Mark 14:3-9: The Anointing at Bethany as Markan Christology

This [very, very, very long] post is, basically, my masters thesis. I’ve had a few requests for it, so I thought I’d post it.

To make it [relatively] manageable, I’ve prefaced most sections with a summary statement, in bold. If that statement doesn’t interest you, the text following it will be even worse. The footnotes and some formatting (mostly Greek words) got garbled–sorry. I attempted to properly format all of the quotations, but if I missed any, please chalk it up to poor editing–not plagiarism.



In silence, a nameless woman pours nard on Jesus’ head. In this enigmatic scene, we find many themes that are central to the gospel of Mark: the identity of Jesus, purity and impurity, true discipleship and false, words versus deeds, and the paradox of the glorious yet dying Messiah. In this study, the anointing at Bethany will be explored in its literary contexts in order to show that it is christological material in Mark’s gospel. We will show that the anointing is both a burial and a messianic anointing and that its dual meaning is central to its christological vision. It will be suggested that the anointing encapsulates Mark’s Christology.

A Feminist Approach

Here I explain and defend my use of a feminist approach to the text. You can skip this section.

We will now sketch the two main methodologies employed herein: feminist and literary criticism. Feminist biblical criticism, as used in this thesis, is not a methodology itself but rather a guiding philosophy for the use of methodologies; it seeks to reclaim and centralize women and works to redeem texts from layers of androcentric accretions. We will assume that women can be central characters and not just minor figures. Feminist biblical criticism is particularly appropriate to the gospel of Mark since this text challenges the assumptions of its culture concerning what is “appropriate” for women. Feminist criticism questions several millennia of androcentric, patriarchal, and often misogynous biblical interpretation in order to develop a new understanding of texts that have historically been the first and last resort in the oppression of women. In this tradition, the present study seeks to dispense with the common presumptions that often obscure the potential meanings of the text. We will try to see the text afresh instead of continuing to ignore or downplay women, their actions, and their importance. Feminist criticism should bring the stories of women to the forefront.

The anointing of Jesus by the unnamed woman in Bethany is in dire need of attention and reclamation via feminist interpretation; even recent interpreters of the anointing show sexist tendencies. For example, in Robert Gundry’s commentary on Mark, he suggests that the reason the passion prediction in the anointing pericope (14.8) is not made more explicit is because there is a woman present. This is particularly odd when one remembers that women (unlike the absent disciples) witness the crucifixion. Edwin Broadhead writes that “in 14.8-9, Jesus speaks of his death and of the future of the gospel. The aura of this event is reduced, however, when the woman implicitly shares this knowledge.” He assumes that sharing knowledge with a woman diminishes its importance. Seen from a feminist perspective, the fact that the woman shares the knowledge suggests that she shares in the power and authority of Jesus. Another interpreter, J. Duncan M. Derrett, writes that “unless this woman was an ex-prostitute the significance of the behaviour of the characters in the Marcan version is much diminished.” This statement fits into a deep undercurrent of misogynous bias: unless the woman had been truly objectionable, the men would not have objected. Therefore, they are not in error; she must be. Derrett does not seem particularly concerned that Mark’s Jesus disagrees with the objectors. Instead of seeing the woman’s actions as the locus for meaning, as this thesis does, these men have brought their own biases to the text to assume that the very presence of a woman diminishes the importance of the text. And what is almost as common as the downplaying of the anointing by biased interpreters is complete neglect of this pericope. While no exhaustive study of the materials can be claimed, this writer was surprised by the number of works on the gospels, on Mark, or on the Passion narrative that simply ignored the anointing.

What has been most disappointing is the way that the anointing has been (mis)treated by feminist interpreters. Perhaps they, too, have been hemmed in by their own preconceptions, particularly the notion that a nameless woman acting in the confines of a private home has no authority. It appears that some interpreters are reading into the text their own view of silent, domestic women as powerless. Possibly commentators are uncomfortable with the woman’s obvious wealth; they may agree with those who wondered why the ointment was wasted. But it will be illustrated in this thesis that Mark uses her very namelessness, domestic location, and wealth to subvert traditional expectations.

It seems that even the most revered feminist commentators do not realize the full potential of this text. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, the matriarch of feminist biblical studies, has named one of her works after the anointing woman: In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins. But there is no elaborate exegesis of this passage in her work. In fact, there are only a few scattered references to the anointing in the entire text. While many other feminist works at least mention the anointing, they do not seem to consider its implications. What is most perplexing is when a feminist critic’s brief mention of the pericope includes the idea that it was a messianic anointing–and then quickly proceeds to discuss the women at the cross and at the tomb. It seems that a messianic anointing, of one known primarily as the Christ, deserves some pause.

There are two major critiques of feminist analysis that deserve consideration before we proceed. The first is the usual distrust of any methodology (Marxist, liberationist, etc.) that claims an ideological bias. Traditional biblical interpretation was influenced by the nineteenth century reverence for the scientific method with its supposed clinical detachment and objectivity. To admit an agenda seems to confess that one’s work will be biased and, therefore, flawed.

But scholars are beginning to realize that all investigation is biased, even the so-called hard sciences. Mary Ann Tolbert explains that:

The most common objection to a feminist reading of a text–or a Marxist, Freudian, or any other special reading, for that matter–is that it is subjective. This subjectivity, it is argued, results from the vested interests of the perspective and tends to distort what the text is really saying. Indeed, this objection contains a correct observation but a faulty assumption. All interpretations are ‘subjective,’ that is, all readings are influenced by the vested interests and concerns of the interpreter.

Subjectivity is particularly pronounced in biblical interpretation, where the critic is necessarily influenced by her/his faith (or lack thereof) and religious tradition (or disaffiliation). To acknowledge at the beginning that the interpreter will be presenting a reading in line with her/his philosophical commitments makes the audience consciously aware that such exist and what, precisely, is the author’s position. The assumed disinterestedness of traditional interpreters is disproven by the evidence of their biases, including sexism. While feminist criticism brings its own biases to the table, it also allows readers to see the standard, unexamined biases inherent in previous scholarship. In terms of this study, we will acknowledge a feminist bias but claim that it is no more and no less (only more openly) biased than other approaches.

The second major challenge to feminist biblical interpretation comes, surprisingly, from other feminists. Specifically, Jewish feminists claim that Christian feminists often interpret texts by creating the most patriarchal view of Judaism that a careful selection of the evidence will allow and then using this construction to show how egalitarian early Christianity was, suggesting that Judaism was bad for women and Jesus was good for women. A quick perusal of Christian feminist works will confirm this charge since a great number do, at least subtly, base their conclusions of Christian egalitarianism on a comparison with “repressive” Jewish practices.

But it is a legitimate research practice to sketch the cultural background of biblical texts in order to properly interpret them. And a main current in biblical Judaism was patriarchal. The real problem is that Christian feminists are sometimes sloppy in their research and create a biased picture. Judith Plaskow outlines three misconceptions of Christian feminists. First, the Talmud is often used to establish Jewish practices in the time of Jesus, but this is not appropriate since the Talmud was not finalized until the sixth century. A second mistake is to assume that Judaism was monolithic, which is often done by applying one injunction from the Torah, Mishnah, or Talmud and assuming that it was normative for all Jews, in all places, in all times. While one of the main discoveries of Christian feminism has been the diversity of women’s activities over place and time, Christian feminists have been unwilling to acknowledge this same diversity in their Jewish sisters, when, for example, the papyri discovered in the Elephantine show a Jewish community that often diverges from the norms of the Torah, particularly in relation to women’s privileges. The third problem that Plaskow finds is the tendency to compare “the words and attitudes of an itinerant preacher with laws and sayings formulated in the rarefied atmosphere of rabbinic academies.” Again, Christian feminists eager to establish the proper historical context for biblical passages should be sure that they actually do consider the context of the injunction. Otherwise, the results will divert from a major goal of feminist research–the liberation of all people. As Amy Jill-Levine creatively states the case:

Representations of women have too long served as a solvent which separates out the wheat from the chaff, or perhaps better: women are constructed as the yeast which ferments the stale domestic beer of Judaism and the good, imported brew of Christianity. The results are intoxicating, but ultimately both leave a bad taste.

While this discussion of the problems of Christian feminist anti-Semitism may seem out of place in this thesis, it is of primary importance that we not promulgate the inaccuracies outlined by Plaskow. Consequently, the following precautions will be used in order to avoid inappropriately describing the Jewish milieu of the gospel. First, it is important to rely at least partly on the work of Jewish scholars in order to establish the context of the text. Secondly, it will be the aim of this thesis to see Mark’s Jesus in the context of Judaism and as a reformer of Judaism, instead of separating him from Judaism. This position is one of the many strengths of Schüssler Fiorenza’s work; she writes of the Jesus Movement as a movement for renewal within Judaism. Since the Judaism(s) of Jesus’s day was not/were not monolithic, it is possible to imagine Mark’s Jesus as a part of the egalitarian trends already extant instead of as a radical reformer who came to liberate women from an unequivocally oppressive religious tradition. Ideally, the approach outlined above will prevent this study from making the same suspect hermeneutical moves that have plagued other works.

A Literary Approach

Here I explain and defend approaching the text from the standpoint of literary criticism. You can skip this section.

The dominant mode of criticism in this century has been some type of historically-oriented criticism: source criticism (finding the sources that the evangelists used), form criticism (finding the life setting of the units of gospel materials before they were textualized), and redaction criticism (determining the unique theological considerations of each editor). Previously, Mark suffered centuries of neglect, but the modern consensus that it was the first gospel to be written has brought it a flurry of attention. While each of the aforementioned methodologies has resulted in important discoveries, “the history of gospel scholarship over the last two hundred fifty years could well be judged to have been an escape from narrativity.”

In order to acknowledge and employ the narrative character of the gospels, recent commentators have relied on what is referred to, generally, as either literary criticism or narrative criticism. One problem in discussing this topic is a lack of consensus regarding the appropriate terminology. In this paper, “literary criticism” is used in its broadest sense to encompass all of what is typically meant by either term; we will define literary criticism as “the general literary approaches used to study ancient and modern writings.”

The evangelists chose to write narratives although other options were available to them (e.g., epistle, apocalypse, a list of sayings, etc.) and it therefore behooves the interpreter to take the narrativity of the text seriously. As E. S. Malbon explains:

In the past two decades an increasing number of biblical scholars (especially in the United States) have been asking a different question: How does the text mean? This question is literary; it represents a search for internal meaning rather than external (or referential) meaning. How do various literary patterns enable the text to communicate meaning to its hearers and readers? How do the interrelated characters, settings, and actions of the plot contribute to a narrative’s meaning for a reader?

Literary criticism has now become the dominant methodology for interpretation of the gospels. It will be the approach used herein. There are many varieties of literary criticism (as we are defining it), including structuralism, reader-response criticism, deconstructive criticism, and rhetorical criticism. These diverse approaches will be utilized in this study as they help interpret the anointing pericope.

However, the approach of this paper will not abandon all non-literary concerns. First, Mark will be shown to echo other texts, particularly the Old Testament. Clearly, we cannot ignore these texts. Another reason to consider intertextual relationships and other historical information is to compensate for our distance from the text. Particularly with the anointing pericope, there are some historical issues that demand consideration, such as what an anointing would have signified in the ancient world. Furthermore, some applications of reader-response criticism require us to consider the historical knowledge that the audience brings to their hearing of the text. Of course, our primary concern is literary, but intertextual and historical issues will be explored as needed.

We will now consider a few of Mark’s prominent literary features that will be mentioned in this study. But first, we note that our knowledge of the actual flesh and blood author of Mark is nil. For the purposes of this study, “Mark” is used as a convenient shorthand for the anonymous author of the gospel of Mark. We cannot even assume that Mark was male and it has been suggested that the author of Mark might actually have been the anointing woman. But we take no position on the identity of the author of Mark and we can make no definitive statements concerning its date or location. Theories for the historical location of Mark abound; fortunately we will be spared the task of wading through this evidence since it is not germane to the study at hand.

What is germane to this work are many of the literary aspects of the text. For example, Mark uses a narrator who has the “omniscient point of view of an intrusive narrator.” Also, the character of Jesus and the narrator almost merge in the text; at the very least, when they maintain two distinct voices, they do not differ or disagree. Concerning the other characters, the students of ancient literature tell us that we cannot bring our assumptions about modern characterization to an ancient text:

Where modern fiction emphasizes the internal development of character, ancient characters tend to be static embodiments of particular characteristics. Consequently, treatment of character in narrative analysis of the New Testament focuses on characters as the expression of particular roles in the narrative.

Therefore, we should not expect complex character development. This is important to remember for any reading of the anointing because an interpreter applying modern standards might assume that the woman is an insignificant actor because her character is not developed or complex. But, by ancient standards, she is a complete character acting as a ‘type.’ Other modern biases that impede interpretation are our expectations of linearity and conciseness. But as Mary Ann Tolbert explains, “repetition is one of the major features of ancient texts” because it would have helped the audience to follow the story. Chiasm, intercalation, and other methods of structuring the text that would have been familiar to ancient audiences are common in the text.

As we consider Mark’s audience, we are not concerned with the actual flesh-and-blood people who heard the early renditions of Mark’s text (who, in any case, are inaccessible to us), but rather with a construct commonly called the “implied reader,” (in our case, the “implied hearer”) who is the audience that the narrator intends for the text. Although fictional, this audience knows certain things, believes certain things, and obeys certain social conventions. Our effort is to reconstruct the historical setting and meaning of the text in order to discover what Mark’s ideal audience would have assumed based on their location in time and space. These preliminary remarks about some of Mark’s literary characteristics will set the stage for our exploration of the anointing pericope.

Discipleship in Mark’s Gospel

This is a fairly interesting topic because I think many Saints misread this theme in Mark.

Because discipleship is so important in Mark, we will make some general comments about this theme before beginning to analyze the text. Several scholars have recognized that discipleship is a central–if not the central–theme in Mark. But as John Donahue has noted, the concept is not completely straightforward:

‘discipleship’ itself is a somewhat infelicitous term since in Mark those who respond to the gospel of God (1.15) are a group wider than the disciples or the twelve and from observation of this group and particular sayings associated with them we can get a more comprehensive picture of what it means ‘to convert and believe in the gospel’ (1.15).

For the sake of clarity, in this paper we will refer to true disciples as “followers,” a term that Elisabeth Struthers Malbon uses, in order to distinguish the (true) followers from the (often faithless) disciples. By making a distinction between followers and disciples, we are able to escape the semantic trap of confusing the two concepts. In the gospel of Mark, true “followership” is rare and is not necessarily correlated with the disciples.

Furthermore, it is an important postulate of this thesis that Christology is intertwined with the concept of followership in Mark. Mark has constructed a text where demons are able to correctly identify Jesus, yet they are obviously not followers. In Mark, in order to genuinely identify Jesus, one must be a follower of him. Our analysis of Peter’s and the centurion’s so-called confessions will illustrate this hypothesis. As John Suggit writes, it is in the anointing woman that followership and Christology are combined:

The Bethany scene is so significant because it enters into the central question of the gospel, Jesus’ identity. . . . This scene also was linked to the meaning of discipleship, since Jesus has immediately proceeded to talk about the necessity of taking up the cross and even losing one’s life for his sake. . . . Thus the woman at Bethany presents a full view of the ideal disciple: one who recognizes a suffering and dying messiah, and one who gives her life in imitation. The latter idea is strengthened by the strong parallel to the previous widow’s offering of all she had, her very life itself.


Limitations of Traditional Christology

This chapter is truly boring. All it is is: my explaining why the traditional approach to Christology (or, understanding who Christ was) is off base because it focuses too much on titles when it should also consider stories. Skip this. [If you do read it, you’ll note that I sound really, really harsh toward Peter. It is important to note that I am not writing about Peter the historical being but rather Peter the character in Mark’s story. In Mark, there is a very negative portrait of Peter; this doesn’t reflect my personal opinion of Peter.]

