Jesus and Cannabis?

I am quite used to seeing stories about the historical Jesus in the media around Christmas and Easter. It is a good time for the History channel to trot out reruns of Secret Mysteries of the Bible or The Bible and Aliens. And to be honest, I occasionally watch these shows for entertainment. They are usually thin on details, but at least they have a few experts I know. Mark Goodacre, for example, served as a consultant on the BBC miniseries on the Bible (2013) and the more recent The Jesus Mysteries for the National Geographic channel.

Jesus smoking potBut not all holidays need a historical Jesus tie-in. Yesterday was April 20, which for a variety of reasons I will not go into here has become an unofficial national pot smoking day. It used to be a few stoners would giggle when you said 4/20, but now the day has crawled out of the dim light of the hydroponic rooms and into popular media. Even Jesus has been dragged into this made-up holiday.

The website Core Spirit ran an article yesterday which claimed “Experts suggest that cannabis may have been a key ingredient in the “anointing oil” used by Jesus and his followers in rituals for healing.” The article cites Naturalnews as saying “the original Hebrew version of the recipe in Exodus (30:22-23), contained over six pounds of kaneh-bosem.” Since kaneh-bosem sounds a little like cannabis, the article suggests Jesus used cannabis in his healing rituals. Jesus anointed the sick with the oil described in Exodus, so he was using cannabis a natural remedy for illness. Although he did spit on blind people on a couple of occasions, Jesus never anointed anyone with oil in the New Testament.

Although the article does not say “Jesus smoked pot” (which would be an anachronism), it is a re-hash of a 2003 article in the Guardian which itself is almost entirely drawn from an earlier High Times article “Was Jesus a Stoner?” by Chris Bennett. This is not really expert support for a rather startling claim.

Blah. This is not at all accurate (obviously). The noun קִנָּמוֹן refers to cinnamon and  בֹּשֶׂם is perfume made from a balsam tree. The standard lexicon for Hebrew Bible studies, the Hebrew Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament identifies the these words clearly and provides their derivation. Although the combination is usually translated “aromatic spices,” cinnamon and balsam cannot be confused with cannabis.

Bible study group in Colorado combines love for God and marijuanaThe article concludes that “the Christ–cannabis connection debate is perhaps an example of an overdue reexamination of some of our collective beliefs that have been clouded by propaganda.” It then goes on to condemn the failed War on Drugs.

Core Spirit focuses on “Alternative and natural medicine” as well as “myth , magic and spirituality.” The expert they cite to support the idea Jesus may have used cannabis in his healing is Carl P. Ruck, professor of classical mythology at Boston University. Ruck is in fact a professor at Boston University, but he is more interested in magic mushrooms than history: “he identified the secret psychoactive ingredient in the visionary potion that was drunk by the initiates at the Eleusinian Mystery.” Seriously, look him up on Rate My Professor.

Anyone with minimal critical thinking skills will reject this article, although possibly critical thinking skills are a bit dull on April 20.

Book Review: Mark L. Strauss, Jesus Behaving Badly

Strauss, Mark L. Jesus Behaving Badly: The Puzzling Paradoxes of the Man from Galilee. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2015. 223 pp. Pb; $16.00.   Link to IVP

In his introduction, Strauss points out most everybody likes Jesus. Although he begins with a mention of the Doobie Brothers’ hit single, Jesus is Just Alright, I thought of another song when I looked over the table of contents—Larry Norman’s The Outlaw. In that classic early “contemporary Christian” song, Norman sang “some say he was an outlaw….some say he was a poet….some say he was a sorcerer…some say a politician.” Every generation makes Jesus into something more recognizable and every scholar tends to read the teaching of Jesus in a way that supports their presuppositions.

