonstrates that the idea of plants producing and containing “essential oils” which can be extracted in a pure form is erroneous. The truth is that the composition of aromatic molecules in a fresh plant will always be different compared to the plant’s essential oil. If one stops to think about it, that much is evident sometimes by just smell alone.
In truth, most essential oil products are not plant products but rather distillation products, distillation being most common method by which they are produced. The distilled oils produced reflect not just the processes that had been going on in the plants at the time of harvest (namely communication and protection), but also chemical processes that occur during and after the distillation process. [xxiii] Therefore, thanks to biology, we learn that essential oils are not pure, concentrated substances that have been extracted from the plants. They are whole new products that have been created by the plant, the environment and man.
Thirdly, essential oils are not safe. I wrote that sentence that way to grab your attention. Essential oils are at least no safer than anything else marketed as safe.
Christians tend to think of herbs and essential oils the same way they do manna. Somehow, that food from heaven contained all the nutrition the Hebrews needed as they wandered in the desert. As far as we know, manna never made anybody sick. Therefore, Christians seem to believe that just as manna was perfect food from God, plants from God contain perfect medicine that won’t hurt us. (Did we forget that the earth is cursed?) However, this idea just makes it even easier to advertise products such as essential oils to Christians.
In truth, we know essential oils are concentrated and should not be inhaled, used topically or especially ingested in large quantities. Essential oils should not be put in the eyes, ears or nose. Some oils are hot, meaning they will cause a burning sensation to the skin if a carrier oil is not used. Some have harmful or unpleasant side effects or should not be used with certain medications, and the safety of essential oils on babies, small children and pregnant women is still debated.
Most essential oil literature contains warnings, but these are watered down by the insistence of safety. That is why many users do not bother to do research before trying them. But thanks to science, we have (increasing!) opportunities to learn about both the benefits and possible toxicity of herbs, spices and essential oils, rather than trusting input from folklore or advocacy literature alone.
Essential Oil Extraction Methods, Today Versus Yesterday
Steam Distillation is today’s primary method for producing essential oils. With this method, heated steam passes through plant material while gentle pressure causes the oils to be released. A vapor mixture containing both water and oil flows through a tube; in modern day, a condenser, which cools it so that it returns to a liquid state. The water/oil liquid collects in a container. When the oil rises to the top, it is separated out. (Note: The water left behind is called hydrosol, floral water, which is similar but less potent.)
The earliest products to our knowledge, used by ancient Egyptians, appear to be animal fats and vegetable oils into which plant materials were steeped, [xxv] and not necessarily using fire heat. Another method was to put the mixtures into glass bottles and place them in the warm sun until the oil separated from the solids. [xxvi]
For Egyptians as well as Hebrews, the distinction between medicines and perfumes was not clear. Scented oil served both purposes. So precious were these aromatic oils in the ancient world that archaeologist Howard Carter reported in his discovery of Egyptian King Tutankhamen’s tomb (1922) that thirty-five alabaster jars had at one time been robbed of their aromatic oils. Rather than take other valuable objects in the tomb, thieves confiscated what had “a far greater value in those days than possibly we imagine.” - Carter [xxvii]
Jumping through history, the ancient Chinese were believed to have started studying aromatics simultaneous to the Egyptians. The Greeks learned about perfumery from the Egyptians, and later, the Romans used aromatics even more lavishly than the Greeks. Like the Hebrews, Hippocrates suggested daily aromatic baths and daily scented massages. The Romans continued the practice. Between 1000 BC and 400 BC, the Frankincense Trail wound its way from Arabia to the Mediterranean port in Gaza. This spice trade route was more than 1,200 miles and contained 65 stops. It took 62 days to traverse, according to Roman author Pliny the Elder. [xxviii]
According to popular thought, the method of steam distillation to extract essential oils was not known until it was credited to the Arabians around 1000 AD. [xxix] This would mean that it was impossible for the ancient world to have known the essential oils of today. However, Dioscorides (40-90 AD) wrote in De Materia Medica, “Oil of Lavender, when made by passing flowers through a glass alembic, surpasses all other perfumes.” [xxx] (*Note: An alembic is a still used in that old branch of magic, Alchemy, before it “transmuted” into science.) This quote alone may challenge previous thinking. Is there any other evidence of distillation further back?
