The anointing at Bethany in John 12

This Sunday’s lectionary takes a break from our reading of Luke’s gospel to focus on the anointing of Jesus in Bethany by Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus, in John 12.1–8. (If anyone can explain this move, I would love to hear!). This is an unusual narrative since, if we accept one line of interpretation (which assumes the account of the anointing in Luke 7.36–50 records the same incident), then this is the only other incident in the ministry of Jesus apart from the feeding of the five thousand which occurs in all four gospels. The parallel accounts are worth exploring briefly, before looking in more detail at way John uses language to weave the story seamlessly into his narrative.

The accounts in Matthew, Mark and John are strikingly similar; this is one moment where we might think that it is these three gospels which are the ‘synoptics’!

Matthew 26:6–13Mark 14:3–9John 12:1–8
While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table. When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.” Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head. Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly. “Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to 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 to prepare for my burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honour. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pint 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. But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”

The accounts are of similar length (though, not untypically, there is more detail in Mark than in Matthew). All three accounts agree that the incident happened in Bethany, near the time of Jesus’ Passion, that a woman anointed Jesus with expensive perfume, that there were objections to what she had done, that Jesus defended her action as a sign of his impending death, and that he included reference to ‘always having the poor with you’. Mark includes a few more details than Matthew, and John tends to agree with Mark (mentioning the perfume as (spike)nard, and it being worth a year’s wages).

The account in Luke 7.36–50 is quite different, with the incident there happening in the north of the country, earlier in Jesus’ ministry, at the home of a Pharisee (though also called Simon, a very common Jewish name) where Jesus is anointed by a ‘sinful woman’ and he responds with teaching not about the poor but about devotion in response to forgiveness. Despite all these differences, the accounts have repeatedly been conflated—indeed, it is almost impossible to find in the history of art a depiction of the anointing at Bethany faithful to the first three accounts (my picture is by Rubens of the anointing according to Luke!). Based on the assumption that there could not have been two different anointings (which I don’t think is justified) and noting the one connection of the wiping of Jesus’ feet with the woman’s hair in both John’s and Luke’s stories, it has been assumed that the Mary of Bethany is the same as Mary Magdalene and that she is also the sinful woman, as an interpretation of the statement in Luke 8.2 that Mary Magdalene has been delivered of ‘seven demons’. The conflation of the three figures (Mary of B, Mary M, the sinful woman) and the association of demons with sinfulness, are all unhelpful and unwarranted.

Turning to the account in John 12.1–8, as we are reading we need to note particularly two pairs of features of the Johannine narratives. The first is the combination of ‘reality effects’ which give realistic detail with the use of heavy symbolic significance. A good example of this from earlier in the gospel is the timing of Jesus’ conversations with Nicodemus and the woman at the well in chapters 3 and 4: the evening is a realistic time to hold a conversation, yet the twilight also signifies Nicodemus’ lack of understanding, whilst the woman comes to the well at noon having been shunned by her peers, yet the broad daylight symbolises her clear understanding by the end of the encounter. The second pair of features we need to note is analepsis (making connections with what has gone before) and prolepsis (making connections in anticipation of what will come).

Where the previous incident of the raising of Lazarus lacked a time reference, John now resumes his characteristic counting of days (see the sequence of references to ‘the next day’ in the opening chapters). The mention of ‘six days before the Passover’ both connects this narrative to Jesus’ coming death, starting a kind of Passion week countdown (so that this passage is often read on the Monday of Holy Week), but also offers the third mention of Passover, giving us a chronological shape to the ministry of Jesus (covering all or part of three years) but more importantly connecting Jesus’ ministry with the Jewish festivals and symbolically signifying Jesus as the Passover lamb. This began with John the Baptist’s description of Jesus as the ‘lamb of God’ in John 1.36 and will be completed by John’s scheduling of the crucifixion at the time of the sacrifice of the passover lamb—a schedule which might well be more historically accurate than the traditional timing.

The explicit mention of Lazarus and his being raised is the first example of analepsis, connecting this story with the narrative of the preceding chapter—though John notes that this meal did not take place in the house of Lazarus, thus agreeing with Matthew and Mark. Martha serves in a practical way, contrasted with Mary’s more extravagant action; this concurs both with the difference we already saw in chapter 11, but also with the distinction in Luke’s unique account of the sisters in Luke 10.38–42, though here in John Martha’s service is depicted positively, using the discipleship term diakoneo. Lazarus is ‘reclining at table’ with Jesus, a prolepsis (anticipation) of the intimacy of the ‘beloved disciple’ at the Last Supper in John 13.23, but that is no reason to suppose that these two are the same figure (if so, why mention Lazarus’ name here but not in the next chapter?).

