Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

Anointing at Bethany

Introduction

Each of the four Gospels contains an account where a woman anoints Jesus with perfume while he is at a dinner held in his honour. The accounts in the Gospels of John, Matthew, and Mark contain several similarities. Some of the main ideas and statements are repeated in each of these three versions, with a few details repeated in two of the three Gospels. The anointing story in Luke is very different from the others. Nevertheless, some suggest that all four stories are of the one event. In this article, I briefly compare these narratives.

The Time and Place of the Anointings

John 12:1-3: Six days before Passover, Jesus came to Bethany; this is where Lazarus lived, who Jesus had raised from the dead. They put on a dinner for him there; Martha served but Lazarus was with those sitting at the table with Jesus. Then Mary took a litra of pure nard, an expensive perfume. She poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

John 12:1-3, Matthew 26:6-7, and Mark 14:3 say that the anointing happened in the town of Bethany (in Judea), either six or two days before Passover. Matthew and Mark specify that the dinner took place in the home of Simon the Leper in Bethany. However, we are not given any information about this Simon or even if he was present at the dinner.[1]

The three accounts mostly agree with the time and place of the anointing which is a prelude to Jesus’s crucifixion. But Matthew and Mark state that the woman, who is unnamed in their versions of the event, anointed Jesus’ head, not his feet (Matt. 26:7; Mark 14:3).

Note that Mary and Martha of Bethany are nowhere identified by name in the Gospels of Matthew or Mark. They are only mentioned by name in the New Testament in Luke 10:38-42 and John 11:1-12:11.

 

Luke 7:36-38: One of the Pharisees invited Jesus to eat with him, so he went to the Pharisee’s house and sat down at the table. Now a woman in the town who was a sinner found out that Jesus was dining at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. She stood behind at Jesus’s feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with her perfume.

We are not told in Luke’s Gospel where the anointing happened, it seems to have occurred somewhere in Galilee, but we are told that the dinner was held in the home of a Pharisee. A man named Simon is mentioned in Luke’s story, and Jesus addresses him as the host. In Luke, the anointing story takes place earlier in Jesus’s ministry, not just before his death.

Conversations about the Anointings

Mark 14:4-9: Some were indignantly saying to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for three hundred denarii [more than a year’s wages] and the money given to the poor.” And they scolded her harshly. But Jesus said, “Leave her alone; why are you being mean to her? She has done a fine thing [a benefaction] for me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me.

She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand for my burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will also be spoken of in memory of her.”

In John 12:4-11, Matthew 26:8-13, and Mark 14:4-9, the focus is on the expense of the perfume, the poor, men scolding Mary, and Jesus’ burial. In John’s Gospel especially, this event seems to have been a catalyst for Judas’s decision to betray Jesus.

There are statements such as “the poor you will always have with you” (John 12:8; Matt. 26:11; Mark 14:7), “leave her alone” (John 12:6//Mark 14:6), and “Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will also be spoken of in memory of her” (Matt. 26:13//Mark 14:9).

 

Luke 7:44-47: Then Jesus turned towards the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the moment I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Because of this I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”

The conversation in Luke has no similarities with the conversation recorded in the other Gospels, except that in all accounts, it is only men who speak. The anointing women are silent; it is their actions that testify.

The focus in Luke is on sin, forgiveness, tears and kisses, and love. And Jesus tells a story of two people in debt to money lenders. One of the key statements in this narrative is, “… her many sins have been forgiven, as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little, loves little.”

Conclusion

The date, the town, the conversations, and the overall points are different in Luke’s story of the sinful woman from the story of the anointing in Bethany. Nevertheless, apart from the main idea that a woman anointed Jesus with costly perfume, both stories have a couple of things in common:

~ There was a dinner held in Jesus’s honour and the name Simon, a common Jewish name, occurs in Matthew’s, Mark’s and Luke’s versions.
~ Jesus appreciated and accepted the anointings, but other dinner guests, including at least some of Jesus’s male disciples, disapproved.