Jesus Behaving BadlyAs Strauss says in the introduction, Albert Schweitzer lambasted his generation for turning Jesus into a nineteenth century German Protestant Liberal, Larry Norman made him into a Jesus Freak hippie, just conservative American Christians make Jesus into a gun-toting fiscal conservative who drives a Ford truck. There is often a kernel of biblical truth in these odd portrayals of Jesus, often over-emphasizing a particular aspect of Jesus’ teaching to the exclusion of others. To be honest, Jesus does sometimes say and do things which may, on the surface, appear contradictory. He teaches his disciples to turn the other cheek, then he kicks over the tables at the Temple and occasionally is angry and frustrated with the lack of faith among his followers!

In order to study Jesus in the context of his own culture, Strauss proposes a series of contrasting descriptions of Jesus, such as “Hellfire Preacher or Gentle Shepherd?” or “Racist or Inclusivist?” In both of these examples, the answer should obviously be “neither.” One or two texts could be used to prove the extremes, but as Strauss points out, Jesus is far more complex than one or two verses. In the final chapter, (“Decaying Corpse or Resurrected Lord?”), Strauss is more or less arguing for a traditional view of Jesus’ resurrection through the use of a contrast.

Strauss’s first example is in many ways the most often cited contrast. Jesus can be described as a “revolutionary” similar to the Zealots who eventually went to war against Rome, but in many other passages he is a pacifist, blessing the peacemakers and turning the other cheek. So which is it? Did Jesus come to bring peace or did he come with a sword? Strauss tries to stay clear of the two extremes since Jesus does in fact resonate with more radical elements in Second Temple politics, but he also teaches his disciples to create peace.

As a second example, is Jesus “Angry or Loving?” There are a few verses where Jesus seems to be rude and offensive, angrily denouncing his opponents as a “brood of vipers.” There are times when his frustrations with his own disciples comes out as potentially angry statements. In some cases, these are glossed over by translators, but they are there and need to be recognized. How do we reconcile anger with the loving image most people have of Jesus? Strauss avoids both extremes by setting the “hard sayings” of Jesus in their proper historical and cultural context.

Some of the contrasts Strauss proposes will have different answers in different theological communities. For example, the answer to the question “was Jesus a failed prophet or victorious king?” may be answered differently in a premillennial community and a-millennial tradition. For the chapter concern Jesus as a “sexist or egalitarian,” church practice tends to inform why Jesus had only male disciples or what we make of Jesus’ relationship with Mary and the other women who followed him. Each of these chapters offers a solution, but each should generate some interesting discussion.

Some of Strauss’s contrasts seem strange to me. For example, in one chapter he asks if Jesus was an “environmentalist” or an “Earth-scorcher?” The two examples of non-environmentalism are the casting of demons into pigs who then kill themselves and Jesus’ curse on a fig tree, withering it until the end of the age. As Strauss explains, neither of these have much to do with environmentalism (the fig tree is a parabolic act not a model for the pave-the-Earth movement). I have a similar impression from the chapter entitled “Antifamily or Family Friendly?” Of course Jesus is “family friendly” in the way the phrase is normally used and the negative examples were never intended as models for mission (leave your family and follow Jesus). I realize Strauss is finding a way to deal with some “hard sayings of Jesus,” but both these chapters seemed like false-contrasts to me.

The most interesting chapter for me is “Was Jesus Anti-Semitic?” This is not a contrast, at least in the title of the chapter, but it does get at a very difficult problem in the study of the Gospels. Certainly Jesus was “against” some of the Jews, he in fact calls the “sons of the devil” in John 8:44. Sadly verses like this have been used to give biblical support to heinous crimes against the Jewish people. But Jesus was not anti-Semitic at all: he was a Jewish teaching who taught Jewish people to respond to the Jewish God properly. Anyone who thinks Jesus was “Anti-Jew” and therefore “pro-Christian” is simply foolish.