The introduction of Mary needs no explanation, since we know from chapter 11 who all three characters are—and their introduction there includes a proleptic mention of this very episode in anticipation. Like Mark, John includes mention of the name of the perfume and its value, but also includes details of the quantity (a Roman ‘pound’, litra) and its effect—that it fills the whole house (which might have been a single room) with its fragrance. Perhaps this also symbolically signifies that such a costly act of worship has an impact on all who are close enough to witness it. Mary’s action at Jesus’ feet (in contrast to Matthew and Mark, who mention only his head) functions both as analepsis and prolepsis, recalling Mary’s falling at Jesus’ feet in John 11.32 and anticipating Jesus’ washing the disciples’ feet in John 13.5.

Where Matthew and Mark ascribe the complaint to the disciples in general, John specifies it as coming from Judas. The name is mentioned twelve times in this gospel, and the very first mention of Judas Iscariot in John 6.71 already anticipates his betrayal. The connection of Judas with the common purse is continued in John 13.29; the word for ‘purse’ here is glossokomon, which occurs only in these two places in the New Testament (contrast pera in Luke 9.3 and 10.4) and more usually means ‘coffin’. The contrast of responses to Jesus represented by Mary and Judas matches the conflicted responses to the raising of Lazarus explored in John 11.45–57; the division amongst the people is matched by a division amongst the disciples, and the conflict beyond Jesus’ circle is now felt as a conflict within Jesus’ circle. And this narrative is typical of John’s overall positive depiction of women, often in contrast to men; the understanding of the woman at the well contrasts with the bafflement of Nicodemus, and at the cross the women remain as witnesses when most of the men (with the exception of the ‘beloved disciple’) have fled. Even at the tomb on Easter Sunday morning, the men leave the garden whilst Mary Magdalene lingers and encounters Jesus. It is worth noting, though, that John’s purpose in describing these characters is never primarily to make us focus on them—rather, he tells their story in order to teach us something about Jesus.

John agrees with Matthew and Mark in quoting Jesus’ understanding that Mary’s action anticipated his death (using the metonym of ‘burial’). But he sharpens the emphasis by describing Mary as ‘keeping this’ for the occasion. Some commentators have inferred that she has held back some of the perfume, and what remains will actually be used in the anointing of Jesus’ body, thus actually connecting this action with his death (which is why John omits mention of ‘breaking’ the bottle). But I think a better reading is to see Jesus understanding that she has waited until this moment to anoint him, signifying the imminence of his death and the coming of ‘the hour’ which has, until now, been delayed (see John 2.4).

As in Matthew and Mark’s account, Jesus here alludes to the command in Deut 15.11 to always be ready to care for the poor, since there will always be people in need of our compassion and open hands. There is no need to see here a sharp contrast between extravagant worship and service; after all, the very next chapter sees Jesus in humble service to his disciples, and we hear his command to emulate his example. Jesus is the one who merits our most extravagant worship, but who also merits our obedience; whatever we can offer him is as nothing in comparison with the extravagant gift he has given us in pouring out his life as an atoning sacrifice and a precious gift of love for each one of us.

Drawing some of these insights together, this is the short devotion I wrote for Scripture Union’s Encounter with God notes a couple of years ago:

John did not tell us anything about the timing of the raising of Lazarus. But he now returns to his usual practice, and links the anointing at Bethany in time forwards with the coming Passover (agreeing with the accounts in Matthew and Mark), and backwards with both place and person. The connection with Lazarus is not mentioned in the other gospels; the fact that he himself was in danger of betrayal (v 10) might have led them to omit mention of him.

John’s gospel is full of conflict, and this story crackles with tension. As in Luke 10, Martha is busy with serving, as she no doubt thinks fit. How does she view Mary’s action? Extravagant? Unnecessary? Improper? Attention-seeking? Why can’t Mary show her love in unobtrusive practical action as she is doing? What about the men there; how do they view Mary? As profligate? And provocative? To let down one’s hair in that culture could easily be seen as flaunting your sexuality. The disciples (in Matthew and Mark, personified in John by Judas) see another problem. The have a common purse, and relied on the generosity of others (Luke 8.3), and if Mary really wanted to support Jesus, she should have donated the money. After all, Beth-any means ‘House of the Poor’, so she could hardly have missed the point.

