(Iver Larsen, Bible Translation Consultant. May 2022)
The anointing of Jesus in Luke 7:37-38 took place in the home of a Pharisee called Simon, probably in the major city of Capernaum long before Jesus went to Jerusalem for the last time. Capernaum is identified as a city (polis) in Luke 4:31 and was not only a major city, but the base for Jesus during his ministry. In contrast, Bethany is a small village (Greek kōmē – κώμη), and there is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that this anointing took place in the village of Bethany. Some have suggested that this could be the city of Nain, since that is also called a polis, but that is very unlikely. Although Jesus in his travels around Galilee had passed by Nain in Luke 7:11-17, he would not have stayed for long in that city, since his base was Capernaum. In the following section of Luke 7, John’s disciples came to Jesus, and they would have gone to where he was known to stay, namely in Capernaum at his usual home, probably the house of Peter’s in-laws. We are told that the Pharisee Simon invited him for dinner, but we cannot know if this was the evening after a day of preaching or another day. The Pharisee was interested in listening to this amazing rabbi, but we do not know his motives. It seems to be not very long after John the Baptist was put in prison, since the following section talks about him being in prison and not yet killed.
Neither Mark nor Matthew has this story, so Luke must have it from another source. We know that Luke had many sources apart from Matthew and Mark, and the fact that he here recounts an event that the others do not have, in no way suggests that it should be the same event. The details are so different, that the only logical conclusion is that they are different events. On the other hand, the anointing described in Matt 26:6-13 and Mark 14:3-9 is clearly the same event. The similarities are many and the small differences are of no consequence.
The lady who anointed the feet of Jesus in Luke 7 is not named, but referred to as a “sinner in the city”. She was probably known in the big city as a prostitute. She may well have heard the preaching of Jesus in Capernaum or other places and seen some of the miracles, so she decided to repent of her lifestyle and ask God for forgiveness. There is no indication that this could be Mary Magdalene, since Mary had been possessed by 7 demons before she became a follower of Jesus (Luke 8:2). A possessed woman would hardly be a prostitute. If it had been Mary Magdalene, Luke would have introduced her by name in chapter 7 instead of introducing her later in chapter 8 alongside other women followers of Jesus.
There are old legends and gnostic tales that claim this unnamed sinner was actually Mary Magdalene. Even pope Gregory the Great claimed in 591 AD that the two were the same, and also that all the three women who anointed Jesus were one and the same. In this way, both Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene were made former prostitutes. This idea then became accepted in the Catholic Church tradition until pope Paul VI changed the calendar in 1969. It also influenced medieval paintings. Before 1969, Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene were commemorated as saints on the same date, reflecting the legend that the two were the same person. They were now given different dates to reflect that the two are indeed recognized as different people. July 29 is the date for honouring Mary, Martha and Lazarus in the Catholic Church. The date for Mary Magdalene is July 22. Mary Magdalene was surely a committed follower of Jesus, but there is no indication in the Gospels that she at any time anointed either the feet or head of Jesus.
That Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene both share the name Mary is also no indication that it was the same woman. There are seven different women with the name Mary in the NT:
- Mary, mother of Jesus
- Mary of Bethany, sister to Martha and Lazarus
- Mary Magdalene, a disciple of Jesus
- Mary, mother of James and Joseph
- Mary, wife of Clopas (John 19:25)
- Mary, mother of John Mark (Acts 12:12)
- Mary, mentioned in Rom 16:6
Of course, there would have been hundreds of women with the name Mary at that time who are not mentioned in the Bible. It was the most common name for a woman. Likewise, the most common name for a man was Simon, so we have nine men called Simon mentioned in the NT. In order to keep them apart, some title or other name is needed like Simon the Pharisee, Simon the Leper, Simon Peter (or Simon the son of Jonah/John), Simon the Zealot, Simon the brother of Jesus, Simon the father of Judas Iscariot, Simon from Cyrene, Simon the Sorcerer, Simon the Tanner.
In John 12:1-8 we hear about Jesus visiting his close friends in the village of Bethany six days before the Passover. They had probably travelled from Jericho to Bethany on the Friday, one week before Jesus was killed. (See Luke 19:28 – we are not told where Jesus spent the nights during his travels, but he had just been to a feast in the home of Zacchaeus in Jericho. He must have spent two nights in Bethany, since the entry into Jerusalem did not take place until Sunday morning.) His good friends, Martha, Mary and Lazarus, hosted Jesus and the disciples and provided them with a nice Sabbath meal. Since these three young people stayed together in a big house, we can assume that the family was wealthy and that their parents were dead. (There are traditions in the Eastern orthodox Church that say they fled either after Stephen was murdered or before and eventually travelled to Cyprus where they lived for at least another 30 years. Lazarus is said to have become bishop in Kition=Larnaka).
