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.
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.”
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.
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.
 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.
 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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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).
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