Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

John 12.1-8
5th Sunday in Lent - Year C

Other texts: 

In the RCL, the gospel readings for 5 Lent come from John each year.


The anointing of Jesus occurs in all four gospels: Mt 26:6-13; Mk 14:3-9; Lk 7:36-50; Jn 12:1-8. However, the differences in these stories suggest at least two different sources; and their placements within the narrative indicates some editorial freedom.

Brown (John, Anchor Bible) gives the following table of details [with some of my additions]. Most of the details in Mt & Mk are similar so he only uses Mk in the chart.

Mark 14:3-9 John 12:1-8 Luke 7:36-38
2 days before Passover 6 days before Passover during the ministry
[after "Palm Sunday"] [just before "Palm Sunday"]  
house of Simon not specified, [but house of Simon
(leper) Lazarus, Martha & Mary (Pharisee)
  are present]  
unnamed woman Mary of Bethany sinner woman
with alabaster jar with a pound with alabaster jar
valuable perfume expensive perfume perfume
made from real nard made from real nard  
    weeps on feet
    dries them with hair
    kisses his feet
pours perfume on head anoints feet anoints feet
  dries them with hair  
some (disciples) angry Judas angry Jesus criticizes Simon
  [insertion about Judas (v. 44ff.)
  keeping the common  
more than 300 denarii 300 denarii  
Jesus defends woman Jesus defends Mary Jesus forgives woman
    (v. 50)
"Leave her alone" "Leave her alone"  
  "Keep perfume for burial  
"Poor always with you" "Poor always with you"  
["Not always have me"] ["Not always have me"]  
"Has anointed for burial"    
"To be told in whole world"    

Brown, quoting other sources, suggests two basic incidents behind these scenes: (1) An incident in Galilee at the house of a Pharisee: A penitent sinner enters and weeps in Jesus' presence. Her tears fall on his feet, and she hastily wipes them away with her hair. The (scandalous) action of loosening the hair in public fits the character of the woman and helps to explain the Pharisee's indignation. This is the backbone of Luke's narrative. (2) An incident at Bethany at the house of Simon the leper where a woman, as an expression of her love for Jesus, uses her expensive perfume to anoint Jesus' head. Mark (and Matthew) closely follow this account.

John uses the second account, but incorporates details from the first account and adds some of his own -- such as the presence of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary; and the comments about Judas.

This incorporation leads to a strange combination of anointing Jesus' feet with the perfume and then wiping it off with her hair. I don't believe that perfume -- especially expensive stuff -- would be immediately wiped off. As we shall see later, I think that these actions have a symbolic meaning.

It is likely that John intends this narrative to be connected to the raising of Lazarus which is reported in the previous chapter. In fact, the events of our text are briefly described in 11:2 -- before they happen. Our text is sandwiched between statements about killing Jesus (11:53), and Lazarus (12:10).

Koester (Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel): "In this context it would appear that Mary's action was a gesture of gratitude for bringing her brother back to life." [p. 112]

Only John has the anointing immediately preceding Jesus' entrance into Jerusalem (12:12-19), where Jesus is hailed as "King of Israel (vv. 13, 15). This suggests that one interpretation of our text is that it is the anointing of a king -- although kings were anointed on their heads, not their feet.


Koester offers a number of comments about foot washing in the first century.

People generally washed and anointed their own feet. Foot washing was a routine matter of cleanliness, and the use of oil or ointment on one's feet was soothing for those shod in sandals. When guests arrived at someone's home, especially after a journey, the host usually provided a basin and water for the guests to wash their own feet before sharing the meal. In the Scriptures, for example, Abraham welcomed visitors to his tent by saying, "Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree" (Gen 18:4). The same practice is attested in other biblical texts and Greco-Roman sources. In some cases, a host might also provide oil for his guests, although they would ordinarily rub it onto their feet themselves.

A slave was virtually the only one who could be expected to wash and anoint the feet of another person....washing or anointing the feet of another person remained identified with slavery.

Because of these connotations, those who voluntarily washed someone else's feet showed they were devoted enough to act as that person's slave....

The act of anointing Jesus' feet, when taken in its literary and cultural context, displays Mary's utter devotion to Jesus following the resuscitation of her brother. Other elements of the action are consistent with this. The ointment she used was very expensive.... Since there is no indication that Mary belonged to one of the wealthier classes -- the meal was served by Martha rather than a servant -- the ointment was apparently a major expenditure. It was also significant that Mary wiped Jesus' feet with her hair, since well-kept hair contributed to a person's dignity in the ancient world. Women took pride in long hair, which was considered attractive, and damage to one's hair was considered degrading. By using her hair to wipe the feet of Jesus, Mary heightened the sense of self-effacement already reflected in her willingness to serve him as a slave. [pp. 112-114]


Only John specifies that Jesus had come for a "dinner" (deipnon, v. 2). The other three uses of this word all refer to the upper room meal (13:2, 4; 21:20).

The word for "being (or reclining) at table" (anakeimai, v. 2) is also used of the posture in the upper room (13:23, 28), and of the feeding of the 5000 (6:11). Reclining to eat indicates a festive banquet. It also makes it feasible for Mary to anoint his feet -- they were not underneath the table as would be typical of our eating posture -- sitting on chairs at the table.

The word for "wipe" (or "wipe dry" -- ekmasso) is also used by John in the upper room. Jesus washes feet and "wipes them dry" with a towel (13:5). As I mentioned above, if the ointment was rubbed on to provide a pleasing aroma, e.g., applying perfume, it makes no sense to wipe it off -- except as a connecting word to Jesus' actions in the upper room. The same word is used in Luke's account, but the "sinful" woman is "wiping off" her tears, not perfume (Lk 7:38, 44).