This issue raises a small problem with the book. Perhaps the question should have been, “was Jesus Anti-Semitic or was the Gospel Writer Anti-Semitic?” Since John wrote more than a generation after Jesus, it is possible to argue Jesus himself was not quite so angry with the Jews but John presented him in this way in order to support his own theology. Strauss does not broach the issue of historical Jesus or the authenticity of Jesus. The Jesus Scholar in my mind constantly raised those kinds of questions, but Strauss keeps this book on the popular level. He assumes everything in the Gospels comes from Jesus and does not worry about the source of the theology (Jesus or the Evangelist). Strauss deals with that in other places (Four Portraits, One Jesus, for example).

Another minor problem I have with this books is some of the chapters have excellent content that seems tangential to the topic. For example, in his chapter on Grace or Legalism, Strauss spends a large part of the chapter talking through several parables of grace. This is not a bad response to the question he poses, but it seemed to me the chapter was used as an opportunity to discuss parables as much as the topic of grace. Perhaps a section on Jesus’ habit of eating with sinners would have supported the idea Jesus was a grace-filled preacher as much as the parables Strauss chose.

Conclusion. This is a readable introduction to some of the issues one faces when they begin to read the Gospels seriously. Strauss writes the book on a non-academic level with a great deal of humor as well as plenty of pop-culture references. Although academic, it is written with a pastor’s heart.

The book includes a few study questions which could be used as discussion starters for a small group Bible study. In fact, I think this book would make an excellent read for a small Bible Study group interested in going a bit deeper into who Jesus was than the typical curriculum normally goes. The book might make a good auxiliary textbook for a Gospels college course, supplementing a more thorough textbook. Strauss challenges his readers to think more deeply about who Jesus is by stripping away some of the pre-conceptions about Jesus passed along by tradition and the Church. The result is clearer view of who Jesus was and more importantly, why Jesus still matters to his disciples today.

NB: Thanks to Intervarsity Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Faithful Thomas

Thomas was not with the disciples when Jesus first appeared after the resurrection. We are not told why and it may not be important. But while the other ten were locked in the upper room out of fear, Thomas was someplace else. Thomas seemed ready to die with Jesus in John 11, so it may be the case that he is willing to go about his life, almost daring the Jews to arrest him too.

On the other hand, perhaps Thomas experienced a “crisis of faith” when Jesus died. If he believed Jesus was the Messiah and that the Messiah was not going to be crucified by the Romans, perhaps Jesus’ death caused him to doubt everything. He may be in a state of denial, like Peter, but deeper.

Whatever the case, he returns to the upper room the disciples tell him that Jesus is alive. Jesus is “more than alive,” he has risen from the dead to a new kind of life. Whatever the reason, when he is told that Jesus rose from the dead, he refuses to believe without further evidence. Thomas gets a bad reputation as a skeptic for not believing what the disciples told him.

On the other hand, there is virtually nothing in Second Temple Period Judaism that anticipated the death of the Messiah not his resurrection to eternal life. It was something which Thomas was not ready to believe since it was unbelievable within his world view. The disciples are making an extraordinary claim, that the messiah intended to die and rise to eternal life. This will require them to re-think virtually everything that they believe.

When Jesus appears in the midst of the disciples a second time, Thomas believes and confesses Jesus as “Lord and God” (v. 28). Thomas’s confession is a theological statement for the whole book of John. The writer has been slowly revealing who Jesus is through a series of misunderstandings, people hear Jesus’ words but do not fully comprehend his meaning. Even after the resurrection, Mary thinks Jesus’ body was stolen, then the disciples wonder if he ever really died. Even when he appears to them, they still do not confess Jesus quite the way Thomas does in v. 28.

John therefore intends Thomas’s words as a final word on who Jesus is: he is the “Lord and God” of the reader, and that by believing that he is the Lord one can have eternal life in his name (verse 31). Are there other ways in which Thomas’s faithful statement functions like a theological conclusion to the Gospel of John?

Peter’s Denial

While Jesus is in the high priest’s house being interrogated, Peter and another disciple have followed from a distance. This other disciple seems to be known by the servants of the high priest, since he arranges for Peter to be allowed into the courtyard. This “other disciple” could be the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” the apostle John. That is the simplest answer, but it is strange that John would not identify himself as the eyewitness to this sequence of events.

