Addressing the Controversy Around the Anointing of Jesus in Bethany

Addressing the Controversy Around the Anointing of Jesus in Bethany Article Image

By Danny Saavedra

Now the Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread were only two days away, and the chief priests and the teachers of the law were scheming to arrest Jesus secretly and kill him. But not during the festival,’ they said, ‘or the people may riot.’ While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head. Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, ‘Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.’ And they rebuked her harshly. ‘Leave her alone,’ said Jesus. ‘Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.’”—Mark 14:1–9 (NIV)

Have you ever encountered a conundrum—a problem you simply have a lot of trouble figuring out? One where you keep trying different angles to make it work, but it doesn’t?

One night, my son was struggling to do his math homework. As I looked at his face, I could see his frustration and hear the thoughts running through his head: It’s unsolvable . . . The problem is wrong . . . It makes no sense . . . I give up. Of course, after some research, I was able to help him find the answer, but it was a rough moment because my son likes math and the apparent contradiction and seemingly unsolvable nature of this problem left him so frustrated, it affected his view of a subject he enjoys.

In this article, I’m going to address some perceived inconsistencies and contradictions of the above passage, which can trip some people up. And honestly, it tripped me up quite a bit, too. But then, I did A LOT of research and learned some things I thought would be helpful for anyone who may also find themselves confused or tripped up. So here it goes . . .

The passage in question reflects the story of Jesus being anointed in Bethany—a story I believe carries so much weight, significance, and depth for our faith and understanding of the nature of discipleship that is so central to the Gospel of Mark. But people often miss it because they can get tripped up over some of the inconsistencies and contradictions. But I believe after conducting a deeper, more thorough examination of the context, perspective, and literary and thematic structure all confusion will be eliminated.

Here’s What We Know . . .

First, this anointing is recorded in Mark 14, Matthew 26, and John 12 and took place a few days before the crucifixion. Now, what’s notable about this, that’s often missed, is that John 12 takes place after John 11—duh, right? But what happens in John 11 that impacts John 12 and the other Gospel accounts? Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead.

But then look at what happens in John 11:45–54 (NIV, emphasis added): “Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin. ‘What are we accomplishing?’ they asked. ‘Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.’ Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, ‘You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.’ He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one. So from that day on they plotted to take his life. Therefore Jesus no longer moved about publicly among the people of Judea. Instead he withdrew to a region near the wilderness, to a village called Ephraim, where he stayed with his disciples.”

Verses 51–52 deserve their own unpacking, but for now, suffice it to say that because of Jesus’ massive growing notoriety, the Sanhedrin determined to arrest Him and have Him killed. Knowing this, Jesus laid low in Ephraim—which is somewhere around 15 miles north of Jerusalem, under 20 miles north of Bethany, and less than five miles northwest of Jericho—and stayed in the Ephraim/Jericho area for likely a few weeks. In that time, He predicts His death a third time (Matthew 20:17–19; Mark 10:32–34; Luke 18:31–34), has an awkward conversation with James and John’s mother about their place in His kingdom (Matthew 20:20–23; Mark 10:35–40), heals Bartimaeus (Matthew 20:29–34; Mark 10:46–52; Luke 18:35–43), and dines with Zaccheus (Luke 19:1–10). All of this took place before the Passover had come, and He needed to go to Jerusalem to become our Passover Lamb.

Now, let’s look at John 11:55–57 (NIV): “When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, many went up from the country to Jerusalem for their ceremonial cleansing before the Passover. They kept looking for Jesus, and as they stood in the temple courts they asked one another, ‘What do you think? Isn’t he coming to the festival at all?’ But the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who found out where Jesus was should report it so that they might arrest him.”

The events of Palm Sunday definitely complicated their plan to arrest Him, though, as there was simply no way they could get away with it after the hoopla about His arrival and the buzz that erupted about Him being the Messiah when He rode into Jerusalem. So, they’d have to find a more subtle, secretive way . . . More on that in a bit.

In John 12, just six days before the Passover, Jesus returns to Bethany the day before riding into Jerusalem. This is most likely where Jesus stayed the whole week, going to Jerusalem during the day and returning to Bethany at night, which was two miles from Jerusalem.

