A puzzling scene of kissing, crying, and fragrance
In the story of the anointing, a woman comes and anoints Jesus, pouring an expensive, fragrant ointment on him while he is at dinner. The anointer is named only in John: Mary of Bethany.
Each account of this event in each of the four books of the Gospel is slightly different. Why? Presumably each book was copied at least in part from one or more of the others. So why not copy exactly? Maybe the author(s) did not want for us to have certainty. Rather we should have faith.
Pope Francis said something along those lines in a recent interview: “In this quest to seek and find God in all things there is still an area of uncertainty. There must be. If a person says that he met God with total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good. . . . . We must enter into the adventure of the quest for meeting God; we must let God search and encounter us.”-1-
Compare Matthew 26:1-14, Mark 14:1-9, Luke 7:36-50, Luke 10:38-42, John 11:1-2, John 12:1-9 (NRSV) with one click. (NRSV is used throughout this post except as noted.)
What part of Jesus’ body did the woman anoint?
Matthew: “she poured it on his head”
Mark: “poured the ointment on his head”
Luke: “began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair”
Luke: “she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment”
John: “anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair”
The anointing on Jesus’ head is reminiscent of the anointing of Saul when Samuel made him king by pouring oil on his head (1Samuel 10:1).
John has “perfume” and the other books have “ointment.” Which was it?
Matthew: “an alabaster jar of very costly ointment”
Mark: “an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard”
Luke: “an alabaster jar of ointment”
John: “costly perfume made of pure nard”
Two have “nard,” of those one has “pure nard,” two have “very costly,” one “costly,” three “ointment,” one “perfume,” three “alabaster jar.” Intentional juggling of facts? To what end? Perhaps to challenge you in some way.
John has “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” I wonder what it smelled like. What is “nard”? Maybe no one knows for sure anymore. But it was natural.
Where did the anointing take place? At least two apparently different locations are given:
Matthew: “at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper”
Mark: “at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper”
Luke: “the Pharisee’s house . . . . Simon”
John: “to Bethany, the home of Lazarus . . . . Martha served”
In Luke, Simon is not specifically a leper but instead a Pharisee, but could still be both a leper and Pharisee, or there could be two different Simons.
When did the anointing dinner take place?
Matthew: “after two days the Passover is coming”
Mark: “It was two days before the Passover”
Luke: [right after inquiry received from John the Baptist, so early??]
John: “Six days before the Passover”
Matthew is possibly compatible as to timing with Mark. Luke and John and other combinations are not.
Only Luke and John have the woman wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair, and in Luke, she dries off her tears with her hair, and in John, she wipes off perfume with her hair. Only Luke has her kissing Jesus’ feet.
What is it with the kissing and crying tears on Jesus’ feet and perfume and wiping with hair? Is this some sort of parody of what would have been in the first century, a Pagan religious ceremony with a sex ritual called hieros gamos?-2- Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code description of a cult’s sex ritual notwithstanding, I rather doubt anyone today knows what sort of sex rituals took place in Pagan temples in the first century. But I can still imagine that the biblical author is ridiculing the Pagan ritual and including some Pagan symbolism that would be familiar to first-century Pagan audiences. Kissing the feet is NOT sex of course, but maybe was supposed to remind the Pagan audiences of a scene elsewhere with kissing, tears, anointing, etc.
So how did Luke’s kisser attend to Jesus’ feet? In Luke, it says: “She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair.” This may be hard for us in the 21st century to envision. How could a woman cry on a man’s feet while standing behind him at his feet? Understand that Jesus was reclining at table in the first-century custom – Jesus was lying down on his side on a lounge chair or couch. So it would be possible for a woman to stand behind him and still have her tears splashing on the sides of his feet. The feet would be easy to reach from behind while standing “at his feet.”
Well, I thought I had that all figured out, but then I noticed that Luke has Jesus say, “from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet.” So while Jesus was walking or standing when he “came in” (he wasn’t carried into the room), did the kisser go behind him and kiss the heels of his feet or did she go in front of him and kiss his toes? I hope she didn’t get stepped on. At least we know she was young and agile, able to bend down and get her lips down to floor-level. Kissing a man’s feet nonstop, with chaste little pecks on his piggies while he was moving across a room, would have to be very unusual behavior and also very difficult to do.