The only way we can reconcile the two different accounts to make one story is to suggest that Luke used the anointing in Bethany and that he changed some elements, or highlighted different elements, in the story to make his point and, in the process, recast Mary as a sinful woman. There is nothing in the Gospels, however, that indicates Mary of Bethany was a sinful woman. Mary, Martha and Lazarus appear to have been well-loved and respected by their community in Bethany.

It makes more sense to me to regard Luke’s anointing story as distinct from the others. It is not difficult to imagine or understand that two different women expressed their deep devotion and gratitude to Jesus in a similar manner.[2]

For a detailed analysis of the anointing stories see J. Lyle Story’s paper, “Female and Male in Four Anointing Stories,” Priscilla Papers 23.4 (Autumn 2009): 16-23. (PDF here)
Jenny Rae Armstrong’s short blog post, In Which a Woman Scandalizes Stingy Hearts, but Blesses Jesus Enormously, is here.


Footnotes

[1] Simon the Leper (Shimon ha’tsarua) may be a mistranslation of “Simon the Devout” (Shimon ha’tsanua), and then this mistranslation of the Hebraic name was recorded in the Greek text. Lepers were isolated from society. They usually didn’t hold dinner parties (cf. Matt. 26:6; Mark 14:3)!
In Matthew’s and Mark’s Gospels, it is clear that the anointing occurred in Simon the Leper’s house (Mark 14:3; Matt 26:6). Mary, however, is not identified by name in these accounts. In John’s Gospel, the anointing of Jesus by Mary seems to have occurred in Martha’s house. Or perhaps Martha had been helping out at Simon’s home (John 12:2, cf. Luke 10:38, 40). The connection between Simon with Martha, Mary, and Lazarus is unclear. Perhaps Simon was their deceased father and their house was still known as the house of Simon the Leper, or the house of Simon the Devout.

[2] It may not have been unusual for perfume (myron) to be offered at dinner parties in the ancient world, though not in the way the anointing women in the Gospels used it. Athenaeus of Naucratis, writing in the early third century CE, provides information on ancient thought and customs concerning perfumes in book 15, paragraph 34ff, of The Deipnosophists (Online source).

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Image Credit

A limestone relief (most likely the side of a sarcophagus of a deceased Christian) shows the anointing scene and also the flagellation scene. Musée municipal de Semur-en-Auxois, inv. 200.S.26. (CC BY-SA 4.0) Source: Wikimedia (slightly cropped).

Related Articles

Mary, Martha, and Lazarus of Bethany
Who was Mary the Magdalene?
Partnering Together: Jesus and Women
Jesus had many female followers—many!
Jesus, Women, and Theology: “Jesus said to her …”
All my articles about women featured in Holy Week narratives in the Gospels are here.

16 thoughts on “Comparing the Anointing Stories

  1. Luke’s story is different than the others. I assumed they were not the same as the other anointing. Luke’s story is one of my favorites. This woman whom Jesus considered what I would call is ‘bad to the bone’. The courage it took for her to walk into a roomful of religious shows her determination to show Jesus her gratitude. I believe she had an encounter with Jesus prior to this event.

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge and insight to unpack these scriptures.

    1. I love all the anointing stories. They’re all my favourite. 🙂

      The woman in Luke’s story is described as “a woman in the town who was a sinner” (Luke 7:37), and Jesus says, “her many sins have been forgiven” (Luke 7:47), but I have trouble imagining that Jesus thought she was “bad to the bone.”

      1. I love your work, thorough, balanced, citations..Thank you

        I believe there were two anointings: One at Mary, Martha and Lazarus domicile and one in the upper room where Jesus kept the Passover. And, the reason the reporters could not be more specific for us is: They did not know one woman from another ! Women did not speak [as you noted] so they were not heard or seen. Another example: The Romans needed a ‘betrayer’ b/c ‘they did not know one Jew from another.
        One anointing with nard Mary, in Bethany
        and Another anointing with oil and perfume that cost as much as a years’ salary to purchase. Who would have that kind of money except – Miriam Magdalene. And, of course, she would be labeled sinful..[her partying and independence made her a scandal to the Jews].

