Mary the Anointer—John 12:1-8

Studies in John’s Gospel — Bible Study Lesson 30

by Reta Halteman Finger

Mary of Bethany, Print by Yvette Rock
“Mary of Bethany”
Print by contemporary artist Yvette Rock
(c) by Yvette Rock, used by permission.

John 11 ends with Jesus safely away from Jerusalem, but with a price on his head; the temple authorities are out for blood. Then, six days before the Passover festival, Jesus returns to Bethany, just outside of Jerusalem, to attend a dinner in the home of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. There Mary anoints his feet with expensive perfume so that the fragrance fills the house. We know at least some of Jesus’s disciples are present, because Judas Iscariot objects to wasting all that money. Jesus defends Mary both for her action and her insight into his coming death, but he includes what some consider an insensitive statement: “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me” (v 8).

A not-so-simple story

Questions and puzzles arise from this text and its linkage with chapter 11. First, how does it compare with two other accounts of a woman anointing Jesus in Mark 14:3-9 and Luke 7:36-50? Second, back in John 11:2, why does the author identify Mary as the one who anointed Jesus—even though that event had not yet happened? Third, how should we interpret Jesus’s comment about the poor?

Let’s deal with the first question. In Luke 7:36-50, an unnamed “woman of the city” drops in on a dinner party unannounced to show gratitude to Jesus by anointing his feet. But this appears to be a separate incident. On the other hand, Mark 14:3-9 shares many similarities with John 12:1-8. They happen the same week and receive similar responses. But if they refer to the same event, why is the woman nameless in Mark, especially given the significance Jesus conferred on the incident in his comment that her action should be remembered wherever the good news would be proclaimed (Mark 14:9)? And why does she anoint Jesus’s head instead of his feet?

Though the order of events differs between Mark’s and John’s accounts, Gospel writers often adjust their received traditions according to the demands of their own narratives, each with a unique plot and setting. Compare Mark 14:1-21 with John 12:1-8. How is Judas contrasted with Mary (or the unnamed woman) in each text? How does John’s Gospel link Mary with the Lazarus drama of chapter 11?

Anonymous for their own protection

Mary may be unnamed in Mark’s Gospel for the same reason the Synoptics omit Lazarus’s resuscitation: they are both given what some NT scholars call “protective anonymity.” Mark writes during the time of the Jewish-Roman War of 66-70 CE, when disciples of Jesus are at high risk of arrest. John writes after the temple and priesthood have been destroyed and this first generation has died. Names can now be recorded.

Why does the woman in Mark anoint Jesus’s head? It may be Mark’s way to denote her as a prophet (like Samuel’s anointing David as king) who has the insight to identify Jesus as the true “King of the Jews.” But John, who has portrayed Jesus as more divine all long, now shows Mary washing his feet as an example of self-giving that he will later practice with his male disciples (John 13:1-20). The structure of each narrative, as well as each author’s theological emphasis, helps shape our four Gospels in different ways.

Next, why does John awkwardly introduce Mary as Jesus’s anointer in 11:2, even though that event has not yet happened? In The Gospels for All Christians, Richard Bauckman, includes his essay, “John for Readers of Mark.” Here he argues that many of John’s readers already knew Mark’s Gospel, which by that time had been widely circulated among the Christian communities. Many readers of Mark would have known the anointer was Mary through oral tradition, even if Mark did not include her name. So John identifies Mary by that action as the same person who is Lazarus’s sister. Mary’s insight into Jesus’s messiahship and coming death no doubt came from sitting at his feet and listening to his teaching (Luke 10:38-42).

Jesus and the destitute

The third question concerns Jesus’s remark about the poor who are always “with you” (John 12:8). Some people interpret this remark as an excuse for not helping poor people, or at least not prioritizing it. Here, my response is somewhat speculative and involves Jesus’s having relationships with the separatist party of Jewish Essenes. Jesus has antagonistic relations with Pharisees, Sadducees, and temple priests, but the Gospels never mention the Essenes. Yet we know from the Jewish historian Josephus and from the Essenes’own writings among the Dead Sea Scrolls that there were about 4000 of them living throughout Judea, that they lived communally, and that they operated houses for the homeless and destitute. Some lived within Jerusalem itself. (Very likely the Jerusalem Jesus-community described in Acts patterned itself after Essene communities.)

The name “Bethany” means “house of affliction” or “house of the poor,” which had to be outside of Jerusalem for purity reasons. Brian Capper, an Acts scholar, suggests that Martha, Mary, and Lazarus may have had Essene connections and have sponsored a poorhouse close to their home. Perhaps Jesus originally met these siblings through his concern for the poor. If Mary’s ointment was poured out in the presence of poor people who were more used to smelling bad odors, a “house filled with the fragrance of the perfume” (John 12:3) would have been a treat. In their presence, Jesus’s statement would have denoted compassion rather than callousness.

Who would have guessed a simple story could be so complicated!

Questions for discussion and reflection:

1. What has been your experience with Gospel comparisons? Do you find it threatening , frustrating, or fruitful?

2. Retell this story from Mary’s perspective. What did she know about Jesus’s coming death, and how did she know it?

3. Name ways this story can encourage women disciples today.

Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.