The Annointing of Jesus – How the Gospel writers develop a story

Where the four Gospels all narrate the same story, you can see the fault lines along their particular concerns and themes.

The story of Jesus’ anointing features in all four gospels. Of the Synoptics, Matthew follows Mark (the original Gospel and source for Matthew) fairly closely – the event occurs at the house of Simon the Leper; an unidentified woman pours expensive ointment on Jesus’ head; there is an expression of indignance at the waste; Jesus responds with the ‘you will always have the poor’ saying, and indicates that she is preparing his body for burial; and finally, Judas resolves to betray Jesus. The difference is in the details – Mark identifies the ointment as “nard” [Mark 14:3] and it’s value as “300 denarii” [Mark 14:5], but Matthew amends this to just “ointment” [Matt. 26:7] and “a large sum” [Matt. 26:9]. On the other hand, Matthew firms up some details that Mark leaves vague: whereas Mark has “some” indignant at the waste [Mark 14:4], Matthew identifies them as Jesus’ disciples [Matt. 26:8]; Mark has Judas sell out Jesus for “money” [Mark 14:11], Matthew identifies an amount – 30 pieces of silver, paid in advance [Matt. 26:15].

Even more curious is that Luke, with the same Markan text open in front of him as Matthew, makes Simon a Pharisee, not a leper. The un-named woman is deemed “a sinner” [Luke 7:37], wets Jesus’ feet with tears, wipes them with her hair, then anoints his feet, not his head. From this point, Luke diverges further from the other Synoptics, inserting the parable of the creditor and two debtors, before having Jesus rebuke Simon and forgive her sins. Luke then returns to the original Markan story, but inserts the detail of “Satan” entering Judas [Luke 22:4]. Luke follows Mark with the chief priests promising Judas “some money” [Luke 22:5], rather than advancing 30 pieces of silver. It is also notable that Luke has broken up Mark’s story of the anointing and Judas’ betrayal by some 15 chapters in his narrative.

John is a odd amalgam of both Synoptic versions. He places the event at Bethany, but at Martha’s house, not that of Simon the Leper/Pharisee. He identifies the woman as “Mary” [John 12:3], and uses Luke’s story of her wiping and anointing Jesus’ feet, rather than his head. But he puts the ointment’s cost at 300 denarii – a Markan detail that Matthew and Luke ignore, suggesting that John knows both Mark’s and Luke’s version of the story. He similarly follows Mark as to Jesus’ sayings in response to the waste accusation (which in John’s version comes from Judas alone). John has “the devil” suggest betrayal to Judas [John 13:2], but follows Luke in having “Satan” enter him [John 13:27]. He seems to assume that his readers know what Judas does after this.

These four accounts describe a single event, with different authors essentially depicting that event in a way that serves the particular theme they are exploring. In Mark and Matthew, the fact that she anoints his head suggests that these authors are using the event as a metaphor to signify Jesus’ status as Messiah. Luke appears to have taken basic story elements from Mark and adapted it into one about repentant sinners versus stiff-necked religious leaders, rather than following the Messiah theme.

Only John gives the woman a name, “Mary”. In his preceding chapter, “Mary” is identified as the sister of Martha and Lazarus and is one of John’s favourite recurring characters (unknown in the other Gospels). In three narratives, the woman appears to be more a stage prop than important in herself, and the focus remains on Jesus and his reaction to the anointing – the exception again being Luke, where the woman’s repentance and contrast with Simon the Pharisee is central to his story.

In all four gospels the anointing is an allusion to Jesus’ impending death and burial, although Luke does not make that allusion explicit and it appears relatively early in his gospel rather than soon before his arrest.

Along with the post-resurrection appearance stories, the anointing story reveals thematic differences between the Gospels very starkly. In both cases, it’s a useful exercise to write down the narrated events chronologically in four columns. The stark differences are revealed.

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