Jesus’ comment is difficult to translate, but points yet again to a deeper meaning of her action. She has made this sacrifice out of her love and devotion to Jesus. And her action points beyond this, to Jesus’ own sacrifice out of his love and devotion to the world. Her sacrifice is not an alternative to care for the poor; Jesus quotes Deut 15.11 as a reminder that we must always care for them. But such care must testify to our devotion to Jesus and his love for the world.

What costly act of devotion is Jesus calling you to today? To what outward act of caring for others is he calling you, as an expression both of your devotion and of his love for the world?

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28 thoughts on “The anointing at Bethany in John 12”

  1. I’d suggest the following sequence:

    Stage 1: Historical Jesus – Jesus is a popular king. He is called ‘King of the Jews’. He makes his entry riding a colt and is not averse to the implications of that. Here he also gets anointed by one of his main supporters who are residents and/or sojourners at Bethany, and are therefore peasant class or ‘poor’, unable to afford Jerusalem prices (Capper). This supporter is Mary of Bethany as Jerusalemite John the Elder, well clued up on local personnel, tells us.

    Stage 2: Mark – The event is given a coating of Purim within Mark’s overall sequence (‘two days’ / shortly before Passover; message bruited abroad; rich treatment with spices/lotions/ointments; homage to king; reference to ‘the poor’ as beneficiaries or not, Esth.9.22). This is within Mark’s larger structure (1-11 Passover; chs 1-5 Pentecost/Weeks with spirit / wheatharvest / ‘Sabbaths’ stories; chs 6-8 Feast of Trumpets with heralds to village after village; chs 9-11 Tabernacles from Transfiguration to branches-ceremony; ch11 enkainia at the temple-‘cleansing’).

    Stage 3: John – historical improvement: identifying the individuals involved. Theological adjustment: feet to match Gen 3.15 (‘Moses spoke about me’, Jn 5; the foot/heel material with Psalms quotation in chs 12-13 refers back to Gen 3.15, which is why Judas who is always associated with Satan not least as a thief [chs 10,12] is now the one who objects). 12.3 ‘the house was filled’ theme comes twice in Isa.6. John unlike Matt retains the 300, for though he has very little verbatim Mark he has a special fascination with numbers, and 12.3 is one of his most striking verbatim parallels with Mark.

    Stage 4: Matt. Matt cuts out the extraneous details (as he judges them to be) and has ‘the disciples’ respond to the anointing, which is typical of his pedagogic disciple-centred focus.

    Stage 5: Luke. Shellard thinks Luke is trying to harmonise Mark with John, as often (cf. Passion Narrative): both head and feet get anointed. See too JF Coakley, ‘The Anointing at Bethany and the Priority of John’. The story is not of a different lady or occasion, and has a source-critical explanation. It is the first half of the debtor woman-man pair (chs 7,19) suggested by Isa61 (Luke 4), just like there is also an oppressed woman-man pair (Lk 13-14) and an Elijah-Elisha woman-man pair (Nain; healed leper). (Luke 7 also, as it happens, has a pair of ‘those who mourn’ though Luke 4 omits that from Isa61.) All these refer back to the programmatic Nazareth sermon, and together they comprise the bulk of Luke’s new narrative in the body of the gospel. The link between anointing-woman and debtor is not necessarily apparent till Jesus makes it clear to ‘Simon’ (named as in Mark), but it is probably explained by Isa 61. The feet detail (among many other things) proves Luke used John (so Robinson Smith, DWB Robinson, Cribbs, Shellard, Matson; cf. Coakley as mentioned above). In order to link anointing-woman and debtor, Luke has to make the woman a sinner and therefore to make her weep. Whether there is any significance in both John and Luke placing their story shortly after the raising of a man from the dead is unsure; possibly it was this that suggested this transposition of the story to Luke as he was preparing and writing. Luke also takes up the Mary/Martha character vignettes in his Lk 10 story which is to correspond in sequence to Deut’s ‘Man shall not live by bread alone’. Lazarus in Luke (and the fact that this parable-character is named is very striking indeed, and any explanation for that is welcome) has in common with John’s Lazarus the association with being raised from the dead. Luke sometimes has a tendency to omit stories in the other evangelists that he may find outlandish (figtree), and does not include the raising of Lazarus. But of the small collection of names he has in common only with John (such as Annas, the other Judas) it is striking that all of Mary, Martha and Lazarus appear.

