March 29: John 12:1-8; 13:1-2

John 12:1-8; 13:1-2ff

In the Synoptic Gospels, the Passion Narrative begins with a trio of narrative episodes, firmly established in the tradition at an early point, probably well before the Gospel of Mark was composed; and, using the Markan narrative as the point of reference, the three episodes are:

    • Mk 14:1-2—The introductory episode, establishing the Passover setting, and the plans of the religious leaders to arrest Jesus
    • Mk 14:3-9—The anointing of Jesus by a woman (unnamed) at Bethany
    • Mk 14:10-11—Judas agrees to betray Jesus

The central Anointing scene is bracketed by the two short passages relating to the plans to arrest Jesus. It is interesting to consider how these components of the historical tradition were adapted within the Gospel of John, perhaps reflecting a distinctive Johannine line of tradition (for more on this, cf. my study on the Anointing scene, and also the supplemental study on Judas Iscariot, in the series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”). In fact, the Anointing scene in the Gospel of John differs little from the Synoptic (Matthew-Mark) version, with the exception of two major details:

    • Identification of the woman with Mary, sister of Lazarus (vv. 1-3), and
    • Identification of the objecting disciple(s) with Judas Iscariot (vv. 4-6)

Whatever the relationship of these details to the historical traditions, they are significant to the Johannine narrative, both in literary and theological terms; and, each detail has considerable thematic importance to the narrative, which may be summarized as:

    1. The defining place of the Lazarus miracle, and
    2. The role of Judas Iscariot among the disciples

1. The Lazarus Miracle (Resurrection)

The raising of Lazarus (chap. 11) is the last and greatest miracle (or sign) of the “Book of Signs” (chaps. 2-12), and it clearly shapes the way the Passion Narrative is introduced and presented. It affects the early episodes of the Tradition, including the Triumphal Entry scene (cf. the previous note)—11:45ff; 12:1ff, 9-11, 17-18—and provides an effective transition between the first half of the Gospel (“Book of Signs”) and the second (Passion Narrative). From a thematic standpoint, the significance of the Lazarus miracle is three-fold:

    • It shows Jesus to be the Son who possesses the same life-giving power as God the Father (cf. 5:19-29).
    • Resurrection to new life is symbolic of the eternal life that believers experience through trust/union with Jesus (cf. especially the discourse in vv. 20-27, and my earlier notes on this passage).
    • The reference to resurrection establishes the emphasis on “realized” eschatology in the Gospel of John (cf. the recent article in the series “Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament”).

All three of these points run through the Johannine Discourses, and are developed, especially, in the great Last Discourse (with its Last Supper/Passion setting).

The specific detail of the location of the Bethany anointing scene (the house or neighborhood of Lazarus) joins these aspects of the resurrection theme to the death and resurrection of Jesus himself (i.e. the Passion Narrative). Here is how the Anointing scene is introduced:

“Then Yeshua, six days before the Pesaµ [i.e. Passover], came into Beth-‘Aniyyah, where Lazar was, whom Yeshua raised out of the dead. So they made an (extensive) supper for him there, and Marta served, and Lazar was one out of (those) stretched out (at the table) with him. And then Maryam, taking a litra of myrrh-ointment…” (vv. 1-3a)

The reference to Lazarus being raised out of the burial-tomb is paralleled with the idea of Jesus being anointed in preparation for his own burial (v. 7b), a detail (saying of Jesus) that is central to the core tradition (Mk 14:8 par). Similar Passion traditions are adapted and developed in the subsequent discourse of vv. 20-36 (discussed in the recent daily notes).

2. The Role of Judas Iscariot

The Johannine portrait of Judas Iscariot, however brief, is distinctive, though very much rooted in the established Gospel Tradition (cf. again my earlier study in the series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”). The negative aspect of Judas is strongly emphasized in the Johannine Gospel (“…one out of you [i.e. one of the disciples] is a dia/bolo$ [i.e. devil]”, 6:70-71, cp. Mk 3:19 par), and the identification of Judas as the disciple who objects to the woman’s anointing of Jesus is part of this wider tendency (esp. the ugly additional detail in v. 6). Beyond this, however, the presence of Judas in the Anointing scene is significant in the way that it prepares for his role in the Passion Narrative.

