Gospels of Mathew and Mark

The Gospels of Matthew and of Mark contain the story of a woman who anoints Jesus’ head with precious ointment. This anointment takes place in Bethany where Jesus and his disciples are dining at the house of Simon the leper. The story takes place shortly before Jesus’ death and is juxtaposed by the story of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus which takes place shortly afterwards.

The woman’s gesture in anointing Jesus follows the tradition of anointing kings in the Hebrew Bible. (See Samuel’s anointing of Saul 1 Samuel 10:1 and David 1 Samuel 16:13 and Nathan’s anointing of Solomon 1 Kings 1:34-40. Further the Greek christos , Messiah, means “anointed. By anointing Jesus the woman was following in the prophetic tradition by anointing Jesus as a messianic king.

After the woman anoints Jesus the disciples chastise her for wasting money because they feel that the money spent on the ointment could have been better spent on the poor and hungry. (In Mark14:5 a value of three hundred denarii is ascribed to the ointment which would have been nearly a year’s wages for a laborer).

Jesus on the other hand praises the woman saying that she has performed a work of mercy, “There will always be poor but you will not always have me” (Matthew 26:11) and says she did it for his burial foreshadowing his own death (Matthew 26:12). She preformed a work of mercy by preparing him for burial something equivalent to charity. By stressing the fact she is preparing him for burial the Gospels make the woman’s prophecy not just one of a messiah, but also a prediction of his death and possibly even of his resurrection.

Jesus’s final pronouncement to the woman is an ironic one; he tells the woman that she will be remembered for her deed wherever the gospel is preached. While it is true that the woman is mentioned in the Gospel her name is not mentioned despite the fact that she, unlike his disciples recognizes Jesus's value. In contrast the Judas who betrays Jesus and the disciples who renounce him after his death are named and far better known today. (For further reading on this irony see In Memory of Her by Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza a work in feminist theology named in honor of this woman.)

Gospel of John

The version of this story in John {John 12:1-8) is similar to the one in Matthew in meaning. The difference is that the woman in the story is identified with Mary sister of Martha and Lazarus and the woman anoints Jesus feet like in Luke.

Gospel of Luke

The story of a woman anointing Jesus that takes place in the gospel of Luke (Luke 7:36-50) is so different than the one found in the other canonical gospels that it is likely describing a different incident completely. The story in Luke takes place early in Jesus’s story and so is not connected to his death. This is the version where a woman identified as a sinner anoints Jesus’s feet (not his head as in Matthew and Mark). Further she only anoints them after she has washed them with her tears wiped them with her hair.

In this story the anointing takes place at the house of Simon, but Simon is a Pharisee not a leper. Simon impugns the character of the woman and questions Jesus's prophetic knowledge saying that Jesus did not know she is a sinner. This leads Jesus to tell the story of two debtors (Luke 7:40) to illustrate that the one who is forgiven more is more grateful for forgiveness. Jesus then contrasts Simon's reception of him to that of the woman's and says that the woman's sins are forgiven.

In this case the story is not associated with prophetic declaration of messiahship or preparation for burial. Instead the story is interpreted as an act of repentance and love. The story is followed by a list of women followers of Jesus including Mary Magdalene “from whom seven demons have gone” (Luke 8:1-3) which could explain why Mary Magdalene is generally associated with the woman who anoints Jesus.

Sources :

Carol Meyers, Editor, Women in Scripture (Boston Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000)

Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins. (New York: Crossroads, 1993).

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