Traditional Christology

Traditional Christology, perhaps best exemplified by R.H. Fuller, is predominately a study of the titles applied to Jesus of Nazareth. The task of Christology, in practice if not in theory, has been to trace the pre-Christian use of a particular title and then to consider how the title functions in Christian documents and communities. Mary Ann Tolbert suggests that the title-based approach to Christology is flawed:

Discussions of the Christology (i.e., views of the nature and function of Christ) present in each of the canonical Gospels have focused in past New Testament research on the so-called ‘titles’ used for Jesus (e.g., Son of God, Son of man, Son of David, Christ). Attempts have been made to establish a distinctive tradition for each ‘title’ that influences its use by the Gospel writer. . . . Recently, the practice of looking at ‘titles’ has come under increasing attack as the difficultly of establishing with certainty a fixed tradition of usage and meaning behind any of the ‘titles’ has become increasingly clear. Whether they should be called ‘titles’ at all is highly debatable.

There are several shortcomings in a title-based approach to Christology. First, it assumes an inappropriate view of the function of language in communities. Words cannot perfectly encapsulate truths; they are slippery. A title-based Christology all but demands that any translation of the New Testament will alter its Christology since the titles chosen for the translation will often have a different semantic range and history than in the original language. This suggests that the text simply cannot function as the basis for a community of faith that is not Greek-speaking. Furthermore, the very fact that our extant texts are fragmentary should indicate that we cannot definitively establish the current usage of the so-called titles that Mark uses; it is possible that the titles had a somewhat different meaning in common, oral usage than in the surviving texts. The perverse proliferation of abused and abusive titles in the trial narrative (14.61, 15.2, 15.9, 15.12, 15.18, 15.26, 15.32, 15.39) shows their dangerousness and unreliability for Mark.

Additionally, a title-based Christology requires us to ignore important pericopes that do not happen to contain a title and requires us to somehow grapple with and then reconcile the multiplicity of titles in each text. It should be obvious that Mark does not think that mere titles can lead to a proper understanding of Jesus; if he did, then the gospel of Mark would be an epigraphic inscription, the equivalent of ancient graffiti proclaiming in one sentence that “Jesus is X.” But the gospel of Mark, by its very nature, suggests that truth is found in narrative form; while Matthew and Luke add more explicitly christological and ethical teachings, Mark’s gospel is almost entirely narrative with comparatively little discourse. If we are to understand the Markan perspective on Jesus, we cannot ignore such a large portion of the text. Leander Keck suggests that we go beyond what he calls the “tyranny of titles” in our christological investigations:

Indeed, it is often assumed that New Testament Christology is a matter of the history of titles. Probably no other factor has contributed more to the current aridity of the discipline than this fascination with the paleontology of christological titles. To reconstruct the history of titles as if this were the study of Christology is like trying to understand the windows of Chartres cathedral by studying the history of coloured glass.

We propose a different approach to Christology. The purpose of this thesis is to suggest that the anointing at Bethany is part of the christological material in Mark. In order to show this, it first is necessary to consider the problems associated with using titles as the basis for a Markan Christology. It will be suggested that the major verbal confessions are too problematic to function as the sole christological material of Mark’s gospel. In order to illustrate why titles have at least questionable, if not dangerous, status in the text, we will examine some of the christological titles in the gospel.

We will begin by suggesting some criteria by which we can evaluate possible christological statements. First, as noted above, Jesus is ‘reliable’ in Mark’s gospel–the hearer can trust him and his commentary and the merging of his point of view with the narrator’s makes Jesus just as reliable as the narrator. So, by gauging Jesus’ reaction to the titles applied to him, we can see whether Mark expects the audience to accept these titles as legitimate. Another way of evaluating the appropriateness of the title will be to see how the character bestowing the title acts–does s/he understand and truly accept the title that s/he has bestowed upon Jesus? Of course, lack of understanding on the part of a character may, in fact, increase the understanding of the audience. So, although the audience might understand that the content of a confession is technically correct (e.g., Peter’s statement, “You are the Christ,” 8.29 RSV), the audience knows that it is not a genuine confession because his actions do not support it.

Many of the titles bestowed upon Jesus illustrate the problem of naming in the gospel. This is the case in the confessions of the unclean spirits. Some of the most compelling christological titles come from the unclean spirits (1.24, 3.11, 5.7); of course, we cannot consider these spirits to be a reliable source. Although it is possible that their words are true in some sense, they hardly provide a model for the hearer to follow. Nor do we receive Jesus’ approval of their words that we need to establish a Christology.

Similarly, we have several instances where Jesus is referred to as ‘Teacher.’ In all cases the person calling him ‘Teacher’ either does not accept him as such (12.14, 19) or in their very statement shows that they do not understand what he is teaching/doing (4.38, 5.35, 9.17, 9.38, 10.35, 13.1). The incident in 10.17-22 particularly exemplifies this situation since the man does not grasp what Jesus has to teach. This is also true of Peter’s and Judas’ identification of Jesus as ‘Master’ (11.21, 14.45). There is one exception to this pattern: 12.32 seems genuine since Jesus’ interlocutor repeats his words in agreement. But 12.34 makes it problematic: while the scribe is close to the kingdom of God, there is no indication that he either asks more questions or follows Jesus. The audience cannot trust any christological identification made by a character who does not understand and follow Jesus.

In 6.14-15, we have several titular identifications that might be christological. But none of the speakers is either firmly committed to the title or to the implications of the identification. They do not understand; they are merely reporting rumors. Herod’s declaration in 6.16 seems to have some conviction, but it is simply not true. Furthermore, Jesus identifies Herod as an untrustworthy character in 8.15.

Bartimaeus twice calls Jesus ‘Son of David’ (10.47, 48) and then ‘Master’ (10.51). While Jesus does not rebuke Bartimaeus, Jesus will later specifically eschew identification of the Anointed as the Son of David (12.35-7). The title ‘Son of David’ is insufficient because it presumes a purely Davidic kingship, which would not have the connotations of suffering and death that, as we shall see, are a part of Jesus’ messiahship.

As for Pilate’s question about the ‘King of the Jews’ (15.2), Jesus’ response turns it into a confession but it is obvious that this was not Pilate’s intent. We cannot underestimate the role of irony and mockery in Mark, particularly in the passion narrative; this is the most natural reading of Pilate’s words in 15.9, 12, the soldiers’ in 15.18, the inscription in 15.26, and the chief priests’ in 15.32.

Perhaps the most important confession is the non-confession of the neanískoß at the tomb–he refers to Jesus as ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ instead of using one of the titles previously mentioned (or any other title). Since he enjoys a measure of authority in the text, his avoidance of titles is particularly significant.

As for the titles that Jesus himself uses, there are only two first person titular confessions (6.50, 14.26); we will consider the third person titles first. Any and every third person confession cannot be accepted at face value since people generally do not refer to themselves in the third person. There must be at least a little ambiguity in the listeners’ minds (especially in such cases as 13.32 and 14.27).

By far the most common title is Ho uHióß toü hanqr’wpou but there are problems with regarding this title as the primary christological material of the gospel. Ho uHióß toü hanqr’wpou is ambiguous because it may follow the common Hebrew and Aramaic meaning of ‘human being.’ Additionally, the Aramaic equivalent could be translated as ‘the man’s son’ or be a circumlocution of ‘I.’ The audience would presumably notice the ambiguity of the confession instead of, primarily, its christological content. Because of this ambiguity, it would hardly be a suitable foundation for their christological understanding.

There are a few minor third person christological titles. But none of these would be a sufficient basis for a Christology, since none is terribly important or merits much repetition or elaboration in the gospel. We have a possible title of ‘Lord’ in 5.19, 11.3, 12.11, and 13.20, but as with 1.3, the audience of the gospel would most likely attribute it to God. Jesus (probably) calls himself a prophet in 6.4, but there is no definite article, so we probably have ‘a prophet,’ not ‘the Prophet.’ As discussed above, 12.35-36, instead of presenting christological titles, is more effective at refuting Bartimaeus’ use of them. 13.6 and 13.21-22 provide compelling examples of Jesus pointing out the danger of titles because some will use the name of the Anointed incorrectly. Jesus self-identifies as a teacher (14.14) and, presumably, the disciples are able to reiterate his words (14.16), but their subsequent behavior indicates that they did not understand (14.50). This is a particularly serious condemnation of the use of titles since the disciples are able to recite the proper words, but do not show any real comprehension.

There are two first-person heg’w ehimi confessions (6.50 and 14.26). As for the first, it is delivered elliptically, almost as a pun (in fact, it is often translated in a way that misses the possible christological meaning, such as the RSV’s ‘It is I’). Once again, Jesus’ intent has not been understood by the disciples (6.52). It is possible to see this scene as a commentary on the ineffectuality of titles due to their multiple, easily misunderstood meanings. As for the final confession (14.26), we will suggest that the difference in Jesus’ reaction to Peter’s confession (8.29) and the high priest’s question (14.61) is that the anointing has occurred; he is now the Anointed and can admit it publicly. But Jesus quickly deflects focus from this title to another by moving instantly to Ho uHióß toü hanqr’wpou. The titles shift.

We have left for last the consideration of what most scholars believe are the two major christological confessions of Mark’s gospel: Peter’s statement that Jesus is the Anointed and the centurion’s statement at the foot of the cross. We will now examine them more closely in order to suggest that they are not adequate Christological statements but rather that they function as foils for the silent confession of the anointing woman.

Peter’s Statement

Although the audience might be tempted to turn to the disciples for a proper christological confession, Mark has cast the disciples in such a grotesquely unflattering light that the hearer cannot possibly trust them to provide genuine information. The characterization of the disciples–especially Peter–is downright awful; they are unteachable and even malicious. In order to support this contention, we will consider the characterization of Peter in the gospel.

The initial references to Simon (1.16-7, 29-31, 36) seem to be neutral to positive. In the calling of the twelve (3.13-19), the characterization is clearly positive. Jesus has “called to him those whom he desired” (3.13 RSV) and he gives them authority (3.15). However, there is some foreshadowing of the problems to come. First, even when Peter appears to seek after Jesus (1.36-7), there is a negative connotation because he does not so much ‘follow’ Jesus as he interrupts his prayer. Also, the incident immediately preceding the calling itself mocks the disciples by having the unclean spirits correctly identify Jesus (3.11), which is a continual problem for the disciples (e.g., 4.41, 5.31). Because of the juxtaposition of the texts, the next pericope, on the binding of the strong man (3.20-27), hints that Jesus’ house (i.e., the disciples–see 3.33-35) will fall because it is divided by the impending treachery of Judas.

The mission of the twelve (6.7-13) does seem to be positive, but statements about the mission (6.7-13 and 30) surround the narrative of the betrayal and martyrdom of John the Baptizer and subtly correlate the disciples’ mission with betrayal. When the failure of the disciples at the cross is narrated, the hearer will remember that this abandonment has been subtly contrasted with the fact that John’s disciples cared for his body after his execution (6.29).

Although it will require the rest of the narrative to develop this theme, the stage is set for Peter’s failure in the parable of the sower when he, not by his given name but by the name that Jesus has given him, is equated with the “rocky ground” (4.5), who, “when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy; and they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away” (4.16-17 RSV). In this parable, Peter’s ministry is summarized. At first, Peter is an eager recipient, but when persecution comes in the high priest’s courtyard, he betrays Jesus.

While it may be an exaggeration to say that Jesus said everything in parables (4.34), they do play a major role in his teachings. The disciples admit that they do not understand the parables (4.10). Although Jesus explains the meaning of the parable of the sower, he also states, before that explanation is given, that the disciples have been given the secret of the kingdom of God (4.11). Nonetheless, his teachings are still in parables for them and the disciples are, therefore, outsiders (4.11). Immediately after the explication of the parable of the sower and three other parables (4.21-25, 26-29, 30-32), the disciples make it clear that they do not understand Jesus (4.41), who wonders if they have no faith (4.40). This misunderstanding becomes even more condemnatory later on, when the authorities seem to understand instantly (without Jesus explaining) that the parable of the vineyard (12.1-11) was told “against them” (12.12). The text provides example after example of the disciples’ incomprehension.

The raising of Jairus’ daughter (5.35-43) initially seems to be a positive portrayal of Peter, since he is specifically included (5.37, 40) in Jesus’ ministry. However, the incident must be compared with the transfiguration (9.2-13), the apocalyptic teachings (13.1-37), and Gethsemane (14.32-42), since these sections constitute the other instances where Peter, James, and John (and Andrew in chapter 13) are selected for special treatment. Near the end of the transfiguration, after they have seen Moses and Elijah, they “question[ed] what the rising from the dead meant” (9.10 RSV). Because they have previously witnessed the raising of the girl (5.42, where the same verb for raising, hanístjmi, is used), their incomprehension seems all the more inexcusable. Gethsemane is even more damning. After watching Jesus raise the dead, after watching Jesus interact with Moses, Elijah, and a voice from heaven, and after being admonished to watch (or keep awake) three times (13.33, 35, 37), they are told twice more (14.34 and 38) to watch, but they fall asleep three times, which is especially significant given Mark’s penchant for using repetition to emphasize events. It seems that in all instances where Peter, James, and John are singled out, their purpose is to watch, pay attention and learn. But they do not. Jesus’ three visits to the sleeping disciples echo the three passion predictions, three feedings, and three raisings. The disciples have slept through everything.

The negative characterization continues with the two feeding miracles (6.35-44 and 8.1-10) and their summary in 8.14-21. Because they witness this miracle without understanding it (6.52), Mark informs the audience that their hearts were hardened. This accusation is highly condemnatory because the opponents of Jesus were previously accused of hardheartedness (3.5); now the disciples are being identified with/as opponents.

In the first feeding miracle, the audience probably sympathized with the disciples in wondering how Jesus could possibly feed so many people. But at the onset of the second feeding, when the disciples ask how it is possible to feed so many in the wilderness (8.4), the audience knows perfectly well how Jesus can do it and is amazed that the disciples do not. The correlation between this incident and the previous feeding miracle is emphasized by Mark’s use of pálin at the beginning of the story. Next, when the disciples completely misunderstand the metaphor of the leaven of the Pharisees and of Herod (8.15), not only the audience but Jesus is exasperated (8.17). Even after a review of the facts (8.19-20), the disciples still do not understand. Jesus’ questioning of the disciples in 8.17-21 echoes the language that he used to characterize outsiders in 3.5 and 4.11-12. Similar to the feeding incidents is the question of children, since both use repetition to condemn the disciples’ lack of perceptiveness. It is not possible to sympathize with the disciples’ rebuke of the children in 10.13, since in 9.36-37 Jesus makes clear his feelings about little ones.

When Jesus tells the disciples that they must abandon their riches to follow him (10.23-27), Peter seems to be fishing for praise when he states: “Lo, we have left everything and followed you” (10.28 RSV). This scene can be contrasted with the widow’s donation to the Temple and the anointing since both involve women who, like Peter, have sacrificed money for the sake of religious devotion. But, unlike Peter, neither seeks praise for her actions and yet both receive it.

Another instance of Peter’s hardheartedness occurs in relation to the cursing of the fig tree. Although the text makes it clear that the disciples heard Jesus curse the fig tree (11.14), Peter seems surprised that the tree has withered (11.21) despite the fact that Mark explicitly states that Peter remembered what Jesus said. The audience knows that there is no reason to doubt Jesus’ authority and prophecies at this point, but Peter still doubts. This incident foreshadows the scene where Peter again doubts Jesus’ prophecy (14.27-29).

We have already considered the Gethsemane scene but one more issue needs to be addressed. The first time that Jesus finds Peter and the others sleeping, he refers to him not as Peter but as Simon. If we understand Peter to be the rocky soil of the gospel, then perhaps Jesus is giving him one last chance to prove himself. Perhaps if Simon had been able to watch/keep awake in Gethsemane, then, by witnessing, or perhaps even hearing, Jesus’ prayer, Simon would have understood and not have been Peter, the rocky soil. However, the narrator at that point does use the name Peter, thus the verse reads, oddly, “. . . and he said to Peter, ‘Simon are you sleeping?'”(14.37 RSV). Therefore, it seems unlikely that Peter will be rehabilitated and, in fact, he is not.