Is it alright to appreciate the humor in scripture passages and maybe even laugh out loud? Well, if you are sitting in a church, no, it is not OK and keep a solemn-looking face, please. But enough has been written by others about having joy and laughter in one’s spiritual life so that I don’t need to say any more about it in this post.
Who knows what Luke’s writer had in mind when writing about the kissing? I’m not sure. Luke has a tendency to be more over-the-top than the other Gospel writers, something I try to remember when I am asking myself if all four books were written by the same person, with John maybe being written just later in life. Maybe Luke had a peculiar sense of humor or maybe didn’t like certain people, calling Mary Magdalene demon-possessed (Luke 8:1-3) and calling the anointer a “sinner.”
Luke actually has the anointer wiping Jesus’ feet with “the hairs of her head” (KJV), and head is there in the Greek – just in case a reader might have other ideas. The RSV showed “head” but its successor the NRSV dropped it. (So Luke’s author puts a little tease into the reader’s mind, and the translator, knowing better how to write the Gospel than the original writer, deletes it.) John just has “hair” and does not explain what hair.
Are we supposed to infer from the “kissing” and “wiping” that the Gospel author wants us to get the idea that there was sex at the anointing? No. Quite the opposite. By writing a mocking parody of the Pagan ritual (if such it is), the author likely is showing us his/her disapproval of such ritual, and we get the idea that real sex is NOT happening. Such feet-kissing-wiping would not have been the most exciting thing that happened in a Pagan temple – there the priestess was not only AT the altar but also, I imagine, ON the altar! If the biblical author had wanted to tell us that there was sex at the anointing, he/she could have said it plainly. Not likely there would have been anything to stop him/her from writing it plainly in the first century.
Interesting that one of the functions of a priestess in the ancient Goddess tradition was to make prophecy (give predictions and advice). In stark contrast to this, the Gospel’s anointer does not say a word – she has been muzzled – and her silence echoes and re-echoes; not in our minds, because we are so accustomed to it, but I’ll guess that in the first century, such a silent anointer would have seemed very odd. Not that I expect pronouncements took place during the sex ritual, but perhaps before or after.
Paul the Apostle would allow a woman to speak prophecy in a Christian Church meeting (1Corinthians 11:5), but only if she wore a veil (and did not remove it!) From the Luke scene of anointing, we can deduce that it would have been very difficult for the anointer to keep her veil on while rubbing feet with her hair, so perhaps she had no veil on – thus she was not exactly fully dressed for being out in public according to the custom of the times – a further indication that the scene is a parody of Pagan ritual where at some point, more than the veil would be missing!
Anointing was an important part of the ritual of baptism in the early Christian Church. After describing the stripping and whole body anointing of the catechumen for baptism, Wijngaards* writes, “It is obvious that the anointing of women demanded the service of women deacons.”
But what did anointing mean to the first-century Pagans being proselytized by Paul the Apostle and his community? If only we could know how anointing was important to those who were the intended audience of the Gospel in the first-century. How can we know the meaning of our own sacred texts if we don’t know the traditions of the Pagans to whom the writings were addressed? The Gospel writer knew his/her readers. What did the writer know about them? Regrettably, academics today see history through the eyes of what became the dominant culture.
Luke has a story about two sisters, Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42), where “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her” – listening quietly to Jesus. So Luke knows about this sister Mary but does not give the name of the town where Martha and Mary live. John adds the resuscitated Lazarus to this family, places it in Bethany, and has a Mary do the anointing of Jesus. John specifically names a Mary as the anointer in two verses (11:2 and 12:3). And in 11:1-2 this Mary is identified as the sister of Martha. John calls the anointer “Mary” knowing that Luke had not given a name to her, and Luke had said “she is a sinner.” This would seem to be quite a twist with the sweet, quietly-listening disciple of Jesus, sister Mary in Luke, being put in a position in John where she becomes the feet-wiping anointer, a position in Luke that was filled by a “sinner.” A little mind game by the writer of John? Of course Mary of Bethany, the listening disciple, could still be a sinner.
Mary of Bethany is one of the Marys who possibly are just fragments of Her (the Great Goddess), and the Marys possibly represent various roles prevalent in myth at that time; -a- so we have “Mary Virgin Mother,” “Mary Magdalene Bride-weeper,” and “Mary of Bethany Anointer.”