Peter's DenialIn addition, some find it odd that a Galilean fisherman would have access to the courtyard of the high priest and be known by the servants. One suggestion is that John is not a laborer, but rather a wealthy owner of a fishing business. He may have delivered fish to the high priest’s home in the past and had access to the grounds.

Peter has an opportunity at this point to speak up and declare his loyalty to Jesus, but does not (John 18:15-18). The girl who asks him if he was a follower of Jesus is a young girl using a diminutive form of the word for servant (παιδίσκη). The fact that Peter swears he does not know Jesus when confronted by a young girl stands in contrast to his words at the last supper and his attempt to defend Jesus in the Garden.

Peter denies his Lord twice more while warming by a fire himself in the courtyard (18:25-27). The third denial was to a relative of the man Peter had attacked in the garden! Perhaps Peter knew this and he feared that he would be arrested as well. Regardless, he wastes no time in denying that he was a follower of Jesus.

Immediately he heard the crow of a rooster and the words of Jesus at the last supper were fulfilled. It has only been a few hours since Peter swore loyalty to Jesus, and even less time since he pathetically tried to defend Jesus in the Garden. Yet while Jesus was inside bearing witness to the truth before the highest Jewish and Gentile authorities, Peter was on the outside denying that he even knew the man.

It is easy to relate to Peter as the “silent bystander” who witnessed a crime and said nothing. It is actually a bit worse than that in Peter’s case because he not only was silent, he contributed to Jesus; isolation by denying him three times. I have pointed out that Peter is perhaps the most faithful of the disciples since he was at least there – but when the moment for him to bear witness to his Lord he failed.

We have an advantage over Peter, we serve a risen Savior, we know how the story ended and that Jesus did in fact have victory over sin and death. We have the promised Holy Spirit to strengthen us and to enable us to stand up to persecution.

This is why our silent denials are even more scandalous than Peter’s.

Peter Defends Jesus in the Garden

At the Last Supper, Jesus predicted the disciples would all fall away, even Peter. Peter, as the leader of the disciples, denies this vehemently! Jesus declares to Peter that not only will he deny him, he will do so three times before the night is out! Jesus says Peter would disown him in only a few hours, not dawn. Westerners miss this since we start the day at midnight and usually associate a rooster crowing with dawn. The rooster was used to mark the changes in watches during the night, thus it is only a few hours until Jesus is arrested.

Malcus earPeter’s statement might be a reaction to a ‘slur” on his loyalty. Peter is willing to fight to defend the Lord, he is ready to be killed defending the Lord, he is completely loyal. Remember Peter is the first disciple to grasp who Jesus was, in Mark 8 it was Peter who declared that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Even though at that time he understood properly, he does not understand here that the Messiah was going to suffer and die, he will defend the Lord, and die by his side. But that is not the plan, the Messiah is to be abandoned. Peter is speaking as a representative of the disciples, after he speaks, all the disciples join in with him in declaring their loyalty.

Yet when the time for action arrives, Peter does attempt to defend Jesus and wounds a servant (John 18:8-11). When the soldiers arrive to arrest Jesus, Peter attacks the servant of the High Priest, cutting off his ear with a short dagger (μάχαιρα). This servant, Malchus, is named in John’s Gospel, although he is unknown to us. The name appears in inscriptions, although almost exclusively for Gentiles and Nabatean Arabs (BDAG).

Why attack the servant of the High Priest? It is possible he was leading the group to the garden to arrest Jesus. Malchus was not a slave carrying a torch for the people in charge, he was the personal representative of the High Priest. JoAnn Watson points out “The servants of the high priest were known to perform the underhanded dealings of the high priest” (“Malchus (Person),” ABD 4:487).

It is likely that this is a badly aimed attack rather than an attempt to maim the man so he was no longer permitted to enter the Temple. Maiming priests by cutting off their ears is well known in the Second Temple Period. Rather than a blundering attempt to save Jesus, this may have been a calculated attack on the man in charge of the arrest. Rather than killing him, Peter humiliated him and rendered him useless as a servant of the High Priest.