An interesting article in the Journal of the Institute of Brewing published in 1907 discusses the history of distillation. [xxxi] In the article, Mr. T. Fairley documents that because any cold body held in the steam from boiling liquid would show droplets on its surface, “it is possible that knowledge of the art of distillation might arise in different countries independently…” He notes that historians mention the practice of ancient sailors obtaining fresh water from sea water by boiling it and trapping the condensation in fabric hanging above.
“From time immemorial,” writes Fairley, “the inhabitants of Asia have, in this manner, extracted perfumes and essences from plants, while in various parts of the world the distillation of fermented liquids has been carried on from times of remote antiquity.” (*Note: Fairley’s source is “Encyclopedia Srilannira, Oth cd., 2, G23, etc.”)
Fairley goes on to add that “some think there is reference to distillation in Saint Matthew’s gospel when mention is made of the grass of the field which to-day is and to-morrow is cast into the oven, explained as the casting into the pot or still of odoriferous grass or herbs to obtain perfumes or medicines.”
He further claims that the Greek poet and physician Nicander (183-135 BC) spoke of the extraction of perfumes from plants by “what we should now call process of distillation.”
Fairley believed all this was evidence that ancient nations had knowledge of chemical arts even before the time of the Greeks and Romans. He writes, “The words chemistry and alchemy are generally derived from Cham, Chemi, or Chemia, names of ancient Egypt,” his source being “Hoeffer, Histoire de Chimie.”
From a young-Earth, Christian perspective, human intelligence is likely decreasing rather than increasing, or perhaps staying the same as it has always been. The technology and ingenuity of the ancient past amazes us, and what was once known may have been lost and rediscovered, lost and rediscovered, without anyone realizing. “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9 NIV) I think of the burning of the library of Alexandria as an example. How much ancient history, literature and learning was lost? [xxxii] Perhaps Fairley had a point.
Visit Fairley’s full article here.
However, it is important to note that most historians believe the oils used in the ancient Orient and ancient Greece and Rome were not identical to the steam distilled products of today.
Whether or not pockets of the ancient world actually produced distilled essential oils likened to those we might recognize today, the method of cold pressing may have been more similar between ancient times and now.
Cold pressing, also referred to as expression, is a method of extraction specific to citrus essential oils. In older times, the method was done in the form of sponge pressing. The zest or rind of citrus fruit was first soaked in warm water, and then a sponge was used to press it, breaking the cavities which held the oil. The sponge absorbed the oil and was squeezed into a container. When the oil separated from the water, it was siphoned off the top. The cold press method of today is less labor-intensive. Machines are used, and the rind is placed in a rotating container with spikes to puncture it. [xxxiii]
In an explanatory note found in The Treasury of David on Psalm 92:10, we find affirmation for the cold press method in ancient Israel, especially for olive oil, as borrowed from Joseph Roberts’ Oriental Illustrations.
Psalm 92:10 reads, “But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of an unicorn: I shall be anointed with fresh oil.” (KJV)
Besides the exciting mention of a unicorn (*smile*), the “fresh oil” mentioned here is explained by Roberts as a “cold drawn oil, that which has been expressed or squeezed from the nut or fruit without the process of boiling.” He goes on to give telling background information: “The Orientals prefer this kind to all others for anointing themselves; it is considered the most precious, the most pure and efficacious. Nearly all their medicinal oils are thus extracted; and because they cannot gain so much by this method as by the boiling process, oils so drawn are very dear.” [xxxiv]
Perhaps even if distillation existed in the ancient past, it may not have interested the Hebrews as much.
