How Many Times Was Jesus Anointed? A Comparison of the Four Gospels

Recently I preached a sermon from Mark 14:3-11 which records an account of Jesus being anointed with expensive perfume by an anonymous woman a few days before his crucifixion. You can view that sermon below if you’d like:

In my study for this message, I came across a bit of a dilemma. The four gospels all contain very similar accounts of Jesus being anointed by a woman while at a dinner party. The issue is that each account has some discrepancies in it. Not all of the details are the same, and some even appear to contradict each other. How many times was Jesus really anointed? Do these tell the same story? Or do they tell of multiple accounts? Did the authors get some information wrong? How can we reconcile these differences?

A Quick Primer on Gospel Harmonization

The first thing to say is, Don’t be alarmed. The gospel accounts of Jesus’s life differ from one another, and also have a lot of overlapping similarities. Bible scholars have written massive volumes to address these issues on possible ways to harmonize the gospel accounts together. This is nothing new. Some people get really freaked out when they learn that the gospels have some apparent contradictions, but many Christians have learned this fact and go forward with confidence in God’s Word and their faith intact.

As I looked at some of the material on this particular story, it was clear that different authors have come to different conclusions about how many times Jesus was anointed in the gospels. For example, the popular website GotQuestions concludes that the gospels record three separate events. On the other hand, the ESV Study Bible notes conclude that Jesus was anointed only twice. Naturally, others have come to different conclusions even from these.

I want to briefly present my own conclusion and how I came to it, which is in agreement with the ESV Study Bible. I believe Jesus was anointed twice, and that three of the gospels record the same account, with the other gospel (Luke) recording a separate incident.

The Data

First, to help get a quick overview of the stories, I’ve created this chart to outline the basic elements of each story and how they compare to one another.

As you can see, some elements compare very similarly with each other. At other times, they are quite different. Analyzing the text closely reveals some important things.

What We Know For Sure

There are two things we can determine fairly easily. The first is that Luke’s gospel records a unique event that no other gospel contains. This can be determined by observing several major differences from the other accounts.

(1) The timing of the event. Luke’s anointing account happens very early in Jesus’s ministry, while the others all happen near the final week leading up to his death.

(2) The location of the event. Luke’s account takes place in the home of Simon the Pharisee. Even though Matthew and Mark say their account happen in the home of Simon the leper, these are clearly two different individuals.

(3) The objection. In the other three gospels, the primary objection from onlookers is that the expensive perfume used to anoint Jesus is wasted. In Luke’s account, the objection is that the woman who is touching Jesus is a dirty sinner. These are significantly different objections.

(4) Jesus’s response. In the other three gospels, Jesus responds to the objections by stating that the poor can be helped any time, but he can only be anointed for his short time on earth. However, in Luke’s account, Jesus forgives the woman and tells a parable about the power of forgiveness. His response, like the objections given, is completely different.

For these reasons we can see clearly that Luke records his own unique account.

The second thing we can deduce right away is that Matthew are Mark record the same event. Simply put, their accounts are almost identical to each other. The only difference is that Matthew says “the disciples” objected, while Mark says only “some” objected. Quite frankly, this amounts to a difference only in detail of description, not of contradiction. For instance, if (hypothetically speaking) four of the disciples objected, it is not wrong to say either that “the disciples” objected or that “some” objected. They mean the same thing, with only difference in detail. So we are safe to conclude that Matthew and Mark are thinking of the same event.

What About John?

John’s anointing account is the one that is harder to square away. John’s account shares some significant similarities with Matthew and Mark:

  • They happen in Bethany within the week prior to Jesus’s crucifixion
  • They tell of a woman anoints Jesus at a dinner party with expensive perfume contained in an alabaster flask
  • Onlookers object to the “waste” of the perfume; it could have been sold and the money given to the poor
  • Jesus rebukes them, and defends the woman.
  • Jesus states that the poor can be helped any time, but he can only be anointed during his short time on earth.
  • Jesus states she has anointed him for burial (it is unclear if that was the woman’s intent or not).

Taken together, these sound an awful lot like the same event! However, there are some key differences that might undermine this theory:

  • Matthew and Mark’s account happens two days before Passover. John’s seems to happen six days prior. More on this later.
  • Matthew and Mark’s account takes place in the home of Simon the leper. John’s is unspecified, although he says that Mary, Martha, and Lazarus are the ones who put on the dinner, so it could be in their home.
  • Matthew and Mark’s account state Jesus is anointed on the head. John states his anointing is on the feet of Jesus.
  • In Matthew and Mark’s version, seemingly multiple disciples object. In John’s account, only Judas is mentioned.

Do these details demand we assume John’s account records a third anointing? I think not. Here’s why.

