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.

Mark 14:3-9 – The Anointing at Bethany

Mark 14:3-9 is the center of yet another Markan sandwich. Jesus is anointed by a woman at the home of Simon the Leper in Bethany. Since the story is framed by the betrayal of Judas, it is likely that Mark is intentionally contrasting the faith of the woman with Judas’ actions.

There are some source critical issues here – it is a very similar story to that of Luke 7:36-50 and John 12:1-8, so much so that the stories are often thought to be reflections of a single event. The name of the host in both stories and there are similarities. But there are some critical differences. Simon in Luke is a Pharisee in Galilee, here he is a leper in Bethany, a suburb of Jerusalem.

The identity of the woman is unknown in both Mark and Luke, but in Luke she is a sinful woman, there is no such implication in Mark. Additionally, the objections to the anointing came from Simon the Pharisee in Luke, questioning the possibility of Jesus being a prophet. Here in Mark the objection to the anointing comes from, “someone,” in Matthew it is one of the disciples Matthew, and in John 12 it comes from Judas, who wanted to sell the perfume in order to steal from the profits! To me, we have two similar, yet distinct stories.

Anointings were common at the time of Passover (perhaps based on Psalm 23:5, 141:5), but this woman’s anointing may have had nothing to do with the coming Passover. The anointing may be an indication that Jesus is about to begin his messianic role (Messiah is Hebrew for “anointed one.”) On the other hand, it is possible that the anointing has more to do with the death and burial of Jesus. In this section Jesus is anointed before his burial since, in Mark 16, his body is buried without proper anointing (Evans, Mark 8:27-16:20, 359).

Perhaps the closest parallel between the story in Luke is the alabaster flask of perfume. 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 was held back, it was all used to anoint Jesus. This is an extravagant act since the perfume as costly and it was entirely used on the Lord. The disciple who objected says that the money could have been given to the poor.  It is a tradition for Jews to give to the poor at the time of the Passover.

Jesus’ words sound harsh: “The poor you will always have…” While this may be an allusion to Deut. 15:11, the important thing here is that Jesus is predicting his death, and telling his disciples that there is very little time left for them to serve their master before his is killed. What is remarkable is that when a time comes for the to serve (in the Garden, at the trials), they are either falling asleep or fleeing the temple guards). While they will have many more years to serve the poor, their time serving their Lord is nearly up.

What I find touching is that Jesus describes this act of worship as a “beautiful thing.” Her selfless act of sacrifice is the only anointing that the Anointed one actually receives in Mark.  But what is Mark’s point in telling this story where he does in his Gospel?  There are some obvious foreshadowings of the suffering of Jesus which follows, but are there some other implications of this woman’s actions which merit the the high praise Jesus gives her?

John 12:1-11 – The Anointing at Bethany

Jesus stays with Lazarus and his family at Bethany prior to the Passover. During a meal given in his honor, Mary anointed Jesus with an expensive perfume (verses 1-8).  This is a rare story in John since the episode also appears in in Matt 26:6-13 and Mark 14:3-9, and perhaps Luke 7:39-50.  This is an opportunity to study John’s use of his sources since it would appear that this was a well-known story by the time he wrote his Gospel.

There are a few differences between John and the Synoptic Gospels. In Matthew and Mark we are told that the anointing took place at the home of Simon the Leper and the woman is unidentified.  In Mark she anoints Jesus’ head, while in John she anoints his feet and wipes them with her hair. In John she wipes his feet with her hair, as did the woman in Luke 7.

How is this related to a similar incident in Luke 7:39-50? All three synoptic gospels agree a woman came to Jesus with an alabaster jar of myrrh (ἀλάβαστρον μύρου). But other than the perfume used to anoint Jesus, there is little in Luke which is the same as the even described in John 12.

  • The name Simon appears in Luke and Mark/Matt, but the name Simon was extremely common in the first century. In fact, two of Jesus’ disciples are named Simon! There is nothing which requires Simon the Leper of Mark 14:3 to be Simon the Pharisee of Luke 7:40
  • Luke omits the location (Bethany), but the story is placed before the travel narrative (beginning in Luke 9:51). This implies that the meal hosted by Simon is in Galilee, not Bethany (near Jerusalem).
  • In addition, the woman in Luke is described as having a bad reputation, there is nothing in the Synoptic Gospels or John that imply Mary, the sister of Lazarus had a negative reputation.
  • 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.

It is possible that John has combined two events (Luke 7 and Matt 26/Mark14), or it is possible that Luke has move the event to an earlier point in Jesus’ ministry.  It seems to me, however, that what Luke records is a different event in the life of Jesus. A notorious sinner encounters Jesus and receives forgiveness and acceptance and responds with lavish worship at Jesus’ feet.  John (Mark and Matthew) record an event just prior to the Passion week in which Mary honors her teacher with a lavish gift which foreshadows his death and burial.

John has repeated key elements of the story verbatim (the words of Jesus), yet added a few details which were omitted in Mark and Matthew.  For example, the name of the woman (Mary) and the disciple who objected to the expensive display of affection (Judas).  In fact, John has re-told the story to highlight the difference between Mary’s devotion to Jesus and Judas’s misunderstanding of Jesus.

The Anointing at Bethany – Mark 14:3-9

Mark 14:3-9 is the center of yet another Markan sandwich.  Jesus is anointed by a woman at the home of Simon the Leper in Bethany.  Since the story is framed by the betrayal of Judas, it is likely that Mark is intentionally contrasting the faith of the woman with Judas’ actions.

There are some source critical issues here – it is a very similar story to that of Luke 7:36-50 and John 12:1-8, so much so that the stories are often thought to be reflections of a single event. The name of the host in both stories and there are similarities.  But there are some critical differences.  Simon in Luke is a Pharisee in Galilee, here he is a leper in Bethany, a suburb of Jerusalem.  The identity of the woman is unknown in both Mark and Luke, but in Luke she is a sinful woman, there is no such implication in Mark.  Additionally, the objections to the anointing came from Simon the Pharisee in Luke, questioning the possibility of Jesus being a prophet.  Here in Mark the objection to the anointing comes from, “someone,” in Matthew it is one of the disciples Matthew, and in John 12 it comes from Judas, who wanted to sell the perfume in order to steal from the profits!  To me, we have two similar, yet distinct stories.

Anointings were common at the time of Passover (Psalm 23:5, 141:5), but this woman’s anointing may have had nothing to do with the coming Passover.  The anointing may be an indication that Jesus is about to begin his messianic role (Messiah is Hebrew for “anointed one.”)  On the other hand, it is possible that the anointing has more to do with the death and burial of Jesus.  In this section Jesus is anointed before his burial since, in chapter 16, he will not be available for anointing (Evans, Mark 8:27-16:20, 359).

An alabaster flask of perfume.  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 was held back, it was all used to anoint Jesus.  This is an extravagant act since the perfume as costly and it was entirely used on the Lord.  The disciple who objected notes that the money could have been given to the poor, something that as traditional to do at the time of the Passover.

Jesus’ words sound harsh:  “The poor you will always have…” While this may be an allusion to Deut. 15:11, the important thing here is that Jesus is predicting his death, and telling his disciples that there is very little time left for them to serve their master before his is killed.  What is remarkable is that when a time comes for the to serve (in the Garden, at the trials), they are either falling asleep or fleeing the temple guards).  While they will have many more years to serve the poor, their time serving their Lord is nearly up.

What I find touching is that Jesus describes this act of worship as a “beautiful thing.”  Her selfless act of sacrifice is the only anointing that the Anointed one actually receives in Mark.