"Come and See": A Web Commentary on the Gospel of John: Section 11. Jesus begins to move from death to new life (Jn 12.1-50)
11.1 The anointing at Bethany (Jn 12.1-11)
Each of the four gospels contains a story about Jesus and an anointing. These stories are in Matt 26.6-13, Mark 14.3-9, Luke 7.36-50, and here in John 12.1-11. Analysis suggests that the stories in Matthew, Mark, and John have more similarities among themselves than any of them has with the story in Luke, although we must not forget that there are common elements among all four.
For example, all four of these texts obviously describe an annointing of Jesus. It is done by a woman at a dinner in all four. And it appears that in all four accounts, the anointing takes place in a private home -- I have to qualify in this way because the Johannine account never actually says where in Bethany the dinner took place, but the inference is that it took place at someone’s home. Three name the host, Simon: Matthew and Mark add that he was called Simon the Leper. Luke does not identify the host by name at first, only as a Pharisee, but Jesus addresses him as Simon during the account.
Three of the accounts (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) say that the perfume was in an alabaster jar. John tells us there was a pound of expensive perfume (a detail the others lack) but not what container it was in. In Matthew, Mark, and John, there is a dispute that arises from the costliness of the perfume, in which there is complaining (by “the disciples” in Matthew, by “some who were there” in Mark, and by “Judas Iscariot” in John) about why the perfume was not sold and the money so realised given to the poor (both John and Mark agree that it could have been sold for 300 silver pennies, a large sum; see below). In all of those three gospels, this is the occasion of Jesus’ saying about the poor: he tells them not to bother her, that the poor are always with them, to be done a kindness, but he himself is not. And they connect the annointing with his burial. These three agree that the anointing took place in Bethany and they all place it near Passover (John says six days before, Matthew and Mark say two days). This is Jesus’ last Passover, and the temporal connection between that festival and his death highlights the deeper connection between the annointing and his death.
The four accounts split evenly as to where on his body Jesus was anointed: Matthew and Mark have him anointed on the head and Luke and John have him anointed on the feet. Matthew and Mark contain an odd saying: “Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” (Matt 26.13). I call it odd because these gospels never identify the woman and yet they say the the story of what she has done will be told wherever the gospel is proclaimed in all the world, in remembrance of her. Seems an odd way to speak about the deeds of an anonymous woman! John, who lacks that saying, identifies her as Mary of Bethany (sister of Lazarus and Martha). There is a helpful discussion of the various accounts of this woman and the concept of ‘protective anonymity’, which likely explains why it may not have been safe for Mark and Matthew to name Mary but could have been safe for John to do so in Bauckham 2006 pp 189-97 (and also see below).
It appears that Luke’s account has many unique elements, and lacks some important details in common with the account in Matthew, Mark, and John. In Luke’s account, it is emphasised that the anointing woman is an outsider, not invited to the dinner or connected with the guests. She is identified only as a woman in the city and a sinner. In Luke, the anointing itself is part of a series of evocative actions carried out by the woman: first she washes Jesus’ feet with her tears, then dries them with her hair, and finally kissing his feet and anointing them. Simon’s reaction is scornful: if Jesus were really a prophet, he would know that this woman touching him is a sinner!
In Luke, Jesus uses the woman’s actions as the occasion of a completely different saying than in Matthew, Mark, and John’s account. In response to the woman’s actions and Simon’s reaction, Jesus tells his host a parable about forgiveness. A creditor had two debtors who could not pay him; one owed ten times more than the other. The creditor cancels both debts: which one will love the creditor more? Simon answers that it is the one who had owed the most money. Jesus agrees and then uses the woman and her actions to illustrate his point. When he arrived at the house, Simon had neglected several of the usual courtesies extended to a guest (water to wash his feet, the kiss of welcome, oil to anoint his head) but the woman has extended all these courtesies to Jesus with her extravagant gestures. Jesus concludes: “‘Your sins are forgiven.’ But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’”
There is no mention of Bethany, no criticism about the cost of the perfume, no praise of the woman’s action, no saying about the poor. Perhaps most importantly the woman’s anointing of Jesus is not linked with his death or with a Passover date. For Luke this anointing is part of a ritual of hospitality that has to be carried out by an anonymous stranger, whereas the anointing by Mary of Bethany is at the least a prophetic action that looks ahead to Jesus’ death at the coming Passover and at the most a prophetic acknowledgement that Jesus is Messiah, God’s anointed, as he goes to his death.