The characterization of Peter worsens. In 14.27-31, not only is he arguing with Jesus again, but this time it is about whether Jesus is correctly prophesying and about this matter the audience has no doubt. The situation is even more ironic since Jesus’ prophecy is that Peter will deny him–and by arguing with him, Peter does deny him. The prophecy is instantly fulfilled. By comparing this section with 14.18-20, Peter fares even worse. When the disciples are confronted with Jesus’ prophecy that “one of you will betray me” (14.18 RSV), they wonder if it applies to them personally. When Peter is faced with a specific prophecy, he does not question himself, he questions Jesus.

And, soon, Jesus’ prophecy is fulfilled on another level. The narrative of Peter’s denial is intercalated with Jesus’ trials. The pattern is such:

Jesus is led to the high priest (14.53)
Peter goes into the courtyard (14.54)
Jesus’ identity is established by him (14.55-65)
Peter denies Jesus’ identity (14.66-72)

At the same time that Peter denies Jesus to the high priest’s maid, Jesus identifies himself to the high priest; this juxtaposition encourages the hearer to compare Peter’s denial with Jesus’ confession. As some mock Jesus by ordering him to prophesy (14.65), his prophecy concerning Peter is simultaneously coming true in the courtyard. Jesus is not bound (15.1) until Peter has betrayed him, which is reminiscent of the binding of the strong man before his house is plundered (3.27). That is, Jesus has stated that a person’s goods cannot be plundered unless s/he is bound; in the Passion, he does not have his meager possessions and his life taken until he is bound by the deceit of the strong man, Peter.

Peter’s last words in this gospel are “I do not know this person of whom you speak” (14.71 RSV). Some commentators suggest that the three women at the crucifixion and at the tomb are meant to replace the three disciples. This is a possibility and, if correct, it speaks to Peter’s demise and replacement by women who are able to watch. Yet there is another possibility and it, too, implies the end of Peter’s discipleship: at the tomb, the young man tells the women to “tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you” (16.7 RSV). Might this suggest hope for Peter’s redemption? The text indicates that it does not. First, he is referred to as Peter and not as Simon. The young man, who has quite a bit of credibility in the narrative, calls him Peter. Furthermore, Peter is separated from the disciples in the young man’s statement (“go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you,” 16.7 RSV) which may suggest that there is some hope for the redemption of the rest of the disciples (why would Jesus meet them in Galilee if their case is hopeless?).

But the most damning evidence against Peter’s rehabilitation comes from previously in the narrative. First, despite the traditional tendency to see Peter’s breaking down and weeping (14.72) as a sign of repentance, the narrative does not support this reading. If Peter realizes at this point that he has been mistaken, why has Mark not placed him in the crowd before Pilate, one lonely voice that does not demand Jesus’ crucifixion? Why is he not there–instead of his namesake (15.21)–to carry the cross? Why isn’t he with the women at the cross and at the tomb? Peter is not trying to reestablish followership merely because he sheds a few tears. If Mark intended the audience to understand that Peter was rehabilitated, then Mark could have narrated that event as clearly as Peter’s estrangement.

Secondly, the young man’s statement in 16.7 uses Jesus’ exact words from 14.28, which is emphasized since the young man says, “as he told you” (16.7). The hearer cannot help but remember Jesus’ prophecy of Peter’s denial at that point in the narrative. The hearer remembers that Peter does, in fact, deny Jesus (twice–by immediately fulfilling the prophecy by contradicting Jesus’ words in 14.29f and then by denying Jesus’ identity to the high priest’s maid in 14.68f) and has no rationale for thinking that this time will be any different. There is no reason to believe that Peter will be in Galilee; Jesus’ prophecy is merely that he himself will be in Galilee. And, as the hearer may know, Peter is associated with Jerusalem, not Galilee. Consequently, Peter is a total failure in Mark’s narrative world.

We have sketched the negative characterization of Peter in order to suggest that Peter’s ‘confession’ cannot be accepted at face value. Because of this characterization, the audience is immediately suspicious of Peter’s so-called confession and their suspicion is heightened because the incident begins with a question-and-answer about Jesus’ identity (8.27-28) that they have already heard: on the lips of Herod and his associates (6.14-16). When confronted, Peter states, “you are the Anointed One” (8.29). But while Peter can make an appropriate verbal confession, he does not understand his own words. Immediately after his statement, he rebukes Jesus (8.32). And Jesus’ rebuking response makes the characterization of Peter clear: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not on the side of God, but of [humans]” (8.33 RSV). When Peter rebukes Jesus and Jesus rebukes Peter, their exchange echoes language used elsewhere in the gospel in the context of exorcising demons; this exorcism-oriented language suggests that we are to understand Peter’s confession as analogous to the demons’ confessions. Peter might have used the right words to describe Jesus, but he does not understand who Jesus is. His naming attempt is like the demons’ efforts: a bid for power. The dialogue makes it clear that Jesus and Peter do not agree about what it means to be the Christ and the narrative structure supports the argument; Peter’s ‘confession’ is immediately preceded by the healing of a blind man and Peter gives a “half-blind answer.” Peter apparently comprehends the exalted Messiah (i.e., later in 9.5, he wants to make booths for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah) but cannot understand or accept the suffering Messiah, which is the confession of identity that Jesus makes (8.31) to correct Peter. Because Peter and the disciples are so focused on the idea of messianic glory, they simply cannot understand the necessity of Jesus’ suffering. For Mark, genuine confession requires a simultaneous understanding of the humble as well as the exalted Jesus. We must, therefore, dismiss Peter’s statement as faulty.

The Centurion’s Statement

Most commentators accept the centurion’s statement (15.39) as genuine and make it a focal point for Markan Christology. However, there are several reasons to believe that this so-called confession is not genuine. Consequently, while it may reveal accurate information, similar to the demons’ outbursts, it is hardly the primary Christological material of the gospel

The first problem is grammatical: the uHi`oß qeoü of 15.39 is anarthrous so it might be properly translated as either “the Son of God” or “a son of God,” unlike the parallel expression of the demons (3.11), which does include articles (Ho uHi`oß toü qeoü). (There is one additional occurrence of uHi`oß qeoü in the text 1; it is also anarthrous.) If “the Son of God” is preferable, then there might be some christological content (although we will show below why this is unlikely), but the second option indicates a more mundane saying: “It may simply mean a righteous man.”

Some scholars avoid this dilemma by suggesting that this verse follows Colwell’s rule, which states that in instances such as this, an article is not required. But Robert Fowler suggests that Colwell’s modest proposal is wrongly applied in this case:

. . . Mark and other New Testament writers use anarthrous predicate nouns thoughtfully and intriguingly to engage the reader through the use of ambiguity. The critic’s eagerness to find nouns either clearly definite or clearly indefinite reveals more about the modern yearning for clarity than it does about the syntax of Mark’s Greek.

So we must conclude that uHi`oß qeoü in 15.39 is ambiguous. But even if we assume that the preferable alternative is “the Son of God,” we must consider what this would have meant when attributed to a Roman soldier. Ched Myers outlines the arguments:

Many have pointed out that the centurion’s words could just as easily be interpreted as a general Hellenistic statement of respect: ‘This man was a son of God.’ Nor does his solemnity (‘Truly . . .”, alethos) carry particular weight, for Mark twice previously has put this exclamation on the lips of the discipleship community’s opponents (12.14, 14.70). Yet even if we do accept this as a confession, we have no guarantee of, and the theologians offer no good reason why we should assume, its legitimacy. . . . In other words, the title does not necessarily represent a ‘confession’ at all, but more often the hostile response of those struggling to gain power over Jesus by ‘naming’ him. . . . Rome has triumphed over the Nazarene, he has been ‘named’ by the executioner who pronounces him ‘dead’ (15.44f).

Furthermore, because of its position in the narrative, we cannot take the statement at face value: there is hardly a straightforward saying in the entire Passion narrative. This context of irony is important since the centurion’s words fall only a few verses after others have mockingly proclaimed Jesus the ‘King of the Jews’ (15.26), the ‘Christ’ (15.32), and the ‘King of Israel’ (15.32). Additionally, the bystanders at the cross literally misunderstand Jesus when they think that he is calling Elijah when he is calling God (15.35). Since it is in this context of mockery and misunderstanding that the centurion makes his statement, it is more logical to read the centurion’s comment as just another one of the taunts hurled at Jesus.

In order to support this position, we will show how the centurion’s statement meets the criteria for stable irony suggested by Wayne Booth. First, he notes that, although rare, a direct clue from the author–either in the author’s voice, a title, or an epigraph–is an obvious sign of irony. The text does give something of a direct clue here; the centurion is physically placed “standing over against him” (15.39 RSV) and this spatial tension suggests opposition.

Secondly, according to Booth, “if the speaker betrays ignorance or foolishness that is ‘simply incredible,’ the odds are comparatively high that the author, in contrast, knows what he [sic] is doing.” He gives, as an example of this phenomenon, a popular expression used incorrectly (e.g., “you could have heard a bomb drop”) or errors in historical facts or judgment. By suggesting that a dead criminal is God’s son in the Jewish tradition or a respected person in the Hellenistic tradition, a Roman centurion proclaiming that Jesus is uHi`oß qeoü is using a popular statement incorrectly.

The ignorance of the centurion is further established by Booth’s third criteria: a conflict of facts in the narrative suggests the presence of irony. The centurion’s statement does betray a conflict of facts: unlike the laudable minor characters, the centurion does not disappear from the scene after his confession. He merits a brief, second mention when Joseph of Arimathea asks Pilate for Jesus’ body and Pilate “learned from the centurion that he was dead.” (15.45 RSV). Here the centurion has an audience before Pilate, an opportunity to bravely confess his knowledge of uHi`oß qeoü in the pattern of true Markan followership (“You will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear testimony before them.” 13.9 RSV) and he merely acknowledges that Jesus is, in fact, dead.

This suggests another problem with the centurion’s so-called confession: he uses the imperfect tense, instead of the present, of the verb ‘to be’ (~jn) so that our translation properly reads “this man was uHi`oß qeoü.” The past tense suggests that ‘this man’ is no more; if the centurion understood Jesus’ victorious death, it is difficult to imagine why he would use the past tense. The two other uses of ‘Son of God’ in Mark (1.1 and 3.11) do not suggest that Jesus was, but rather that he is, the Son of God.

Booth’s fourth criteria, a clash of style, is more difficult to apply to the narrative since too little of the centurion’s commentary is given to establish a style for him. However, on a less literal level, there is perhaps a clash of confessional style between the centurion and Mark’s ideal follower: as suggested above, Mark’s narrative world is one in which genuine confession is not mere words but active followership. But the centurion’s only acts are to participate in the crucifixion of Jesus and to acknowledge his death–hardly the works of a follower.

The final criteria for stable irony that Booth presents is a conflict of belief or an illogicality. We have already shown this to some extent by noting the uncertainty of a gentile confessing Jesus to be uHi`oß qeoü. But there is more in this incident that does not follow the pattern of Markan confession/followership. As will be shown below, correct confession in Mark requires one to simultaneously acknowledge the suffering/dying and the royal/glorious Messiah, as the anointing woman does. Since the centurion has only seen half of the story, he is not in a position to make a proper confession. Much as Peter’s inadequate confession focuses exclusively on the royal/glorious side of Jesus, the centurion has only seen the suffering and dying. Furthermore, there is nothing that the centurion has seen that is particularly impressive; he has witnessed Jesus being mocked, tortured, and executed like a common criminal. Jesus’ suffering on the cross would not awe the centurion because it was not an exceptional level of physical suffering according to prevailing standards. On the other hand, although Jesus did die more quickly than typical, this departure from the law of averages is hardly enough to convince one that he is/was uHi`oß qeoü. Some scholars have suggested that the rending of the Temple veil provides the motivation for the centurion’s (genuine) confession. The problem with this interpretation is that the centurion does not know that the veil is ripped–Mark does not suggest any scenario for the centurion to see an event that happens elsewhere. Furthermore, what would this event have meant to a Roman soldier? Rather, the detail that the veil was torn is included for the benefit of the audience and it serves to heighten the irony of this mocking confession. Robert Fowler summarizes the arguments against reading the confession as genuine:

Are we supposed to believe that he is speaking sincerely? I have grave doubts about his sincerity. After all, what reason do we have to trust him? For one thing, as I have noted, virtually every comment uttered by every character in Mark’s Passion narrative is an oblique, indirect comment, either ironic, metaphorical, paradoxical, or ambiguous, or a combination of these. Consequently, why should we expect the centurion’s utterance in 15.39 to be straightforward? Especially in view of all the mockery of Jesus that takes place at the foot of the cross, why should we think that 15.39 is not more of the same cruel abuse? The narrator does not label the centurion’s comment as mockery, but the narrator usually does not explicitly signal ironic speech by characters. Jesus is mocked with honorific titles all the way through the Passion narrative. . . . Whichever way we turn, we cannot escape ambiguity in 15.39.

Booth suggests that irony usually has at least a trace of ambiguity. This is particularly true in the centurion’s statement, where the anarthrous construction makes it ambiguous. Consequently, we allow that there is a possibility that the confession might be genuine, although it is far more likely to have been made in mockery. But this ambiguity suggests that the centurion’s statement is not crucial christological material, since Mark is so precise in guiding the hearer to the predetermined stance of the author in other instances, such as the inappropriateness of Peter’s confession.


Juxtaposition of Peter, the centurion, and the anointing woman will lend further support to our thesis. Both the centurion and Peter can only see one side of Jesus and therefore can only make half of a confession. Peter can only focus on the glorious, miracle-working Christ and not on the suffering Jesus while the centurion has only seen the crucifixion and none of Jesus’ ministry. Also, when Peter and the centurion are mentioned later in the text, neither is true to the words that he has spoken. Peter denies and betrays Jesus and the centurion does nothing more than confirm his death before Pilate; both have chosen to ignore opportunities for true followership.

But the anointing at Bethany shows a sharp contrast to Peter and the centurion. As Grassi notes:
Peter had declared Jesus to be the Messiah but was rebuked for his failure to connect it with suffering and death (8.29-33). However, the Bethany woman anointed Jesus’ head as a king but understood his messianic kingship in terms of his coming death. . . . The Bethany story is so significant because it enters into the central Gospel question about Jesus’ identity: “Who do you say that I am?” (8.29). Peter confessed Jesus to be the Christos, the Messiah or Anointed One, but he failed to accept the title as being connected with suffering and death; therefore he was rebuked by Jesus (8.28-33). . . . In contrast to Peter’s misunderstanding, the Bethany woman anoints Jesus’ head and understands who he is.

The centurion and Peter fail because they only see half of Jesus’ identity while the anointing woman is able to integrate both the royal and suffering aspects of Jesus’ ministry. This thesis contends that the centurion is a something of a foil for the anointing woman. Both are unnamed characters in the gospel. He is symbolic of the proclamation to the whole world since he is a gentile, but his words do not match his deeds–unlike the woman’s wordless deeds. He makes a very public, mocking confession while her action in a private home seeks no recognition. It is of primary significance that her identification is silent while Peter and the centurion speak words that do not match their actions. It is clear that the two elements of Jesus’ identity cannot be summed up in a single word (even Christos) but require an action with multifaceted meanings.

Words are insufficient and titles simply cannot be trusted in Mark. They are ironic, misunderstood, ignored, or later denied. Even if, in some of these cases, the title might be acceptable, the overall portrayal of titles discourages the audience from trusting them in general and encourages them to turn elsewhere for Christology.

Where might they turn? There have been a few recent attempts to establish a non-titular Markan Christology. We will now consider the efforts of Tannehill and Broadhead to advance a non-titular Christology. Tannehill proposes a narrative christological approach to Mark; unfortunately, he very quickly returns to the “tyranny of titles.” Tannehill casts Jesus as a helper, influencer, conqueror, protector, corrector, etc., but the problem is that he only considers the incidents where Jesus is an active–not a passive–participant. Tannehill only sees Jesus as passive when he is being victimized. Perhaps for this reason he does not mention the anointing at Bethany, where Jesus is silent for the duration of the act and is the passive recipient of the woman’s deed. But even if we expand Tannehill’s analysis to include a passive Jesus, there is still a flaw in his work: he seems to consider the narrative only long enough to distill new titles from it. He, too, denies the power of the narrative by only using the story as a mine from which titles might be plundered.