Potential Inconsistency #1

Mark 14:1–3 (NIV, emphasis added):Now the Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread were only two days away, and the chief priests and the teachers of the law were scheming to arrest Jesus secretly and kill him. ‘But not during the festival,’ they said, ‘or the people may riot.’ While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper . . .”

Matthew 26:1–6 (NIV, emphasis added): “When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, ‘As you know, the Passover is two days away—and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.’ Then the chief priests and the elders of the people assembled in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, and they schemed to arrest Jesus secretly and kill him. But not during the festival,’ they said, ‘or there may be a riot among the people.’ While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of Simon the Leper . . .”

John 12:1 (NIV, emphasis added): “Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.”

Why do Mark and Matthew SEEMINGLY say this took place two days before Passover while John says it took place six days before? The full answer, while simple, requires an understanding of context, thematic structure, and literary devices.

The simple answer? Everyone is right! How so? Stay with me . . .

After pouring over at least 20 different commentaries, reading multiple passages in their original language, reading a myriad of articles and papers, watching a few lengthy videos, and after months of in-depth study through the Gospel of Mark, gaining a clearer picture of the themes as well as Mark’s writing style (Yes, different writers have different styles, even in the Bible. Paul’s style of writing was different than James, John, Peter, and even Paul as he used different styles of writing based on the different demographics he was addressing!), it’s clear to me that Mark—and Matthew—are, for lack of a better term, flashing back. They begin by telling us about a meeting the religious leaders had two days before Passover where they’re trying to figure out how they can have Jesus arrested, and then they flash back to an event that took place four days before this meeting.

“When writing a work of fiction, an author can take the reader out of the present story and jump into an earlier time period in a character’s life. This narrative tool is called a flashback.”

You see, they were plotting and scheming and looking for a way to arrest Jesus without inciting a riot. So, they would obviously need to know where to find Jesus. They needed to know His schedule or be brought to Him at a time when He wasn’t in the public eye . . . like in the middle of the night while everyone was sleeping. But how would they do that? We’re told how in verse 10: They got a spy on the inside. They got Judas, one of Jesus’ 12 closest confidants, a man who knew where Jesus would be, who could bring them to Jesus at night away from the crowd. And Mark 14:3–9 and Matthew 26:6–13 act as a flashback to show us the moment when Judas decided he’d betray Jesus. Because without this context, Judas’ betrayal would really seem to come out of nowhere. But this helps us understand a bit about Judas—a greedy liar and thief—and his motivation.

Using flashbacks is a common storytelling device used in the Gospels, particularly with Mark’s Gospel. In fact, scholars even named this a “Markan Sandwich” because of how often he would frame things in this manner. So why did Mark and the other Gospel writers do this? As one apologetics writer put it, “They grouped certain stories together to drive home a theological point or emphasis . . . It’s only when we unfairly expect first century writers writing in a different language to follow our modern English practices that we create imaginary time ‘contradictions’ and jump to incorrect conclusions about the accuracy of the Bible accounts themselves.”

According to Masterclass.com, “When writing a work of fiction, an author can take the reader out of the present story and jump into an earlier time period in a character’s life. This narrative tool is called a flashback. Also used in films and television shows, flashbacks give a story more depth by revealing details that help readers understand character motives.”

Some examples I can think of include:

Both Batman Begins and Man of Steel jump back and forth between present-day Batman/Bruce and Superman/Clark and various scenes from their respective childhoods and past.

Citizen Kane tells the story of someone who died at the beginning of the film, so a high percentage of its running time is told through flashbacks.

The show Lost was built on flashbacks and flash-forwards, as was Arrow.

Books, movies, and shows do this to help you understand the characters better or explain why certain things are happening in the plot at the present moment.

So, why did Matthew and Mark frame it this way? Well, in the verses above, they tell us about a conversation taking place with the Pharisees and their plot to arrest and kill Jesus. Then, a few verses later they tell us, “Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests to betray Jesus to them. They were delighted to hear this and promised to give him moneyMark 14:10–11 (NIV, emphasis added). This is also recorded in Matthew 26:14–16.

