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
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