Peter’s actions are sometimes dismissed as laughable, but they represent the actions of the most zealous of Jesus’ followers. Jesus wanted to protect them by giving himself up to the arresting guards, but Peter seizes the moment and “starts the revolution.” Even if this is a colossal failure, it is better than the response of the rest of the disciples! Jesus orders Peter to put his sword away, telling everyone that he intends to “drink the cup the Father has given him,” is a reference to the cup of God’s wrath, the crucifixion which he is about to face.

Peter is therefore not a bumbler who can’t do anything right, but the most faithful of Jesus’ disciples and seems willing to attack an important and potentially powerful member of the High Priest’s household.

The Hidden Messiah?

Last Supper - BreadThere is perhaps another hint of eschatology in the Last Supper. Craig Evans suggests that the broken piece of bread which Jesus distributes is the afikoman (ἀφικόμενος, אפיקומן, Wikipedia). At the beginning of the Seder, a small portion of bread is broken off, to be consumed at the end of the meal. The bread represented the whole of the Jewish people and the broken portion represented “what the Messiah will eat when he returns to celebrate with Israel.”(Evans, Mark 8:27–16:20, 390).

This was first suggested by David Daube (He That Cometh), although D. B. Carmichael, (“David Daube on the Eucharist and the Passover Seder” 45–67)  finds additional support for this understanding of the bread in Melito of Sardis, a second century writer who creates a “Christian Haggadah.” Melito uses the term ἀφικόμενος twice with reference to Jesus as the coming Messiah.

If the breaking of the bread does reflect the afikoman tradition, then it explains how Jesus could say that bread somehow represented him and his body.  The bread already represented something, the Messiah. Jesus is making a claim that he is in fact the Messiah when he breaks the bread. This is how the disciples understood breaking of bread in Luke 24 as well.  If the breaking of bread was a messianic self–revelation then it would be strong evidence in favor of the Last Supper as a messianic banquet.

Unfortunately there is no solid evidence that this traditional use of the bread was current in the first century, so Evans suggestion may not be helpful in showing that the bread is an allusion to messianic themes.

The Last Supper and the Messianic Banquet

In Mark 14:25 Jesus states that he will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until he drinks it anew in the Kingdom of God. Since the emphasis is on drinking wine when the kingdom comes, this should be taken as an allusion to an eschatological banquet which celebrates the final victory.  Craig Blomberg states that the Last Supper was a “foreshadowing of the messianic banquet” and connects the event to Isa 25:6–9.  Similarly, Allison says “Jesus announces that he will feast at the messianic banquet.”  But what is there in this saying which implies a connection to the eschatological feast I described earlier in chapter 3?

Last Supper - BouveretFirst, the description of the meal is laced with allusions to shared meals in the Mosaic and New Covenant passages. For example, Gundry suggests Jesus is blending Exod 24:8, Isa 53:12, and Jer 31:31.  The “blood of the covenant” in Exod 24:8 is followed by a meal on Sinai in which Moses, Aaron and the seventy elders eat and drink before God. This meal at the establishment of the first covenant is the foundation on which the meal at the establishment of the new Covenant is built in Isa 25:6–8. As I have already observed, rather than a meal restricted to only the leaders of Israel at Sinai, the eschatological banquet includes all people at Zion.

Second, Jesus clearly alludes to the new covenant text (Jer 31:33). Jeremiah 31 combines both an eschatological meal and a marriage metaphor to describe the restoration of Israel’s relationship with her God at the end of the Exile. That a covenant was ratified with the blood of a sacrifice is commonplace in the Hebrew Bible, but of primary importance is the sacrifice which accompanied the first covenant in Exod 24:8. Dunn includes the Last Supper in his section on “heavenly banquet.” (Jesus Remembered, 427). Vincent Taylor sees the meal as eschatological and describes verse 25 as an allusion to the messianic banquet: Jesus’ “messianic consciousness is manifest” (Mark, 547). C. S. Mann describes the section as “thoroughly Jewish” and contains an allusion to the messianic banquet (Isa 25:6–8) (Mark, 580). Robert Gundry thinks this saying is a prediction that Jesus will return to “transform the Passover meal into the messianic banquet.” (Mark, 843).