A second approach is offered by Edwin Broadhead, who argues for a priestly portrait of Jesus in Mark. He relies mostly on the narrative and its structure to make his argument. But the major flaw with his work is that he nowhere mentions the anointing, which is an especially egregious oversight since he quotes Leviticus 16.32-34 to establish the role of the priest–“the priest who is anointed.” Further support for fitting the anointing into a priestly Christology comes from his own conclusions about the nature of the priestly Christology in Mark. He sees the priestly portrait as intertwined with religious controversies, which is also true for the anointing story since the woman’s act is criticized. His second observation is that priestly Christology is tied to the Passion in particular and the plot of the narrative in general, which, again, is true for the anointing. It is perhaps the sexism of his work noted in the introduction that prevents him from seeing how logically the anointing at Bethany fits into his schema.

Because of the limitations of traditional Christology, we will propose a new type of Markan Christology: an active, silent, title-less confession of Jesus made by a woman whose complete devotion gives her the authority to name Jesus.

Establishing the Context

This chapter, well, establishes the background to the story. So good background info but not essential.

Simon the Leper

In this chapter, we will consider the various social contexts of 14.3-9 in preparation for a discussion of the text itself in chapter four. The anointing pericope is intriguing because of the details that Mark chose to include and to leave out. The text informs us that the dinner is held in the house of Simon the Leper, which was probably shocking to Mark’s audience. So many questions arise from this simple phrase: Was Simon present? Was he even alive? Was he healed? Was he healed by Jesus or perhaps by a priest? Or was he still a leper?

Some scholars suggest that Mark must intend for the audience to conclude that the leper must have been cured since it was standard to exclude lepers from society. This would have been an important matter since Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, which required him to be ritually clean. Was Jesus annulling the requirements of ritual purity? While some scholars suggest that this was indeed the case, Jacob Neusner counters that:

. . . if the story-teller intended to claim that by staying with a leper on the eve of the Passover, Jesus intended to annul the law of purity in the cult–or to annul the cult entirely, taking it over into his Church–that rather significant claim has then not been spelled out and therefore cannot be inferred on the basis of a single curious detail.

Nonetheless, this odd detail would have caught the attention of Mark’s hearers and probably caused them to ponder some of the questions suggested above. We can only speculate regarding their queries and possible answers.

Perhaps Mark has constructed the narrative to suggest that Simon was cured by Jesus; possibly he is the leper cleansed in 1.40-45. If this is the case, then it might be useful to compare 1.40-45 with the anointing pericope. Several echoes emerge. The approach of the leper to Jesus is similar to the woman’s approach since both are violations of social norms; however, the leper makes his request on his knees while the woman silently stands above Jesus and performs her bold act. Jesus touches the leper; the woman touches Jesus. Jesus’ command to “say nothing to any one” (1.44 RSV) is the opposite of his statement that the woman’s deed will be a memorial “wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world” (14.9 RSV).

The leper proclaims (kjrússein) what has happened much as Jesus prophesies that the woman’s deed will be proclaimed (kjrucq”^j). We also have the same verb in both passages: the objectors “reproach” (henebrim”wnto) the woman (14.5) and Jesus “sternly charges” (hembrimjsámenoß) the leper (1.43). The purpose of this echo might be to emphasize the emotional content of each incident (the verb literally means “snort”), although it does seem odd that Mark would give the objectors and Jesus the same reaction. It might function, much as the previous injunctions to support the poor (10.21), to emphasize the unusualness of the anointing. Another similarity might be found in the ending of the cleansing: much as the proclamation of the leper’s healing made it difficult for Jesus to “openly enter a town” (1.45 RSV), the anointing prepared him for his death and made it impossible for Jesus to openly enter Jerusalem.

Of course, the above analysis is predicated on the assumption that Simon the leper is the healed leper from the beginning of the gospel. This is only a supposition. Other possibilities include the suggestion that Simon the leper was known to the audience.

It is possible that Mark intends for the audience to think that Simon has not, in fact, been healed of his leprosy. Jesus might have intentionally dined with a leper as a part of his radical understanding of purity laws. If this is true, then we should assume that the other guests are also marginalized and/or radical because they are in the leper’s house. But, again, this is speculation. Other writers suggest that just because the meal was at Simon’s house does not imply that he was present. Ultimately, there is no definitive way to decide these issues. It is perhaps better to consider what the phrase “in the house of Simon the leper” contributes to the story regardless of Simon’s actual condition.

First, Mark may intend for the hearer to compare and thus differentiate Simon the leper from Simon Peter, which would be ironic since the logic of the text brings kudos for the leper and scorn for the leader. There are many parallels between Peter’s so-called confession and the anointing, which supports the hypothesis that the leper would be a foil for Peter. As the head of the disciples, Peter should be providing hospitality and comfort to Jesus but instead he is nowhere to be found in this pericope (unless we assume that he is included in the “some” who object) where a leper provides a meal for Jesus. Simon the leper may relate to Simon the rock in another way: since lepers were commanded to live alone, the leper might prefigure Simon Peter’s isolation from the kingdom of God. Or it might signify Jesus’ loneliness: if we assume that the disciples are not a part of the “some” who object, then Jesus is spending one of his last nights alive in the company of strangers instead of with his chosen disciples. And Peter will treat Jesus as a leper when he denies him. It is also possible that the leper’s presence is intended to prefigure the anointing since lepers were anointed at the conclusion of their purification. Perhaps the very mention of the leper prepares the hearer for something unusual to follow, as indeed the anointing is. Also, the preservation of Simon’s name, which is not as important to the story as the woman’s name (which is not recorded) might serve to highlight the irony of the story. Simon is remembered by his disease (which apparently is not very important to Mark since we do not hear anything definitive about it), while the woman is left nameless despite her immortalizing act.

The phrase “the leper” also contributes to the death and impurity imagery that Mark develops throughout the anointing pericope. Josephus believed that the leprous are equivalent to the dead, so Jesus’ later statement about his burial garners new meaning if we understand it to figuratively take place in the realm of the dead. And if the leper had been healed, it is as if he had returned from the dead. Mark might be intentionally playing on the audience’s inability to determine whether Simon is recovered in order to emphasize the life-and-death, glory-and-suffering themes of the anointing: the infected leper casts the pall of death while the audience’s likely conclusion that the leper is healed suggests a return from the dead. Much as the anointing has dual meanings, the presence of the leper signifies both death and renewed life.

The Poor

Unfortunately, Jesus’ statement that “you always have the poor with you” (14.7 RSV) has been used over the millennia to justify the abandonment of the downtrodden. We suggest that Jesus was not condoning poverty and will focus on determining why the statement was made. The “some” who object are probably the most sympathetic of all of Jesus’ opponents in the gospel; after all, they merely reiterate Jesus’ suggestion made to the wealthy young man that he “sell what [he has], and give to the poor” (10.21 RSV). The poor were quite likely on the minds of all present because the poor were given special gifts at Passover and the very word “Bethany” extends this theme since it means “house of the poor.” Therefore the objection made is that the woman is not following the customary Passover traditions; instead, she is making a one-time gesture that is appropriate to the unusual situation. Since the cost of the woman’s ointment was at least a year’s wages for a laborer, her act does seem outrageously extravagant, especially in the context of first century Palestinian socioeconomic conditions. Bruce Malina explains:

. . . in the closed type of society we are considering, the honorable persons would certainly strive to avoid and prevent the accumulation of capital, since they would see it a threat to the community and community balance, rather than a precondition to economic and social improvement. Since all goods are limited, one who seeks to accumulate capital is necessarily dishonorable; the operative dirty word in this regard is ‘greed.’ A person could not accumulate wealth except through the loss and injury suffered by another.

Nonetheless, Jesus sharply disagrees with the objectors. But the real division is not between “Jesus” and “the poor” but between “not always” and “always.” Jesus’ words suggest that there will be other Passovers when the poor can be helped, but this will be the last feast for him. Also, as Jesus’ words indicate, the woman has actually done her good deed, while giving to the poor can be done at any time. He might be suggesting that, at the very least, her good intentions have been actualized while her objectors are merely thinking about giving to the poor instead of actually doing it. Again, we see Mark’s contrast between cheap words and costly action; the woman is doing what must be done while the objectors are only talking about it. But, once again, Mark is not completely abandoning tradition; rather, s/he is merely reshaping it. Jesus’ argument falls in line with Rabbinic thought since what he says is “reminiscent of the Rabbinic doctrine that almsgiving is less praiseworthy than the other ‘good works,’ one reason being that the former can be done only for the living while the latter extend also to the dead.” Instead of a complete repudiation of Jewish tradition, Mark makes selective use of the available material. This practice is in line with the idea proposed in the introduction: that Mark’s Jesus is part of a renewal movement instead of a rejection of Judaism.

It is also possible to see the discussion of the “poor” and the “waste” as metaphorical. The woman has committed the consummate act of followership and Jesus acknowledges it as such; this is metaphorically represented by the fact that her gift cost an entire year’s wages. The “some” who complain that the cost is too great represent Peter and the others who are only willing to sacrifice up to a point for the sake of followership. They see her gift as extravagant: cannot one be a true follower and give a little less? Jesus answers in the negative; her gift is appropriate and necessary. It is no more extravagant than the death and messiahship which it commemorates. Because of the phrasing, the ointment, at “more than three hundred denarii” (14.5 RSV), has immeasurable, infinite value. The same could be said of Jesus’ death. Thus, the christological content of the anointing is linked to its implications for followership. Mark suggests that a christological confession should be supported by deeds of true followership.

Although the objectors seem to be advocating an ethical cause, they actually focus on the economic, temporal aspects of the anointing in a manner that indicates that they do not understand its spiritual, christological, and prophetic implications. Ultimately, they fail because they have chosen a lesser good. While we will stop short of understanding the “some” to be the disciples, there are a few incidents that illustrate that the disciples have a similarly mistaken view of what is happening around them because, in several instances, they focus on money or temporal reality instead of on the higher good of the kingdom of God. For example, when Jesus proposes that they feed the multitude, they wonder if they should spend two hundred denarii on bread (6.37). Instead of seeing the metaphorical meaning of the “leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod” (8.15 RSV), they contemplate their lack of bread (8.16). There are only three references to denarii in Mark: the anointing, the feeding miracle discussed above, and the controversy over paying taxes to Caesar (12.15). In all three cases, money is the concern of those who do not understand Jesus. It does not matter whether the objectors to the anointing are charitable or greedy; the real issue is that their concern with money blinds them to spiritual realities. Also, it is not as if the anointing woman’s act is motivated by greed; she does not keep the ointment for herself but lavishes it on Jesus. The careful hearer would also remember the story of the widow and her tiny donation to the Temple and know that Mark’s Jesus is concerned that one give “all;” not with the amount of that “all.”

Jesus’ statement about the poor has a very close parallel in Deuteronomy 15.11: “For the poor will never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in the land” (RSV). The context of this verse is the practice of the seventh-year release, which, according to the text, is designed to alleviate social inequality in Israel (i.e., the result of the sabbatical is that “there will be no poor among you,” Deut 15.4 RSV). Deuteronomy 15.3-11 focuses on one’s motivation for lending money (which should not be to gain wealth by accumulating interest but rather to assist someone in need) in light of the knowledge that the sabbath year is impending. The text suggests that one who refuses to lend money because of the impending release is sinful. The relevant passage reads:

. . . but you shall open your hand to him, and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be. Take heed lest there be a base thought in your heart, and you say, “The seventh year, the year of release is near,” and your eye be hostile to your poor brother, and you give him nothing, and he cry to the Lord against you, and it be sin in you. You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him; because for this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. (Deut 15.8-10 RSV)

Jesus is suggesting that the woman, although aware that his death is near and that she is, therefore, unlikely to have her kindness “repaid,” has “give[n] to him freely” and thus contrasts with those whose hearts are “grudging,” despite the fact that it is not their ointment that has been used. Their motive is comparable to those who do not lend money for fear of the impending year of release. The woman, however, has provided him with what is “sufficient for his need” by anointing him for burial and to be the Messiah. Therefore, her action differs from giving alms to the poor because, according to Jewish thought, she will not be compensated for performing a burial anointing as one would be for giving alms. Of course, in a typical Markan reversal, she is compensated–by Jesus’ praise and prophecy of memorial.

Social Conventions and the Woman’s Act

We now turn our attention to the anointing woman herself. How would Mark’s audience have perceived her entry into the dinner and act of anointing? Did these aspects of the story challenge social norms of women’s behavior or merely conform to them? Some interpreters suggest that the presence of the woman at the meal or her anointing was not objectionable; only the cost of the ointment was problematic. Admittedly, the objectors only mention the amount of money involved, but, to state the case in modern terms, if someone poured perfume costing a year’s wages on a dinner guest, the shocking value of the act might override all other considerations, at least momentarily. Jesus’ comments would most likely prevent any other objections from the observers. We cannot, therefore, assume that the woman’s presence or actions were unobjectionable; we must consider the evidence for women’s roles in, primarily, first century Palestinian Judaism but also in the Hellenistic world more generally.

The immediate problem with trying to determine the propriety of the woman’s act is the lack of sources. While there are several options, not one is specifically the product of the first century. The Torah was codified centuries earlier and there is no way to determine to what extent its regulations would have been followed by any given community. For the purity issues in particular, we are in a time of transition: do they still apply, as they had historically, only to those entering the Temple, or is the influence of the Pharisees such that at this point all common Israelites are maintaining the purity laws in their own homes? We do not know to what extent Pharisaic practices had infiltrated the circles in which (Mark’s) Jesus lived. The rabbinic rules of the Mishnah are still at least one century away from codification; we do not know to what extent these rules held sway in the first century. Additionally, the Mishnah describes an ideal society and, therefore, it is questionable to what extent its regulations would have been observed by regular people in daily life. The Talmud is even farther removed, chronologically, from the time period under consideration.
An additional difficulty is determining to what extent Palestine would have been following the practices of the Hellenistic world, since, on the one hand, Jewish women were affected by Roman culture but, at the same time, Jews were not completely assimilated into Hellenism because of their purity laws. Despite (or, perhaps, because of) the multiplicity of sources, it is a formidable challenge to determine which regulations would have applied and to what extent. We can only survey the possibilities.

The Bible recognizes seven sources of impurity: unclean animals, childbirth, leprosy, diseased houses, bodily discharges, sexual misdeeds, and corpses. Because the themes of leprosy and corpses (and, perhaps, the diseased house, bodily discharge, and sexual misdeed) are present in the anointing pericope, it is evident that purity issues are significant in this text. Women are a constant threat to purity because of their frequent uncleanness due to menstruation and childbirth. Thus they were excluded from cultic practice and their movement was strictly limited. It is perhaps from this separation that the concept of “female space” derived with its distinction between public and private space. But practices of secluding women varied and it is unlikely that all Jews agreed on the necessity of female seclusion. At least some, probably wealthy, women were confined to their homes. Furthermore,
Female space or female things–the places where females are allowed, the things that females deal with exclusively, such as the kitchen and kitchen utensils, the (public) well and drawing water, spinning and sewing, the (public) oven and bread baking, sweeping out the house, et cetera–all these female spaces and things are centripetal to the family dwelling or village of residence. That means they face toward the inside, with a sort of invisible magnet of social pressure turning females inward, toward their space in the house or the village.

The concept of female space raises interesting questions about the anointing. Since the dinner is in a private home, it would seem that the woman is acting properly by maintaining herself in an appropriate space. This, in a sense, adds to the irony: if the woman cannot go to the Temple, the Temple will come to her. But, on the other hand, we have no indication that this is her home; rather, it appears that she has entered into Simon’s home, uninvited, from the street. It seems that Mark is intentionally toying with the concept of space, much as with the leper’s house. The risk of impurity is heightened because the Bible suggests that purity is inversely correlated to one’s distance from the Temple. Because Jesus has chosen to remain distant from the Temple by spending the night in Bethany when, as a pilgrim he could have had free lodging in Jerusalem, it appears that he has chosen to be impure.

There is another purity issue to consider: the impurity of the dead. The Mishnah suggests that “the uncleanness of a man is exceeded by the uncleanness of a woman, whose uncleanness is exceeded by that of a leper, then by that of a corpse.” This statement is particularly interesting in the context of the anointing since we have a man, a woman, a leper, and a (future) corpse. Since women were already considered generally impure, it became their responsibility to anoint the dead.

