Anointing Jesus

In Mark 14:3-9 Jesus is anointed by a woman at a meal given in his honor. There is a serious source critical problem with this story. Mark and Matthew agree on many details, and John 12:1-8 appears to be the same story. But there is a similar story in Luke 7:36-50. Luke’s story is so similar it is often assumed Luke has heavily redacted the story he found in Mark and moved it to another point in Jesus ministry. It is true the name of the host is the same and the use of an expensive perfume is similar.

AnointingAll three synoptic gospels agree a woman came to Jesus with an alabaster jar of myrrh (ἀλάβαστρον μύρου), containing “oil of nard” (νάρδου πιστικῆς), derived from the aromatic spikenard plant. In John’s Gospel Mary has large quantity of the oil, a “pound” in the ESV.  The Greek λίτρα is a Roman pound (327.45 grams or 11.5 ounces), significantly more than an alabaster vial or perfume.

There are other differences:

  • In Luke, Simon is a Pharisee in Galilee hosting Jesus in his home. In Mark, the home is owned by Simon the Leper, while in John 12 the meal appears to be hosted by Lazarus in Bethany.
  • The identity of the woman is unknown in both the three synoptic Gospels, but in Luke she appears to be a well-known sinful woman. There is no implication of sinfulness in Matthew and Mark. In John, the woman is identified as Mary, presumably the sister of Lazarus and Martha.
  • In Mark she anoints Jesus’ head, but in Luke 7 she anoints his feet. In John 12 she anoints Jesus’ feet and wipes them with her hair just as the woman in Luke did.
  • The objection to the anointing in Luke is voiced by Simon the Pharisee rather than one of the twelve. In Mark the objection to the anointing comes from “someone,” in Matthew it is one of the twelve disciples, and by the time John was written, the objection comes from Judas (John 12). John 12:6 indicates Judas was already “helping himself” money from the common fund and he was going to steal from the profit on the perfume.
  • Luke also omits the words of Jesus praising the woman for her actions, saying that her deed will be repeated wherever the gospel is preached. Instead, Jesus responds to Simon’s critical thoughts with a short parable and pronounces the woman’s sins forgiven.

All things being equal, I think these are two separate incidents. While it might seem strange women keep turning up to anoint Jesus, the anointing at Passover is in keeping with Passover traditions and anticipated Jesus’ suffering, execution and burial. In Luke, the anointing is a vivid example of radical grace and forgiveness.

2 thoughts on “Anointing Jesus

  1. I agree with you in that these two incidents are two distinct separate events. And why not? Jesus was a prominent religious leader, but also, some may say a revolutionary, so it only seems right that they would anoint him. Many, also, thought that he would go on to be the physical king of the Jews, instead of going to die, so this anointing may have been perceived as anointing a king. More likely, however, like you’ve said it was an anticipatory or foreshadowing to the suffering and death he was going to face for humanity. The oils used by the women could point to the oils used in preservation of a dead body during burial, pointing all the way back, as well, to the gifts of the wisemen (magistrates) during Jesus’ infancy (Matthew 2:11). Is this symbolism, relevant and intentional? Perhaps not, but it is safe to say that it is remarkably noted and applied to the texts in which they are found, whether John or the Synoptic Gospels. Also, myrrh was indeed used in burials, so it would be foolish of us to look over these small details. We also, know that Jesus saw himself as a prophet who was going to die. Strauss notes, “it is safe to conclude that Jesus viewed himself as a prophet and expected the fate which befell the prophets–persecution and even death” (503). These women who anointed Jesus got this fact and understood better what Jesus had come to do.

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