        1. Thanks, Bill.

          I didn’t quite understand your last point. Are you suggesting Mary (Miriam) the Magdalene partied? Neither Mary of Bethany or Mary Magdalene is labelled as sinful in the Bible. I’ve written on Mary Magdalene here: https://margmowczko.com/mary-the-magdalene/

          I think we are meant to understand that Mary of Bethany did have in her own possession the pure nard. Jesus says that “she has kept it for the day of my burial” (John 12:7).

          There’s no mention of Mary the Magdalene in the New Testament passages (as we have them today) that mention Mary and Martha of Bethany, and vice versa. https://margmowczko.com/martha-mary-and-lazarus-of-bethany/ Mary M is distinct from the Bethany sisters. Their stories do not overlap in the Gospels.

          1. Well Marg: Miriam did get infested with 7 demons – so, she was doing things that opened her to possession. That idiot priest who called her a harlot -had the audacity to say she embodied all 7 of the cardinal sins [I consider that absurd] But “she did love much” –and that means lust.
            Miriam was very wealthy, and owned a fish salting plant. She also invited lots of men to her castle: some were officers of enemy tribes [this did not sit well with the Jews]. But others were wealthy business men. One tradition holds that Jesus exorcised her..a few weeks passed and she returned to her castle and relapsed. Thus, when she returned to Jesus – He had to exorcise her again.

          2. There are lots of presumptions in your comments, Bill. Pretty much all we know of Mary Magdalene’s background is that she was Galilean, was delivered from seven demons, and was independently wealthy.

            The Bible says nothing about her loving much, let alone “lusting,” which is an entirely different word from “loving.” Jesus says that the woman in Luke 7:47, who is probably not Mary Magdalene, “loved much” and that this was a good thing. The love that Jesus talks about here is never a bad thing. This woman is not identified in the Bible.

            The Bible doesn’t say that Mary M owned a fish salting plant or that she had a castle. It says nothing about men or officers being invited to her home. It says nothing about Jewish people having a problem with her. Where do these ideas come from?

            Demon possession was often associated with illness. Mary Magdalene might have been extremely ill before she met Jesus. In Luke 8:2-3 it says that she and other women were “healed from evil spirits and sicknesses.” And we shouldn’t assume she’s responsible for being demon-possessed. There are several stories in the Gospels where sick or troubled people are delivered from unclean spirits, and Jesus never tells the people they were responsible for their illness. He just heals them.

            I’m really not interested in your elaborate and baseless assumptions about Mary M. Sorry, Bill.

  2. In Mark 14:8 Jesus says “She has done what she could; she has anointed
    my body beforehand for its burial.”

    Many commentators say that “of course” the woman didn’t know
    she was anointing Jesus’ body for burial (eg Craig Keener in
    “The IVP Bible Background Commentary” writes: “But Jesus here stresses
    a different kind of anointing, which the woman undoubtedly had
    not intended: anointing a body for burial”). To which I respond:
    How can you be so sure that she did not know what she was doing?

    If the woman in Mk 14 was in fact Mary, then she is someone
    who sat at Jesus feet and listened carefully to his teaching
    (Luke 10:39). Jesus says of her “Mary has chosen the better part,
    which will not be taken away from her.” In other words,
    she will continue to be allowed to sit at his feet and listen:
    this privilage will not be taken away from her.

    Perhaps she listened to Jesus a little more carefully and
    attentively than Peter and the other disciples in Mk 8 and Mt 16
    when Jesus said that he would be “rejected by the chief priests,
    and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”
    (Mk 8:31) and in Mt 20:19 where he specifically says he will be crucified.
    Peter said “This must never happen to you”, but Jesus rebuked him

    The woman would know that a crucified victim would not normally be
    given a proper burial, but the body would be thrown into a mass grave
    (she would not know about the secret disciple, Joseph of Aramethea
    who would pluck up enough courage to ask Pilate for the body).
    She followed Jesus to Jerusalem, heard about the cleansing
    of the temple and knew that things were coming to a head and that
    Jesus would be arrested very soon. So she knew this was her
    last opportunity to anoint Jesus for burial before his arrest,
    crucifixion and being thrown into a mass grave. Jesus is therefore
    literally telling the truth when he says “She has done what she could;
    she has anointed my body before hand for its burial”.