Whether Luke knew only Mark and the hypothetical “Q” or knew Matthew also, he would have been familiar with the story of how Jesus was anointed at Bethany before his last Passover. He may even have been aware that the woman who anointed him was Mary of Bethany, since we know he had some independent knowledge of the sisters Martha and Mary. For some reason, he chose not to tell it, or else to adapt some of its details to make quite a different point about Jesus’ ministry at a different time and place. A commentary on John is not the place to pursue those questions! For our present purposes, it is enough to observe that two synoptics and John tell us an important story about a prophetic act by a female follower of Jesus in the dying days (literally) of his ministry.
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Comments on Selected Verses
John never names the host of the dinner, although he is called Simon the Leper in Matthew and Mark. In Biblical parlance a person called a leper was not suffering from the condition called leprosy in modern terminology, also known as Hansen’s disease. Instead he or she suffered from tzaraath, one of a variety of skin conditions that turned the skin scaly. Modern scholars conjecture that such conditions as psoriasis, impetigo, or erysipelas could have led to a finding of ‘leprosy’. Jacob Milgrom, a modern authority on Leviticus, refers to a so-called leper in Biblical texts as a person with scale-disease. He or she was forbidden to associate with his or her fellow Jews until the skin disease healed and that healing was properly certified by a priest in accordance with Torah. So we should probably imagine this Simon as someone who has recovered from ‘tzaraath’ if he is hosting a dinner for a prominent teacher with local connections.
Some commentators have inferred that John meant that Lazarus was the host of the dinner. But that seems to be contradicted by v2, which merely says that Lazarus was one of those that reclined at table with him, that is, that he was a fellow guest. It seems more likely that John, for whatever reason (perhaps that Mark had already identified the host), simply leaves this information out.
Nard is a botanical fragrance. It is derived from the essential oil of the nard plant, imported from Northern India. The plant is also known as spikenard from its appearance (Brown 1966 p 448). The distance nard had to travel helps to account for its expense.
In their accounts of this event, Matthew and Mark say rather that Jesus’ head was anointed. If, as many commentators think, the anointing at Bethany was intended as a Messianic anointing, then the head was the place one would expect the oil to be poured. The remarks about the importance of Mary’s act and how she will be remembered because of it wherever the good news is preached seem to indicate that her action was considered extraordinary and significant, more than a simple head-anointing of a guest at a banquet. The compalints by bystanders or disciples or a disciple would then seem to be another example of those around Jesus missing the point of statements or events meant to reveal who and what he is to those on the ‘inside’ (but not to outsiders). But John’s locating of the anointing on the feet seems to undercut its Messianic possibilities, unless we understand it as a deliberate attempt by John to soften the potentially revolutionary potential of the act to those outside the community.
Literally 300 denarii. The denarius was a small Roman silver coin, often referred to as a silver penny. Its name is derived from the Latin word for 10, because the denarius was originally worth 10 asses, an as being a Roman bronze coin. The most useful way to express its value is by its purchasing power, rather than by attempting to give an equivalent value in modern currency. In New Testament times, a denarius was what an agricultural labourer could expect for a day’s work. So 300 denarii represented nearly a year’s wages for such a worker, making Mary’s perfume very expensive indeed.
It is not surprising that large numbers of people from Jerusalem and the Judaean countryside would come to Bethany on this occasion in the hopes of seeing Jesus and Lazarus. It’s clear from ch11 that the Bethany family of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus had many friends and connections in the area, given the large number of mourners who had come to bury Lazarus and pray and grieve with his sisters. And of course they talked about what they had seen Jesus do at Lazarus’ tomb! Who would not retell the story of a man four days in the tomb who stumbled out in answer to the call of a famous healer and preacher?
But here we learn that this natural reaction to the miracle has particularly galvanised the political leadership in the land, the council, to an even more brutal response. In ch11 we learned that the council decided, after debate and an unconscious prophecy by the high priest himself, that Jesus must be put to death. This is not for the alleged Sabbath-breaking or blasphemy that we had heard about in earlier chapters, but because of their fears of the Roman reaction to the growing popularity of a healer and preacher like Jesus, whom Rome might legitimately view as a potential focus for revolutionary ideas, as a potential political Messiah. But now the death sentence, reluctantly applied to Jesus, is extended to Lazarus without even the same hesitation, since he could be viewed as a living proof of Jesus’ status and claims. If, as I speculated above, John misdirects Mary’s anointing away from Jesus’ head, the place where kings like David were anointed, to obscure the possibility that Mary annointed Jesus not simply as a sign of his impending death but also as a sign of his Messianic status, we need look no further than these political reactions. Everyone who had been at that dinner might have been in danger, a danger that would have been very real when John began his preaching and teaching about Jesus, and perhaps continue for later followers of a dangerous revolutionary.
See the comments to Jn 7.32 for a discussion of the chief priests.
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