The issue of the woman’s purity cannot be resolved; that is, the burial anointing makes her impure, yet she must be pure (i.e., worthy of participating in the cult) to perform the messianic anointing. Mark has created a compelling tension. There is yet another layer of irony in the text since weeping was the official duty of women at funerals. Mark is perhaps toying with the notion of what constitutes the woman’s “appropriate role.”

That appropriate role might have been defined by what would later become the Mishnaic classification of women. We have already considered the potential problems with using mishnaic evidence to establish Mark’s understanding of Jewish tradition, so we will proceed with caution. We do not know to what extent Pharisaic views were normative in this context, but we can discern from the text that the debate with the Pharisees was a very real concern for Mark. The disputes between Jesus and the Pharisees suggest that, at least, the Pharisaic viewpoint was considered to be a possible orthodoxy and that they did try to convince others to follow their regulations (2.16, 18, 24, 7.5, 8.11, 10.2, 12.13). The Mishnah is a difficult source to work with for other reasons as well. It sets out the regulations related solely to difficult situations of the law; it does not claim to be a comprehensive, systematic law code. Its inclusion of minority opinions can be useful in that it illustrates that not all views were monolithic and universal. For example, the sages disagree about whether a woman should be allowed to learn Torah.

But there is a general, systematic understanding of women in the Mishnah. In Judith Wegner’s oft-quoted analysis, she contends that the Mishnah divides women into two groups, one of which controls its own sexuality (emancipated daughters, divorced women, and widows) and a second group, which does not (minor daughters, wives, and levirate widows). The Mishnah considers a woman in the former category to be a “person,” while women in the latter are “chattel,” because a man has a vested interest in their sexual functions. Yet even an autonomous woman could never be considered a man’s equal because of her exclusion from the public domain. And “whether dependent or autonomous, however, no woman could exert authority over any man in the community in any situation. . . . It may be that they could not imagine any woman possibly having authority over ‘a priest of God.'”

This division of women is particularly interesting in the context of the anointing because the way to determine the propriety of the woman’s act (i.e., her marital status and age), is not provided by Mark. We will later consider how and why this is an intentional move and the effect that it has on the audience.

Although the Mishnah does heavily restrict women, we cannot assume that all Jewish women were restricted. There were differences between Jews living in Hellenistic cities and those living in a largely Jewish social world as well as differences between rural and urban Jews. The archaeological evidence suggests that some women did indeed have prominent public roles. There is evidence of women’s leadership in the ancient synagogue, including female patrons. One interesting inscription concerns a woman named Rufina, who is identified as the head of a synagogue. It suggests that Rufina was an active participant in public life. What bearing has this archaeological evidence on the anointing pericope? It suggests a context for the involvement of women in religious life correlated with the woman’s own financial resources. The Markan story thus seems to resonate with a tendency in its milieu toward the involvement of wealthy women in religious life. The evidence also suggests that there is more to the story of women’s roles than the conservative textual record suggests. It encourages us to view the woman’s act, and Mark’s rhetoric in general, as part of a trend in Judaism toward increased women’s involvement rather than as a completely unique, innovative act designed to show how Christianity rescued women from the oppressive confines of patriarchal Judaism.

While an exhaustive study of women in the Hellenistic world is beyond the scope and needs of this paper, we will note that, generally speaking, woman threatened man’s virility, his valour, and his life. Apart from the direct damage she could do him, there was also, more threatening still, the power she possessed to bring dishonour on his name. Lustful and uncontrollable, she was the weak link in the family chain of honour. And when she abandoned the modest, submissive role through which society wisely sought to restrain her volatile nature, the whole structure of ordered existence was thrown into jeopardy. Prudent states had instituted a special magistracy of ‘women-controllers.’

So, despite differing Greek notions (such as the idea that menstruation was actually a purification instead of a pollution), the woman’s presence at the dinner is not acceptable.

Table Practices in Antiquity

Social norms in the context of table fellowship were a key issue in the first century. As Jacob Neusner explains:

The dominant trait of Pharisaism before 70 is depicted both in the rabbinic traditions about the Pharisees and in the Gospels as concern for certain matters of rite. In particular, the rite was of eating one’s meals in a state of ritual purity as if one were a Temple priest, and carefully giving required tithes and offerings due to the priesthood.

Not only are there intra-Jewish disputes over purity in the context of meals, but Judaism is also influenced by external factors, particularly Greco-Roman banquet customs to the extent that both Mishnah and Talmud state that the Passover meal should be consumed while reclining.

How did this emphasis on communal meals affect women? Although practices were in a state of flux in the first century, we can say that, generally, women in a Hellenistic context did not participate in formal banquets with men without sacrificing their reputations, although there is the beginning of a trend toward Roman women participating in banquets. The fact that Jewish women generally did eat with men resulted in a misunderstanding by Hellenistic writers: they assumed that Jewish women were promiscuous. Although a woman’s presence at a meal in a Jewish context is not extraordinary, the taint of subversiveness still exists in the anointing pericope. The woman is not identified as the wife, mother, sister, or daughter of any of the participants and it appears that she enters the house uninvited from the street. And, most importantly, her act of anointing is decidedly unorthodox. Jesus’ statement in 14.9 precludes seeing this woman in the context of proper domestic behavior, since her semi-private act will be proclaimed to the entire world.

The Anointing Woman’s Anonymity

All we know about her is that she came and anointed Jesus; we do not know to whom she is related, where she is from, her marital status, or even whether she is Jew or gentile. We can assume that she is a woman of means because she has a year’s wages worth of nard at her disposal, but her only real identifying marker is her gender. Some commentators suggest that the lack of a name reflects a gap in the tradition and others suggest that the woman’s anonymity is evidence of misogyny; that is, it serves to diminish her and her action. This line of reasoning leads interpreters to conclude that women are not powerful in Mark. It is the contention of this paper, however, that her anonymity does not diminish her power. This section will show how the woman’s namelessness functions in the narrative in a manner that liberates.

From an examination of court cases (which, of course, are not completely similar to the material under consideration but may nonetheless provide some background), we learn that women are only named when the speaker wants to dishonor them. Because there is some risk of the audience perceiving the woman as having a questionable reputation, it is possible that Mark leaves out her name in order to spare her dishonor. But, Mark is not particularly concerned with this type of social norm, so it is perhaps ironic that he leaves out her name (which is usually done to protect a woman’s modesty) in a situation where she is boldly acting as a prophet and where Jesus proclaims that the entire world will know of her act.

Adele Reinhartz’s discussion of the use of anonymity in the books of Samuel is insightful, especially given the intertextual links between 1 Samuel 10 and the anointing. She notes that a proper name has two functions in the construction of character: as a unifier to which one can attach all of the information known about a person and as a tool for distinguishing that person from others. This suggests that the woman is not strongly differentiated from the other (female) characters and emphasizes the intratextual parallels in Mark. Although there is not very much to be known about the anointing woman as a character, we still do not have a name to join all of the available information together. She becomes more typical instead of individuated because she is not differentiated by a name.

This analysis concurs with Mary Ann Tolbert’s observations regarding the function of characterization in ancient novels. The woman is more of a type (of the ideal follower) than she is a distinct character, which is extremely significant since she is taking on the role usually restricted to the one identified as a prophet in Israel. The subtext of the passage is, then, that the prophetic role is available to all (women).

Reinhartz discusses the three important nameless women in Samuel (1 Sam 28.3-25, 2 Sam 14.1-24, 2 Sam 20.14-22). They have many parallels to the anointing woman; they are anonymous to the main characters and are sought out for their anonymity. (In Mark, however, it is the woman who seeks Jesus out). Significantly, “all three have communication as their primary function.” The anointing woman communicates to the audience (and, perhaps, to Jesus?) the true nature of his messiahship. Furthermore, the passages emphasize the women’s professional functions. Her namelessness actually enhances her prophetic functions by not distracting the audience with other information about her that is less relevant than the simple fact that she is a prophet. Finally, the women are crucial to the advancement of the plot. We have considered above how the anointing shapes and unifies the Passion narrative and will consider below how the anointing defines Jesus. Overall, the similar functions of the anonymous women in Samuel and the anointing woman are remarkable.

It is most likely the case that the lack of a name makes the woman paradigmatic of “Woman standing in the prophetic office for Israel.” The relevant fact about her is that she is female–not that she is a gentile, not that she is from Galilee, not that she is Jairus’s wife. The lack of other identifying markers forces the audience to focus on her gender while this same dearth of specificity makes her femaleness the most relevant requirement for her task. It also suggests that her ministry is not exclusive to any group, since the audience cannot mistakenly think that her identification with any group (except, perhaps, her gender) has authorized her for her ministry. And as we have considered, naming, names, and words in Mark are usually not a good thing. Judas, for example, with his triple naming (“Judas Iscariot one of the twelve” 14.10) stands in sharp relief to the anonymous woman. In Mark, her anonymity gives her power.


This chapter shows how the anointing story relates to other scripture stories–important but not crucial.

Narrative Structure

We will next consider the narrative structure of the text because Mark often relies on the juxtaposition of texts to create meaning. Often, the similarities, as well as the differences, between two or more stories encourage the audience to compare the stories. As E. S. Malbon explains:

Mark’s rhetoric is one of juxtaposition–placing scene over against scene in order to elicit comparison, contrast, insight. This juxtaposition includes repetition, not only of scenes but also of words and phrases; duality is widespread. Juxtaposition also includes intercalation–splicing one story into another–and framing–placing similar stories as the beginning and the end of a series. In addition, juxtaposition includes foreshadowing and echoing of words, phrases, and whole events. Echoing and foreshadowing may be intratextual (within a text) or intertextual (between texts).

In this section, we will consider other narratives in Mark that relate to the anointing in order to elucidate the text in its narrative context. First, we will explore the placement of the anointing episode in the plot structure: it is the beginning of the Passion narrative, which gives it a privileged position indeed. It is the textual transition between Jesus’ daily life and the story of his death; but it is also the theological transition between the two and a most appropriate link between his life and death since it encapsulates a duality of meaning: he is both the royal/glorious Messiah and the suffering/dying Messiah. Its placement also emphasizes crucial dual themes in the text: the increasing unity with and the increasing separation from Jesus evidenced by the various characters in the Passion. The placement of the anointing in the Passion narrative also serves to remove any possible hint of sexual impropriety that some interpreters find in the anointing; this is a time of suffering and death, not carnal indulgence. Because the very words Messiah and Christ mean “anointed,” the anointing pericope is a crucial clue to the Passion narrative.

Marianne Sawicki has proposed two useful ways to view the structure of the Passion. In the first, she suggests that four “broken cornerstones” frame the Passion: the broken flask (14.3), the broken bread (14.22), the violated body (15.15-25), and the altered tombstone (16.4). This schema sees the physical acts of the Passion–and not the verbal declarations–as the central material. It compliments her second suggestion that “it is the three nonverbal signs of Mark 14–the messianic grooming, the eucharist, and the kiss–that cannot be undone.” She focuses on the tactile, active signs and symbols that create the meaning of the gospel. After all, for Mark, the gospel climaxes with what Jesus has physically done (dying and rising) instead of focusing on his teachings, which occupy a much smaller portion of the text than in the other gospels.

Another narrative marker is the use of time in the gospel as a whole and in the anointing in particular. The frequent use of the word “immediately” (ehuq`uß, used 41 times in Mark) tends to give the text the quality of “rushing to imminent conclusion.” There is only one precise time reference in the gospel: “it was now two days before the Passover and the feast of Unleavened Bread” (14.1 RSV), which introduces the anointing. The anointing is the only precisely-timed act in the gospel; perhaps this specificity is related to Jesus’ command that the deed be memorialized. It also functions as a break in the rushing narrative, much like slow motion photography used in a crucial scene to emphasize a film’s action. It might also acknowledge the singularity of the event since it is the only one in the text that is so clearly bound by time. The anointing scene is an integral part of the passion narrative, where time is slow and specific as opposed to the fast and imprecise time of the rest of the gospel. Mark has set off the anointing, and the parallel death plot, from the rest of the text through the use of the only definite time reference. We will now consider specific stories in Mark that provide context for the anointing.

Three Bold Women

There is a triumvirate in the gospel of Mark: three women who interact differently with Jesus than others do because they so boldly approach him. They are the woman with the hemorrhage (5.24-34), the Syrophoenician woman (7.24-30), and the woman who anoints Jesus. By comparing and contrasting the stories of these women, several thematic patterns in Mark become apparent.

The bleeding woman approaches Jesus in a crowd with the hope that by touching him she will be healed/saved. Her story is intercalated with the raising of Jairus’ daughter, which serves to accentuate the themes of life/death and purity/impurity. The little girl is dead, making her impure to Jesus’ touch, while the menstruating woman is unclean and should also make Jesus impure by her touch. But in both instances, Jesus instead makes the women pure.

The similarities to the anointing are plenty: first, both stories are intercalated in a way that emphasizes the theme of death. Both the bleeding woman and the anointing woman approach Jesus boldly in a way that risks his purity, but this does not concern Jesus in either story. In both cases there is a sort of objection (the “some” complain about the waste of ointment, the disciples wonder how Jesus can isolate one touch from the crowd) from men who do not understand what is happening. While the anointing woman prepares Jesus for his suffering and burial, the bleeding woman suffered (paqoüsa) many things–a word used only for her and for Jesus in this text (8.31, 9.12). Additionally, the bleeding woman’s story indicates that she has “spent all that she had” (5.26 RSV); like the widow and the anointer, she is willing to give everything for her salvation/cure (5.28, where literally she says, “swq’jsomai””””””””””) in the pattern of followership. The intercalation of the bleeding woman’s story with that of Jairus’s daughter serves to emphasize each woman’s link to the tribes of Israel since the number twelve is associated with both (5.25, 42). Similarly, the anointing woman acts as Israel’s prophet by anointing Israel’s new king.

Most importantly, like the other pivotal, truthful occurrences in Mark, this event is tactile instead of being primarily verbal. There is a chain of touching and reaction in Mark, always involving women and Jesus, as Susan Lochrie Graham explains:

The touch of the woman with the flow of blood preceded the raising of Jairus’ daughter. The touch of this [anointing] woman precedes the flow of Jesus’ own blood which in turn will precede his resurrection. She is in touch with him, present to him in a way that no one else is, in one act both preparing his body for death and acknowledging him as the anointed one, the Messiah.

The bleeding woman has prefigured the anointing through themes common to both.

Mark’s second bold woman is a Greek who bravely seeks an exorcism for her daughter. We find many similarities between her story and the anointing. Jesus is in a house and is approached by an uninvited woman. Like the anointing woman, she does not demure in the face of what she must know will be opposition. The Syrophoenician woman is the only character in the gospel who argues with Jesus–and wins. She is not satisfied with his initial answer and she pushes him until she receives what she wants. As with the anointing, “Jesus is shown receiving from a woman in ways he is never shown receiving from men.”

These two women appear to be powerful–almost more powerful than Jesus, whom they correct and stand over (literally, in order to anoint). Unlike the anointing woman, the Syrophoenician woman is not silent, but neither does she make grandiose proclamations and confessions that her behavior later betrays. The veracity of her words is perhaps emphasized by the fact that she falls down at Jesus’ feet (7.25). The anointing woman can tower over Jesus because she makes no magnificent (and therefore suspect) verbal confessions. To speak, and speak the truth, the Syrophoenician woman falls to her knees.

All three of these women take action, unbidden and inappropriate according to prevailing social codes, to which Jesus reacts. He ignores any possible infraction of the social norms made by these women in order to focus on what the women themselves consider important. If we conflate the characters, we notice that a pattern emerges: the bleeding woman asks Jesus indirectly, the Syrophoenician woman asks directly, and the anointing woman gives directly. The faith of the twelve flounders as the narrative proceeds and the minor women characters advance in their relationship to Jesus.