    Later on, Mary would be one of the first witnesses to the resurrection
    and the first to tell the other disciples.

    1. Thanks for these thoughts, Martin. I wonder how much Mary of Bethany knew. I imagine she listened intently to Jesus’s teaching and that she had “inside” information.

      Luke provides this scene about the Galilean women who went to the tomb. Note the last line.

      Luke 24:1-7: On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: ‘The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’” Then they remembered his words.

  3. I just recently wrote an article on the Woman in the Luke 7 account at PrettyandWise dot com. I didn’t go into the other anointing stories because I do believe this was a different woman. When preparing for the article it seemed that previous commentators on this passage want to assume this was a prostitute, but there is no indication of this as far as I can see. Am I missing something? It simply says she was a sinner and does not name her sin. Why do we tend to jump to the conclusion that her sins were sexual?

    1. If she was a prostitute or an adulterer, you’d think those words would have been used. The same if she was a thief or violent. I imagine she was a cultural misfit of some kind. Perhaps she had rebelled against her husband or her parents or the leaders of her community in some way.

  4. I find it interesting that the two gospels seen as written for a Jewish audience have the woman anointing the head of Jesus, while the two others mention the feet. The ones for whom the Messiah was an important cultural figure from the beginning would probably associate the anointing of the head with something more than burials. These same two gospels also mention that the woman’s deed would not be forgotten.

    1. Hi Anna-Lena, My understanding is that Jewish high priests and kings were anointed with oil. But I don’t know much about this custom in Jesus’s day. Perhaps they sometimes perfumed the oil.

      In all four Gospels, the women anoint Jesus with myron (“perfume, ointment”) which is also mentioned in Luke 23:56 as one of the ingredients brought for preparing Jesus’s body. Mark 14:3 and John 12:3 identifies the myron as genuine or pure nard. The word “oil” (elaion) doesn’t occur in the women’s anointing stories, except in Luke 7:46 where Jesus tells his negligent host,”You did not anoint my head with oil (elaion), but this woman has anointed my feet with perfume (myron).”

      The “anoint” verb χρίω (chriō) which is usually used for anointings of consecration is not used for the women’s anointing. As you probably know, the Greek word Christos (Christ: “anointed one”) is derived from this word.

      A different verb that means “anoint, smear” (ἀλείφωaleiphō) is used for the women’s act in Luke’s and John’s versions where the women anoint Jesus’s feet. This word was often used for applying perfumes or ointments in festive, medicinal, and burial contexts.

      In the New Testament, aleiphein [the word in Luke 7:38, 46 and John 11:2; 12:3] is used as the mundane and profane term, and chriein is used as the sacred and religious term.

      Aleiphein is used indiscriminately for all actual anointings, whether with oil [elaion] or with ointment [myron], and chriein is absolutely restricted to the Father’s anointing of the Son with the Holy Spirit for the accomplishment of the Son’s great office. In the New Testament, chriein is completely separated from all profane and common uses.

      The same holds true in the Septuagint [the ancient Greek version of the Old Testament], where chrisis, chrisma (Strong’s #5545) and chriein are frequently used to refer to all religious and symbolic anointings. Aleiphein occurs only twice in this sense (Exodus 40:13; Numbers 3:3).
      “Oil,” Trench’s Synonyms of the New Testament (Source: StudyLight)

      A verb meaning “pour down upon, pour over” (καταχέωkatacheō) is used in Matthew’s and Mark’s versions, where the women poured perfume on Jesus’s head (Matt. 26:7; Mark 14:3). There is no word here that actually means “anoint.”