A Possible Harmonization

First, it is entirely possible that John’s account takes place in the home of Simon the leper, with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus spearheading the event. John does not specifically state where the feast was held, only who put it on. Likewise, Matthew and Mark state where the feast was held, but not necessarily who organized it. These details do not explicitly contradict each other. It is within possibility that Mary, Martha, and Lazarus planned the event, while Simon was the host.

Second, it is entirely possible that Jesus was anointed on both the head and the feet—or, possibly, first on the head and then dripping to his feet. That each author highlights a specific part could be for their own thematic purposes. For example, Matthew might highlight the anointing of Jesus’s head since his gospel is continually pointing to the fact that Jesus is the Messiah of Israel. We know this because Matthew quotes the Old Testament more than any other gospel writer. An ancient Israelite would have recognized anointing one’s head as a sign of kingship, similar to the anointing of Old Testament kings. On the other hand, John highlighting the anointing of Jesus’s feet and wiping with hair might be a primer to the washing of the disciples feet, a story only he records and the other gospel writers omit. In other words, the authors are pointing out specific details that fit into the major themes they are writing about in Jesus’s ministry.

Thirdly, it is not necessarily a contradiction when John says that Judas objected, while Matthew and Mark imply multiple objectors. Both can be true at the same time. For instance, if Judas is the one who vocalized the objection, and several other disciples nodded along in agreement, it would be true to say that (1) Judas objected, (2) “some” objected, and (3) “the disciples” objected. Again, this is not a contradiction but a difference in detail.

Fourth, we must deal with the difference in timing. This is certainly the most difficult detail to wrestle with. Matthew and Mark appear to say that the event happened 2 days before Passover, while John says it was 6 days before. Both can’t be true. So, which is it? Did one author misremember? Or did the event happen twice?

Let’s take a closer look at the texts and the introduction to each story:

Matthew 26:1-7 When Jesus had finished all these sayings, he said to his disciples, [2] “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be delivered up to be crucified.” Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, [4] and plotted together in order to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him. [5] But they said, “Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar among the people.” [6] Now when Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, [7] a woman came up to him with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head as he reclined at table.

Mark 14:1–3 It was now two days before the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest him by stealth and kill him, [2] for they said, “Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar from the people.” [3] And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he was reclining at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head.

John 12:1–2 Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. [2] So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table.

I want you to notice that, technically speaking, each of these accounts can be read in a way that changes the order of events. In John, for example, it says explicitly that Jesus came to be Bethany six days before Passover. However, it does not say that the dinner took place right away. We simply assume that because it is the next thing stated in the text. Yet the text does not demand that this event have taken place on that specific day, but could have taken place at almost any point after his arrival in Bethany.

Matthew and Mark can be read the same way. In Matthew, Jesus enters Jerusalem in chapter 21, which is followed by several chapters of events and public teaching. Chapter 26 records the anointing, and verse six simply states that “when Jesus was at Bethany” these events occurred. In other words, Matthew could be going back in time to recount the event of the anointing. He does not explicitly say it is what happened next, simply that it happened while Jesus was in Bethany, which technically covers parts of the previous 5 chapters (Jesus travelled between Bethany and Jerusalem all throughout his final week). So Matthew might not be reporting in chronological order, but more by theme.

It is the same with Mark, where 14:3 simply says “while he was in Bethany” Jesus was anointed. Mark also has recorded some of the events after Jesus’s arrival in Jerusalem over the previous two chapters. It might be that in 14:3 he is going back in time to record an event out of chronological order.

Again, this should not alarm us. When comparing the gospels, it is quickly apparent that the stories are definitely not always put in chronological order. They are often grouped according the themes out of chronological order. Put simply, the texts of Matthew, Mark, and John do not demand that this event take place in a specific pre-determined timeline. All three of them can be read as possibly telling an account that does not chronologically follow the previous or subsequent events.

Since it is at least possible to harmonize Matthew, Mark, and John, I think we should consider that the most likely possibility. This would be confirmed by the fact that the stories are far more similar than they are different. It would make very little sense, for example, to have a woman anoint Jesus for burial at a dinner party, and have the disciples raise the exact same objection, to which Jesus responds with the exact same correction, on two separate occasions only days apart. That seems to make no sense to me. It seems far more likely that these three gospels record the same event with differing details.

And let’s not miss the main point of the story! Mary, the sister of Lazarus, demonstrates a beautiful act of worship towards Jesus, who says that she will be remembered for what she has done. And here we are, thousands of years later, still talking about her and learning from her example!

1 Comments on “How Many Times Was Jesus Anointed? A Comparison of the Four Gospels”

  1. Thank you for helping me understand this episode in the four gospels. As still happens today, each account of an episode of life is seen from different perspectives and when written down, tailored to the intended reader or audience. Why would the people in the Bible be any different than we are today? This is why I can relate to what I read in the Bible, because humans are the same these days, although different-seeming circumstances, as our ancestors were from the beginning.

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