      • When I said ‘both head and feet get anointed’ in Luke that is strictly inaccurate – the situation is that both head-anointing (Mark) and foot-anointing (John) are mentioned but the former is hypothetical only (‘you did not anoint my head’). This is one of the ways that Luke combines the Mark and John pictures. But both Cribbs and Shellard noticed that in these precise passages where Luke combines Mark and John he feels most at liberty to be thoroughly Lukan too and go his own way – maybe because the variety within the sources justifies this in his mind.

        • Hi Christopher – if this is the case, why do the vast majority of scholars date John as the last written gospel? Is it not possible Luke and John had some common sources, rather than one depending on the other?


          • On your first point,
            -The vast majority of scholars will follow what is written in NT introductions. NT introductions are supposed to give the majority view. But this is an incestuous process, since things *become* the majority view by first being imbibed in NT introductions, and this eternal cycle means that perceived ‘majority views’ become ever more difficult to shift. When all the while the findings of those scholars doing the most detailed work on the areas in question often get further and further away from the conclusions encrusted in the introductions.
            -Second, Clement of Alexandria says John wrote last. But he distinguishes John in kind/genre from the other 3, so may be conflating genre with date. He does not give, or show awareness of, detailed dating for the gospels.
            -Third, there is a logical fallacy in play. The idea, which is obviously false, is that because the synoptic gospels form a group in one way (their synopticity) they will therefore also form a group in another (or *any* other?) random way, such as their date vis-a-vis John. This is very easily disproven, since any of us could write a synoptic gospel today which would greatly postdate John.

            On your second point,
            ‘Possible’ is exactly what it is. Which is a problem, because almost anything is ‘possible’. It is possible (though rather less so) that mammoths still roam the outer Hebrides. The theories we favour are the ones that are better than possible, that are likely or plausible. Or rather, those that are likeliest of the available candidates.

            There were few pieces of public Christian literature around in the early days.
            What would Christians read in preference to the writings of their fellow Christians?
            Who other than other Christian writers (other Christian gospel writers, forsooth) would be the most likely to read them?
            No evangelist ever had more than 3 existing gospels to read. Unless they were vastly unlucky and were writing simultaneously without knowing about each other.

            We not only prefer, but greatly prefer, the theory that conforms with Occam’s razor over the theory that breaks it.

          • However I’d add:
            In order to date John last, a scholar would have had to have looked into the dating of all 4. And most have not looked in detail into all 4 parts of that fourfold question.

            Also one would favour the scholars that showed the capacity (and, more importantly, the analytic grounding) for independent thought. For example, Bauckham dates John before Luke, and his arguments have been well received – so it is a position taken by leading scholars.

  2. I’ve never understood why some people say Luke’s sinful woman is a version of the Matt/Mark/John story. There are more differences than similarities. It’s a bit like saying the healing of the man born blind in John is the same event as the healing of Bartimaeus in the Synoptics, even though the location, time and most incidental details are noticeably different.

    • It’s more that (a) the similarities are very specific (wiping feet with hair; precisely one such anointing story within each gospel) and (b) we are then in a position to sketch a history of the story’s development which comports at all times with the tendencies of the respective evangelists.

    • I am also not convinced, despite what Christopher says. Here is my (inexpert) take.

      The detail of wiping with the hair is interesting, but it is actually different in Luke and John. In the former it precedes the anointing with oil and in the latter it follows. If the two are separate, and at the appropriate stage in the chronology, might not Mary have heard or even witness the first, and so copied it?

      That the host is ‘Simon’ is a common feature. However, I looked up in Baukham the name frequencies, and ‘Simeon’ (the same name, I think) is the most frequent male name. So, it is not surprising that in Mark, he is described as ‘Simon the Leper’, in order to distinguish him from other Simons. Luke’s Simon is only addressed, so no disambiguator is required. However, he is a Pharisee. Would a leper have been able to be a Pharisee?

      Luke says that the woman “learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house.” This seems to jar with the circumstances of John’s account, with Lazarus among the guests and Martha serving. In this, it is natural that their sister Mary would be present.

