NT Lesson #20: The anointing of Jesus (John 12:1-8)
Posted by Robert C. on May 30, 2007
* Temples and Leprous Houses: There seems to be an inversion where “the temple has been dismissed as incurably leprous and the leper’s house becomes the scene of a temple rite” (anointing the king).
* The JST of Mark 14:8: The JST seems to change only the structure of account in Mark, not the meaning per se. The new structure highlights chiastically the anointing of Christ.
* Mark 14:3-9: The Anointing at Bethany as Markan Christology: This is Julie’s dissertation which argues that “the anointing is both a burial and a messianic anointing and that its dual meaning is central to its christological vision. It will be suggested that the anointing encapsulates Mark’s Christology.”
* Ye Have the Poor with You Always: In citing Deuteronomy 15:11, Jesus is not saying you shouldn’t worry about the poor because they will always be a problem, but is referencing a passage that condemns the very attitude that Mary’s accusers take.
Here are a few additional rough thoughts of my own regarding the Johannine account (most of the scriptures cited can be found here):
More on the poor. Raymond Brown, in his Anchor Bible commentary, says “This contrast [in the phrase "you will not always have me"] fits in well with rabbinic theology. There were two classifications of “good works” (the expression in Mark 14:6): those that pertain to mercy, e.g., burial; those that pertain to justice, e.g., almsgiving. The former were looked upon as more perfect than the latter. See J. Jeremias, ZNW 35 (1936), 75-82″ (ZNW is, unfortunately, a German publication…). I think this suggests a slightly different emphasis than what Julie suggests, but it points in a similar direction. Notice also that Deut 15:4-5 says that there would not be any poor if the people would diligently obey God’s commandments. So, I think in Jesus’ words to Judas there is an implicit condemnatory reminder that the whole reason the poor exist is because the people (viz. the Jews) have not been sufficiently obedient to God. Also, I think this might be read eschatologically: Christ, in bringing forth the Kingdom of God, also brings forth permanent relief of the poor. In this sense, the “you” in John 12:8 is referring to the world and should emphasized: “you will always have the poor to be with you” with the implicit subtext being, “only in the Kingdom of God, for which I am the Anointed One, is there hope for permanent relief of the poor.”
Feet and self-sacrificing humility. I think Mary’s anointing of Jesus’ feet (for burial) and the parable of the seed that dies in verse 24 are importantly related to each other, esp. in light of the placement of this passage immediately after the raising of Lazarus where life and death are such obvious motifs. Thus I think Mary’s anointing of Jesus, and Jesus’ scolding of Judas, should be read in the larger thematic context of the world rejecting Jesus, parallel to the disobedience which causes the poor to remain, as described above. This rejection of Jesus will shortly be consummated in the crucifixion (and in Gethsemane). Importantly, Jesus’ suffering represents the possibility of a Kingdom whose glory is only hinted at through the magnificent tree and fruit that comes from the tiny seed’s death (compare the mustard seed in Luke and Matthew). This idea is continued in chapter 13 where Jesus self-sacrificingly washes the disciples feet. I think it is also important that Mary fell at Jesus’ feet in chapter 11, and then anoints Jesus’ feet in chapter 12. The subtext seems to be saying that we need to follow Jesus’ example and lose our own lives in order to be born again (cf. chapter 3) as new creatures in Christ, as Mary has done in prefiguring Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet….
Mary as the one who sees. Starting with Nicodemus and the woman at the well, and even earlier, I think we see a developing theme in John where others do not see Jesus for who he really is. Finally, here, we have Mary who seems to have at least a premonition of who Jesus really is and what his mission is all about. I’m actually inclined to read Mary’s actions in the previous chapter as also indicating Mary as having exemplary faith in contrast to Martha, but I think most scholars would disagree. This depends largely on how we read verse 33, “he groaned in the spirit, and was troubled” (see Jim’s notes on this for the previous lesson). I think most read this as Jesus being frustrated with the lack of faith all around him, and/or a groaning in response to Satan’s influence, a mixture of sadness and frustration at the (possibly needless) suffering that exists in the world. However, I’d be inclined to take this as more commiserative, in direct response to Mary’s terse declaration of faith. Notice how there is a lengthy interchange with Martha after her declaration of faith, which I think might be taken as evidence that Martha’s faith is not pure (cf. “pure nard” below). That is, I’m inclined to read Jesus as responding to Martha precisely b/c her faith is not pure, whereas Jesus’ only response to Mary’s declaration of pure faith, underscored by Mary’s falling at Jesus’ feet (as discussed above), is to groan in spirit and then to weep out of sadness and empathy. Inasmuch as we can make a case that John’s Gospel presupposes Luke’s, then I think my case can be strengthened. (because of how Mary and Martha are depicted in Luke 10). But I admit this is all speculative at best. Regardless, whether Mary demonstrates pure faith in chapter 11 or has only just attained a pure faith in chapter 12, I think it’s important to read Mary’s actions in light of this larger Johannine theme of failing to appreciate Jesus’ significance as the Messiah.
Pure nard. “Spikenard” in the KJV is usually translated “pure nard.” The Greek word typically translated “pure” is pistikos which comes from the same root as pistis (faith). This may be reading too much into the text, but I’m inclined to take the inclusion of this seemingly superfluous adjective as significant, literarily symbolizing the pureness of Mary’s faith.