Anointing of Jesus: Fact or Fiction?

Anointing of Jesus: Fact or Fiction? June 16, 2021

In the closing stages of writing my latest book, The Resurrection: A Critical Examination of the Easter Story [UK], I had a few test readers. One was David Austin, down in Australia, who has provided a few guest articles for your delectation. Here is another one – thanks muchly to him:

The Anointing of Jesus – Fact or Fiction?

This bizarre event is recorded in all four Gospels, as detailed below:-

Mark 14:3-9

While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper,[a] as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. But some were there who said to one another in anger, “Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii,[b] and the money given to the poor.” And they scolded her. But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news[c] is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

Some commentators have noted an interesting point about Mark’s account thus :-

“It must be unintentional irony when Mark has Jesus predict that this story will always be told in memory of a woman whose very name escapes him.”

Matthew 26:6–13

Now while Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper,[a] a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, and she poured it on his head as he sat at the table. But when the disciples saw it, they were angry and said, “Why this waste? For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor.” 10 But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? She has performed a good service for me. 11 For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. 12 By pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial. 13 Truly I tell you, wherever this good news[b] is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

Matthew has copied Mark’s account almost verbatim.

Luke 7:36-50

36 One of the Pharisees asked Jesus[a] to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 37 And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38 She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” 40 Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “speak.” 41 “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii,[b] and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus[c] said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” 48 Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

John 12:1-8

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them[a] with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii[b] and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it[c] so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

The stories are somewhat similar, but differ in significant ways as I have summarised in the table below:-

Anointing of Jesus
  Mark Matthew Luke John
Location Bethany, Judaea Bethany, Judaea Presumed Galilee Bethany, Judaea
Date 2 days before Passover 2 days before Passover Not Mentioned 6 days before Passover
House Owner Simon the Leper Simon the Leper Simon the Pharisee Lazarus
Woman Unnamed Unnamed Woman from the City Mary (Sister of Lazarus)
Where anointed Head Head Feet Feet
Disciples complain Yes – Some Yes – All Not mentioned Judas Iscariot
Value 300 Denarii Large Sum Not mentioned 300 Denarii

Those Christian apologists, who subscribe to the view that the Bible is inerrant, try to “harmonise” these “differences” by asserting that anointing took place on two separate occasions (ie combining Mark & Matthew as one occasion and Luke & John as another separate occasion) or sometimes asserting three separate occasions (ie combining Mark & Matthew as one occasion, and Luke & John as two separate occasions).

This seems wildly improbable, as the similarities are too consistent, and the specific events mentioned in each text could not have happened “exactly” the same way in each anointing episode.  This leads the skeptic to believe that the whole incident never happened, and instead was invented to further some theological agenda with each gospel putting their own “spin” on it. Also, Jesus appears to be predicting his imminent death, which, in light of my previous article, (“The Real Minimal Facts about Jesus”) seems to be retroactively inserted into the mouth of Jesus. I’m pretty sure Jesus cannot have been predicting his death, since he was expecting to rule as “King of the Jews”, when God intervened and set up a new “Kingdom on Earth”.  He certainly would not be expecting to be executed as an insurrectionist.

I think the theological agenda is very clear – the meaning of “Messiah” is “Anointed One” so this incident was clearly meant to indicate that Jesus was the “Messiah”.

In addition, Kings & High Priests were also anointed, so the Gospel writers are saying “Jesus is the Messiah, King & High Priest in one person”.

I think we can safely conclude that, the “Anointing of Jesus” is Fiction not Fact.


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