Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

155. Jesus Anointed (Matt. 26:6-l 3; Mark 14:3-9; John 12:1-11)*

Three of the gospels describe an anointing of Jesus at Bethany in the last week of his ministry. But there are certain differences of detail which have led many to conclude that the anointing described by Matthew and Mark was a different occasion from that in John 12:

  1. The timing is different—"after two days was the Passover" "six days before the passover."
  2. The place was different —"the house of Simon the leper," "Bethany where Lazarus was."
  3. The anointing was different-"she poured it on his head" "she anointed the feet of Jesus."
  4. The source of the grumbling was different-"when the disciples saw it, they were indignant," but in John it is Judas Iscariot who complained.
On the other hand, in the two incidents there is such an accumulation of similarities —and these of an exceptional kind-that it is difficult to believe that they happened all together twice over within a day or two of each other:

  1. Both at Bethany.
  2. In each case an anointing of Jesus whilst he was at the meal table.
  3. Mark and John use the same highly unusual word to describe the ointment.
  4. There is the same disapproval, and for the same reason.
  5. In reply Jesus makes the same defence: "it is for my burial."
  6. And he adds the identical extenuation: "The poor ye have always with you."
Can these extraordinary resemblances be explained as sheer coincidence?

Discordance reconciled

When the earlier list of discordant details is examined afresh, it turns out that they are by no means as serious as might appear at first. Thus the conclusion becomes highly probable that John's record describes the same incident as that in Matthew 26 and Mark 14.

  1. Both Matthew and Mark set their record of the anointing as an immediate prelude to the betrayal: "And Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve, went away unto the chief priests, to betray him unto them" (Mark 14 :10). Thus, verses 3-9-the anointing, culminating in the rebuke of Judas —can be regarded as a deliberate chronological dislocation inserted in parenthesis at this place in order to supply the final decisive reason why Judas should decide to betray his Master.
  2. The place. Simon the leper was obviously a healed leper, or his home would have been no fit place for Jesus and the twelve to be accorded hospitality. And how could he have been healed except by Jesus? The home at Bethany is called Martha's (Lk.10 :38). Then is there anything impossible about the simple conclusion that Simon was Martha's husband? or, alternatively, that Simon was the father of Martha, Mary and Lazarus? The name Lazarus may be Hebrew for "belonging to the leper."
  3. It is possible to show that, both the head and the feet of Jesus were anointed. John's careful time note: "six days before the passover" identifies the date (by inclusive reckoning) as the tenth day of Nisan, for the Passover feast was eaten on the fifteenth. But on this day, according to Exodus 12 :3, the paschal lamb was set aside for sacrifice. Thus in his record John was hinting at the identification of Jesus as the true Lamb of God. More than this, when prepared for the feast, the lamb was to be roasted whole: "his head with his legs" (Ex.12 :9). So with evident understanding of this typical detail Mary anointed both head and feet of Jesus. "To anoint my body" (Mk.14 :8) implies more than the head only. Thus she marked him out as the one fully consecrated to fulfil God's great redeeming work. A further detail chimes in with this: "Let her alone," said Jesus, "against the day of my burying hath she kept this" (Jn. 12:7). The usual idea, of ointment specially saved up or set aside, is quite mistaken. With hardly an exception this word is used in John's gospel and Apocalypse with reference to the keeping of commandments-in this case, the Passover commandment, now turned from type to yet more poignant symbolism.
  4. Who did the complaining? What more natural that this?- that Judas was the first to speak his mind about this, and promptly found support from some of the others. Probably Judas spoke up because he was a member of the family! —"the son of Simon" (Jn.6 :71). Of course Judas was right in his criticism, but Mary, pulled in two directions (as happens with many a disciple) had to make a choice. Of course her decision was the right one.
It follows, then, that the three records should be studied together as accounts of the same incident.

The six days

If the time note just discussed has been correctly interpreted, it is possible to calculate backwards from the crucifixion in this way:

15th Nisan was Friday night (when the passover was eaten by the Jews) and Saturday
14th Nisan: Thursday night and Friday (the day of crucifixion).
13th Nisan: Wednesday night and Thursday.
12th Nisan: Tuesday night and Wednesday
11th Nisan: Monday night and Tuesday.
10th Nisan: Sunday night and Monday ("six days before the Passover").

So it would seem that Jesus rested during the sabbath (Saturday) at the home of Zaccheusin Jericho, and then spent the Sunday on the twenty mile walk to Bethany, "where Lazarus was, whom he raised from the dead."

The repeated emphasis on the fact of Lazarus' resurrection (Jn.11 :45,47; 12 :1,9,10,17) is rather striking. It continues to underline the reality and purpose of the miracle-"for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby."

The anointing

It was now Sunday evening, supper-time at that Bethany home. The tenth day of Nisan had just begun. Martha, intensely domestic and practical as ever, had made all preparation, and she actually served Jesus, even though it was a wealthy household and there was certainly no need for her to do this. It was her act of homage and thanks to the Master.