There are other methods in existence for extracting essential oils as well. Fragile plant material, called Absolutes, can be extracted using solvents (such as petroleum ether, methanol, ethanol, etc.) to separate the odoriferous lipophilic material from the plant. [xxxv] Another method worth noting is effleurage. This is a cold-fat extraction process that was used in the early days of perfumery. It is now considered an ancient art that has been passed from generation to generation. The method is based on principals that fat possesses an ability to absorb. Notably, the Grasse region in Southern France (the “perfume capital of the world”) is one of the few areas in the world that continues to use it. [xxxvi] Who can know from whence it first came?
Modern Aromatherapy Traces to France
It is interesting that the ancient essential oil extraction method of effleurage is still going strong in France, for it was a French chemist who later became known as the Father of Aromatherapy.
René-Maurice Gattefossé (1881-1950) was credited with originally bringing scientific methodology to his family’s business when he succeeded it from his father, Louis Gattefossé. The specialty supply company, founded by Louis in Lyon, France, still exists today and is a leading provider of ingredients and formulation solutions for beauty and healthcare industries worldwide. As a creator of perfumes and scents, René-Maurice became known for coining the term aromatherapy. Gattefossé’s book on his research, first published in France in 1937, was later translated into English in 1993. [xxxvii]
Dr. Kurt Schnaubelt, in his book The Healing Intelligence of Essential Oils: The Science of Advanced Aromatherapy (Healing Arts Press, 2011), notes that any information in his book pertains only to authentic essential oils. “As a result,” he writes, “the reader may find that French and European essential oils are mentioned more frequently than those from other places.” (pg. 5) According to him, some of the most authentic essential oils are still said to be from France, for only in France and some Mediterranean regions can distillers make a living producing essential oils solely for aromatherapy. (Maybe a fun reason to plan a trip to France someday?)
Authenticity of Essential Oils Today
Finally, the last reason why the essential oil products in your home may not be the same as the ones from the Bible is that many products today are industrially standardized.
Schnaubelt warns that though essential oils can be produced anywhere in the world, they become subject to “everyday deception” in the industrial economy (pg. 5). He notes that it is hard to guarantee that 100 percent of all the oils provided by a specific company are authentic. (pg. 222)
“Most essential oils used for aromatherapy in the U.S. are fabrications and not genuinely and exclusively from a single plant source,” writes Schnaubelt.
According to him, in order to cause an essential oil product to have an acceptable, standardized pharmacological effect, and be sold at an acceptable, standardized price, additional components are added to the oils, whether synthetic or natural, in order to create a more uniform product. The added components are main components already found in the plant, and therefore, the tampering may be undetected.
Why do it? If not, two different batches of the same essential oil could possibly have different chemical compositions, thus different pharmacological effects. As discussed previously, the end result of an essential oil product depends on the plant at the time of harvest, location, environment, distillation processes and man. Therefore, non-uniform batches of the same essential oil are only natural, but they are not ideal for industry.
The problem with standardizing essential oils is that by increasing the concentration of the main components, the concentration of the trace components is reduced. “The presence or absence of these trace components is a common, major difference between industrial and authentic essential oils,” writes Schnaubelt. (pg. 62)
Nevertheless, therapeutic applications of adulterated (industrially standardized) essential oils can still be successful. However, according to Schnaubelt, for certain treatments, especially for metabolic and degenerative diseases, “success appears to hinge entirely on the authenticity of the chosen oils.” (pg. 63)
Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh
And so we come full circle.
They came with gifts.
Whatever their origins, the Magi brought gifts that were well-known but rare and precious. In those days, one pound of gold was worth about six hundred dollars. Frankincense slightly less. Myrrh was actually worth four thousand dollars per pound. Today, a pound of gold is worth about six thousand dollars, while frankincense and myrrh can be purchased for around fifteen.