During that meal in the home of Martha, Mary and Lazarus, Mary anointed the feet of Jesus. The expensive perfume had a standard price of 300 denarii. Judas was upset at this “waste”. John tells us that Judas had selfish motives, because he used to steal from the common money purse. But Jesus accepted the anointing as a preparation for burial. He reminded his disciples that they would always be able to assist the poor, but they would not have him with them for long. The disciples just could not understand that their Messiah was about to be killed. How could God allow his Son to be killed? It made no sense to them. Some have asked why Mary of Bethany is not mentioned at the cross if she was so devoted. But she was not a follower of Jesus like Mary Magdalene was, and she seem to have grieved at home, away from the crowds. However, we cannot argue from silence, and the fact that she is not mentioned, does not necessarily mean that she was not around, keeping a safe distance.
Matt 26:6-13 and Mark 14:3-9 are parallel passages and describe another anointing that also took place in Bethany. This time Jesus and at least some of his disciples were having dinner in another home belonging to a now healed former leper, also called Simon. It was several days after Mary anointed the feet of Jesus. While Jesus was busy in the Temple compound during Monday and Tuesday, he apparently rested on Wednesday in Bethany with his good friends there. That was when he was invited to dinner in another house. Since lepers were not allowed to stay with other people, Simon must have been healed, possibly by Jesus. If that was the case, he wanted to show his gratitude. He, too, seems to have been a wealthy person. Few people had the means to invite Jesus together with a big group of disciples for dinner.
At the house of Simon, it was the head of Jesus that was anointed. At the first anointing in the house of Martha, Judas was upset, but he may not have been present at this second anointing. Maybe he used the “free time” when Jesus did not move around or teach to seek out the chief priests to arrange to betray Jesus for money. Now, when this second anointing takes place, the other disciples and maybe other visitors are also upset. Matthew mentions some disciples, but Mark does not. If it was the disciples, they had learned nothing from the previous incident. This is not strange, because they could in no way accept that Jesus was going to die, even though Jesus had told them three times. But Jesus accepted it as a second preparation for his burial.
In Jewish thought and customs, two witnesses are important. Now two different women have made a prophetic reference to his soon forthcoming death and burial. They wanted to honour him and show their love for him. Whether they expected him soon to die, we do not know. But that is how Jesus explains the significance of the anointing. God had a plan that neither the women nor the disciples understood at this time. There is no reason to suggest that this unnamed woman was either Mary of Bethany or Mary Magdalene.
Some have wondered about John 11:2 which looks like an intrusion and parenthesis: It was Mary who anointed the Lord with perfume and dried his feet with her hair whose brother Lazarus was sick.
John has not introduced Mary, Martha and Lazarus before in his gospel. But he says in verse 1: There was a sick man, Lazarus from Bethany from the village of Mary and her sister Martha.
It seems that John believes his readers has already heard about Mary from Bethany. In Luke 10:38-42 we are told of an earlier visit by Jesus to Martha and Mary, where Mary is commended for sitting at the feet of Jesus. It is also common in Hebrew storytelling to give a general hint about a person and an event first and then give all the details later. This is what John is doing here. He briefly tells us what Mary did and he gives the details in the next chapter. This event may well have been common knowledge at the time John is writing, but he still wants to give all the details, especially since no other Gospel has mentioned this.
There are clear differences and similarities between these two last anointings during the last week. The similarities are easily explained by a standard price for such a jar of ointment as well as the disciples’ lack of understanding of the forthcoming death of Jesus. They did not have much money, and they expected to stay with Jesus for a long time, so the money could have been put to better use. Although Jesus had told them that he was going to die, they could not grasp that idea for the Messiah. Even Peter had strongly rebuked Jesus for suggesting that he was going to be crucified. God would never have allowed that, according to Peter and the disciples.
It defies logic to suggest that the two anointings were one and the same event. It may be easier to see this in a small table:
|Time||House||Woman||What was anointed||Who rebukes here||How much ointment|
|Friday evening||Martha||Mary||Feet||Judas||One litra (1/3 kg)|
|Wednesday||Simon the Leper||Unknown||Head||Some disciples||One alabastron (small jar)|
We must also keep in mind that John wrote his Gospel as a supplement to the other gospels that would have been known already by his audience. John tries as much as possible to talk about what the others for one reason or another did not mention. It is only John who tells about the first cleansing of the Temple during Jesus’ first Passover visit to Jerusalem, while the others only tell us about the second cleansing during his third Passover visit during his 2½ years of ministry. He could also have cleansed it during his second visit. We do not know. John knew the principle of the two witnesses, so it is important for him that both cleansings are told about.
Those who claim that the two different cleansings were one and the same event, attack the credibility of the Gospel writers as well as the accuracy of the Scriptures. This is done based on mistaken assumptions and later spurious legends. John would surely have been present at both anointings. Did he forget where they happened, when they happened and what was anointed? Or did he misrepresent the facts? This is extremely unlikely.
 See the article in Wikipedia about Mary Magdalene for more details. They also show a painting from 1524 based on this legend.