Of course, Lazarus was there-and Simon, too, doubtless—reclining at the meal table. The close connection between the resurrection and food is not to be missed. It finds too frequent emphasis in Scripture to be unimportant. (Mk.5:43;Mt. 26:29; Lk. 24:41-43; Jn. 12:1,2; Acts l:4RVm; 10:41. And also Lk. 22:16; Rev. 2:7; 3:20; 19:9; Ex. 24:11; Jn. 6:33,40-1,50,51,54,58).

As the meal was in progress, Mary came up behind Jesus carrying an alabaster container holding nearly a pound weight of a rare and precious ointment. This nard was prepared from a plant which is said to grow only in the Himalayas. So its use signified an anointing as distinguished in the sight of God as that of the high priest (see Ex.30 :23; Ps.133 :2).

Mary, who goes unnamed by Matthew and Mark until the crucifixion (Study 74), broke the neck of the jar open, and poured a quantity of its fragrant contents on the head of Jesus. This was a wonderful gesture of devotion, for the value of that ointment was something like £4000-more than double what was paid to Judas. (A week later Mary was to have ointment of yet greater fragrance to break; Jn. 20 :16,17).

Not content to express her homage by so singular an action, she now knelt at his feet and poured the rest of the spikenard over them-those travel-worn feet which had tramped hundreds of miles on the rough roads of Galilee and Judaea. Next she proceeded to wipe them with her hair, so that by the same action she was herself anointed.

"And the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment." Like a similar act of generous devotion by which the ecclesia at Philippi expressed its love for Paul, this was "an odour of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, well-pleasing to God" (Phil.4 :18).

Why did Mary express her love for Christ in such an unusual fashion? On an earlier occasion she had achieved the same result by simply sitting and listening to his teaching (Lk.10 :39). Then why this extravagant gesture?

In Study 73 evidence was offered for equating Mary of Bethany with the sinful woman who anointed Jesus in the house of Simon the Pharisee(Lk.7). If the conclusion reached there is correct, Mary was now, in a deliberate recapitulation of that earlier experience, expressing her thanks, otherwise inexpressible, for her redemption from a sordid past into a life of gracious discipleship.

The resemblances between the two incidents are considerable:

Some have puzzled over the fact of Mary, a devoted disciple of Jesus, having such an expensive cosmetic. The character of the old life, mentioned in Luke 7, is more than adequate explanation. The breaking of the valuable alabaster was thus specially eloquent!

Over and above all this, she now had added reason for silent worship-her brother Lazarus, whom she had seen borne to his rock-hewn tomb some weeks before, was there with Jesus at the table.

Nor was this all. In anointing the head of Jesus she proclaimed in matchless fashion her conviction that he was the Messiah, the Anointed One of God. But when in addition, she anointed his feet, on this tenth day of Nisan (Ex.12:9), she declared also her faith in him as the Lamb of God through whom would come a release from a greater bondage than that of Egypt or Rome. No wonder that the gospels describe her offering as pistic nard-faith ointment (Gk: pistis).

The gospel writers, and the early church instructed by them, saw all kinds of eloquent symbolism here. "While the king sitteth at his table, my spikenard sendeth forth the smell thereof" (S. of S. 1 :12). That lovely smell filled the house just as the glory of the God of Israel had filled the temple when first His people offered worship to him there (IKgs.8 :10,11).

Perhaps there was also symbolism of a more melancholy character. For the only other place where the Bible speaks of alabaster is in the prophecy when God foretold "such evil upon Jerusalem and Judah ... wiping Jerusalem as a man wipes a dish (alabaster), wiping it, and turning it upside down" (2 Kgs.21 .-12,13). Is that why the gospels are careful to mention, contrary to all expectation, that Mary broke the container, making it fit only to be discarded?


The disciples witnessed Mary's extraordinary act of homage in amazement. Why should she do such a thing? Was their Master a fop or court dandy to take vain delight in cosmetics like an empty-headed woman? —the Son of man who often had not where to lay his head and who for months past had driven himself almost past endurance in his last earnest intense appeal in every city and village! They failed to recognize that the affection and understanding behind Mary's action could not have been expressed without action itself!

Judas especially resented the fantastic waste involved. All through the Lord's mission he had been responsible for their common fund. The gifts of well-wishers and thankful beneficiaries came into his care. During the past year (Jn.6 :70,71) he had become more and more disaffected. So as an insurance policy he had steadily misappropriated the funds. Some of these were already invested in real estate (Acts 1 :18). Yet Jesus continued to tolerate such a man in his ecclesia!

The high-minded protest which he now made to Mary as she was moving away clothed a disreputable motive: "Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence (he knew the value of it!), and given to the poor?" After all, care of the poor was a well-recognized expression of Passover piety (Jn.13 :29). And was it not only a day or two before this that they had heard Jesus himself address such an exhortation to the rich young ruler (Lk.18 :22)? Judas may even have added a pointed rhetorical question such as: "Why ever was this ointment bought in the first place?"

