Mistaken Identities and Slanderous Statements
Who anointed Jesus?
Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany,
Imagine for a moment if most of your friends had only a first name. Likely a few of them have the same first name, which would force you to use creative means of referencing them to others. Biblical names, such as John and Mary, are still extremely common. In New Testament times many names were equally widespread, shown from both extra-biblical sources and from Scriptures. Casual references to a particular name, compounded by a lack of last names, have sometimes brought about careless errors in associating the wrong individual to a particular happening in Scriptures. One such person is Mary... Mary Magdalene, that is.
If the only name given had been "Mary", this reference in Luke would have been so ambiguous that it would have been impossible to know which Mary was being referenced - the name was so common. It appears that it created a problem in everyday life as well, leading to assigning nicknames or descriptors to tell people apart. Luke clearly tells us that this Mary was called "Magdalene", a nickname which was simultaneously a reference to her hometown. Magdala was a town on the western side of the Sea of Galilee, north of Tiberius. (See number 1 on the map. The town was also known by the name Magadan. The name means tower, which is "migdela" in Aramaic).
So who was Mary, called Magdalene? Ask many church goers and they will tell you that she was the sinful woman, or prostitute, that anointed Jesus. They are wrong, but in the company of many others throughout history. The first written account espousing this view appears almost 1500 years ago...
Gregory the Great (who lived from 541 to 604 A.D.) expressed all of the major errors, in one letter, that would color the church's view regarding Mary for the centuries to follow. Gregory became the bishop of Rome (Pope Gregory I) circa 595 A.D., an office that gave authority to what he would write and teach. Gregory was great in that he expressed it to be grave error that any Bishop of the church would exalt himself as being over all other bishops, even likening it to the prideful sin of Satan. He would have been grieved to see what befell the Roman church in the centuries which followed, as the popes, or bishops of Rome, did exactly that! Gregory wrote about one thousand works in his lifetime (840 being letters), so his views were widely spread. Perhaps he should have spent less time writing and more time studying Scriptures, as it was he who has been called "the inventor of the doctrine of Purgatory." It is not certain if he invented these spurious ideas concerning Mary Magdalene. To be fair he may have been teaching a view that had already become traditional. The following is the relevant excerpt from his letter to Gregoria (Lady of the Bed-chamber to Augusta)...
Gregory, here, has confused the sinful woman of Luke 7 with the sister of Martha and also with Mary Magdalene. This trio of errors so confuses Scriptures that one must wonder how anyone who has professed to study Scriptures would not have discovered this from even a cursory examination.
Even as shared names don't guarantee a common reference to one individual, shared circumstance do not necessarily mean that the writers are speaking about the same event. To ascertain that it is truly the same event, other indicators, including the timeline, location, participants, and key details all must match. Each account can add extra details, or leave out some details, but they can never contradict each other. For example, Scriptures speaks of Jesus feeding the multitudes on two different occasions. For the record; both occurrences as written by Matthew...
While all four gospel writers recorded details of one of these events, only Matthew fully recorded both. Imagine for a moment what would have happened if Matthew had only recorded the second event, while all the others had recorded the first. Without a doubt, there would be people saying that they were in regards to the same happening, even though some details don't match up. The tendency is to focus on the major part of the event and ignore or downplay what seems to be the lesser. Additionally, in the world of much modern scholarship with its low view of Scriptures, it would be easy for many of them to claim that the lesser details where in error. But, in reality, Matthew makes very clear that Jesus actually feed two multitudes. While using a similar modus operandi, namely feeding the large crowds using a few loaves and fishes and having the leftovers collected in baskets, key details are different. In the first, five loaves and two fishes are used to feed 5000 men plus women and children with 12 baskets of leftovers (Matthew 14:19-21; Mark 6:41-44; Luke 9:14, 16-18; John 6:9-10, 13). In the second, seven loaves and an unknown number ("few") fishes where are used to feed 4000 men plus women and children with seven baskets of leftovers (Matthew 15:36-38). We are given extra confirmation that there were, in fact, two occurrences, not only by Matthew but even by Mark who hadn't recorded details of the second happening. Both of these writers, in a later setting, record Jesus referring back to these two similar events...