These three women shape the course of Jesus’ mission. The bleeding woman interrupts Jesus on his way to Jairus’ daughter so that he must raise her from the dead instead of merely healing her. This is emblematic of Jesus’ relationship to the house of Israel, which is, according to Mark, past healing and needs stronger measures (cf. the parable of the vineyard where the servants [prophets] cannot accomplish their work and so the son must be called in). We have noted the association between the little girl and Israel since the text (awkwardly) notes that she was twelve years old (5.42). Similarly, the Syrophoenician woman changes Jesus’ relation to Israel by insisting that his power be available to all. And, finally, the anointing woman, acting as a prophet in Israel, establishes (in a way that redefines the expectations) Jesus’ relationship to Israel’s traditions. All three of these women reshape Jesus’ mission in relation to Israel; they show him his path. While each woman reconfigures Jesus’ relationship to Israel in a different way, there are commonalities–not the least of which is that it is women who affect his path. Also, they redefine the prevailing tradition in a more inclusive way so that the whole world as well as Israel can be saved. Perhaps it is these women who are the faithful counterparts to the failed Peter, James and John. Not only do the women follow, but they also lead the way.

Temple, House, and Lepers

The contrasting spaces of the end of the gospel–house and Temple, Bethany and Jerusalem–serve to elucidate some of Mark’s theological themes. We have, first, the contrast between Jerusalem and Bethany. Although only a few miles away, Bethany stands in sharp distinction to the holy city for Mark. Jesus chooses to stay in Bethany, which is particularly significant because as a pilgrim to the festival, he was entitled to free lodging in Jerusalem. But he chooses the company of a leper in Bethany. The Dead Sea Scrolls suggest that an area should be established just east of Jerusalem for lepers; it is possible that Bethany might be this location and that Mark might be encouraging this association.

Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple may be the backdrop for the setting of the anointing. J. Duncan M. Derrett argues persuasively that the cleansing of the Temple in Mark (11.15-19) and the prophecy of its destruction (13.2) suggest that Mark has patterned Jesus’ relationship to the Temple after the procedure for dealing with a leprous house. Leviticus prescribes, first, a cleansing of a leprous home (Lev 14.39-42, cf. Mark 11.15-19). Later, the priest will return to inspect the house and if it is still corrupt, “he shall break down the house, its stones and timber and all the plaster of the house; and he shall carry them forth out of the city to an unclean place” (Lev 14.45 RSV). There is an echo here of Jesus’ prophecy that “there will not be left here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down” (13.2 RSV). The possessions of a leper’s house would be scattered, since it was probably the lepers’ greed (i.e., the leper’s own unwillingness to charitably “scatter” his/her possessions) that caused their affliction. Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple shortly after noting the corruption of the Jerusalem religious establishment and their greed (12.35-37). In fact, most of the material between Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple and the prediction of its demise concerns Jesus’ encounters with the religious authorities who question him. Jesus is, through these encounters, gathering his proof that the Temple, as paradigmatic of the religious establishment, is still unclean.

Assuming that Derrett’s analysis is correct, the implications for the anointing are profound. Mark has condemned the Temple as hopelessly leprous and incapable of fulfilling its functions. At the same time, it is in the actual house of a real leper that the anointing of the king occurs. Mark has made the leper’s house into a Temple and the Temple into a leper’s house.

The Poor Widow

The comparisons between the poor widow and the anointing woman are plentiful. Both stories involve a double mention of the poor (13.42, 43 and 14.5, 7) and both contrast the rich with the poor and their offerings. Jesus proclaims that each woman has given all that she has (12.44, 14.8) and there is a solemn “amen” saying to conclude each pericope. Since each of the widow’s lepta total 1/128 of a single denarius, the stories become an almost satirical parallel since the value of the anointer’s gift was at least 19,200 times that of the widow’s. Mark suggests that the actual value of the gift is irrelevant; what really matters is giving all that one has. The widow’s gift of her whole life parallels Jesus’ gift, and the anointing woman’s gift defines what it means for Jesus to give his life, as well as predicting this event. Furthermore, the widow’s act is in accord with the traditions of society while the anointer violates these norms. Mark is suggesting that the point is not to violate social norms for its own sake but rather to make an appropriate response to Jesus, regardless of the standard practices of society.

The two women’s stories frame the apocalyptic teaching of chapter 13. The intercalation is thus:

evil scribes denounced (12.38-40)
the widow’s offering (12.41-44)
teachings (13.1-37)
the anointing (14.3-9)
the plot to kill (14.10-11)

The apocalyptic teachings are framed, first, by righteous women and then by evil men. The evilness and the goodness of each deed is emphasized by the stark contrast with its opposite. And much as the particular crime of “devouring widow’s houses” (12.40) is contrasted with a widow’s offering, the plot to kill Jesus emphasizes the death motifs of the anointing.

The juxtaposition of the widow’s story with the anointing, separated by the apocalyptic teachings in chapter thirteen, suggests some connection between these three sections of the narrative. Since chapter 13 focuses in large part on the task of true followers in the difficult last days, this intercalation functions to show two positive examples of following Jesus, the widow and the anointer, juxtaposed against the negative examples of the corrupt scribes and the death plotters. Because the poor widow makes a contribution to the rich (12.38-40) and the (presumably) rich anointing woman contributes to the “poor” Jesus, there is
the reversal of fortunes that is so commonly associated with eschatological fulfillment. Both women who gave are approved. However, Jesus and the Jewish authorities have precisely opposite opinions about which gift was wasted. . . . Mark 13 is, like both 12.41-44 and 14.3-9, concerned to lead the readers out of their ‘natural’ way of evaluating events.

It is the abundance of eschatological reversals that links Jesus’ apocalyptic teachings with the widow and the anointer. Perhaps the most important parallel of the stories is the irony that they present: the widow’s gift is to a doomed Temple and the anointer’s gift is for a doomed Jesus.

Judas and the Plot to Kill Jesus
In addition to the intercalation of the anointing with the widow’s offering, there is another frame surrounding the anointing; it is concerned with the plot to kill Jesus. The existence of two (mutually exclusive) intercalations should not concern us. As David J. Clark explains,

different types of recursion may interpenetrate each other. If this is not acknowledged, arguments may arise as to which pattern is ‘a right one.’ Different patterns, each perceived in the same section of text by a different Gestalt, may all be right. Such is the complexity of which the human brain is capable in literary composition.

The framing of the anointing by the treacherous murder plans emphasizes the goodness of the woman’s deed. The terseness of 14.1-2 and 10-11 contrasts sharply with the details of the anointing and, while the anointing is primarily concerned with actions instead of words, the murder plot is merely talk at this point. The furtiveness of the plotters is contrasted with the openness of the woman’s actions. Jesus’ prophecy that the woman’s act will be remembered throughout the whole world sharply conflicts with the desire that Jesus’ death plot be kept from the people (14.1). Finding out about the anointing is a part of the “good news;” finding out about the death plot would cause a tumult (14.2).

Perhaps because Judas makes it so easy for them, the plotters dispense with their fear of arresting Jesus during the feast. In 14.10, Judas goes to the chief priests for the express purpose of betraying Jesus. There is an odd multiple naming of Judas in 14.10, where he is “Judas Iscariot, the one of the twelve” (hIoúdaß hIskari`wq Ho e^iß t”wn d’wdeka). Unlike the woman, he is amply named, with the inclusion of a definite article that is just as awkward in Greek as in the English translation above. Additionally, there is a double naming in the first part of the plot, where the festival is given two names, t`o pásca ka`i t`a ‘azuma (14.1), which is done in order to emphasize its sacredness. The double holiness of the festival contrasts with the double duplicity of Judas. Because he has already been identified as one of the twelve (3.19), this repetition emphasizes his nefarious nature; it does not provide the audience with any new information. Judas functions as a foil for the nameless, laudable woman. In the only two instances in the gospel where money is spent on Jesus, the woman sacrifices her own great sum of money in order to show her love for Jesus while Judas receives compensation for betraying him.

When Judas completes his deceit by kissing Jesus, the audience is certainly struck by his manner of betrayal. The intimate, personal kiss is used in the most vile way by Judas: “To be betrayed by a kiss–the symbol of intimacy, affection, and respect–is an incredibly apt image for the relation between the disciples and Jesus in the Gospel of Mark.” This is the first and only time in the narrative that one of the disciples touches Jesus, which is remarkable given the frequency of contact between certain women and Jesus in the text.

If we assume that the narrative suggests that Judas is one of the “some” who witnesses the anointing, then we find another contrast between the woman and Judas because she has entered the house in order to show her devotion to Jesus while, later, Judas leaves the house to commit his awful task. It may have been the very act of the anointing–with its messianic connotations, flouting of social norms, and radical ethic–that pushed Judas to betray Jesus.

On the other hand, the text may suggest that Judas is not with Jesus in the house of Simon the leper; perhaps the plot to kill Jesus and the anointing should be read as occurring simultaneously, similar to the way that Peter’s betrayal occurs at the same time as Jesus’ trial. If this is the case, then it might be instructive to compare the trial and the anointing including their frame stories. In both, Jesus is inside and the issue of his identity is raised, by either the woman who rightly anoints him the Messiah and establishes his identity or by the high priest (who should be anointed) who questions Jesus’ identity. In the anointing, silent deeds proclaim the truth, while in the council, verbal lies conflict (14.56). In both cases, a disciple stays outside to betray Jesus by his words in a scene that is intercalated with the confession of Jesus’ true identity. Perhaps most significantly, in this reading there is a parallel drawn between the woman and Jesus since both proclaim his identity.

The Last Supper

The beginning of the Passion (14.1-31) alternates steadily between conspiracies and meals. Since meals and table fellowship were so important in the Hellenistic world, the juxtaposition of these two events is all the more shocking.

When preparing for the Passover meal, Jesus tells the disciples to look for “a man carrying a jar of water” (14.13 RSV). This would most likely have struck Mark’s hearers as unusual, since carrying water was considered women’s work. This incident emphasizes one aspect of the anointing that immediately preceded it: both the anointing woman and the water-carrying man are violating gender roles in order to perform an important service for Jesus.

There are also verbal similarities between the two scenes. The woman pours out (katéceen, from katacéw) the contents of her broken flask much as Jesus pours out (hekcunnómenon, from hekcéw) his blood from his broken body (14.24); both of these words share the root céw. Jesus explains that the woman has anointed his body for burial and he then shares his body with the disciples; both incidents are made possible by the complete pouring out of the valuable liquid (blood and nard). The phrase s”wmá mou appears only in Mark in these two contexts, with the touch of the anointing and the shared bread of the supper emphasizing the physicality of Jesus’ work. These references to Jesus’ body foreshadow his impending death.

Also, both incidents are followed in close proximity by an “amen” saying (14.9, 14.25), the former concerning the future of the gospel and the latter concerning Jesus’ own future. The woman’s pouring out prepares Jesus for the royal and suffering aspects of his messiahship; Jesus’ pouring out enacts his enthronement via suffering. In the anointing, the woman’s act is prophetic; in the Last Supper, Jesus’ act is prophetic. There is a chain of prophecy established: the woman’s act causes Jesus’ prophetic amen saying and prepares him for his Passion, the Passion continues with the prophetic broken bread and prediction of death. It all begins with the woman’s prophecy, while the impending death looms over each incident as Jesus’ identity is physically established through breaking and pouring for those perceptive enough to understand.

Also, in both the anointing and the Last Supper, we see Mark using and altering the tradition to meet her/his theological needs. The anointing obviously borrows from Jewish tradition–only to invert and subvert it. Similarly, Mark’s Jesus makes of the Passover what he will to serve his needs. As Werner Kelber indicates, “this last meal is as little a traditional Passover as the Kingdom of God is like the kingdom of father David, or the anointment at Bethany was like the expected royal investiture.”

Nowhere in Mark’s Last Supper is a command from Jesus to institute a similar meal as a memorial, such as is found in Luke’s gospel (22.19) and the ensuing Christian tradition. For Mark, the memorial that Jesus has chosen is the anointing; his followers must commemorate the woman’s deed, not the supper. The Passover was the memorial previously instituted (Exod 12.14, 13.9) and the new memorial is the woman’s profound deed.

The Women at the Tomb

The ending of Mark’s gospel has been notoriously difficult to comprehend. The first issue is textual and the best evidence indicates that Mark ends at 16.8. But what does this enigmatic ending imply? Are the woman, after all, failures like the twelve?

While it is beyond the scope of this paper to make a systematic evaluation of the ending, we will venture a few suggestions since the last pericope of the gospel relates to the anointing. The two attempted anointings frame the Passion. The story of Jesus’ death begins and ends with the efforts of women to anoint his body. The two are linked in other ways: both involve rare time references (14.1 and 16.1) and both focus heavily on the theme of Jesus’ death and burial. Might not the first anointing elucidate the problematic second (attempted) anointing? Magness writes that:

. . . the act of 14.8 is paradigmatic of the intended action of 16.1-8 and . . . the predicted effect of 14.9 is paradigmatic of the foreshadowed and prestructured though unnarrated effect of 16.1-8. In other words, just as the preanointing of 14.3 lends meaning and dramatic effect to the attempted anointing of 16.1, so the prediction of the publication of one woman’s encounter suggests the publication of the incidents involving the three women. That the prediction of Jesus in 14.9 was fulfilled is supported by its very presence in the text; that the news entrusted to the women at the tomb was proclaimed as commanded by the angel [sic] is certified by the existence of the Gospel itself not to mention the existence of this closing pericope.

By reading the ending in light of the anointing, it is suggested that more than the obvious meaning of 16.8 is implied. Two other stories, both of which are related to the anointing, are relevant here. The first is the cleansing of the leper. 16.8 parallels 1.44–where the leper first shows, and then tells. Furthermore, E. S. Malbon wryly notes that “the story of Jesus’ resurrection, like the story of Jesus’ healing of the leper (1.45), does seem to have gotten out.” Secondly, we might compare the ending with the story of the bleeding women because she, too, fears (5.33, fobjqeïsa) before she tells the truth; so we cannot assume that fear permanently binds the women. Although their compliance is not narrated, the women at the tomb do, in fact, succeed in their mission; this we know because it is prefigured by 14.9.

It is possible that the women never say anything. But this does not necessarily mean that they fail. Perhaps they do something. In the pattern of Mark’s preference for actions over words, perhaps the women somehow relate their understanding of the resurrection through actions, as the anointing woman communicates her Christology through actions. While their fear is generally equated with other negative Markan uses of this emotion (which is portrayed as the opposite of faith [i.e., 4.40]), as previously mentioned, the bleeding woman is also fearful but then receives Jesus’ approval (5.34). Most hearers assume that the women fail because they do not tell anyone, but perhaps this is how and why they succeed. This is, of course, a radical hypothesis; but, then again, the ending of Mark is a radical problem.

The Anointing

We finally reach the heart of the matter. If you only want to read one chapter, this would be the one to read.

The Pericope

Before we explore the possible meanings of the anointing, we must say a few words about the pericope itself. We note that the plot in 14.3-9 is inverted in that it begins with major action (14.3), then digresses to a discussion which is of key importance only to the objectors, and then returns to a startling proclamation by Jesus (14.9). Instead of rising action, a climax, and a denouement, we have two climaxes joined by less-crucial dialogue. Once again, Mark has inverted traditional expectations of plot action much as themes and principles are inverted in the passage.

The section begins with Jesus being comparatively still and passive and with the intense motion of the woman: she enters, she breaks, she pours (14.3). This verse sets the tone for the text in the sense that Jesus is a passive recipient of the actions of a bold woman; the verse is filled with the verb for “to do” (poiéw, 14.7, 8, 9). When Jesus speaks to defend the woman, there is a subtle parallel between his words and the words of the objectors. They ask why the ointment was wasted; he asks why they trouble the woman, as if to suggest that their objections are a “waste.” It also implies that the woman is as valuable as the ointment. Then, the objectors state that the ointment could have been used for a good deed (i.e., sold for the poor) and Jesus states that the woman has done a good thing. The parallel suggests that her deed is an act comparable to charitable giving to the poor. Again, Mark has Jesus invert traditional expectations.

Sketching the Possibilities

The uses of anointing in the ancient world were many. In this chapter, we will consider most of these possibilities in order to determine which meanings Mark most likely intended. We will conclude that this anointing is simultaneously a burial anointing and a royal anointing but we will first consider the referents that, although possible, are not as plausible in the Markan context. We will then evaluate the evidence for a burial anointing, a messianic anointing, and conclude with how and why the audience can find both meanings in the woman’s act.

