This coming Sunday I'm preaching on John 12:1-8, the story of Mary of Bethany anointing Jesus' feet with costly perfume. It's a beautiful story, but insightful students of the Bible will realize right away that there are some differences between this account and others which appear to be telling the same story. All four Gospels tell this story (or something very similar), and the fact that there are differences between them can be troubling for Christians who believe that the Gospels are an accurate account of Jesus' words and deeds. Could it be that the Gospel writers made some mistakes? And if so, what would that mean for the important parts of the story--say, the resurrection?
First off, there's no cause to take minor differences between the Gospels and use them to throw out the whole story. If you did that, you'd also have to throw away every single work of history ever written before the twentieth century. Biographical histories in the ancient world were not written with the same genre-specific restrictions as today. For instance, it was considered perfectly acceptable for historians to selectively choose which details to relate, or even to move certain events around in the chronological layout of their biography, in order to better make a thematic or theological point (this may explain why John has Jesus clearing the Temple courts near the beginning of his story, while the other Gospels have it near the end). The doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture, as commonly held by evangelicals, says that the Bible is inerrant "in its original manuscripts," and one of the things that means is that we have to consider the nature of the original writings, including their literary genre. All that to say, within the original cultural genre of the Gospels, no one would have thought that minor differences in sequence or detail should call the trustworthiness of an account into question.
However, in the case of the story of the woman anointing Jesus' feet, we don't even have to take that concession to make good sense of the story. There is a reasonable reconstruction that fits all the details. So let's start by listing out the main features of the four Gospel accounts.
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Matthew 26:6-13 & Mark 14:3-9 (these two accounts are largely identical)
- Area: Bethany (Judea)
- Location: the house of Simon the Leper
- Time: Just before Jesus' final week in Jerusalem
- Woman: unidentified
- Anointing: poured on Jesus' head, with significant commentary on the great expense of the perfume
- Reaction: the disciples (unidentified) object, saying that the perfume could have been sold (Mark specifies 300 denarii as the price) and the money given to the poor
- Jesus' Response: Jesus defends the woman's actions as a beautiful thing, reminds the disciples they will always have the poor, and says that the woman's act was done to prepare him for burial
- Area: Bethany (Judea)
- Location: unidentified (we are only told that it was a supper with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, at which Martha served the meal)
- Time: Just before Jesus' final week in Jerusalem
- Woman: Mary (Lazarus' and Martha's sister)
- Anointing: on Jesus feet, wiping his feet with her hair, with significant commentary on the great expense of the perfume
- Reaction: the disciple Judas objects, saying that the perfume could have been sold for 300 denarii and the money given to the poor
- Jesus' Response: Jesus defends Mary's actions, reminds Judas that they will always have the poor, and says that Mary's act was done to prepare him for burial
- Area: unspecified, but it appears to be in Galilee
- Location: the house of Simon the Pharisee
- Time: during the early portion of Jesus' Galilean ministry
- Woman: "a sinner" (from context, likely a prostitute)
- Anointing: on Jesus' feet, together with her tears, and the woman wipes his feet with her hair and kisses them
- Reaction: Simon the Pharisee is shocked, and says to himself that if Jesus were a prophet, he would know the woman was a sinner (and, by implication, he should not have let her touch him)
- Jesus' Response: Jesus tells a parable to Simon to explain the woman's anointing as an act of grateful love for the forgiveness of her sins, and also chides Simon for not providing him with the common courtesies a host usually gives to a guest
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One thing should be clear from this list: that three of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and John) agree in most of the relevant details, and Luke's is very different; indeed, its only similarity is in the act of anointing itself. It's also important to say that none of these accounts have anything to do with Mary Magdalene. Later church traditions tried to combine both stories, with Mary Magdalene starring in the lead role, but nothing in the text supports this. Nowhere in the Gospels is Mary Magdalene called a prostitute or sinner (only as a victim of demonic influence), and Mary of Bethany is clearly a different person. With all that in mind, I would offer the following reconstruction as the most plausible way to reconcile the data without writing off any of the accounts:
- There were two such anointings during Jesus' ministry, the first during his early ministry in Galilee (which Luke tells us about), and the second by Mary of Bethany just before the week of Jesus' death. The first account happens as recorded by Luke, and reflects the godly repentance and gratitude of a prostitute who has found forgiveness through Christ.
- The second account holds together consistently, even where Matthew/Mark and John offer different details. None of the details are contradictory, and can even be held together in a fairly plausible way.
- The second anointing happens in Bethany, at the house of Simon the Leper. This Simon cannot be the same character as Simon the Pharisee, not only because they live in different places, but because a leper could not have been a Pharisee, as his condition would have made him unable to follow the purity laws. (Simon was a very common name, so it's no surprise to find it popping up multiple times, even in similar stories.)
- Simon the Leper was probably a good friend of Jesus, perhaps someone whom Jesus had previously healed of his leprosy. The fact that he was a good friend is indicated by the fact that Jesus chooses to go to his house before entering Jerusalem on the week of his death, even though he had other very close friends in the same town (Mary, Martha, and Lazarus). Thus, if Simon is a good friend of Jesus, it's probably reasonable to assume that Mary, Martha, and Lazarus are also friends with Simon.
- Thus, if they are all friends of one another, this would fit with John's account of the supper taking place with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, even though John never mentions Simon. Further, the fact that Martha is shown serving the meal also fits this reconstruction, even though the meal is not at her house. Simon, having been a leper, was almost certainly unmarried, and when a single male host held a dinner party in that culture, it would have been female friends or family members from another household who did the cooking and serving, not the host himself.
- Since all of the characters in John's story are deeply tied to the community of Jesus' followers, Mary no doubt would have heard stories about the earlier anointing in Galilee, and how Jesus had praised that woman's deed as an act of great love. It would have been a part of Jesus' story that had been told and retold over the previous couple years. So Mary decides to do it herself, mimicking the previous woman's act of anointing Jesus' feet and wiping them with her hair.
- Though John only mentions the feet and Matthew/Mark only mention the head, it seems reasonable that Mary probably anointed both: first, to replicate the previous anointing by the sinful woman, this time as Mary's own act of love and devotion toward Jesus (and John, whose major theme is love, highlights this part); and second, to serve as a royal anointing of her friend Jesus, who was about to ride into Jerusalem while being hailed as the messianic king (and Matthew/Mark, who want to draw attention to the royal element in Jesus' triumphal entry, highlight this part). No account rules out either the feet or the head, so it's reasonable to conjecture that she may have anointed both, especially since all the other relevant details of this story line up perfectly, including the disciples' (primarily Judas') objection to the extravagance of her act.
So there's my best stab at a reconstruction: a first anointing in Galilee, which became a much-beloved story in Jesus' circle of friends and followers, and then a second anointing when Mary chooses to reenact it while they eat together at the house of their friend Simon the Leper in Bethany, before Jesus enters Jerusalem.