Luke’s “sinner” anointer is, supposedly, weeping for her sins, although the weeping could be recalling the lamentations of the Bride in Pagan tradition, weeping for her Bridegroom, just as Mary Magdalene has that lamentations role at John’s Easter tomb. The lamentations were re-enacted in annual ritual; an example is given in Ezekiel 8:13-15: the women “weeping for Tammuz,” who was the dying young Lord who resurrected in the springtime. -a- Luke and John include the lamentations, but break up what I have to assume would be a normal sequence of events – wouldn’t the lamentations happen at the death of the young Lord? In Luke, the “sinner’s” lamentations happen far in advance; in John, Mary Magdalene’s lamentations happen after Jesus is already resurrected unbeknownst to her.
Three of the Gospel books (but not Luke) tie the anointing to Jesus’ forthcoming burial, but what is the logic of preparing Jesus’ body for burial even before he had died? Again, I have to assume the Pagan story timeline has been broken up. I suspect that anointing was originally part of what revived the young Lord who had died. Certainly that is the case with the story of Egypt’s Isis and her brother Osirus. Wikipedia is not authoritative but does have Osirus’ revivification brought about with the help of “Anubis, the god of embalming and funerary rites.”-3- It would seem that the purpose of embalming in the Egyptian tradition was proper burial, but more importantly, anticipating and effecting revival for an afterlife.
While Father-god usually gets the credit for raising Jesus from the dead (or Jesus rises by himself), at least the Gospel gives a woman, Mary of Bethany, a role in making the anointing (embalming) preparations for this great event, even if it is illogically before Jesus dies.
The anointing is illogically pre-death in all books of the Gospel so that no woman may be directly involved in resurrecting Jesus, a no-no in that patriarchal recasting of ancient myth. And in John, the lamentations happen after Jesus’ death, yes, but also, illogically, after he is already resurrected, and not resurrected by a woman.
Possibly Luke intended for the weeping sinner-anointer to be Mary Magdalene, the “demon-possessed.” John saw an opportunity to fracture the story and the time line further and separated the lamentations from the anointing. John made Mary Magdalene the weeper and put her at the Easter tomb (fulfilling the role of the Goddess’ lamentations at the tomb of her young Lord), and John put Mary of Bethany at the anointing, not caring that she became the “sinner.” Thus John unnaturally separates the lamentations scene from the anointing scene, making both scenes illogically placed time-wise and in the wrong order. I suspect that in Pagan myth, the Goddess did her lamentations after the young Lord died and then anointed him, revivifying him. No wonder some first-century devotees of the Pagan myth of the Lady and her Lord were against Christianity – perhaps outraged by the rearrangement of the story they held dear, where She revives her Savior-son with her tears and her anointing??
But Christianity grew, presumably because many first-century women liked the new reform movement where they could not only “die and resurrect” in baptism, thereby assuming a traditionally male role alongside men, but also they could leave behind Her altars where they may have often been little better than prostitutes (sex ritual). Presumably, women liked the new Savior, too. Unlike Attis, victimized by his mother-consort Cybele, the new Savior willingly offered up himself in sacrifice and had a pure relationship with his mother. Presumably, women liked Christianity because in it their sons had a way of showing religious fervor other than self-castrating. And their husbands could not charge off to play at being “king” with a priestess goddess-player, joined in a “sacred wedding” (sex ritual). Women liked the new Christianity where bread and wine were the main attraction, nothing else. Male fidelity gained economic importance for women as women became increasingly economically dependent on men under patriarchy.
The anointer as “sinner” in Luke may be in reference to and criticism of priestesses who had multiple partners over time in ritual weddings that were “sacred” to them, but nevertheless, not real marriages.
“This man, if he were a prophet, would have known who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him: for she is a sinner.” (Luke 7:39 (KJV)) This seems much more like the demon-possessed Magdalene, not Mary of Bethany who “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying” (Luke 10:39). This difficulty with the text led Pope Gregory the Great (pope from 590 to 604 CE) to combine three characters, the “sinner,” Mary of Bethany, and Mary Magdalene into one woman, Mary Magdalene.-4- -5- An even earlier tradition (earlier according to Wikipedia)-6- that the Magdalene was a repentant sinner was unfounded – her demons were not necessarily related to sins (maybe just poor health), and the phrase “what manner of woman” is ambiguous, and does not necessarily refer to the Magdalene or even mean prostitute.
