The Bible stories of the women who anointed Jesus’s feet have intrigued me for a long time. Wondering who they were and why they performed such a public display of their devotion to Jesus, and in the process opened themselves up to misinterpretation, censure and ridicule. All four gospels tell the story, with slight variations, and you can find these in Matthew chapter 26, Mark 14, Luke 7 and John 12. How many women anointed Jesus? Was it one woman whose story is told four times or four different women?
For a more in-depth examination of the four accounts, read J. Lyle Story’s, Female and Male in Four Anointing Stories. (https://www.cbeinternational.org/resource/article/priscilla-papers-academic-journal/female-and-male-four-anointing-stories) His conclusion, which I agree with, is that these are two separate occasions. Matthew, Mark and John relate one account, which happened in Bethany in the days before Jesus’s arrest, and Luke tells us of a different woman who anointed Jesus’s feet earlier in his ministry. So, two women anointed Jesus at different times and in two separate places.
John tells us that the woman who anointed Jesus in Bethany a few days before his arrest was Mary of Bethany, Martha’s sister. This Mary is not to be confused with Mary Magdalene, who is often wrongly said to be the woman who anointed Jesus. In my novel, Leaving Bethany, Mary anoints Jesus’s feet in gratitude for bringing her brother, Lazarus, back from the dead. Get to the end of this blog to read the excerpt from Leaving Bethany.
In each of the accounts, the woman is voiceless and lets her actions speak for her. It’s the men in the room who voice objections. Judas, who was to betray Jesus, objected on the grounds that the oil was expensive and could be sold and the money given to the poor. In every account, it is Jesus who affirms the woman and what she has done for him.
Let’s look at the woman in Luke chapter 7 verses 36-50. Various English versions call her an immoral woman, or a woman who lived a sinful life, and the Message version even labels her “the town harlot”. It’s what we’ve all been told in many Bible studies and sermons. The woman was a prostitute. But is that what the text says? The word Luke uses in Greek to describe this woman is h’amartōlos, a word he has used earlier in chapter 5 verse 8 to describe, of all people, Peter. Let’s look at how it’s translated into English this time. In most English versions, Peter exclaims he is a sinful man. This time the Message version translates Peter as saying, “I’m a sinner and can’t handle this holiness.” The only difference I can see between the two translations into English is that one is about an unnamed woman and the other about the saintly Peter. To my knowledge, Peter has never been suspected of sexual sin, so why the woman?
The other reason she’s often called immoral is that she wiped Jesus’s feet with her hair. It is said that at the time women did not show their hair to a man unless they were related or married to him. This is slightly more troubling, as John says that this is what Mary of Bethany did, and there is nothing to suggest she was a prostitute. So why did the women do that?
Mary was a disciple of Jesus and often sat at his feet soaking up his teaching alongside the male disciples. She would have had many conversations with him, asking questions and listening to him. But the unnamed woman in Luke would have had no such opportunity to thank him for her healing, restoration and forgiveness of whatever sin he forgave her of. She refused to waste the only opportunity she was given and barged into a dinner party held in his honour. In complete humility and devotion, she kissed his feet and wet them with her tears. Then dried them with her hair before anointing them with oil.
When women were to be neither seen nor heard, she gave her entire self in an extravagant and emotionally charged event. She gave everything she had to give, both the expensive oils and her whole being. Jesus was the only man present who understood and was blessed by her. She had to be heard and was prepared to do something others, but not Jesus, considered scandalous. She was willing, like King David when he danced before the ark, to have her motives misinterpreted.
One final point about the act of anointing with oil. In the Bible, anointing sets someone or something apart as holy or consecrated. It confers authority on the person being anointed, such as a king. For example, the prophet Samuel anointed both Saul and David before they became king.
The person doing the anointing should also have authority, such as a high priest or prophet. But apart from John, who mentions Mary, the women are anonymous, and have no importance, except to Jesus. It is he, and him alone, who understands and commends each woman for what she has done in preparation for his burial.
These stories leave an intense and emotional impression on me, and it is the same for many others, too. I am struck by the contrast between the woman’s silence and the objections of the men present. J. Lyle Story says, “In all four stories, the woman’s actions speak volumes and have a more profound effect on the reader than words ever could.”
I will leave you with an excerpt from Leaving Bethany.
The women opened themselves up to misinterpretation, censure and ridicule
In complete humility and devotion, she kissed his feet and wet them with her tears
She had to be heard and was prepared to do something others, but not Jesus, considered scandalous
“In all four stories, the woman’s actions speak volumes and have a more profound effect on the reader than words ever could.”J. Lyle Story
The last of the sun’s rays shone through the grapevine arbour, casting an orange glow onto the head of Jesus and everyone underneath. I sat by Jesus’s feet captivated by every word he said, but Mary seemed distracted, fidgeting with her scarf or sandals…
…By this time it was dusk, so Lazarus and I lit lamps and placed them around the courtyard. This was my favourite time, listening to Jesus by the light of the lamps, enjoying being in his presence and learning much about God. I looked for Mary, but she had disappeared, unusual when Jesus was at home. She had been in a strange mood all evening and I wondered what was distracting her.
No longer nervous, she returned with the phial of spikenard held in both hands. Her presence caused everybody to stop talking, and the room quietened as we all looked at her. With slow and deliberate steps, she walked toward Jesus. Every eye was on her as the phial’s iridescent colours flickered in the lamplight, creating blue and green flashes. Bending down in front of Jesus she removed the phial’s stopper, and at once the smell of the spikenard struck everyone’s nostrils.
She lifted one of his feet and pouring on the spikenard, washed and massaged his foot before removing her headscarf and drying the foot with her hair. Taking up the other foot, she poured the remaining contents of the phial to the last drop, before drying that one too with her hair. Everyone was still, and I dared not breathe, in case I spoiled the moment. Tears in Jesus’s eyes mirrored the ones in mine. There was a quiet simplicity in Mary’s act, which shouted of her devotion and love.
He placed his hands on her oil-streaked hair and kissed the top of her head. As I watched, I finally understood why it was necessary to sell her dowry to show the depth of her love for Jesus, and I blessed her for it. There was quiet for what seemed a long time until one discordant voice broke the silence.
“What an utter waste of money. This amount of spikenard must be worth at least a farm labourer’s wages for a whole year. This could’ve helped many poor people.” It was Judas.
Jesus whipped his head around and glared at him. “Be quiet, Judas!” he ordered. “Leave Mary alone. She has performed an act of worship which is neither a waste of time nor money. There will always be poor people around you, but you’ll not always have me. What she has done is to prepare my body for burial while I’m still alive.” I looked at John, and he nodded. Jesus was talking about his death again.
Jesus stood up. “Everyone will remember Mary’s complete act of love, devotion and worship and will tell her story to every generation. No one will forget her.”
He took her hand and raised her to sit on the chair he had vacated and patted her cheek. Sitting serene and regal, her face shone in reflection of his. The aroma of the spikenard filled the entire house; our clothes, possessions, everything suffused by the love of Mary.
Leaving Bethany by Susan Sutherland
Susan Sutherland is the author of Leaving Bethany, a historical Biblical fiction novel written from the point of view of Martha of Bethany, a friend of Jesus. The sequel, Return to Caesarea, will be out in early 2023.
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