Mary of Bethany's Anointing

Mary of Bethany anointed the Master out of religious devotion—and perhaps also to hint at her availability for marriage.

Artwork from the Torah Club Jesus, My Rabbi study, lesson "Anointed for Burial". (Image and art © First Fruits of Zion)

During His last week in Jerusalem, Yeshua spent some time at the house of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in Bethany.

On one occasion, Mary of Bethany performed a particularly memorable act:

Mary then took a pound of very costly perfume of pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped His feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. (John 12:3)

The story in the Gospel of John implies that the meal took place at the house of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. In any event, Mary of Bethany, sister of Lazarus, attended the meal with her siblings. In the Gospel of John, Mary of Bethany seems to be identical with Mary Magdalene, who later (John 20:1) encounters the risen Yeshua at the tomb. It’s possible that the family of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus originally came from Galilean Magdala, hence the appellation, “Mary Magdalene.”

Mary of Bethany had an alabaster flask of nard. First-century bottlers used translucent, oriental alabaster for making small perfume bottles and ointment vases called alabastra. The little, narrow flasks had gourd-shaped bodies with rounded bottoms and narrow necks. Nard is an intensely aromatic essential oil derived from a flowering plant. The first-century Roman Pliny identified nard as the most principal among Roman unguents, and he differentiated between different types, grades, and qualities of nard, the best being pure nard of the Syrian variety. People used nard oil as a perfume base, an incense, and for a variety of herbal remedies. Mary’s alabaster flask contained a Roman pound (litra) of nard, which Judas Iscariot appraised at a value of three hundred denarii. According to the prices reported by Pliny, that was no exaggeration. The ordinary wage for a common laborer amounted to a denarius a day; the perfume was worth nearly a year’s wages.

“She broke the vial and poured it over His head” (Mark 14:3). In the Gospel of John, Mary “anointed the Master with ointment, and wiped His feet with her hair” (John 11:2). The extravagant gesture expressed her love for the Master and her devoted abandonment to Him. “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume” (John 12:3), fulfilling that which is written, “Your oils have a pleasing fragrance, your name is like purified oil; therefore the maidens love you” (Song of Songs 1:3). “The fragrance of good ointment spreads from the bedroom to the dining hall” (Midrash Rabbah).

In that day and time, a host might offer a guest oil for anointing. People used the oil for grooming and on the skin as a topical ointment like a lotion. Perfumes and perfumed oils were common. A talmudic adage says, “A man should not invite his guest to anoint himself with oil if he knows the jar is empty.”

From one perspective, Mary’s gesture might have expressed religious devotion and adoration; from another perspective, her gesture expressed a strong hint about her availability for marriage and her affection for the Master. She not only anointed His head with the perfume; she applied it to His feet. (Contact with a man’s feet seems to be the limit that modesty allowed to women in biblical narratives.) Her loose hair indicated her unmarried status. (Married women kept their hair unloosed and concealed.) She wiped the excess perfume from His feet with her hair, thereby drying His feet and perfuming her own hair with the fragrance:

For we are a fragrance of the Messiah to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one an aroma from death to death, to the other an aroma from life to life. (2 Corinthians 2:15-16)

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This year Torah Clubs are studying the Gospels from a Messianic Jewish perspective. Every week Club members encounter Yeshua of Nazareth in his Jewish context. Discover the historical and cultural backdrops of the gospels and be amazed as the teachings of Yeshua snap into focus and clarity. Unravel his difficult words and parables; study Jewish parallels to his teachings; and ultimately know Jesus better.

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