Frankincense and myrrh are both fragrant gum resins from trees. A single tree can produce around ten pounds of resin each year. Cuts are made in the trunks in the summer causing a milky-white fluid to seep out. After about a week, it hardens into pale, gold globules, which are scraped off. Frankincense was once mostly used as a component of incense, being burned in religious rituals and offerings. It was also used in cosmetics and medicines. Pliny the Elder recorded that only three thousand families were allowed to harvest the resin. Misinformation was purposely spread about the locations of forests, along with rumors that the trees were protected by flying snakes.
Similar to frankincense, myrrh was also a component of incense but more often used in perfumes, cosmetics and medicines. It healed wounds, fevers, digestive problems and poisoning. It tastes bitter but has a sweet scent. In the book of Esther, we read that the contestants-for-queen-of-Persia experienced a six-month perfuming treatment with myrrh oil: “Before a young woman's turn came to go in to King Xerxes, she had to complete twelve months of beauty treatments prescribed for the women, six months with oil of myrrh and six with perfumes and cosmetics.” (Esther 2:12 NIV) (*Note: Myrrh may have disinfected the girls before they were exposed to the king.)
Myrrh was also thought to relieve pain. At the crucifixion, Jesus was offered myrrh in a mixture with wine: “Then they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it.” (Mark 15:23 NIV)
In addition, many cultures used myrrh to cover the smell of the dead and to preserve bodies. Also connecting myrrh with death, dried drops of myrrh resemble tears and have long been associated with bitter sorrow. A mixture of myrrh and aloes was used by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus to prepare Jesus’ body for the tomb: “…Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs.” (John 19:39-40 NIV)
It should be noted that gold was once thought in antiquity to have healing power because of its beauty and incorruptibility. The Romans believed an elixir of gold could cure appendicitis, or grant immortality. However, Julius Preuss does not mention gold at all in his volume on Biblical and Talmudic medicine.
The True Gift
It took me some time to understand. I had been so caught up with the wise fellows bringing aromatic resins to the Christ child, that I forgot the true meaning of Christmas. As it turns out, it doesn’t have to be the holidays for that to happen.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) once explained that the Magi's gift of gold had been given to the virgin to relieve her poverty; frankincense to dispel the odors of the stable; and myrrh to drive away vermin, such as worms. Since Jesus was not still in the stable when the high-ranking visitors arrived, nor was he a babe but rather a “child,” (Matthew 2:11) this explanation is probably not accurate. [xxxviii]
However, in Oils of the Bible classes, I was offered a similar explanation for the three gifts. The frankincense and myrrh were both medicinal and valuable, I was told. They would have helped pay for the sudden journey to Egypt as well as provided a first aid kit for the family along the way.
In my mind, the Magi’s gifts became practical. As such, I wanted to know more. If God had sent the gifts to Mary, Joseph and Jesus by His divine providence, what else should I know about frankincense and myrrh? Had the resins been gifted to Jesus in their pure form? Were they crushed like powder? Had they been turned into oil-based perfumes?
In the end, the truth is that we don’t know, because for the umpteenth time, it’s not the point. Practical though they may have been, just like the elders anointing the sick with oil, the spiritual implication is more important. The account of the Magi’s visit does not bring significance to gold, frankincense and myrrh. The account of the Magi’s visit brings significance to the Christ child because He was gifted with gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Gold was a form of tribute in those days. It was a traditional gift for a king, symbolizing sacredness.
Frankincense played an important role in religious rituals and offerings, connecting man with God.
The bitter tears of myrrh were an anointing oil and used in burials, prefiguring Jesus’ death and indicating his humanity.
Gifts for a king, a God and a man.
Furthermore, these gifts were also fit for a priest and a prophet. As discussed earlier, Jesus would one day be anointed Mediator, to be prophet, priest and King for eternity.
It’s all about Him. That’s the point.