Anointing was a common practice in antiquity and there are many different reasons for which a person would have been anointed: before a feast (Amos 6.6), to sacralize objects (Gen 31.13, Lev 8.10), for beauty (Ruth 3.3), and to consecrate priests (Exod 28.41) and kings (1 Sam 15.1). Because of its general ritual use in Israel, several themes developed around the anointing, but particularly it served as an acknowledgement of divine election, gave one power from God, and conferred a spirit of wisdom. Its main significations suggest it to be a source of strength and life. This, of course, makes Jesus’ interpretation of the act as a burial anointing all the more ironic.

In a Hellenistic context, the anointing might be used after a bath, to honor the dead, by the bride and groom before marriage, as a part of magical rites, as a religious purification, and possibly by a mother and child after birth. While the uses listed above rely mainly on Greek evidence, the practices were generally the same for Romans, although there was some effort to limit anointing in Rome.

The use of anointing in the context of a meal is particularly well-attested, although the practice was usually confined to the wealthy, which implies that it would not have been common among the society that Jesus kept. But Jesus’ posture of reclining indicates a luxury meal. Since this is the case, then the anointing is not, in fact, out of place simply because it is a lavish gesture; in fact, the meal demands it. We could thus conclude that the anointing is appropriate in the context of a meal. But did Mark intend the audience to think of this pericope as merely a standard meal anointing? This is highly unlikely. There are no normal stories in Mark; each incident is extraordinary. Why should the anointing be different? And, certainly, this anointing is peculiar: the woman’s entrance uninvited, her boldness, and the objection made to her act suggest that this is no ordinary dinner anointing. In one sense, the anointing is a commonplace meal anointing which Mark is using to suggest that the messiahship of Jesus belongs to and involves all people. But it is not merely a kind gesture of hospitality; it is, as we will see below, far more significant. And Jesus’ words support this assertion; he states that it is a burial anointing; surely this is extraordinary since he is not dead.

The physician Galen counseled that anointing should occur after intercourse and the practice became a source of humor in Aristophanes’ plays. But, surely, if this meaning had been perceived by the objectors, they would not have bothered with the value of the ointment but rather with the impropriety of the situation. Also, there is no developed context of Jesus’ sexuality in Mark; we do, however, have a clear context for royal and burial imagery.

As Kinukawa notes, “the peculiarity of the story must have been found in the anointing of Jesus’ head and the anointing by a woman.” Furthermore, after surveying the multiplicity of uses of anointing in the Old Testament, we conclude that it is the anointing of a king which is most characteristic.

A common objection to reading the Bethany act as a messianic anointing is the idea that Jesus has already been anointed: in the context of his baptism by the Spirit in the beginning of the narrative (1.9-11). Since Mark records that Jesus was baptized, the Spirit descended, and a voice from heaven was heard, but nothing more, it seems that some commentators are reading Mark in light of, perhaps, Acts 10.38: “how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power” (RSV). The tradition has generally held that the anointing occurred during the baptism, but Mark’s text does not support this reading. Additionally, Jesus does not admit to being the Anointed before the woman anoints him (8.30f), but does so afterwards (14.62).

We close this discussion by focusing on two general meanings of anointing in the ancient world. First, the anointing implied a bond between the two parties with the anointer displaying authority over the anointed. Secondly, divine power is granted to the anointed. A woman shows her authority over Jesus in a relationship that is defined by mutuality and not mere hierarchical power. She has the authority and exercises the right to grant divine power to Jesus.

A Burial Anointing

Perhaps it is begging the question to ask whether the anointing was a burial anointing since Jesus says that the woman has “anointed my body beforehand for burying” (14.8 RSV). Nonetheless, it is important to consider how it functions as a burial anointing in order to round out the meaning of Mark’s text.

Many commentators think that the only reason the anointing is in the text is because Mark’s community would have been distressed that Jesus did not receive a proper burial since the women’s intentions of anointing the body at the tomb are foiled (16.1f). The use of an outrageously expensive ointment, instead of the less costly oil typically used for burial anointings, is seen as an effort to apologize for the crucifixion. However, it is more likely that the community would have denied the need for a proper burial (since Jesus was resurrected) than use a radical text to solve the problem, especially since the text raises the quandary of whether it would be considered a proper burial anointing since it was performed before death. While it may be possible that one function of the text was to assure the audience that Jesus was properly buried, we will not overplay this dubious function at the expense of other meanings. It is certainly not the only reason for the text’s inclusion; nonetheless, it is a burial anointing and abounds in death symbolism.

Mark’s anointing has several motifs in common with the standard burial anointing, although there are some differences–such as the use of expensive ointment. The broken alabastron, which was often left in the tomb with the dead, is a common symbol of death and destruction (Eccl 12.6, Jer 13.12-14). While some scholars have claimed that the flask would always have been broken in an anointing, it is more likely that the mention of the breaking is an out-of-the-ordinary detail. On a logical level, if the breaking of the flask were typical, it is unlikely that Mark would have mentioned it. It is in the text because it is unusual and it accentuates the finality of her deed and the totality of her devotion since the flask cannot be used again. The grammatical structure also points to these ideas: “asyndeton introduces the breaking of the flask and thereby punctuates the unexpected lavishness of the outpouring.” But the flask is not merely broken; the Greek suggests that it is “shattered, smashed, or crushed” (suntríyasa). Clearly, the flask will not be used again. Her deed is final and irrevocable. But the alabastron is not the only item “broken” or “destroyed,” the objectors say that the ointment itself is “destroyed” (ap’wleia). Once again the finality of her act is emphasized.

There are other similarities with typical burial customs. The same item of furniture, a kline, is used to recline at a dinner and to lay out a corpse. Also, “myron, ‘ointment,’ and myrizo, ‘anoint,’ are related to the verb myro, which in the active middle means ‘ooze, trickle’ and in the middle passive voice means ‘weep.'” Weeping would be common in the context of a funeral, especially for women, and this imagery is present in the text in several different ways. On a non-verbal level, there is a play on the house being a tomb, since it is the home of a leper.

There are also some intertextual echoes between the anointing and the stories of Elijah and Elisha. In 2 Kings 4.8f, we also find the motifs of a wealthy woman (2 Kings 4.8) who is able to perceive the true identity of a holy man (2 Kings 4.9), a meal (2 Kings 4.8), oil, the woman’s devotion (2 Kings 4.30) and the interplay of life and death (2 Kings 4.17, 20, 34). Similarly, the story of Elijah and the widow (1 Kings 17) dwells on the themes of food (1 Kings 17.9-12), death (1 Kings 17.12, 17), and the promise of renewed life (1 Kings 17.22). Once again, the woman is able to correctly identify the servant of God (1 Kings 17.24) and her total devotion is emphasized (1 Kings 17.12-15). As E. S. Malbon explains:

Both Elijah (1 Kings 17.19, 23) and Elisha (2 Kings 4.10, 11) were associated with death and ‘resurrection’ in an ‘upper room’ (LXX huperoon). Elijah carried out the resuscitation of the widow’s son there, and there Elisha prophesied the birth of the wealthy woman’s son, whom he later resuscitated in that space. Covenant, kingship, messiahship involve not only a new future, a new life, but present death and burial.

The death imagery is firmly entrenched in the anointing pericope. However, it would be a mistake to see the anointing solely as a burial ritual. As we shall see, it is also a messianic anointing.

A Messianic Anointing

The anointing at Bethany simultaneously fits into the Hebrew tradition of a kingly anointing while inverting that tradition for Mark’s theological purposes. We will explore how it parallels the Old Testament practice of the anointing of a king by a prophet.

The anointing is in a context of profuse royal imagery. It begins with Jesus’ entry in Jerusalem. There are several messianic images: Zechariah 14.4 associates the Mount of Olives with the anointed one while Zechariah 9.9 has the Messiah “humble and riding on an ass” (RSV) while garments are strewn on the ground (cf. 2 Kings 9.13). Herman Waetjen explains that

Like Solomon of old, Jesus is riding a donkey to his enthronement, but while the former used David’s animal (1 Kings 1.33, 38) in order to express the reality of dynastic rule, Jesus sits astride a colt on which no one has ever ridden. His will be a radically different kind of coronation.

Although Jesus alters the traditional understanding about the Christ as David’s son (12.35-37), the references maintain the royal theme. The anointing, of course, continues the messianic imagery which reaches its ironic climax in the mockery of the trial and crucifixion (14.61, 15.2, 9, 12, 17-20, 26, 32). Consequently, the anointing is firmly embedded in a context of messianic/royal imagery altered by Mark; as Ched Myers observes, “Mark’s intertextuality is always subversive, using scripture in unexpected ways to argue a point.”

An intertextual parallel to the anointing pericope is the anointing of Saul by Samuel. The relevant text reads:

Then Samuel took a vial of oil and poured it on his head, and kissed him and said, “Has not the Lord anointed you to be prince over his people Israel? And you shall reign over the people of the Lord and you will save them from the hand of their enemies round about. And this shall be the sign to you that the Lord has anointed you to be prince over his heritage. (1 Samuel 10.1)

After the anointing, a very specific prophecy of instruction is given and is immediately fulfilled (1 Samuel 10.2-9). After the Bethany anointing, Jesus commands the disciples to make arrangements for the Last Supper and they find everything to be as he predicted. In both cases, the quickly-filled prophecy serves as an indication of the authenticity of the anointing.

Although not every king in Israel was anointed, a king whose right to reign was disputed would have been anointed and, certainly, the kingship of Jesus is disputed in the text. Of course, the woman’s anointing inverts the traditional expectations at least as much as it fulfills them since she is not a prophet in Israel. But, when Jesus says that “she has anointed by body beforehand for burying” (14.8), he suggests that the woman is a prophet: Jesus clearly states that the woman has a prophetic understanding of his mission. She is the only one who comprehends Jesus’ impending death. It is particularly poignant that the anointer is a woman and the irony is heightened since one of the earliest known usages of ‘Messiah’ is in 1 Samuel 2.10, the song of Hannah, when she prays: “The Lord will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed.”

Some commentators, including Vernon Robbins, have questioned whether Mark’s audience would have recognized intertextual echoes from the story of Samuel and Saul. But, as Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza explains, we cannot assume that our lack of familiarity with the story would have been paralleled in Mark’s first audiences: “Yet [Robbins] conveniently neglects to mention that this story was not as arcane for a Jewish audience in antiquity as it may appear to Christian readers of the twentieth century.” She notes elsewhere that because of the Old Testament tradition of the king being anointed by a prophet, the audience would have concluded that the incident was, in fact, an acknowledgement that Jesus is the Christ.

Jesus is the Anointed One, but not exactly in the manner or meaning that was expected. The most obvious irony is that the royal anointing, which should take place in the most sacred of Israel’s locations, occurs in one of its most polluted. We have already discussed how Mark has turned the Temple into a leprous house and the leper’s house into a Temple, so we are prepared for the irony of the kingly anointing by an unnamed woman instead of by the high priest. There might be a second, more subtle irony; according to the Encyclopedia Judaica, when a king was anointed the whole head was covered in the shape of a wreath and the high priest was anointed in a pattern similar to the Greek letter chi (X). While we have no definitive evidence that the woman anointed Jesus in either of these patterns, it is possible that she did. If so, her act prefigured his crown of thorns (15.17) or his Christhood.

The major imagery of the anointing is clear: the woman’s act “constitutes an acclamation that Jesus is a royal Messiah–hence Jesus’ explanation in Mark 14.8 conveys the ironic reinterpretation of messiahship characteristic of Mark.” She proclaims (actively instead of verbally) that Jesus is the Anointed.

A Messianic and a Burial Anointing
It is the contention of this thesis that Mark intends for the audience to see in the anointing at Bethany a burial anointing and a royal anointing. We have already discussed how the text supports the interpretation that it is each of these; we will now consider how and why they work together.

First, however, there is one issue that needs to be addressed: did the woman know what she was doing? Several commentators maintain that, regardless of the interpretation that Jesus (or anyone else) puts on her actions, the woman did not know the significance of her actions. But it seems highly implausible that the woman had no concept of what she was doing. One does not randomly spend a year’s wages and risk social condemnation for no apparent reason. The woman anoints Jesus with a purpose. Perhaps what these commentators are suggesting is that the woman’s motivation is one of the standard, commonplace reasons for anointing outlined above, while Mark intends the audience to find messianic and burial significance in her actions. This seems to be an anti-feminist position, since it allows one to maintain the messianic connotations without admitting that a woman is the prophet who anoints Jesus. The fact that she is not given a motivation in the text is not a sufficient reason to assume that she has none; Tannehill suggests that “for each person who acts with purpose a commission or task can be assumed.” In cases where a person commits a deed with a duplicitous motivation, Mark makes that motive clear so that the audience will not perceive the act as virtuous (e.g., 9.5-6, 10.2, 11.28-32, 12.13). Since the woman’s act is specifically praised and no motivation is given, it is logical to assume that she intends her act (or, more precisely, that Mark intends for the audience to think that she intends her act) to have the implications that it does in the text. We conclude that this character knew what she was doing.

Although it might seem that one must select either the burial or the messianic interpretation, it is Mark’s theological position that one not only can find both, but that one must keep both simultaneously in mind in order to understand this portrait of Jesus. Although Jesus gives the act a burial significance, that referent is not the only meaning possible. It is actually the case that both meanings are present. Farrer writes: “It is no diminution of its royal significance when Jesus declares the anointing to be for his burial, for it is precisely the paradox of Christ’s royalty that he is enthroned through being entombed.” Taking both meanings simultaneously allows the interpreter to view the anointing as consistent with Mark’s major theological focus, which creates a paradox of the victorious death. To see the royal, glorious Jesus without understanding the reality of his suffering and death is to make Peter’s mistake (8.29f, 9.5-6); to see only the suffering and death without the messianic glory leads one to the bitter irony of the centurion (15.39). These two characters are foils for the anointing woman in that they make only half of a confession, they confess verbally and at no cost (literal or otherwise) to themselves, and they do not remain true to their confession under persecution (14.66-71, 15.44). The woman makes a true, active (instead of verbal), self-sacrificial confession that simultaneously admits both elements of Jesus’ nature.

The anointing illustrates the themes of reversal that are so common in Mark. It integrates the conflicting themes of life and death, it reverses insiders and outsiders, it inverts the roles of women and men, and demands that glory and suffering be experienced and expected together. Additionally, it is by realizing both aspects of the anointing that one is able to see the truly fundamental way in which Mark breaks down gender-expected behavior. E. Schüssler Fiorenza points out that traditional culture “associates body and death with women but ascribes signifying, naming, and defining activities to men.” Because the anointing woman’s deed embodies both an association with death and a naming activity, she is able to shatter gender barriers along with the alabastron by proclaiming Jesus the Messiah through his death.

The Anointing as Christology

This chapter just sums up how/why/what the anointing story teaches us about who Christ is and some of the implications thereof.

In Memory of Her

Jesus’ statement that “wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her” (14.9 RSV) is unique in Mark because of its specific praise as well as its command/prophesy that the woman’s deed be remembered. The woman’s act is permanently connected to Jesus’ act, a privilege given to no one else in Mark. Mary Ann Beavis notes that “Jesus’ comment on the woman’s prophetic anointing is his lengthiest and most positive pronouncement on the words or deeds of any person preserved by the evangelist Mark.”

Some interpreters suggest that the memorial is of Jesus, not of the woman, or that her memorial will be only that her good deed is remembered by God on the day of judgment. But it seems more likely that the plain sense of the words is intended: “what she has done will be told in memory of her” (14.9 RSV) wherever the gospel is preached:

The point is frequently missed that this proclamation will be made in remembrance of the woman, not Jesus. Mark’s occasion for memorial is therefore shifted from an etiological legend of Jesus’ last meal with his disciples to a meal without his disciples where he is anointed by an unnamed woman.

