The Anointing of Jesus
As indicated in the introduction to this portion of the series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”, the scene of the Anointing of Jesus (by a woman) is the first episode in the Synoptic Passion Narrative, as represented by the Gospel of Mark (14:3-9). Actually there is a similar Anointing episode in all four Gospels. The version in Matthew (26:6-13) follows Mark closely, both those in Luke (7:36-50) and John (12:1-8) contain significant differences. This has caused commentators to question whether we are dealing with one, two, or even three distinct historical traditions (and events). Only the scene in Mark/Matthew is part of the Passion Narrative proper, though John’s version still evinces a connection with the death/burial of Jesus that must have been part of the tradition from an early point. The many points of difference between Luke’s account and the Synoptic scene in Mark/Matthew, may seem to leave little doubt that at least two separate historical traditions are involved. However, the Anointing Scene in all four Gospels follows the same basic narrative outline:
- Jesus is dining (as a guest) in a particular house, and his he is reclining at the table
- A women enters, or is present, who anoints Jesus with perfume
- Others who are present react negatively to this
- Jesus rebukes them for this reaction, and
- He speaks on behalf of the woman, in support of her, etc
This common outline has convinced a number of scholars that ultimately we are dealing with multiple versions of the same historical tradition. It may be worth recalling that there were similar questions related to the Miraculous Feeding episode(s) (cf. the earlier notes), as well as the scene of Jesus at Nazareth (cf. also these notes).
I begin this study with the episode as it is found in the Gospel of Mark.
This episode, the first in the Passion Narrative, follows the narrative introduction in vv. 1-2. This brief notice contains two primary elements which run thematically through the narrative: (1) the Passover setting, and (2) the plans to arrest Jesus and put him to death. Mark sets the second element within the first, enveloping it:
- “It was the festival of Pesah (Passover) and the Unleavened Bread after [i.e. in] two days”
—”The chief sacred officials [i.e. Priests] and writers [i.e. Scribes] searched (out) how, grabbing hold of him in a (cunning) trap (right away), they might kill him off”
- “For they said, ‘Not on the festival (day), (so) there will not be any clamor of [i.e. from] the people'”
The idea clearly is that the religious authorities wish to arrest and deal with Jesus prior to the day of Passover itself.
The narrative of the Anointing scene is generally simple and straightforward; it may be outlined as follows:
- Narrative introduction/setting—the action of the woman (v. 3)
- The reaction of those present (vv. 4-5)
- Jesus’ response (vv. 6-9), including a climactic saying
This basic outline is common to many traditional narratives in the Synoptics, especially those which depict Jesus in dispute/conflict with religious authorities (on questions of Law and other beliefs)—cf. Mark 2:1-3:6 par, etc. It is worth noting that neither the woman nor those who respond negatively to her are identified. In this respect, Mark most likely preserves the earlier form of the tradition (compared with Matthew [cf. below] and John). Jesus’ response is comprised of four sayings or parts:
- V. 6—”Leave her (alone)! (for) what [i.e. why] do you hold [i.e. bring] along trouble for her? It is a fine work she has worked on me.”
- V. 7—”The poor you have with you always…but you do not always have me.”
- V. 8—”She did that which she held (in her to do)—she took (the opportunity) before(hand) to apply ointment (to) my body, unto [i.e. for] the placing (of it) in the grave.”
- V. 9—”Amen, I say to you, (that) wherever the good message is proclaimed, into the whole world, even th(at) which this (woman) did will be spoken unto her memorial [i.e. as a memorial for her].”
These may be divided into two groups, reflecting two aspects of the narrative:
- The costliness of the anointing—Christian ideals of poverty and humility (represented by the onlookers’ objection) required that some explanation of this “waste” be given. The answer comes in vv. 6-7, especially Jesus’ saying regarding the poor in v. 7.
- The connection with the death of Jesus—it is doubtless this aspect in vv. 8-9 which caused the episode to be set within the context of the Passion narrative. As we shall see, there is some indication that the original tradition/event may have originally occurred at an earlier point in the Gospel narrative.
Matthew follows the Markan account rather closely. The Gospel writer has, in other respects, expanded the Passion Narrative considerably, such as can be seen in the narrative introduction (cp. vv. 1-5 with Mk 14:1-2). The main difference is found in vv. 1-2, which contain a transitional statement (v. 1) and a declaration by Jesus (v. 2) which echoes the earlier Passion predictions (16:21; 17:22-23; 20:17-19 par). However, the Anointing scene itself shows relatively little development. Typically, Matthew’s version is smoother and simpler, lacking some of the specific detail and color of Mark’s account. It also contains certain details not found in Mark:
- Those who object to the woman’s action are identified as Jesus’ disciples (v. 8). This is a significant development; John’s version is even more specific.
- In v. 10a there is the possible indication that Jesus is aware of the disciples’ thoughts/hearts (cf. 9:4, etc).
- The woman’s action (v. 12) is described by Jesus through a somewhat different formulation:
“For this (woman), casting [i.e. pouring] the myrrh-ointment upon my body, did (this) toward [i.e. for] my being placed in the grave.”
Matthew’s version emphasizes the allusion to the process of embalming, prior to burial.
- Mk 14:7 / Matt 26:11—in the saying regarding the poor, Matthew’s version is shorter (an abridgment?), but otherwise the wording is very close.
- Mk 14:9 / Matt 26:13—the authenticity of the closing statement regarding the woman would seem to be confirmed (on objective grounds), by: (a) the nearly identical wording, and (b) the formula “Amen, I say to you…” (a)mh\n le/gw u(mi=n), which is most distinctive and a sign of an early Jesus tradition. The solemnity of the saying was certainly influential in the preservation of the episode within the Gospel tradition.
There is more variation (between Matthew and Mark) in the other two sayings, especially that in Mk 14:8 par which associates the woman’s action with Jesus’ burial. This fluidity would suggest that the saying was not as well established in the tradition. As indicated above, Matthew’s version enhances the association between the anointing and the (symbolic) embalming of Jesus after death.
In the next daily note, I will examine the quite different Anointing scene recorded by Luke (7:36-50).