      You’re right that only Matthew and Mark contain the statement, “Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will also be spoken of in memory of her” (Matt. 26:13//Mark 14:9). Matthew’s and Mark’s versions are very similar.

  5. Thank you for your answer! After reading it I got even more intrigued and did some reading on anointing. In Exodus 30 there is a recipie for the oil used on priests where the ingredients mentioned are also ones used in perfume. Additionally there seemed to be a specific perfume for the tent of God. The same chapter mentions the pouring of the oil unto the head of Aron.

    In Ps 133 there is a mention of the oil pouring from Aron’s beard down unto the hem of his garment, which some have seen as a way of consoling the differences between Matthew and Mark vs Luke and John.

    Perfumed oil seems to have been used for temple objects, priests, kings and also just for greeting guests. Often it symbolized the power of the Holy Spirit. In one text I found a reference to shepards rubbing oil unto the heads of sheep to protect them from infections, so the connection to Jesus as a lamb might somehow be implied.

    Could there be a chance that if the pouring of oil unto the head of Jesus did bring associations to the Messiah, that then both the focusing on the result of being proclaimed king (death and burial) as well as on wasting money was a way of protecting the woman from persecution? In Mark, Jesus often told people not to mention miracles he had done.

    1. It’s an interesting topic. A few quick comments.

      The holy anointing oil of Exodus 30:22-33 was a specific recipe with specific uses and there were warnings against ordinary people possessing and using it. It was used to anoint the furniture of the Tabernacle and the priests.

      I’m not seeing a connection between Psalm 133 and the differences between the women’s anointing stories.

      Olive oil was commonly used medicinally for people and for livestock, so I don’t see anything significant about shepherds using it on their sheep.

      Jesus himself connects the anointing in Bethany with his burial, nothing more:
      “… she has anointed my body in advance for burial” (Mark 14:8).
      “By pouring this perfume on my body, she has prepared me for burial” (Matthew 26:12).
      “… she has kept it for the day of my burial” (John 12:7).

      I’ve looked hard, but I’m not seeing a Messianic association or any proclamation of royalty. And rather than telling people not to mention what had happened, Jesus says in Mark 14:9, Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.” Jesus gives no hint that he wants this shushed up. Rather, he indicates the opposite. He thought the anointing in Bethany was a lovely thing.

      Also, none of the stories say that the women poured oil on Jesus’s head (or feet).

  6. I see I cannot reply, that is fine; I am not surprised. I pegged you for a tad too primitive and fundamental and you demonstrated it. I was uninvited from a Christian chat group once b/c the girl said “self awareness” is not in the Bible….LOL That is too primitive and concrete of thinking.

    Hear me out, Marg…you are closing out your system, as the Dead Sea, when you will not even consider other original thoughts. It’s gonna stagnant. Moreover, as our first interchange showed me, “Things are Marg’s way or the hi way”…this was over my use of gehenna [which is in the gospels about a dozen times]. I think back then I even hinted at: I explained my thinking and you got stubborn about something. So, if you want to be a Teacher or a Prophet – here is my advice
    feel free to reject it: I perceive your mind as closed [which is closing down your ability to evolve your thinking and growth] Further, a closed mind is an angry mind. My suggestion: get to work on some more oil in your lamp – Self Awareness. In Christ for the Sake of the Kingdom… go in peace
    Bill S.

    1. Hi Bill, you’re welcome to reply. All I’m saying is that I’m not interested in presenting fiction as fact. I aim for accuracy in the information I present on this website.

      In your first comment to me above you said that my work was “thorough, balanced, [and included] citations.” If you have valid info on Mary M, I’d love to hear it. With citations. I’m not closing the door on any credible source.

      Nevertheless, this is my website. I pay to have it on the internet, and it’s my name at the top, so it is my prerogative what content is on this site.

      Also, I’ve not judged or labelled you in any way, and I’d appreciate the same courtesy. I don’t presume to know you or give you advice.

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