The word used for memorial, mnjmósunon, is the same used in the Septuagint in Exodus 12.14, 13.9, and 28.12 and suggests the covenant-based relationship between the people and God and is evidence of God’s faithfulness. Depending on how one interprets the connection, we can see the memorial being evidence of the woman’s faithfulness (and, therefore, her connection to and association with God) or perhaps the woman is entering a covenant relationship with Jesus or mediating his covenant relationship with God. Possibly, this new memorial, akin to the memorials of the Old Testament, is an event that should be remembered because it attests to God’s involvement with God’s people. In this case, the woman’s act manifests this involvement by demonstrating the accessibility of all people to God’s power as well as exemplifying the followership paradigm that she typifies.

There is yet another function of this memorial. As John Donahue explains:

In the Passion narrative Mark himself suggests this function when in 14.9 he says that wherever the gospel story is told the deed of the woman will be recounted in remembrance, mnemosunon, of her. Marxsen says that the meaning here is that where the act is proclaimed, the act is present, so that the past of Jesus becomes part of the present of the reader. . . . Thus one function of narrative in Mark is to create a time scheme where the past of Jesus becomes the present of [Mark’s] reader.

Whenever the story of the anointing is recounted, Jesus’ words are fulfilled. The story is a self-fulfilling prophecy as long as it is told and retold. The story validates itself because Mark’s Jesus demands that the story be told.

Words and Deeds in the Gospel of Mark

Prefacing the discussion of the anointing as Christology, we anticipate an argument against this position: that the woman does not say anything. We will show why words cannot be trusted in Mark and why deeds are a firmer basis for Markan Christology. This argument was introduced in the section on the limitations of traditional Christology, so we will consider other issues below.

A passage from the Song of Songs is especially relevant here. As Carrington explains:
In Canticles i.3 (a book which is read at the Passover) the maiden says to the king, “Thine ointments have a goodly fragrance; thy name is as ointment poured forth; therefore do the maidens love thee.” . . . The word shem, which means name or reputation, resembled the word shemen, which means oil or ointment, and the two words are associated with Eccl. vii.1: ‘a good name is better than precious oil.’

As indicated, this reference is particularly pertinent since it would have been read at Passover. Because the text makes the comparison between the ointment and the name, it suggests, in its Markan echo, that in some sense it is the oil that names Jesus. The woman has named Jesus through the anointing; she has named him the Anointed One, the Messiah, the Christ.

This type of naming is most appropriate to the gospel of Mark where other, more traditional methods of naming often fail. As Mary Ann Tolbert explains:

. . . throughout the Gospel naming has often been associated with the human desire for fame, glory, status, and authority, all longings that harden the heart and encourage fear rather than faith.

Although the spoken word is sometimes initially positive, it is associated with the rocky soil since its positive effects do not last but falter in the face of persecution and there are four occasions in particular (4.16, 6.20, 12.37, 14.10) where Mark has shown an unauthentic reception of the spoken word. It is particularly in the statements of the unclean spirits that the audience realizes that merely confessing the identity of Jesus verbally will not be sufficient by Mark’s standards. In fact, the attempt of the demons to name Jesus is characteristic of the first century world view that to name someone is to gain power over him or her. Perhaps we should understand Peter’s and the centurion’s verbal confessions in the same way.

Where, then, can Mark’s Christology be found, if not in names and words? Mark develops a silent, deed-based epistemology, which is evident in the protagonist, since “Jesus’ words are consistently misunderstood in Mark’s narrative; only his deeds effectively enact the gospel.” Jesus does not speak nearly as often in Mark as in the other gospels; he is more active and less verbal and the power of action is clearly superior to the power of words in Mark. The preference for action is particularly notable in the women in the text; although often silent, they are generally the true followers: revelation to the women depends on a tactile epistemology that appears to work where the epistemology of speech and hearing, the frame of the male disciples’ relationship with Jesus, fails.

This is perhaps how and why feminist interpreters sometimes miss the power of Markan women: by applying traditional male-oriented notions of the power of speech and naming, they are unable to appreciate the silent power of Markan women and they equate their silence with submission.

The complex truth that Jesus must be simultaneously understood as a suffering/dying and as a royal/glorious Messiah cannot be expressed in one small word. Mark’s Christology requires a dual understanding–and one title cannot capture the full meaning. Even the title ‘Christ’ is insufficient since, through the anointing, Mark redefines the meaning of the term: “The woman’s anointing indicates what it means to be ‘Christ,’ but the meaning emerges in her deed of anointing rather then in the term ‘anointed,’ christos, which does not occur in this story.” The very fact that Mark is a narrative should suggest that Mark believes that truth is best conveyed by telling a story–not by one title or phrase. It is in the story of the anointing that we find Mark’s Christology.

A Christological Act

In this section we will consider the anointing as a christological act. Her identification of Jesus is made in a context where his death and suffering are acknowledged. Donald Juel contends:

. . . it is only in the relationship of the two facts–his identity as Messiah and his appearance as the crucified King of the Jews–that the truth of the story can be expressed.

Since understanding Jesus’s identity requires acknowledging his death, then the woman is the only one–not Peter or the other disciples–who is capable of making a christological confession that meets Mark’s standards since she understands the paradoxical nature of Jesus’ messiahship. She has the knowledge and authority to define a Christology.

The woman exerts power over Jesus–a power that is appropriate because it is perceptive in its understanding of Jesus’ mission and nature, unlike Peter’s naming attempt. Since the power to name is an expression of authority, the woman displays her authority over Jesus. Perhaps there is an allusion to Ps 23.5: “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies; thou anointest my head with oil, my cup overflows” (RSV). The woman is identified as speaking for God by her anointing role, presence at the table before Jesus’ enemies, and the overflowing of both nard and blood. In Mark’s narrative world, it is an appropriate authority because it is born of true followership. Her act of anointing is also, by itself, an indication of her power over Jesus since in the traditional context, anointing implied an assertion of power.

It is, of course, particularly significant that it is a woman who defines Jesus and makes a christological statement. Alice B. Lane writes that:

The significance and role of women in the Gospel of Mark develop along with the emergence of the identity of Jesus. The clearer Jesus’ messianic mission becomes the more important the women become in proclaiming that mission.

The woman’s anointing makes Jesus the Christ; it does not describe an already extant state of affairs (compare Jesus’ response to “Christ” in 8.29f and 14.62) but actually makes them so. She is not merely parroting a preformulated Christology but she is enacting a christological reality. She is creating. Marianne Sawicki notes that “in Mark’s text, the woman teaches even Jesus who he is. She offers the first formulation of his identity that Mark’s Jesus can accept.” She is truly defining who Jesus is.

We will now consider why a feminist Christology is necessary and how the anointing solves the problems with misogyny associated with traditional christologies. Christology has been a particularly important area for feminist theologians since christological arguments have frequently been used to oppress women. Because of the tradition of hiding sexism behind the person of Jesus, Grant notes that
. . . some Christian Feminists have identified women’s experience as the proper context for discovering the significance of Jesus for women. For much of Christian theology, Jesus has been the Christ–the unique God bearer whose task it is to save the world. However, given the significance of being male throughout patriarchal history, many women are asking if a male can be a savior of women.

Can a male savior save women? The answer is yes; however, some traditional understandings of the identity of Jesus that better reflect the churches’ traditions than the world presented in Mark will have to be reconsidered. We will show how the apprehensions of feminist scholars concerning a male savior are resolved when the anointing at Bethany serves as a Christology because it reconstructs the traditional concept of a Davidic Messiah, a concept which has often been criticized from a feminist perspective because of its traditionally masculine, warlike elements.

By demanding that both the royal/glorious and the suffering/dying aspects of the Anointed One be simultaneously acknowledged, Mark has created a Jesus who is not defined primarily by his maleness or warlike attributes. He is not stereotypically ‘feminine’ either; he does bring power and independence. He transcends traditional gender roles because he is named by a woman and yet he retains his own power.

Because it is a woman who defines Jesus, Mark suggests that women have an inherent right to create and explain and define Christology; the story justifies women today in their searches for workable, meaningful Christologies. It legitimates the active role of women in the proclamation of who Jesus is. The intertwining of the self-sacrificing and the glorious demands that these two aspects of Jesus’ nature not be divided up so that the women sacrifice and the men gloriously lead and rule. Both threads of human behavior must be woven together in order to get a complete picture of Jesus. The anointing at Bethany as a Markan Christology is a radical proposal, but it coheres with the structure and message of the text as well as the need for feminists to reimagine a Christianity that does not stifle women. The unique mixture of elements of the anointing–authority to name and namelessness, tradition and revision, purity and impurity, silence and power, suffering and glory–makes it a fruitful locus for christological reflection.

Conclusions and Implications
The story of the anointing has been ignored and poorly told. Luke and John mock “the prophetic woman from whom had flowed a messianic anointing, a christological teaching” by recasting her story in a way that stifles its messianic elements. They were perhaps the first in a long line of Mark’s audiences to downplay the anointing. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza writes that

. . . while the stories of Judas and Peter are engraved in the memory of Christians, the story of the woman is virtually forgotten. . . . the woman’s prophetic sign-action did not become a part of the gospel knowledge of Christians. . . . Wherever the gospel is proclaimed and the eucharist celebrated another story is told: the story of the apostle who betrayed Jesus. The name of the betrayer is remembered, but the name of the faithful disciple is forgotten because she was a woman.

By illustrating the limitations of traditional christological methods, especially as applied to the gospel of Mark, we have cleared the way for a new Christology; a Christology based on the silent act of an anonymous woman. This approach is fruitful; it is a feminist Christology, an active instead of a titular Christology that respects the narrativity of Mark, a Christology that acknowledges both the dying and the rising of Jesus. The anointing at Bethany juxtaposes all the pieces of the Markan picture of Jesus’ mission: christhood is connected to death; the presently inbreaking kingdom of God demands a spontaneous and total divestiture of one’s future security; the deeds of a silent rule breaker express the truth where words have failed.

If her story is not told, is the gospel really preached? The answer to this question is a resounding ‘no’ on two levels. First, from the mouth of Mark’s omniscient, reliable protagonist, we know that the woman’s story will be told wherever the gospel is preached. And, secondly, without her christological statement, the gospel is not preached. If the audience does not understand that Jesus is both the royal/glorious and the suffering/dying Messiah–a Messiah that transcends yet is still in the context of the Jewish tradition–then Mark’s story has failed. If the audience does not understand that only through complete devotion does one really follow Jesus, that only complete devotion gives one the power and authority to make a proper christological confession, then the gospel has not been preached.

Because of the correlation between the woman’s story and the gospel (14.9), and the analysis herein on the importance of the anointing to Mark’s christological vision, the woman’s story encapsulates the gospel–the good news–of Jesus Christ. What is that good news and what are the implications of this christological vision? The good news is that traditional expectations are inverted in the face of the inbreaking kingdom of God. Life and death are mysteriously intertwined, purity and impurity play, outsiders become insiders as the insiders become outsiders, power comes from silence, words speak only betrayal, and gender barriers are shattered. The most important and most curious paradox in Mark is the concept of the victorious death and the suffering Messiah. We have shown how Markan Christology demands that one acknowledge the necessity for Jesus’ death, but why is this so? Perhaps death is the ultimate inversion: life can come only through death. Jesus’ death, as a symbol of his total devotion, is necessary for the establishment of the radical ethic of inversion that he promotes. That radical ethic demands that his followers also display total devotion to God’s kingdom. In the gospel of Mark, total devotion and prophetic understanding are shown by the anonymous woman from Bethany.

There were two more chapters that I wanted to write, but it was already too long. One was on the fascinating JST for this passage, which I (as far as I know) discovered, creates a chiastic structure. Another was on the very complicated relationship between this passage and the three other anointing stories in the Gospels (Matthew 26:6-13, Luke 7:36-51, and John 12:1-8.)

I think I deserve a Niblet for the longest post of the year. Anyone who actually read it probably deserves one, too.

12 comments for “Mark 14:3-9: The Anointing at Bethany as Markan Christology

  1. Oh! Wow. How cool is this!

    I’m still working on the Niblet for reading it all, but I will, get. it. In snack size and easily digestible portions, for that is all this small brain can handle.

  2. Once again, Julie confirms her amazingness.

    I’ll be reading this over and pondering it during church tomorrow, that’s for sure. And for quite a while longer, I suspect.

  3. Tremendous, Julie. You definitely earned your M.A.

    Care to speculate as to why the author of Mark may chosen to make Peter, out of all the disciples, into a particular whipping boy for purposes constructing a narrative so full of reversals and juxtapositions? Might the author have been affiliated with the Pauline movement, and hence have found it easier to castigate those disciples, like Peter, more closely associated with the Jerusalem church? I ask only because I had long thought that scholars had suggested a close identification between Peter and the Markan tradition, that perhaps the author of Mark was even an associate of the historical Peter. Your argument, assuming that human psychology has changed that much in two thousand years, would suggest otherwise.

  4. Well, Julie, that made for a fascinating early-morning Sunday read! I encourage readers to take time to read all. Don’t believe Julie when she tells you can skip this or that. All pieces seem necessary to fully understand that “the Bethany woman anointed Jesus’ head as a king but understood his messianic kingship in terms of his coming death”. And the many aspects that relate to it. Scripture study deserves this depth.

    As a side note, your text brought back unexpected memories. My master’s thesis was on the Gospel of Marc, a critical edition of this Gospel in the first French Bible translation in the 13th century. Typical medieval manuscript study. And my very first little academic publication was an article on that topic.

  5. Okay, one more note. I have been impressed that Peter may have objected to Jesus ritually washing his feet at the last supper because that act had been ritualized by a woman–and a “sinful” one at that.

  6. I have yet to read it all, but got the bulk of it and will return. I think there are several things that you describe that are fascinating from the perspective of 19th century Mormonism. This scripture is at the heart of the foundational beliefs in Mormon Temple liturgy. You highlight a couple of aspects that relate to this very well.

    The woman’s role as a prophet coincides with the 19th century perspective of this woman as a priestess. Messianic annointing coresponds to the annointing of kings. There are also others.

    While I am still trying to digest the nineteenth century perspective, I find many aspects compelling. I appreciate your additional insights, Julie.

  7. Wow. I didn’t think anyone would actually look at it.

    Russell, here are some possibilities for understanding the very negative portrayal of Peter in Mark’s Gospel:

    (1) Peter is the main source behind this gospel, and asked for (or whatever) these stories to be included out of humility, whereas the other gospel writers didn’t include them because they weren’t interesting in making Peter look weak. In fact, I think part of the evidence for the [now generally disregarded] historical belief that Peter was a source for Mark is that otherwise Mark would never had had the chutzpah to portray Peter this way!

    (2) Other sources (some canonical, some not) imply that there was conflict between (a) Peter and Paul and (b) Peter and Mary. So Mark may be coming from the perspective of Paul, of Mary, or of a hypothetical-but-precedented third challenger to Peter and his authority.

    (3) I would imagine that one of the main challenges that the early Church faced was the potential for division between ‘Those Who Knew Jesus in the Flesh’ and ‘Those Who Didn’t.’ (You can just see it, can’t you? I’ve also wondered about this dynamic in the early Utah church regarding those who did and did not know the prophet Joseph. . .) It may be that emphasizing Peter’s dense-ness during the time he knew Jesus–assuming that the audience knows (perhaps personally) Peter’s leadership role in the church–serves to teach that knowing Jesus in mortality was neither necessary nor sufficient for faith/leadership after his death.

    (4) Mark seems to have drawn the ‘good follower’/’bad disciple’ line strictly along gender lines. This may have been an effort to affirm the role of women in a church that was attempting to minimize their roles; it seems that Luke did something similar but in a different way (i.e., by providing matched examples of women and men in at least a dozen cases). This may or may not hint at the sources for Mark’s stories of Jesus being female disciples. (Again, Luke hints at this when Mary ‘ponders these things.’)

    LisaB, you point to a grossly-overlooked connection between John 11 and John 12–it doesn’t seem plausible that one could/should read 12 without seeing the pattern for Jesus’ actions in 11. There is a similar theme in the Gospel of Mary, where Peter and Andrew complain about all that Jesus had revealed to Mary that he didn’t reveal to the other (i.e., male) disciples.

    Here’s a link to the text of the Gospel of Mary:

    J. Stapley, I hope you’ll get back to us with more 19C perspective.

  8. Haven’t read any of it yet, Julie–my eyes are too tired tonight, and a long look at the computer screen will put them over the edge.

    Any chance of posting a pdf version that we could download?

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