So, Mark and Matthew sandwiched a flashback that showed the means through which the Sanhedrin were able to execute their scheme to arrest Jesus between the moment of their plotting and the moment of their plan being put into motion. They couldn’t do it publicly, and they needed a way to arrest Him quietly. They used Judas, and this event a few days before is what drove him to it. We’ll get to why this was the moment that drove him to it soon.

Potential Inconsistency #2

Mark 14:3 (NIV, emphasis added):While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper . . .”

Matthew 26:6 (NIV, emphasis added):While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of Simon the Leper . . .”

John 12:1–2 (NIV, emphasis added): “Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him.”

So now, we’re told they were having dinner in Jesus’ honor (John 12:2) at Simon’s house (Mark 14:3 and Matthew 26:6), a former leper who may have been healed by Jesus and who clearly spent a lot of time in Bethany. But wait . . . whose house did it actually happen in? Simon’s or Lazarus’? Now, I know this is another fairly simple one to address, but for some reason a lot of people get tripped up with this. Why? Because Martha, Lazarus’ sister, was serving the food in this house. But let’s think for a minute.

John doesn’t say the dinner was at Lazarus’ house. He merely states it was a dinner in Jesus’ honor and Lazarus, Mary, and Martha were there, and that Martha helped serve the guests. Again, he never says it was at Lazarus’ house.

Mark and Matthew specify it was at Simon’s house. Now, it’s possible, likely even, that Simon was either a relative or close friend of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, which is evidenced by Martha serving people at Simon’s house. Friends, this was not only commonplace then, but it’s commonplace now. I can’t tell you how many times my wife and I are asked to cook and help prepare food at our close friends or relative’s houses because we love cooking and are good at it. We visit our friends in Orlando and I grill steaks and burgers, make desserts for them, and even bring my own espresso machine to make lattes for everyone—at a house where I’m technically a guest. This is a nonissue people have made an issue because they’re looking to discredit the Bible as the inerrant Word of God.

Potential Inconsistency #3

John 12:3 (NIV, emphasis added): “Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”

Mark 14:3 (NIV, emphasis added): “A woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.”

Matthew 26:6–7 (NIV, emphasis added): “While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table.”

Here, Mary, the sister of Lazarus—the very one who in Luke 10:38–40 is seen sitting “at the Lord’s feet listening” while Martha was distracted and busy—takes about half a soda can’s worth of pure spikenard oil, an extremely valuable imported oil from India, and begins anointing Jesus’ head (Mark 14:3), then His feet, and then wiped His feet with her hair (John 12:3).

Like the previous issue, this is a nonissue. Matthew and Mark (Peter’s account of the life of Jesus) emphasize it was His head, but John emphasizes His feet. When my wife and I watch a movie, we’re often impacted by different aspects of the same film and emphasize or recall different aspects of the film as a whole or even a specific scene. This is how we work. It doesn’t make my account of the scene right and her account wrong or vice versa. I simply remember one aspect and she another. Both are correct, but both relayed something different that was impactful.

Note: It’s believed Matthew’s Gospel was written a little after Mark, and Matthew used Mark’s Gospel as an outline for his and elaborated on a great deal of the stories contained in it as a firsthand eyewitness (he was one of the disciples of Jesus) and for the purpose of emphasizing certain things over others because he was writing to a primarily Jewish audience whereas Mark’s audience was primarily Roman.

So, in this account, the thing that stuck out the most to Peter and Matthew was the oil being poured on His head and for John it was on His feet.

Why, Mary?

The jar of spikenard was valued at around 300 denarii, which is approximately $60,000 today. It would have been extremely rare for a woman in that era to own something so valuable, so some commentators assert the jar of perfume was a family heirloom. Therefore, Mary and Lazarus likely both knew Mary was going to do this to honor the Lord, and they were on board as 1. They loved Jesus and believed in Him and 2. He literally brought Lazarus back to life, which would add sentimental value to the perfume’s monetary value.

So, to recap: We have Jesus in Bethany about a week before He’s killed and buried at a dinner in His honor, most likely because He brought Lazarus back from the dead and they weren’t able to celebrate this with Him when it happened because He had to lay low because the religious leaders were trying to take Him out. And we have Mary anointing Jesus with a jar of precious oil, likely the most valuable thing her family had.