In the Last Supper scene (chapter 13), we find another example of the special way that the Gospel of John adapts and develops the traditional material—namely, Judas’ presence at the meal and his departure (going out to betray Jesus). Consider how Judas’ presence is introduced in vv. 1-3:

“And (then), before the festival of the Pesaµ [i.e. Passover], (with) Yeshua having seen [i.e. known] that his hour (had) come, (and) that he should step across out of this world toward the Father, (hav)ing loved his own, the (one)s in the world, he loved them unto the completion (of it) [i.e. of his hour]. And, (with the) coming to be of (the) supper, (and) the (One) casting (evil) throughout [i.e. the Devil] having cast (it) into the heart of Yehudah (son of) Shim’on ish-Keryot that he should give him along [i.e. betray him], having seen [i.e. known] that the Father gave all (thing)s to him, into his hands, and that he came out from God and leads (himself) under [i.e. back] toward God, he rises out of the supper…”

The syntax is a bit awkward, especially the clause referring to Judas in v. 2; however, the main point to note is that, as part of the “hour” (cf. the prior note on 12:23) of Jesus impending suffering and death, the Devil puts the impulse to betray Jesus into Judas’ heart. In the Synoptic tradition, it is implied that Judas does this, in part at least, out of greed, a motive fully in accord with the detail in 12:6. However, ultimately, the betrayal is the result of the action of the Evil One (the Satan/Devil). Above, I have translated the term dia/bolo$ rather literally, as one who “casts [vb ba/llw] (evil) throughout”, to capture the word play—i.e. the Devil here “having cast” [beblhko/to$] the evil impulse (to betray Jesus) into Judas’ heart. This evil/diabolic influence becomes even more pronounced as the narrative continues:

    • The foot-washing episode, where Jesus states that one of his disciples there (i.e. Judas) is not clean— “…you are clean, but not all (of you)” (v. 10f)
    • The identification of Judas as the one who will betray him (vv. 21-26, cp. Mk 14:18-21 par)
    • The dramatic moment of Judas’ departure (vv. 27-30)

In one of the most striking moments of the entire Gospel, the Satan enters Judas as he eats the morsel of food given to him by Jesus:

“And with the morsel, then [i.e. at that very moment] the Satan went into that (one) [i.e. Judas].” (v. 27a)

The actual departure of Judas is equally dramatic:

“So (then), (hav)ing taken the morsel, that (one) went out straightaway. And it was night.” (v. 30)

The concluding statement “And it was night” is hardly an incidental detail; it is charged with symbolism, reflecting the darkness of the scene as Jesus’ hour comes. Fair or unfair from the standpoint of the historical tradition, in the Johannine Gospel Judas represents and embodies the evil and darkness of the world, and, as he leaves the group of disciples he goes outside, into the world, where it is night.

It is only after Judas (representing the evil of the world) has left, that Jesus is able to deliver his great Last Discourse to his close disciples. This body of teaching begins in 13:31, precisely after Judas’ departure. A central theme of the Last Discourse (and the Prayer-Discourse in chap. 17) is the relationship of the disciples (believers) to the world. This world (ko/smo$), the order of things in the present Age, is dominated by darkness and evil, and the Evil One (i.e. the Satan/Devil) is himself the “chief (ruler) of the world” (o( a&rxwn tou= ko/smou, 12:31; 14:30; 16:11). The true believer does not belong to this world anymore than Jesus does, but is united with God the Father and (Jesus) the Son through the Holy Spirit. In the Johannine Gospel, Judas Iscariot represents the false believer (cp. 1 John 2:18-19; 4:1ff, etc) who belongs to the world, instead of to God.

 

April 8 (3): Mark 14:3-9 par

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:

    1. 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)
    2. 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)
    3. The perfume is very costly (Mark 14:3; John 12:2; John and Mark use almost exact language: perfume of costly “pure nard”)
    4. The disciples (in John it is Judas Iscariot) decry the waste (Mark 14:4-5; John 12:4-5)
    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”])
    6. Jesus rebukes the disciples and mentions that the perfume was intended to be used for his burial (Mark 14:6, 8; John 12:7)
    7. The saying “For the poor you always have with you…” (Mark 14:7; John 12:8)

Details common to John and Luke:

    1. The anointing/wetting is of the feet (John 12:3; Luke 7:38), instead of the head (Mark 14:3)
    2. 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)
    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:

    1. The name of the man hosting the feast is, apparently, Simon (Mark 14:3; Luke 7:40ff)—apparently, two different men with the same name [?]
    2. Mention is made of the woman carrying an “alabaster box/jar” [a)la/bastron] (Mark 14:3; Luke 7:37)

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.

Jesus and the Gospel Tradition: The Passion Narrative, Pt 1 (Jn 12:1-8)

John 12:1-8

Having discussed the Synoptic (Mark/Matthew) and Lukan versions of the Anointing of Jesus (cf. the previous two posts), 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 (esp. 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, cf. 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); cp. 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, esp. 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.