We are told that the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment (v. 3). This may be presented in contrast to the four-day stench of Lazarus' tomb (11:39). Brown (John, Anchor Bible) quotes Midrash Rabbah on Eccles 7:1: "The fragrance of a good perfume spreads from the bedroom to the dining room; so does a good name spread from one end of the world to the other." [p. 453]

He suggests that if this understanding of perfume was known at the time of John, he may be symbolically saying the same thing as Mark, who indicates that the woman's deed will be proclaimed in the whole world in remembrance of her (Mk 14:9). The "fragrance" of her good deed will be spread throughout the world.

I've already noted a number of connections between our text and the upper room events. Perhaps a key to understanding our text is what Jesus tells the disciples after he washes their feet: "For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you" [13:15].

Mary is the model disciple. She "follows" his example -- albeit, prior to the example. She does what Jesus will do -- washing and drying feet. Note that this word for "anoint" (aleipho) is sometimes combined with washing (see Mt 6:17, also Ruth 3:3).

If Mary is the model disciple, then Judas is presented as her contrast. Mary is generous. If the ointment were worth 300 denarii, that is roughly equivalent to a year's salary. (1 denarius was about one day's pay.) Judas is greedy -- taking what doesn't even belong to him. Mary illustrates her faith with actions. Judas talks piously -- "giving to the poor" -- but we know that he is not sincere. Both "prepare" Jesus for burial -- she by the "anointing" and he by the betrayal.

O'Day (John, New Interpreter's Bible) highlights this contrast:

Mary's act of discipleship is brought out even more strongly in the contrast with Judas in this scene. Judas does not respond to the impingement of Jesus' hour with an act of love for Jesus, but with self-centered disdain. Judas's response leads to the destruction of the flock, whereas Mary's actions model the life of love that should characterize Jesus' sheep (p. 703]

Her reference about "the destruction of the flock" comes from ch. 10, where all the other occurrences of "thief" (kleptes) in John are found (vv. 1, 8, 10; and the verbal form in v. 10).

Verse 7 poses some translation and interpretation difficulties.

Brown (John, Anchor Bible) points out the difficulty:

If John meant that Mary was to keep some of the perfume for the future embalming of Jesus, we would expect to hear of this later. We do not; Mary of Bethany has no role in the burial preparation of Jesus' body; and indeed the extraordinary amount (about 100 lbs) of burial spices brought by Nicodemus (29:39) would seem to exclude any significant role that the few remaining drops of Mary's pound of perfume might have. [p. 449]

O'Day (John, New Interpreter's Bible) writes:

The grammar of the Greek text of v. 7 is difficult. Verse 7b begins with an elliptical purpose clause (lit., "in order that [hina] she might keep it"). The NRSV resolves the difficulty by supplying the verb phrase "she bought it," but these words are not in the Greek text and their addition limits the scope of Jesus' response. The NIV comes closer to the meaning of the Greek text because it emphasizes the centrality of the purpose clause. Two other instances of a hina purpose clause without a clear protasis clarify the meaning of Jesus' words here. At both 9:3 and 11:4, an elliptical hina purpose clause is used to announce the purpose of Jesus' revelatory acts. here, the same construction is used to announce the revelatory significance of Mary's act. The anointing in Mark 14 is the only anointing Jesus' body receives for its burial, but in John, there will be another anointing at the time of Jesus' burial (19:38-42). the significance of Mary's act is that it anticipates that final anointing. Jesus' words in v. 7 thus interpret Mary's act as confirming the impending arrival of his hour. [p. 702]

Again, like with the "foot washing," Mary pre-figures what will happen later in John's narrative. Jesus' body will be anointed for burial.

Brown (John, Anchor Bible) offers these observations:

Mary's action constituted an anointing of Jesus' body for burial, and thus unconsciously she performed a prophetic action. And indeed this may explain why the rather implausible detail of the anointing of the feet was kept in the Johannine narrative -- one does not anoint the feet of a living person, but one might anoint the feet of a corpse as part of the ritual of preparing the whole body for burial. [p. 454]

I'm not sure what to make of the "poor" in John. Apparently some ancient writers weren't too sure about v. 8 either. It is omitted in some manuscripts. The "poor" are not mentioned much in John. Besides the three occurrences in our text (vv. 5, 6, 8), the only other occurrence is in the upper room when the disciples misunderstand Jesus' word to Judas, "Do quickly what you are going to do." Some think that it refers to giving to the poor (13:29).

This verse (8), harkens back to Dt 15:11: "Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, "Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land."

Haenchen (John, Hermenia) writes on this verse:

Joachim Jeremias thinks the story of the anointing is comprehensible only on the basis of the Palestinian distinction between almsgiving and acts of charity. A gift of money to the poor would be almsgiving; the burial of the dead would be a special act of charity, considered higher and more valuable. [p. 85]

Haenchen does not see this as an important distinction in the story, but I think that it is worth knowing. All of us are frequently confronted with the dilemma of choosing between two or more good deeds, e.g., with a limited amount of benevolent dollars, where does one offer it where it might do the most good.

Final comment from O'Day:

...if in the raising of Lazarus, Jesus is fully revealed, then in Mary's anointing of Jesus, faithful discipleship is fully revealed. Mary's act of anointing illustrates the Evangelist's eschatological vision of the new life to be lived by those who embrace Jesus' life and death and become children of God (1:12; 11:53). [p. 703]

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 1000 D St., Marysville, CA 95901