The Passion Narrative: Episode 1 (Jn 12:1-8)

Episode 1: The Anointing of JEsus

John 12:1-8

Having discussed the Synoptic (Mark/Matthew) and Lukan versions of the Anointing of Jesus (parts 1 and 2 of this study), it now remains to examine the version in John (12:1-8). Anyone who studies these three versions carefully will immediately recognize how close John’s version is to the Synoptic account (especially that of Mark, 14:3-9). Indeed, the similarities far outweigh the differences. This marks the (Bethany) Anointing tradition as both early and authentic (on objective grounds), having been preserved in two distinct lines of Gospel tradition (John and the Synoptic). However, there are several significant differences in John’s account:

    • John’s episode is set six days before Passover (v. 1), compared with two days before in the Synoptic version (Mk 14:1 par).
    • The woman who anoints Jesus is identified as Mary, sister of Lazarus (v. 3, see verse 2 and 11:1ff). In the Synoptics, the woman is unnamed (Mk 14:3 par).
    • She anoints the feet of Jesus (v. 3), rather than his head (Mk 14:3 par).
    • The person who voices objection to this action is identified as Judas Iscariot (vv. 4ff); compare Mk 14:4-5 and Matt 26:8-9.
    • The beautiful image in v. 3b of the smell of the perfume filling the house is unique to John’s account.

Each of these will be discussed briefly, in turn.

1. Six days— “Then six days before the Pesah {Passover}, Yeshua came into Beth-Ananyah {Bethany}…” The context in Mk 14:1 par indicates that the Anointing took place two days before Passover. More significantly, John clearly sets the Anointing before Jesus’ “triumphal” entry into Jerusalem (12:12ff), while in the Synoptics (Mk/Matt) it takes place after. Which chronology is correct, or more accurately reflects the original historical event (and tradition)? On the one hand, the Synoptic version may have relocated it, setting it within the Passion narrative, in order to bring out the association with Jesus’ death and burial (Mk 14:8-9 par; Jn 12:7). On the other hand, it is possible that John has intentionally placed it earlier in the narrative, in order to bring out the association with Lazarus and Mary in chapter 11. The traditional commemoration of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry on Palm Sunday, one week prior to Easter, is based on the chronology in John.

2. Mary—John is unique among the Gospels in identifying the woman with Mary, sister of Lazarus (v. 3). The episode follows immediately after the resurrection of Lazarus in chapter 11, in which both Mary and her sister Martha play significant roles in the narrative (vv. 5, 19-27, 31-33, 45). All three siblings appear at the dinner in chapter 12 (vv. 2-3), which may have taken place in the family’s house. Outside of John 11-12, Martha and Mary appear in Lk 10:38-42, but without any mention of Bethany or Lazarus. The identification of the woman with Mary is likely a secondary development, in line with the early Christian (and Jewish) tendency of identifying unnamed figures in the Scriptures with specific persons. Almost certainly, Mark reflects an earlier version of the tradition in this regard.

3. Judas Iscariot—Similarly, John identifies the person objecting to the anointing as Judas Iscariot (v. 4). Here, we can actually trace the development:

    • Persons present at the dinner, otherwise unidentified (Mk 14:4)

Interestingly, Matthew’s identification of the people with Jesus’ disciples is presumably meant to be positive—they object to the extravagant ‘waste’ of costly perfume which could otherwise have been put to the more practical use of caring for the poor. However, in John, the identification with Judas turns this around and is decidedly negative—Judas was a ‘thief’ and did not really have any concern for the poor. Here we must separate out for consideration two specific details (or traditions) which John includes:

    1. The person voicing objection was Judas (v. 4)
    2. Judas was a thief and did not care for the poor (v. 6)

The first of these fits with the information in Matt 26:8, that Jesus’ disciples were the ones objecting to the waste of perfume. The second is more difficult. Many scholars are naturally suspicious of such a detail since it seems to follow the early Christian tendency to vilify Judas and depict him in an increasingly negative and hostile light. This will be discussed further in an upcoming note on the traditions surrounding Judas in the Passion Narrative.

4. The feet of Jesus—In the Synoptic version, the woman anoints Jesus’ head (Mk 14:3 par), however, in John’s account, somewhat strangely, Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with the perfume (12:3). Traditional-conservative commentators might be inclined to harmonize here, and say that she anointed both the head and feet, but the Markan account would seem to rule this out. In Mk 14:3 it is stated that the women shattered the alabaster jar—the implication being that she poured all the perfume over Jesus’ head. This helps to explain the objection to the “waste” —she used it all up in one extravagant action. More to the point, in each of the versions, the woman anoints either Jesus’ head (Mk/Matt) or his feet (Jn), but never both. Curiously, in Luke’s version of the Anointing, the woman’s action matches that of Mary’s in Jn 12:3:

“and standing behind (him) alongside his feet (and) weeping, she began to wet his feet with (her) tears and she wiped (them) out with the hairs of her head, and she ‘kissed’ his feet and anointed (them) with the myrrh-ointment” (Lk 7:38)

John’s description of the action is simpler (indicated by the words in bold above), but appears to follow the same basic tradition:

“Then Maryam…anointed the feet of Yeshua and wiped out [i.e. off] his feet with her hair…” (v. 3)

Some critical commentators feel that this represents the original tradition—i.e. anointing Jesus’ feet—and that, in the Synoptic version, it has been modified to the more understandable act of anointing Jesus’ head. The latter, of course, is more fitting for Jesus’ identity and dignity as the Anointed One (Messiah/Christ) and King. However, the anointing of the feet is actually more appropriate, in some ways, for the symbolic embalming of a dead body (Mk 14:8-9 par; Jn 12:7).