Returning to the accounts of Jesus being anointed with perfume, an examination of each will show that Mary Magdalene was never in view. Context for the first instance is established in Luke 7:11, where it notes that Jesus went to a town called Nain which was a few miles south of Nazareth (having come from Capernaum), on the north side of the Sea of Galilee (Luke 7:1) -- see number 2 on the map. Following the event, we are told that Jesus continued traveling through towns and villages in the region (Luke 8:1), with Jesus still being around Galilee (Luke 8:22). All this makes it clear that the following event happened in Galilee and not at Bethany in Judea, as did the later events (with Mary, sister of Martha). Note also that the text points out that the woman in view here had lived her sinful life in this town. This would be a strange statement had the woman been from another town, as was Mary Magdalene.
Why is it that many jump to the conclusion that a "sinful" woman has to be someone involved in the sin of adultery or prostitution? Aren't there multitudes of other sins she could have been party too? The Pharisees would have been quick to look down on anyone who didn't hold to the externals they did. From a strictly biblical perspective, the same Greek word used to describe her as a "sinner (Luke 7:39)" is also used to describe the people Jesus ate with (Matthew 9:10-13), the men who came to arrest Jesus (Mark 14:41-42), and the entire generation (Mark 8:38). While sexual sin may have been rampant (as it still is); it is certainly not the only sin that could be in view. It is probable that God had the details of which sins left out so that all could identify with her. In fact, that her "many sins" where forgiven should be a statement that all believers could likewise testify to. We too have MANY sins that have been forgiven, by the grace of God, through faith in Jesus Christ.
For the record, in regards to the first anointing of Jesus, these are a summary of facts derived from the passage and context of the text in Luke 7...
leading to some of the confusion regarding Mary Magdalene, the verses
immediately following this passage do happen to mention her (i.e.
Luke 8:1-3, cited earlier). After noting that Jesus was traveling
from "one city and village to another" it clarifies that
Jesus had more than the twelve disciples with him, having gained
other close followers. Specifically, along with other women who were
helping to support Jesus and the disciples, it speaks of Mary called
Magdalene "from whom seven demons had gone out." While this
could have legitimately defined her as formerly being a "sinful
woman" it provides no tie to the earlier event. It appears that
Luke provided a name in this later passage, specifically so that it
would even further separate her from the preceding unnamed woman. In
regards to Mary, there is no direct evidence that her demon
possession led to prostitution or sexual sin either. Based on
descriptions of demon possession found in Scriptures, versus modern
popular speculations, it is more likely that her symptoms displayed
themselves as a serious physical infirmity or mental disorder,
extra-ordinary physical ability, a fascination with the dead, or
perhaps in verbal opposition to God (see Matthew 9:32-33; Matthew
11:18; Matthew 7:14-15; Luke 4:33-35; Luke 7:33; Luke 8:27-29; Luke
9:39-42; Luke 11:14).
The next event where Jesus was anointed with perfume came later, just before Jesus was crucified. A few lines before recounting this story, John introduces another Mary...
This Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, lived in Bethany which was located close to Jerusalem, on the Mount of Olives, in Judea (see number 3 on the map). Her act of worship, while being similar to the earlier account in Galilee, was a completely separate one.
It is not unlikely that Mary of Bethany had heard what the unnamed woman in Galilee had earlier done. Duplicating an act of worship in no way minimizes the second act, if it comes from the heart. Consider that believers have been praying, singing, celebrating the Lord's Supper, etc., as acts of worship, in the same way, for centuries. In similar and contrasting point form to our summary of the first occurrence, these are key events of John 12...
Other than this being an anointing of Jesus with perfume by a person named Mary, virtually all the other details don't match. The detail of her using her hair to wipe Jesus feet is also superficially similar. Closer examination shows that the first used her hair to wipe her tears before pouring the perfume, the second pouring the perfume and then using her hair to wipe the perfume.
In point two, of this occurrence with Mary of Bethany, I said that it appears to take place in the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. While the text does not specifically identify the home where the dinner was given in Jesus' honor, the fact Martha was serving coincides with an early event in their home and is more probable than her serving in another home, especially a larger or more prominent one where there may be servants.
The earlier event...
Again, it appears from this earlier occurrence that Mary, Martha and Lazarus had a humble home, lacking in servants, requiring the attention of Martha, and in her opinion Mary. In case you are wondering why I am arguing the point, it has bearing on the third and final occurrence of anointing specified in Scriptures. Many hold this final account to be in regards to Mary of Bethany as well. While I refer to it as a final account, it could be legitimately called "accounts" plural, but they unquestionably refer to the exact same occurrence though recorded by two seperate gospel writers.
The accounts of Matthew 26 and Mark 14 jointly share these key elements...