      An important common feature of the three accounts is the relation to Jesus’ burial. It seems natural that this anointing happened in the run-up to Jesus’ death. Luke places his story before the first time Jesus speaks of his going to Jerusalem to die and be raised. There does not seem any good reason for him to move it to that position, positioned between a passage about John the Baptist and the parable of the sower.

      All the evangelists needed to select their material. If there were (at least) two anointings, it is perhaps not surprising that each should pick only one, but Luke choose a different one from the other three.

      • Hi David – greetings to Christ Church!

        Several points here:

        Given the choice between analysing story by story (as though we were in the dark about the bigger picture) and looking at the bigger picture of the interrelationship of 2 gospels, I am sure that the 2nd option is better. The Luke-John interrelationship has been analysed in very great detail by Cribbs, Shellard, Matson etc.. Many of those who did earlier analyses, like J A Bailey, worked with a false binary (either John knew Luke’s gospel or there was something called ‘common oral tradition’ – a concept that has its own problems). D Moody Smith’s ‘John Among the Gospels’ finds no strong criticism of the ‘Luke knew John’ option. The synoptic nature of the data means that we have bags of data, so I don’t buy the common tack which is jum,ping straight to ‘we can never know’ having scarcely investigated in the first place. The only way someone can say we can never know is after a full investigation, of course.

        Luke is (Preface) combining more than 2 sources, as well as working out extended OT fulfilments like the other evangelists; in the process of that, he has a striking degree of correspondence with John. Pierson Parker found Luke to have 120 significant correspondences with John, which is in the region of 4-5 times as many as with either of the other synoptists. So a good theory would explain why that is. Mark + John = Luke is a simple way to make sense of these, and no other simple option exists; the relationship in real life is likely to have been simple. This is particularly manifest in the Passion narratives. Satan is at the Last Supper. Right ear is cut off. There is a miraculous fishcatch. ‘This is your hour, and the power of darkness’ at the Lukan arrest. Pilate material has rich pickings. Regularly the bits Luke and John have in common are Johannine.

        One has to add to this the apparent Lukan woman-man pairs (in that order) all without exception to fulfil the ch4 Nazareth sermon, and bring freedom to the oppressed (chs 13-14), liberty to the captives (captive to debt: chs 7,19), restoration to 2 people in line with Elijah’s widow and Elisha’s leper (chs 7,17) – these 6 stories being one and the same as the main narrative additions to the body of Luke. If Luke was able to bring this about by adapting existing material, he may have thought ‘so much the better’.

  3. Thanks Ian for some graet insights.

    In Phil 3 Paul counts his Jewish credentials as worthless as he relies on Christ’s faithfulness. Mary relinquishes her valuable resource to worship Christ. In Isaiah the whole of creation worships God. Worship seesm to be the initing theme.

  4. I have been musing on something all week & perhaps folk here can give me some insight: I understand why Jesus says “she has done a beautiful thing to me” – but why does Jesus say “she did what she could”?

    • I don’t fully understand it (Mark 14.8). There are various Scriptures which are useful context:

      (1) the ‘doing’ verb already came in 14.7, so this 14.8 ‘doing’ is giving and serving like the ‘doing’ in 14.7. Just it is directed towards Jesus not the poor.

      (2) Mark has the cross as a throne in many separate ways:
      -crown of thorns,
      -locus of an important ‘drinking’ event as at a dinner and a drinking event moreover that Jesus locates 14.25 in the ‘kingdom’ [Hahn, The Fourth Cup – and others – on how ‘the fruit of the vine’ is a carefully chosen phrase to unite wine with vinegar],
      -two men [but not James and John] taking their rightful places on the right and left again in kingdom/glory context [10.37]).
      …So the anointing, like the wine/vinegar cup, and like the feast/death associations of the cup, is bittersweet.
      It is not that Jesus does not see the ‘kingly’ intent of the anointing, but that he fuses his idea of kingdom with what happens on the Cross. This is (for Mark and probably also for Jesus, since Isa 40-55 is by far the main blueprint for how a messiah’s life would pan out) no more than the apparent logic of the sequence already found in Isaiah. ‘Your God is king’ shouts ch52; ch53 then manifests what that means.

      (3) The importance of the very tiniest faith. Widow’s mite, mustard seed, 1man picnic of loaves/fishes, ‘help my unbelief’ attitude is rewarded. Jesus sees that faith more than he sees the monetary cost, just as he sees the cosmic burial/kingdom implications over and above the woman’s fumbling but wholehearted intent.