5. The house was filled—It is likely that this beautiful and evocative detail in v. 3b is meant to symbolize the faith and devotion of Mary (and disciples/believers like her). In some ways this is parallel to the scene with Martha in the Lazarus narrative (11:20-27, especially her declarations in v. 21 and 27). R. E. Brown (The Gospel According to John [AB vol. 29], p. 453) notes a (later) Jewish parallel from the Midrash Rabbah on Ecclesiastes 7:1: “The fragrance of a good perfume spreads from the bedroom to the dining room; so does a good name spread from one end of the world to the other” (translation his). This quotation also seems to suggest a relationship between v. 3 and the declaration by Jesus in Mk 14:9 par.

The Passion Narrative: Episode 1 (Lk 7:36-50)

Episode 1: The Anointing of Jesus

Luke 7:36-50

In the first part of this study, I examined the Anointing of Jesus in Mark and Matthew, in which it is set as the first episode in the (Synoptic) Passion Narrative. Luke likewise includes an Anointing scene, but one with a very different setting—earlier in the Galilean ministry period (7:36-50)—and with considerable differences in detail as well. These points of difference would normally be sufficient to mark the episode as deriving from an entirely separate (historical) tradition. However, at least two facts would argue against this:

    1. This is the only such Anointing scene in Luke; he does not include anything similar at a point corresponding to Mk 14:3-9 par. This might suggest that Luke felt that the episode properly belonged at a different point in the narrative. John’s version provides confirmation for an earlier setting of the episode, prior to Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.
    2. Luke’s account includes specific details common to the Synoptic (Markan) version:
      (a) The name of the host (Simon)—Mk 14:3 par; Lk 7:40.
      (b) The unnamed woman with an alabaster jar of perfume—Mk 14:3 par; Lk 7:37
      (c) As we shall see, the description of the woman’s action (v. 38) is nearly identical with that in John’s version (12:3), which otherwise is quite close overall to the Markan episode.

How are we to explain the relationship between the Lukan and Synoptic (Mark/Matthew) version? There are several possibilities:

    • They simply record entirely separate (historical) events, and the similarities between them are coincidental. This would probably be the normal traditional-conservative view, yet the points noted above seem to speak against it.
    • Luke has combined two distinct historical traditions:
      (1) that involving a “sinful” woman who wets Jesus’ feet with her tears and dries them with her hair; the episode is set earlier in Jesus’ ministry, at the house of a Pharisee.
      (2) that of the woman who anoints Jesus at Bethany; i.e. the Synoptic tradition, set close to the time of Jesus’ Passion in Jerusalem.
      This would tend to be the more common critical view—that Luke has added details from the Synoptic version (which he has otherwise omitted) to the other scene.
    • They record the same underlying historical tradition (and event), but that Luke has brought out very different details and points of emphasis, through the specific tradition he has inherited.

Unfortunately, each of these three views has its own problems, and none is entirely satisfactory as an explanation of both the differences and similarities between the versions. The situation is complicated still further when one compares these two versions of the Anointing scene with the third (in John). Insofar as Luke has developed the core (Synoptic) tradition, we must consider this from several different perspectives.

1. If Luke has otherwise made use of Mark (or a similar Synoptic narrative), why did he omit the Bethany Anointing scene of Mk 14:3-9? Different possibilities have been suggested, but, in my view, the most convincing is that his purpose was to emphasize more clearly two primary thematic elements of the narrative—(1) the Passover setting, and (2) the Betrayal by Judas. Eliminating the Anointing episode at this point serves to join immediately the narrative introduction (22:1-6) with the Last Supper scene (vv. 7ff), in which both of these elements are prominent. Luke has further enhanced the narrative introduction by weaving into it the tradition of Judas’ betrayal (compare vv. 3-6 with Mk 14:1b-2).

2. The author (trad. Luke) may also have wished to give greater prominence to the earlier Anointing scene, set in Galilee. Whether or not he has included details, otherwise found in the Bethany scene, within this episode (cf. above), there is tremendous power and beauty to the narrative in 7:36-50. The Anointing episode outline (on this, cf. the previous note) is essentially represented by vv. 36-40, the first part of the narrative. The second part (vv. 41-50) involves a parable (vv. 41-47) similar to others found in Luke’s Gospel (see esp. 10:25-37, of the “Good Samaritan”). The three-fold emphasis on repentance, forgiveness, and love, reflects important Lukan themes, such as we see, for example, in the parable of the Prodigal (15:11-24ff).

All of these elements, of course, are unique to Luke’s tradition, and are not found in the Synoptic Anointing episode. Yet, as noted above, there is some indication that the author may have seen the two traditions as reflecting the same episode. In particular, the reference to the host Pharisee as “Simon” (v. 40) could suggest a conscious harmonization with Mk 14:3ff.

3. The similarity between Lk 7:38 and Jn 12:3 raises the possibility that Luke inherited a form of the (Bethany) Anointing tradition closer to Jn 12:1-8 than Mk 14:3-9. This should be seriously considered, especially since there is some evidence that, in the Passion and Resurrection narratives, Luke and John are drawing from a common tradition separate from the Synoptic (i.e. not found in Mark/Matthew). John’s account of the Anointing will be discussed in the third part of this study.