Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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The Historical Jesus
The Jar of Perfume

Most experts agree that the story of the precious perfume hasn't come down to us in its original form. In other words, we can't be certain about "what really happened" - but we can be sure that we have a rough version of an event, overlaid by the kind of changes one would expect in the very early days of Christianity.

The story is to be found in Mark 14.3-9, Matthew 26.6-13 and John 12.1-8. As with all the material in the gospels, it's important to note not only where they agree or disagree with each other, but also when something is left out. In this case there are two surprises. The first is that Luke's Gospel contains a version of the Jar of Perfume story (7.36-50) which differs greatly from the others. The second is that John's Gospel does contain a version similar to those of Mark and Matthew - for on the whole this gospel has little in common with the other three.

The variations between the gospels are so significant that it is probably impossible to recover the original tale upon which they all appear to have been based. Having said that, the basic structure of the story is similar in all four. The owner of the house is present; Jesus is anointed by a woman with a jar of perfume; the partygoers disapprove of her action; and Jesus defends her.

We should remember that the gospel authors didn't have the same orientation towards their material as most of us would today. We would probably do our best to ensure that we transmitted information as unchanged and as accurately as possible - because this is how we have been taught to preserve "the truth". An historian or newspaper reporter who today changed the "facts" as these authors did would probably be brought to book. A politician who "spins" the facts too often and too severely will discover that all the people can't be fooled all the time.

In short, the gospel authors would have thought little about massaging their raw material to get across what they were convinced it really meant. Meaning, not good history, was their primary goal. We tend to regard religion and the rest of life as somewhat separate from each other. There is the secular world and there is the world of religion. In Jesus time no such division existed. 

Similarly, we now talk of "theology" as differentiated from science and history and a host of other analytical disciplines. This leads us to naturally suggest that the gospel authors wanted to put across a "theological" meaning for the material about Jesus they had available. This distinction would never have occurred to them, just as they would have had little concern for what we now call history. Indeed, it would be close to the truth to say that history did not then exist, that it was in a real sense invented only many centuries later.

It is in this context that it can be asserted that the gospel authors may have wanted to make at least the following points:

  • Mark: Washing and anointing at formal meals was not unusual. But a second layer of meaning was that kings of Israel were anointed when they came to the throne. Mark wanted to associate Jesus with the idea of kingship. "The Anointed One" was a Jewish way of speaking about the Messiah (or the "Christ" using the Greek language). Early Christians thought of Jesus as the Messiah and the author here wants to press home the point in his own way. He also points ahead to the death of Jesus and his burial.

  • Matthew: The author uses Mark's version more or less unchanged. Throughout his gospel Matthew stresses the place of women in the life of Jesus. For the most part, they were relegated to the background of Hebrew society. Matthew goes so far as to recount Jesus' contacts with women of dubious reputation, as in this instance.

  • Luke: This account puts the occasion early on in Jesus ministry, rather than towards the end as the others do. Luke specifically terms the woman a "sinner" - specifically in this context, a prostitute. He is making the point, typical for the author, that touching such a person would have been regarded as contamination and would have required a ritual cleansing. An important point for Luke is to show that Jesus took little or no notice of demands for ritual cleanliness. In effect (to put it in our terms), in doing so he was making a strong point against excluding or condemning anyone on the basis of social or cultural norms.

  • John: This version of the story is replete with editorial additions. John's Gospel contains a number of instances in which Judas is labelled and condemned for having betrayed Jesus to the authorities. That theme is clear in this passage, yet seems out of place in the context. Some think that this passage is a synthesis of a number of traditions. Characters like Mary and Lazarus are inserted (quite crudely) into the narrative - and yet appear to have a purpose other than to bolster credibility.

This story is best read independently of that of the trial and death of Jesus which it so closely precedes in three of the gospels. Many scholars think it was originally an unattached piece of oral tradition which has been fitted into various contexts by the gospel authors according to their needs.

  • Jesus went around with the poor and outcast. The reaction of the onlookers to this expensive gift and gesture would have been entirely understandable. But Jesus reacts as though he has another opinion about it. He refuses to criticise the woman. We can't tell for sure "what really happened" because of the additions to the narratives.

  • The dinner would have been all-male. Although women would have been around to do the work and to serve, this woman's action would have probably been "out of order", especially when done by an unclean woman to a special guest, apparently without permission.

  • The host, Simon (of Bethany?), would have been regarded as unclean by many because he had a skin disease (not necessarily leprosy, as in many translations). This would have prevented him from carrying out his full social (what we call religious) duties until he had been cured. People would not have wanted to touch him because by doing so they themselves would have become unclean and to some extent excluded. They would then have had to go through elaborate and costly rituals to get right with God and society again. Perhaps in this context the presence of a prostitute would not have been so out of place.

All three of the above factors may have been the message of the original source material. If so it makes sense because we know from elsewhere that Jesus spoke and taught about God's love and care for poor and outcast members of society and the need for love and acceptance on our part.

To sum up: It is reasonable to conclude that we have the bare bones of an event which happened to Jesus much as these edited versions indicate. On top of these bare bones have been placed layers of interpretation typical of the early traditions of Christian communities. The elaborated stories have in turn been placed by each author in a context which suited his overall narrative purposes. I think the story can be trusted as reflecting the all-inclusive nature of Jesus outlook.

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