Traditionally, the anointing of Jesus at Bethany inaugurates the Passion as celebrated during Holy Week. In addition to its poignancy, and spiritual teaching, the episode (or episodes) are immensely instructive for studying the ways in which the Gospel writers may have dealt with early tradition. Each Gospel contains an Anointing episode: Matthew 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9; Luke 7:36-50; John 12:1-8. The account in Matthew and Mark, occurring after Jesus’ Entry into Jerusalem, is virtually identical; John’s account is similar, but is placed prior to Jesus’ Entry; Luke’s account is, in most respects, quite different, and is set earlier in Jesus’ ministry. A strict traditional-conservative approach might end up positing three separate events, but this is quite improbable; the choice, rather, is between one event, or two. Many critical scholars posit a single incident which branched off in early tradition to form the kernel of the Gospel narratives we have now. A more reasonable critical approach, I think, is to assume two historical episodes: one matching Matthew/Mark and John, one matching that found in Luke. Very straightforward; however, the situation is actually more complicated than that. For, despite the very different setting of Luke’s account, there are details which curiously match John’s account (against Matthew/Mark), and even several which match the account in Matthew/Mark (against John). I offer some comparisons here below; since Matthew and Mark are nearly identical, I will use Mark’s account for comparison.
Details common to Mark/Matthew and John:
- Setting in Bethany, near the time of Passover, in proximity to the time of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (Mark 14:1, 3; John 12:1, 9ff)
- A woman (apparently a disciple: in John it is Mary of Bethany) pours perfume on Jesus as he reclines (Mark 14:3; John 12:2)
- The perfume is very costly (Mark 14:3; John 12:2; John and Mark use almost exact language: perfume of costly “pure nard”)
- The disciples (in John it is Judas Iscariot) decry the waste (Mark 14:4-5; John 12:4-5)
- Mention is made of the cost, and that the money could be sold and given to the poor (Mark and John use almost identical language, including mention of the price [“300 denari”])
- Jesus rebukes the disciples and mentions that the perfume was intended to be used for his burial (Mark 14:6, 8; John 12:7)
- The saying “For the poor you always have with you…” (Mark 14:7; John 12:8)
Details common to John and Luke:
- The anointing/wetting is of the feet (John 12:3; Luke 7:38), instead of the head (Mark 14:3)
- Mention is specifically made of “anointing” (form of a)lei/fw, John 12:3; Luke 7:38), instead of “pouring [out]” (kataxe/w, Mark 14:3)
- Mention is made of wiping Jesus feet with her hair (however, in Luke the woman wipes her tears; in John, apparently, she wipes the perfume [?])
Details common to Mark/Matthew and Luke:
How does one explain so many coincidental details across two very different story settings (Matthew/Mark & John vs. Luke)? Critical scholars generally assume details have been transferred/distorted during transmission (presumably in the early oral stage); but I wonder, at least in the case of Luke. It is noteworthy that Luke contains no Passion-week Anointing scene, which is strange, if, as many scholars assume, he knew and made use of Mark’s Gospel. It also seems most unlikely that he could have confused the story he records in 7:36-50 with the later Bethany scene. This, perhaps, could be seen as evidence that Luke did not use Mark; but, I think it at least possible that Luke has intentionally omitted the Bethany scene (from whatever common tradition he knew), and has merged details from it into his own account set earlier in the ministry. This might explain the curious detail of anointing Jesus’ feet (v. 38): tears falling on his feet makes more sense, but pouring perfume on the feet? Yet the author had to know as well how odd this might appear—either, then, he simply records an unusual fact, or he purposefully includes the detail from the Bethany scene in the context of the sinful woman. Even harder to explain is John’s mention of anointing the feet, since the parallel account in Matthew/Mark specifically mentions anointing the head (not the feet). Is it possible that John has intentionally modified his narrative, just as Luke has, but in the opposite direction?— details from the anointing by the ‘sinful Woman’ (which John does not record) have merged into his account of the Anointing at Bethany. Whether accidental (in early transmission) or intentional (by the Gospel writer), details between the two stories have somehow merged together. Is it justifiable or proper to read the texts this way?
From the standpoint of Church Tradition, of course, such a ‘merging’ clearly occurred. For the “Mary” of John’s account (who is Mary of Bethany, sister of Lazarus), became joined together with the “Sinful Woman” of Luke’s account, in the figure of Mary Magdalene. Under the influence of Luke 8:2 (and Mark 16:9), which states that “seven daimons went out of” her, the traditional story developed of Mary’s former life as a prostitute, from which she repented and became a follower of Jesus. When she appears at the tomb, the perfume she carries (for anointing Jesus’ body) is the same with which she anointed him once before!
Perhaps we should at least consider meditating on both women at the same time: the devout disciple (Mary) who anoints Jesus’ head (and feet?) as an act of worship and consecration; with the (anonymous) “sinful” woman who wipes tears and anoints Jesus’ feet as an act of worship and repentance. “Righteous and Sinner at the same time”, in Luther’s famous phrase (simul iustus et peccator). John’s Gospel sums up the scene (and result) of this offering beautifully: h( de\ oi)ki/a e)plhrw/qh e)k th=$ o)smh=$ tou= mu/rou, “and the house was filled of the smell of perfume” (12:3).
For more on the Anointing scene, see the notes on this episode in the series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”.
|The image of the repentant Magdalene came to be very popular in the West, a symbol of penitence and the ascetic ideal—a visceral image to be sure, very suited to individual dynamism of the Renaissance (one thinks immediately of Donatello’s great sculpture, see right). The story of her life as prostitute, her conversion, repentance, and appearance at the tomb on Easter, expanded in legend over the years, culminating with her appearance (along with Martha and Lazarus) in southern France. The Magdalene story would go on to maintain a position in both art and ritual for centuries in the Western Church.|