By Luke Lancaster
Within Scripture, authority was passed on by somebody putting his hands upon somebody's head. It was a symbolic conferral of authority from the elder to the younger. This began in the Old Testament, and continued on into the New Testament.
In the early days of Judaism, Abraham's son Isaac was to give his "blessing" to his oldest son, Esau. This was to by carried out by the imposition of his hands. Isaac's younger son, Jacob, wanted Isaac's authority, and swooped in secretly to get it. This was infuriating to Esau, for now he had to serve his younger brother, Jacob. For Jacob had the blessing (Genesis 27:18-29).
When the leader of the Israelites, Moses, was getting old, God told him to hand on his authority to Joshua. The text reads, “So the Lord said to Moses, ‘Take Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is the Spirit, and lay your hand on him. Make him stand before Eleazar the priest and all the congregation, and you shall commission him in their sight. You shall invest him with some of your authority, that all the congregation of the people of Israel may obey” (Numbers 27:18-20). Moses literally laid his hands upon Joshua, and Joshua received his authority.
This transference of authority is spoken of elsewhere in Scripture, “And Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, for Moses had laid his hands on him” (Deuteronomy 34:9). Joshua received the spirit of Moses through the laying on of hands. This was a continuation of what had always been the case for handing on authority.
The concept of imposing hands upon somebody was practiced in regard to the priesthood. For the Levitical priests received this in Numbers 8:10, "When you bring the Levites before the Lord, the people of Israel shall lay their hands on the Levites." The Levites were ordained for ministry to the Lord by receiving the priesthood from the Israelites (Exodus 19:6).
Moses appointed 70 elders to assist him in Numbers 11:16-25. According to tradition, these elders ordained by Moses "ordained their successors, who in turn ordained others, so that there existed an unbroken series of ordainers and ordained from Moses down to the time of the second Temple ("Yad," l.c.)" (The Jewish Encyclopedia, 9:428).
In the New Covenant, the laying on of hands continued what had been customary in the Old Covenant. When the apostles needed help, they laid their hands upon seven deacons in Acts 6. Saul and Barnabas were chosen to minister to the Gentiles, and so they were ordained by the laying on of hands (Acts 13:2-3). The power and authority of somebody was transferred to the person receiving the hands.
Timothy was ordained a priest with hands. St. Paul said, "Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you" (1 Tim. 4:14). Timothy received his authority from Paul through a visible sign. He was to ordain new priests with hands in 1 Timothy 5:22, "Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands..."
Both the Old and New Covenants testify to handing on authority by physically laying hands upon somebody's head. This was a physical indication of transference. This is why Catholic priests can only be ordained by the instrumentality of the bishop's hands laid upon him.