Blaine Robison, M.A.
Published 6 October 2012; Revised 12 October 2015
Each of the apostolic narratives has a story of Yeshua being anointed by a woman with a fragrant oil. Mark and Matthew report the same incident. John 12:1-8 reports an anointing strikingly similar to that told by Mark and Matthew, but the story in Luke 7:36-50 occurs early in Yeshua's ministry and is very different in setting and theme. The essential elements in the anointing stories can be seen in this chart.
An interpretation that has held long appeal in Christianity began in the sixth century with Pope Gregory the Great who associated the woman in all four stories with Miriam of Magdala. The imagined story is that Luke recorded Miriam's deliverance from a life of sin and was restored to her family in Bethany. The identification of Miriam, sister of Lazarus, with Miriam of Magdala, not to mention the woman in Luke 7, is pure inventive fiction, but making her a reformed harlot is the worst calumny. (See my web article Miriam of Magdala that sets the record straight.) In any event, the story in Luke 7 is not parallel to the anointing of Yeshua shortly before his crucifixion.
Two narrative differences have clouded the harmonization of Matthew, Mark and John as parallel accounts: (1) the fact that Matthew and Mark mention the host's name but John does not; and (2) the fact that John mentions Miriam's name, but her name is omitted in Matthew and Mark. The first narrative difference may be explained by John's focus on the family of Lazarus as an integral part of the story. Identifying the host was not an important detail to John and indeed in Matthew and Mark the host plays no part in the anointing narrative. There's no conversation between Simon of Bethany and Yeshua as he had with Simon the Pharisee of Capernaum.
The simplest explanation for the second difference may be surmised from the date the apostolic narratives were composed. (See my web article Witnesses of the Good News.) According to the church fathers the books of Matthew and Luke came first, followed by Mark and finally John. Luke doesn't even tell the story, and Matthew and Mark probably omitted Miriam's name out of respect. Due to her humble and sacrificial nature she would not have wanted attention drawn to herself. Let the focus be on her act and Yeshua's vindication. By the time John wrote his testimony Miriam had died and John felt at liberty to fill in the family details of those present at the anointing.
Most commentators interpret the anointing narratives of Matthew, Mark and John as describing the same event, with the differences in placement owing to theological emphasis. Factors supporting this argument are: (1) all three narratives mention the proximity of Passover; (2) all three narratives place Yeshua in Bethany; (3) all three narratives record the same reaction of the disciples to the lavish anointing; (4) both Mark and John mention the use of nard; (5) both Mark and John record the same value of the oil; (6) all three narratives mention the same saying about the poor; and (8) all three narratives record Yeshua connecting the anointing with his burial. There are some differences of a few minor details omitted in all three accounts, but this is typical of the apostolic narratives.
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