What’s their motivation? It’s likely a combination of 1) a response of overwhelming love, gratitude, and devotion to the One who raised their beloved brother from the dead, and 2) as Mark 14:8 seems to indicate, Mary’s inkling into what was about to happen to Jesus, as indicated when He says she anointed Him in preparation for His burial.

We hold nothing back from Jesus, submit, surrender, and sacrifice all to Him, pour it all out before Him, and go from there.

This act by Mary is the very essence of Mark’s key message and exemplifies the pure fragrance of true discipleship: We are to hold nothing back from Jesus, submit, surrender, and sacrifice all to Him, pour it all out before Him, and go from there. And listen, when we give what we value to our Creator, He receives it gladly and uses it for His glory. How do we know this? Because Jesus honors this when saying, “Wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her” (Mark 14:9 NIV).

R.C. Sproul stated, “Jesus put commitment to Himself above love of neighbor, for the Bible frequently commends helping the poor. Thus, His comments were an indirect revelation of His deity, for the only commandment that is more important than loving our neighbors is the commandment to love God (Mark 12:28–34).”

And John D. Witvliet explains, “Mary here offers knowing devotion. She accepts the unnerving truth that her Lord will work his wonders in an unfathomably countercultural, even scandalous way. For those of us who follow Jesus, it is tempting to be attracted by a vision of the Christian life that is filled with warm hospitality and even extravagant worship, but that has no real room in it for a suffering and dying Lord or for the dying-to-ourselves way of life into which Jesus calls us.” Mary understood this. Jesus commended her devotion, knowing her heart, expecting that she, her family, and His true followers would rightly be loving and serve the poor at all times. But not all were His true followers . . .

Why, Judas? Why?

Now, in John 12 we see that Judas objected.

It’s implied based on context gleaned from a reading of these passages all together that Judas grumbled to the disciples about it, causing them to become indignant, and then “harshly” rebuked Mary. But Jesus corrected Judas and the others and commended Mary’s actions.

Judas’ concern here was entirely fabricated, a false pretense of righteousness as a means of serving his own selfish agenda. You see, Judas was the keeper of the common fund which supplied the needs of Jesus and His disciples and from which gifts to the poor were made. He kept the coin purse. But he was also secretly a thief and would “help himself” and take money for himself. He was basically embezzling from the ministry of the gospel. It was his greed and selfishness, not his concern for the poor, that drove his objection.

And so, now flash forward from this event that took place six days before Passover to Mark 14 and Matthew 26 taking place two days before Passover as the Sanhedrin is plotting and Judas, who had been stewing in that moment, comes to them with a question: “What are you willing to give me if I deliver him over to you?” (Matthew 26:15 NIV).

As Charles Ellicott noted, “There was the shame, and therefore the anger, of detected guilt; there was the greed of gain that had been robbed of its expected spoil, and thirsted for compensation.”

The plot to capture Jesus that had been formed by the religious leaders after the resurrection of Lazarus may have made its rounds. It’s likely that word spread about their desire to arrest Jesus, and it’s possible that the promise of a reward may even have been put out there. “All these feelings were gathering strength through the three days that followed. Possibly there mingled with them a sense of disappointment that the kingly entry into Jerusalem was not followed up by immediate victory” (Ellicott). Tempted and seduced by greed (and revenge, as many have pointed out), that “entered the heart of Judas Iscariot” (Luke 22:3 CEV) and incited him to make a quick buck and be done with it.

Conclusion

So, there you have it. I hope this article has helped address any potential confusion you may have had or doubt about the discrepancies. If you have any further questions or if I could help answer any other questions, please e-mail me at DanielS@CalvaryFTL.org.

 

About the Author

Danny Saavedra

Danny Saavedra is a licensed minister who has served on staff at Calvary since 2012, managing the Calvary Devotional and digital discipleship resources. He has a Master of Arts in Pastoral Counseling and Master of Divinity in Pastoral Ministry from Liberty Theological Seminary. His wife Stephanie, son Jude, and daughter Zoe share a love of Star Wars, good food, having friends over for dinner, and studying the Word together as a family.