Many years ago, another girl was enticed into looking to a tree for something that only God can give. The fruit of the tree would make her wise, the serpent had said. So, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her. Perhaps both Adam and Eve immediately noticed that Eve did not die, not when she touched the fruit or took a bite. Maybe the serpent's words rang in their ears. Did God really say...? And so, Adam ate some fruit, too. All because they wanted something they were never meant to have from a created thing.
Do you see how easy it is for those who love the Lord to begin worshiping created things rather than the Creator? And not even know it? It has been happening since the beginning of time.
Don't let it happen to you.
Never again will I be concerned that I know my Bible better than my herbals. I hope you won’t, either. “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us,” Philip said. (John 14:8 NIV)
Blessings for your journey.
[xxii] Ratajc, Petra. “Why Are There No Essential Oils in Plants? Meet the Plant Volatiles.” The Phytovolatilome, 2017, Aug 11, https://phytovolatilome.com/plant-volatiles/
[xxiv] “Sassafras.” Drugs.com, https://www.drugs.com/npc/sassafras.html
[xxxv] Modern Essentials. 7th Edition. AromaTools, 2015. Print. (Pg. 11)
[xxvi] Shutes, Jade. “How Are Essential Oils Extracted?” National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy, https://naha.org/explore-aromatherapy/about-aromatherapy/how-are-essential-oils-extracted
[xxvii] Modern Essentials. 7th Edition. AromaTools, 2015. Print. (Pg. 11)
[xxviii] Billock, Jennifer. “Explore the Ruins of an Ancient Incense Route” Smithsonian.com, 2017, Jan 26. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/visit-remnants-ancient-incense-route-180961873/
[xxix] Modern Essentials. 7th Edition. AromaTools, 2015. Print. (Pg. 12)
[xxx] Schnaubelt, Kurt. The Healing Intelligence of Essential Oils: The Science of Advanced Aromatherapy. Healing Arts Press. Toronto, Canada: Healing Arts Press. 2011. Print. (pg. 10)
[xxxi] *Note: The journal was published by the Institute of Brewing and Distilling, which had originated as the Laboratory Club in London in 1886. The club was a group of scientific researchers in the fields of biology and chemistry who met to discuss scientific issues relating to malting and brewing. Their transactions began to be published and are still published today in four issues annually.
[xxxii] *Note: It has been estimated that at one time the Library of Alexandria held over half a million documents from Assyria, Greece, Persia, Egypt, India and many other nations. “The Burning of the Library of Alexandria.” OSU.edu. Retrieved from: https://ehistory.osu.edu/articles/burning-library-alexandria
[xxxiii] Shutes, Jade. “How Are Essential Oils Extracted?” National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy, https://naha.org/explore-aromatherapy/about-aromatherapy/how-are-essential-oils-extracted
[xxxiv] From The Treasury of David, explanatory note on Psalm 92:10. Retrieved from: https://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/treasury-of-david/psalms-92-10.html
[xxxv] Shutes, Jade. “How Are Essential Oils Extracted?” National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy, https://naha.org/explore-aromatherapy/about-aromatherapy/how-are-essential-oils-extracted
[xxxvi] Shutes, Jade. “How Are Essential Oils Extracted?” National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy, https://naha.org/explore-aromatherapy/about-aromatherapy/how-are-essential-oils-extracted
[xxxvii] “Our History.” Gattefossé. Retrieved from https://www.gattefosse.com/history
Reference for the Section, "Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh":
Vaughan, Carolyn. The Gifts of the Magi. The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Bulfinch Press, 1998. Print.
Reference for the Section, "The True Gift":
Vaughan, Carolyn. The Gifts of the Magi. The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Bulfinch Press, 1998. Print.
[xiv] *Note: The Magi had showed up in Jerusalem sometime “after Jesus was born.” (Matthew 2:1) King Herod slyly conferred with them to find out when the star first appeared. (vs. 7) When the Magi did not return to Herod after finding Jesus, the furious king knew he had no way to learn the child’s identity. So, “he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.” (vs. 16)