Third, the messianic banquet text in 1QSa sheds some light on the Last Supper as an anticipation of the eschatological meal. As I argued in chapter 6, 1QSa was initially thought to describe a Eucharist–like meal, although this has been (rightly) abandoned for the most part in recent scholarship. However, there are still remarkable comparisons and contrasts between the two meals. The participants in the meal in 1QSa are seated according to their rank, with the Messiah of Israel at their head. After the Messiah blesses the food, they drink new wine and eat the first–fruits of the bread. At the last supper Jesus eats with his twelve disciples, a number invoking the twelve tribes of a reconstituted Israel. Jesus indeed blesses the bread and wine, although there is no reference to sharing these among the participants at Qumran. The meal at Qumran was to celebrate the coming of the Messiah, so also here in the Last Supper. Jesus declares to his disciples that the New Covenant in imminent and that he will not drink wine again until he drinks it “new” in the Kingdom of God. Like the Qumran community, Jesus’ celebration of Passover is an anticipation of the coming eschatological age.

In summary, the Last Supper is an anticipation of the messianic banquet. As such, it is an intertextual blending of several traditions beginning with the covenant meal in Exod 24 and the restoration of the marriage of Israel and her God in Jer 31. Because discussion of the Last Supper is usually laden with theological questions about later Christian practice, the Jewish eschatological implications can be overlooked. Jesus finally reveals himself as the one who will initiate the New Covenant and restore Israel to her rightful place.

Are there other eschatological overtones to the Last Supper (either from the Passover or the Prophets) that might illuminate the meaning of this important meal?

Why Did Judas Betray Jesus?

A few years ago the media went wild over the ‘Gospel of Judas,” a gnostic text which (it was claimed) described Judas as a faith disciple of Jesus, chosen to be the betrayer because he was so faithful. I first encountered this idea through William Klassen’s book Judas: Betrayer or Friend of Jesus? (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996). Klassen argued that Judas was not the betrayer, but rather the most faithful disciple. Jesus had to be handed over to the authorities, so he entrusted this job to Judas. In order to make this theory work, Klassen has to make the “anti-Judas” statements into “later additions” by the church.  This includes the brief note in Luke that “Satan entered him” and the much later references to Judas as a thief in John’s gospel.  He makes much of the fact that Paul never mentions the betrayal or Judas.

Thirty Peices of SilverKlassen does have a point, the later texts do indeed offer a more pernicious view of Judas.  In John 12:1-8, Judas is described as a thief. He is embezzling from the disciples, and when a woman anoints Jesus’ feet with a precious perfume, he feels that he has been “cheated.” The perfume was not sold, he could have skimmed quite a bit from the sale (in John 13:28-30 Judas is the keeper of the funds for the disciples.) Greed could be a factor in Matthew 26:14-16 as well – Judas asked the priests “What will you give me….?”

Another answer is that the “perfume incident” forced Judas to understand that Jesus was not the Messiah, at least exactly as he understood the Messiah. One option is that Judas was convinced by the anointing that Jesus was not who he claimed, and the Pharisees were right all along. Jesus had to be destroyed as a false teacher. A second option is that Judas was shocked when he finally understood that Jesus was literally going to his death. He may have expected Jesus to go to Jerusalem to overthrow the Romans, but not to die. He may have wanted to ‘force’ Jesus to use his power to destroy the Romans.