I don’t think Mary of Bethany could be Mary Magdalene or that either was necessarily a “sinner.” It does not bother me to think that Luke could have been pointing at his demon-possessed Magdalene, but then John could have disregarded that and instead, made the anointer Mary of Bethany. Or the texts are written in such a way as to deliberately challenge the reader.
Since Luke has the anointing happening at the very beginning of Jesus’ career and Luke does not say it is for Jesus’ burial but instead has a great emphasis on forgiveness of sin, one could interpret the Gospel so that there are two anointings, the first by the “sinner” and the second much later by Mary of Bethany. But I don’t favor two anointings. I thought I was very original suggesting the possibility of two anointings, but find I am not the first, and in fact there may be three separate women, the “sinner,” Mary of Bethany, and Mary Magdalene.-4-
The New American Bible on the Vatican website has a footnote for the anointing in John 12:1-8: “This is probably the same scene of anointing found in Mark 14:3-9 . . . . and Matthew 26:6-13. The anointing by a penitent woman in Luke 7:36-38 is different. Details from these various episodes have become interchanged.” So the NAB favors two anointings, apparently. But how to reconcile the various hosts for the anointings: the home of Martha and Mary vs. Simon the Leper vs. Simon the Pharisee?
It is not absolutely certain who did what and I won’t presume to infallibly know the answer. After “death and taxes,” the only certain thing in this life is more uncertainty.
The early Pauline Christians were not interested in preserving ancient cultures while they altered the beliefs of the Pagans and did not anticipate my need to know more about the cultural context for the Gospel. So in case you haven’t noticed, I have had to speculate quite a lot about the meaning of the anointing passages.
Christians can be proud of the antiquity of the story of the Lady and her Lord – it goes back to pre-history in one form or another. And Christians can be proud of the way that the ancient traditions were reformed by the early Christian movement (end to temple sex, incestuous deities, etc.), without resorting to violence. In the first great reform beginning perhaps a thousand years earlier, the Yahwist movement had tried to reform Pagan traditions by lopping off the divine feminine and making wars against Goddess worshippers. Christianity was far more successful because it was more of a compromise, weaving into theology some elements of the Pagan story, such as lamentations and anointing, and keeping Her as Mary-this and Mary-that. However, Christianity built on the work of the Yahwists – Jesus the new savior gained his legitimacy as the “Lord” who was supposedly “foretold by the prophets” of Judaism. Personally, I don’t see much “foretelling” in the Hebrew Bible that could relate to the story of Jesus and Mary, and I am not surprised that most Jews apparently did not think that the Christian reform of Paganism was better than their own. Despite Christianity’s de-emphasis of Her, it was evidently welcomed by first-century women; otherwise it would not have flourished.
If I think I have come up with a neat post, I like to take a look at Google to see if anyone else has written likewise. There is not much (easily found anyway) pointing to the hieros gamos and the anointing. I found this, “I believe that Mary Magdalene and Jesus embody the “hieros gamos” of the archetypal “Holy Bride” and “Sacred Bridegroom” with which the peoples of the ancient Near East were well familiar.” -7- I think people in the first century would have recognized the symbolism of Bride and Bridegroom, especially in Luke with the kissing. John, Matthew, and Mark make it clear the anointing is for burial, which does not necessarily preclude an earlier wedding. John has addressed the “wedding” aspect of Pagan ritual in the wedding at Cana. -8- The fragrance called nard is only mentioned in the Hebrew Bible in the love story Song of Solomon, -7- so that does suggest that the Gospel author(s) Mark and John intended to evoke Bride and Bridegroom symbolism by using “nard.” Reminder – symbolism is not the same as an actual wedding.
I’ve often wondered what Alice in Wonderland symbolizes. Without studying the politics of the time, or reading something that explains the symbolism, I’ll never know. Likewise, Christians will never know the meanings of their own sacred texts unless they know something other than what organized religion tells them.
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) used throughout this post except where noted.
* John Wijngaards, The Ordination of Women in the Catholic Church; Unmasking a Cuckoo’s Egg Tradition, Continuum, New York, 2001, p. 149-150.
-2- Suggested by speaker in DVD: Secrets of Mary Magdalene by Dan Burstein.
-a- Impressions on ancient Pagan religion drawn from Merlin Stone, When God Was A Woman, Barnes & Noble Books, NY, 1976, 1993, (resurrection – page 134).