Other than happening in the same town as an earlier occurrence and being done by a woman using perfume from an alabaster container, there are hosts of major differences. Some, trying to somehow reconcile this account to that of Mary (sister of Martha), for some reason assuming they have to be the same occurrence, have said that the dinner referenced in the earlier account (John 12:2) was being held at Simon the Leper's house. While not impossible, it is highly improbable. Mary (sister of Martha) would have been serving in another's home, something that would have been highly unusual as the act of providing the meal was considered a part of the homeowner's hospitality. Additionally the stated time frame of the two accounts has to be considered. In John 12:1 we're specifically told that Jesus arrived in Bethany six days before the Passover. In Middle Eastern culture a dinner prepared and offered in honor of a guest would not have been held over for a few days, rather it would have been prepared immediately. Since Matthew and Mark clearly state that the meal at Simon the Leper's was two days before the Passover, it is reasonable to assume that this was a later dinner invitation to the home of someone other than where he was staying (i.e. the home Mary, Martha, and Lazarus).
For those who would mistake the events of Luke chapter seven, the first anointing of Jesus, with this last account, don't miss the difference between the home owners. The earliest occurrence was in the home of Simon of Galilee, who was a Pharisee (Luke 7:36), this final one taking place in the home of Simon of Judea, called Simon the Leper (Matthew 26:6). Certainly, he would not have still been a leper at this time, as the Law banned all social contact with those who were leprous. It is highly probable that Jesus had earlier healed him of this uncleanness.
While it is possible that John's chronology could be reconciled to that of Matthew and Mark by claiming that John's time frame only stated His entrance into Bethany, placing the dinner subsequently a few days later, there remain other key details that are not reconcilable. The greatest of these is where the perfume was poured. The nameless woman of Matthew and Mark is clearly stated to have poured her perfume onto Jesus' head, as he reclined at the table (Matthew 26:7). John is very clear (John 12:3) that Mary (sister of Martha) clearly poured it on Jesus' feet (as had the sinful Galilean woman in the first account. Luke 7:38). Some, grasping at straws, try and claim that this could be merged by having her pour it on his head with the perfume running down to his feet. While believable in our culture, since a person's feet sat below them when resting in a chair, this is unbelievable in theirs. They were reclined at the table when the anointing took place, meaning that Jesus' feet would not even receive an indirect splatter. At best his shoulders may have inadvertently received some of what was poured onto his head, with any that dripped falling to the couch below (onto which he was reclining). Without a doubt, this is an occurrence completely separate than the earlier two. In fact, Mark 14:3 points out another difference, that this last unnamed woman broke her alabaster container. While not clear that it was intentional, he obviously felt it an important detail and it's certainly one that is not in view in both earlier accounts. Lastly, since the focus was on Jesus' head, there is no accounting of wiping Jesus' feet with hair (or wetting them with tears) as His feet were not the center of attention of this woman.
Matthew and Mark certainly would have known Mary (sister of Martha) by name, since their home was a frequent stopping place for Jesus and the disciples. It stretches credulity that they would omit such a key detail after recording that this last woman's anointing would be forever proclaimed "in memory of her" (Matthew 16:13; Mark 14:9).
Having determined that Jesus was anointed on three separate occasions, two happening in close chronological and geographic proximity to each other, it provokes the question of "why?". It could be easily answered that sometimes things repeat themselves throughout life, as many of us have experienced. But, I would hold to the greater ideal that everything Jesus did and experienced was for a specific reason. Our sovereign God had nothing happening by chance in regards to His Son. We know for certain that there is an expressed reason for why they were recorded in Scriptures...
Consider again, for a moment, the response of those present at each anointing.
In order of occurrence, this is a quick summary of the lessons being taught...
Certainly God used all of these events to teach his disciples; even as He uses repetition throughout His word and often in the discipline we experience (Hebrews 12:7-11) to teach us. The day after the final anointing, following Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the widespread praise and adoration given there, John makes this telling notation...
What about Mary Magdalene, who never anointed Jesus? This godly (forgiven and believing) woman who followed Jesus was witness to all the events which would follow. She saw Jesus crucified, she saw Jesus buried (with a postmortem anointing by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, see John 19:38-40), but greatest of all she saw the resurrected Lord!
Oh! By the way, Mary Magdalene had planned on anointing Jesus but never got to do it. The very reason she was headed to the tomb on Sunday morning was to anoint Jesus' body with the spices she (and others) had purchased following the special Sabbath. With out a doubt, Mary was overjoyed that she never got her chance!
Written by Brent
of Lion Tracks Ministries. (c) 2007