At the time of the Last Supper, Judas had already made his choice to betray when Satan entered him (Luke 22:3). Perhaps Satan’s hand in the betrayal was to tempt Judas into making the decision or perhaps to keep Judas from losing his nerve by entering him. This is an extremely unique event:  Satan is never mentioned as “entering” anyone else. Satan has become personally involved because the previous efforts to stop Jesus have failed.

Another angle here is this: What did Satan stand to gain by getting Judas to betray Jesus? Why did Satan want to kill Jesus? He should have been able to understand that it would be Jesus’ death and resurrection that defeated him. Clearly Satan tried to stop him from going to the cross in the temptations, and tried to slow him down or stop him throughout his ministry, so why help him to the cross now? Satan’s role in the killing of Jesus is an indication of the arrogance of the devil. Perhaps he thought that if he could not stop Jesus in the world, that he could stop him in death. Maybe he thought that he could hold Jesus in the grave. Another option, although less likely, is that Satan was playing the role laid out for him, and that he was not truly a free agent in the whole affair.

Thirty pieces of silver was not a great deal of money, he would not have won many friends by betraying his teacher.  I suspect that his motivations were good, he wanted to help Jesus establish himself as the Messiah and to assist him in starting a Kingdom of God in Jerusalem.

But from a purely human perspective, what did Judas hope to gain?

Bibliography: Klassen also wrote the Anchor Bible Dictionary article, “Judas Iscariot”, 3:1091-1096. For a more balanced approach, see D. J. Williams, “Judas Iscariot”, in DJG, 406-408; John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew, 3:208-211.

What is the point of the Anointing at Bethany?

Why does this anonymous woman anoint Jesus in Mark 14:1-8? To honor a prestigious guest with oil is not unusual, but this is an extravagant act on the part of the woman. The oil is an “alabaster flask of perfume.” The version of the story in John 12 indicates the perfumed oil could have been sold for 300 denarii, or about a year’s wages. According to Pliny the Elder, the best perfumes came in alabaster flasks, the neck of which would be broken to let the perfume out.  Nothing could be held back; all of the oil was used to anoint Jesus.

Anointing at BethanyIt might be simply an honor given to a special guest at a pre-Passover gathering. But the connection with Passover may have more to do with the symbolism of a sacrificed lamb at Passover. Many of the animal sacrifices in the Hebrew Bible are accompanied by oil (daily sacrifices Exodus 29:38–42; the guilt offering Leviticus 14:12–13).

On the other hand, this anointing may anticipate Jesus coming as king. Kings were anointed when they began their roles. One particularly important example is 1 Chronicles 29:22, where Solomon is anointed as “prince of the people” by Zadok the high priest. Jesus will soon be mocked as a king (Mark 15:2, 12) and even crowned with thorns and given a royal robe (Mark 15:16-20). The charges on the cross will call Jesus the “king of the Jews” (Mark 15:26).

Ultimately, this anointing anticipates Jesus’ death and burial. This is how Jesus himself interprets the action in Matthew 26:12, although the purpose is left more open in the Gospel of Mark. (In Luke the story has nothing to do with the death and burial of Jesus). Since the dead were anointed with spices and oils (including myrrh), the woman’s action foreshadows the women who visit Jesus’ tomb in Mark 16:1 to anoint his body.

In Mark and Matthew, a disciple objects to the woman’s display of generosity saying the perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor. In John 12, Judas is the disciple who objects, but he also reflects this common practice of almsgiving at feasts and festivals. For example, the intertestamental book Tobit describes the righteous Tobit risking his life to bury the dead at Pentecost. Alms giving is praised in Sirach and other Second Temple sources.

It is true that an expensive gift like this could have generated enough money to care for many poor people. That the bottle cost a year’s wages is important-this is more than a small gift honoring Jesus! Rather than spend money on an expensive, non-essential like a bottle of perfume, the money would be better used for ministry!

What is wrong with this objection? I do not think that the objection itself is wrong, although Judas’ motive was false. Judas seems to represent the thinking of a good Jewish person wanting to honor God at the time of the Passover by making good use of the money the perfume could bring.

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.