      (4) The Purim dimension mentioned above. Esther too ‘did what she could’. She could not make an executive order for Mordecai and the Jews to be saved. But she could do a Babette’s feast job, and be (like the Mark 14 woman) representative of thousands of less powerful women down the ages in the power of her love and persuasiveness.

  5. You say that the conflation of Mary of Bethany with Mary Magdalene is “unwarranted” but as I have commented to you before, it is curious that ‘Mary of Bethany’ appears only in Bethany and nowhere else, showing extravagant physical devotion and emotional commitment to Jesus. Two weeks after this episode and two miles away on Easter morning, ‘Mary Magdalene’ shows extravagant physical devotion and emotional commitment to Jesus. Not conclusive, but not completely “unwarranted” either. I personally think it is more likely than not that they are the same person. See “Easter Enigma” by John Wenham for a well-constructed case in favour of this view.

    • Against this,

      1. Both John and Luke would have to be really unclear writers if that were the case;

      2. John’s structure has a set of precisely 7 women (this is a writer who adores 7s), and they seem to appear in a certain pattern.

      That Mary Magdalene (from whom 7 demons had departed) had a sinful past I myself think likely but clearly unproven; it will regularly be the case that the demonised formerly laid themselves open to that state. Far from relinquishing her traditional role as quintessential forgiven sinner, she fits it like a glove.

      As for whether Luke is hinting at the name Mary for the sinner-woman in so describing Mary Magdalene at the start of Luke 8 (directly after the anointing story), it does seem far fetched, but it could conceivably be another of his ways of trying to harmonise the information in Mark and in John.

    • The work on name frequencies is relevant here. Mary (Maria) was one of the most common names for Jewish women in the region. With common names, a distinguishing qualifier is often added to the name. It is clear that the Mary of John 11 and 12 is from Bethany, where she lived with her brother and sister, and so distinguished in the text. Mary (the) Magadelene is distinguished as being from Magdala, on the shores of Lake Galilee. Maybe they moved? At the time of John 11 they seem to be well-known in the area, with folk coming from Jerusalem after Lazarus dies.

      • Yes, it seems at least a third of women were Mary – as also in Ireland till recently.

        IMHO there has never been any good reason to identify the two, and there is all the less reason given the popularity of the name,

        However, Luke 8.1ff. is the reason why people (since Pope Gregory the Great) have formerly done so. Because a Mary sinner is named directly after the story of a female unnamed sinner and moreover the female unnamed sinner has much in common with a woman named Mary in John. The root of all this is quite likely Luke’s wish to be ambivalent about whether the anointer was ‘Mary’or not, since one of his sources said she was and the other didn’t. So he hints that she may have been.

  6. l like the anagogical approach to this sequence adopted by Hugh of St. Victor, in De scripturis et scriptoribus sacris, in which an invisible action is (simply) signified or represented by a visible action; in that “Anagoge” is that “reasoning upwards” (sursum ductio), when, from the visible, the invisible action is disclosed or revealed – it has a proleptic prophetic resonance….Gethsemane starts with this act of Anointing.

  7. Fron an Evangelical perspective I am interested that Ian Paul has engaged in a form of epektasis in using the language of analepsis (making connections with what has gone before) and prolepsis (making connections in anticipation of what will come) – in the way he “reaches forwards” into the incarnational-prophetic real – a whole series of invisible spiritual realities tying together the paschal lamb who slain before the creation of the world and the cup of Gethsemane in the visible spike of this act of Anounting – not that I am suggesting Ian Paul is a mystic….although seems to be able to see those deeper currents running underneath the surfaces of theological language systems.

  8. Hi Ian. Do you think she could have been using perfume she was meant to ‘keep’ for Lazarus, but didn’t use it on him for some reason – expecting Jesus’ resurrecting him, perhaps?

    • I think that’s an interesting thought, and someone suggested it too on Facebook discussion (perhaps you…?!)

      The difficulty is that there is no suggestion of that in the text that I can see; that Lazarus would have been anointed already; and that Jesus says specifically that she has kept it for him.

      But there is clearly some sort of connection, and it is interesting that John makes connections between Jesus restoring someone to life with Jesus’ own resurrection that the other gospels do not…

  9. There is a weeping woman who wiped her dead about to be crucified husband’s corpse with her hair in Petronius’ Satyricon, which seems to be a parody of the christian anointing story. This suggests the basic christian mythos was circulating and known to the Roman intelligentsia at a rather early date.


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