Mark 14:3-9 – The Anointing at Bethany

In Mark 14:3-9 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.

Annointing at Bethany

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.

Alabaster Perfume JarAnointings 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 Deuteronomy 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 foreshadowing 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?

What is the Problem with Q?

The dominant view in over the last 150 years of New Testament scholarship is that Mark was written first, and that Matthew and Luke both used Mark as an outline from which they wrote their gospels.  This accounts for the narrative portions of the gospels.  But there is a great deal of material where both Matthew and Luke agree that is not in Mark.

In order to account for this common material, scholars have conjectured a document they call Q (from the German word Quelle, source).  This hypothetical document is used to explain the many sayings of Jesus that appear in Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark.  In this theory, both Matthew and Luke used two documents, hence the name “two source theory.”  Some scholars assume that this document must have existed in one form or another.  For example, G. N.  Stanton says that “we can be reasonably certain that Q existed as a written document” (650).  Yet scholars such as Thomas Edgar vehemently deny its existence.  Edgar states that “Q has never been seen nor is there any evidence that such a document ever existed” (147).

The existence of a “sayings” gospel is a possibility in the light of two pieces of circumstantial evidence.  The statement of Papias can be taken quite easily as a collection of sayings of Jesus were collected by Matthew first, rather than the gospel of Matthew.  A problem night be then that Papias does not know the Gospel of Matthew.   Second, the Gospel of Thomas, while not a particularly help source for historical studies, does show that the genre of a sayings gospel existed. Alas, circumstantial evidence is just.  Thomas is not Q and dates well after the first century.  What Papias says may be explained in several different ways which do not imply the existence of a Q-like source document.

There is something about the idea of a source document which makes evangelicals uneasy.  We do not want to accept the idea that Matthew and Luke were scholars and editors, assembling their gospels from sources.  Most conservatives would dismiss Q immediately because it is the product of Historical Criticism (as the essays in The Jesus Crisis do).  Did God inspire Matthew and Luke to edit their sources, or write their gospels?  For the conservative scholar, Q simply is not helpful since their emphasis is on the text as it appears in the Bible.

This unease is felt over a  broad spectrum of scholarship as well.  The essays in Questioning Q, for example, wonder if relying on the existence of a Sayings source has short-circuited the idea of the Gospel writers as creative writers who should be treated as authors, not editors of their books.
Both of these warnings are well intended.  It is true that documents which “count” are the synoptic Gospels as they appear on the page of the Bible.  If the writers used sources, that may not matter much for our interpretation of the words in Matthew, Mark and Luke.  I have always tried to get students to “stay within the world of the story” and read Matthew as Matthew, not as a parallel book to Luke.

Yet the evidence is there, and as I read it Matthew used Mark and a sayings source of some kind.  Luke likely also used Mark and a sayings source, although he could have also used Matthew.  For me, it is not correct to mis-characterize Matthew ans cut and pasting sources together to create his gospel.  Rather, if Matthew used courses, he was a scholar marshaling all of his resources to create a theological document which answered some questions about the person and nature of Jesus and the idea of discipleship after the resurrection.  There is nothing wrong with the idea that Matthew (or Mark) used sources, but too much emphasis on the sources will obscure the goal – a clear reading of the Gospels.

Bibliography:

Thomas Edgar.  “Source Criticism: The Two Source Theory,” pages 132-157 in The Jesus Crisis (ed. Robert Thomas and F. David Farnell; Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1998).

Mark Goodacre, editor. Questioning Q: A Multidimensional Critique (Downer’s Grover, Inter-Varsity, 2004).

G. N.  Stanton.  “Q”, pages 644-650 in The Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (ed.  Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight;  Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity, 1992).