Some of the other disciples backed Judas up in this. Even so they were careful to make their criticism direct to Mary and out of earshot of Jesus (Mk.). They had forgotten the marvellous power which their Lord had—that uncanny awareness of what was going on in the minds of those around him.

Reproof and vindication

As Mary's tears began to flow, Jesus took the disciples to task, and no doubt directed his rebuke specially at Judas: "Let her alone;" or, more probably, this should read, ironically: "Forgive her!" "Why trouble ye her? (Jesus went on). She hath wrought a beautiful work in me. Against the day of my burying hath she observed this rite. (Yet, applied to a living Jesus, it was also "an holy anointing oil" fit for a high priest; Ex.30 :25). For always ye have the poor with you (Bethany means the town of the poor?), and whenever you wish you may do a kindness to them, but me ye do not have always."

"For my burial." These were sombre words, yet Jesus spoke of "this gospel, this good news." What were his disciples to make of it? And it would appear that this was the only anointing for burial that Jesus got. Spices were put, in quantity, between the rolls of his burial linen (Jn.19 :39), but evidently there was no opportunity for anointing. And when the women would make this good on the morning of the third day (Mk.16 :1) Jesus was already risen.

Judas and his fellows needed the rebuke. True, the Law of Moses gave them pointed reminder that "the poor shall never cease out of the land" (Dt.15 :11). Thus it impressed the need for unfailing big-hearted charity. But at this moment Jesus, the Son of Almighty God, was the most needy of all. What a week lay before him! So it was not waste. Not only did Jesus benefit (and he so sublimely!) but also Mary, in the expression of her faith and in the commendation that followed; the disciples also, then and in every age, from the rare example before them and in the needful lesson which Jesus quietly but firmly urged upon them; and even the poor have gained blessing as the words of Jesus have come echoing through many stricken generations.

Jesus spoke his thanks to Mary as no other man could have spoken them: "Verily I say unto you, Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached throughout the whole world, this also that she hath done shall be spoken of for a memorial of her." To be spoken by any man but Jesus these words would be the most reckless of all reckless prophecies. Yet they have been literally and stupendously true.

John's gospel does not have this gracious saying, but instead John records: "And the house was filled with the odour of the ointment," And so it has been, from that day to this. There is no corner of the House of God where that fragrance has not given surpassing pleasure.

How Mary deserved this warm acknowledgment! For, wrapped up in that one action was her personal conviction that Jesus could not only redeem from a life of worthlessness, he was God's appointed High Priest and promised King; yet he must, and would, suffer as a Lamb of sacrifice to save his people from their sins and deliver then permanently from its bondage. At this time was there any other person with half the insight of Mary of Bethany?

It is worth while here to note the sustained contrast between Judas and Mary. His money box (Gk.) is set over against her box of ointment. He received thirty pieces of silver; she gave more than three hundred pence. He was covetous and a thief; she was liberal. He expressed "care" for the poor; she told her love for the Lord. He came to a most miserable end; her fame has never been dimmed.

Public interest

To the story of the anointing of Jesus John's gospel adds a highly informative appendix. A great crowd of "the Jews," hearing that Jesus had reached Bethany, came out from Jerusalem to see him. Since in this gospel "the Jews" invariably means "the Jewish scribes and rulers", there is here an intimation of a strong movement in sympathy with Jesus among the influential classes in Jerusalem (v.42). It must have been on the Monday morning when they came out to Bethany.

They were drawn there also by a compelling curiosity regarding Lazarus. Not that they expected a man raised from the dead to look drastically different from normal, but they wished, of course, to question him about his experience and to check the accuracy of the reports they had heard.

The outcome was that many of them "were going away (from loyalty to the chief priests) and were believing on Jesus." This only served to intensify the hostility of the ruling caucus. It put point to their earlier resolution to be rid of Jesus. So now, "they consulted that they might put Lazarus also to death." Presumably the only thing which saved Lazarus (humanly speaking; was the fact that the Bethany family was so well known and of such high character that no charge of any kind could possibly be brought against any of them.

Notes: Jn. 12:1 -8

Came to Bethany It is easy to trace 'he Lord's travel: Ephraim in Peraea (Jn. 11:54), Jericho (Mt 20:29), Bethany (Jn. 12:1)
Martha served. There is an undesigned coincidence here; see Lk, 10:38ff
His feet. It is an unanswered problem why there is here no mention of the anointing of the Lord's head.
The bag Literally, box; s.w. 2 Sam.6 :11. where Uzzah died, but Obededom was blessed. So also here — .Judas and Mary.

Bare.This is the normal meaning of the word. But 20 15: "takeaway" supports the idea of theft here, see RV.
Me ye have not always Contrast Mt.28 :20, after his resurrection

Mt. 26:6-13

Mk. says "she break the box." How did she do this? It wouldn't be easy.

This waste. Jn.17 :12 applies the same word to Judas himself!
For a memorial of her. "My burial . . . her memorial." Christ was to have his own special memorial; Lk.22 :19, Ex.12:14.

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