Note on the featured image: could not find an image of Mark’s version of the anointing but this one will do (National Library of Wales [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons)
The passage chosen for this exegetical paper is Mark 14:1-11 where Jesus is anointed by a woman followed by Judas agreeing to betray Jesus. This paper will look the different pieces of context for this passage and look to establish the theological theme of Jesus as the Suffering Messiah.
Historical and Literary Context
This passage begins the Passion Narrative and Taylor writes that Mark, until chapter 14, has been largely written in sections with discernible and unifying themes. However, from chapter 14 onwards, things change. He writes,
But from now on the gospel is a continuous, extended and unified narrative, and we are probably right to suppose that it was already all these things before it reached Mark’s hand. (Taylor, 1992, p. 304).
Readers can see this clearly as they are presented with a chain of events that ultimately lead to the climax, the Crucifixion. Mark is no longer concerned with moral teachings but now focuses the reader on the central event of the Christian faith. Johns and Major writes,
The events surrounding this one great event were told and retold countless times, and a detailed account passed on to each new convert. Everyone knew the story and it was probably the earliest part of the good news to be written down. (Johns & Major, 1980, p. 128)
Throughout the Gospel, Jesus is written to have repeatedly warned his disciples that he would be betrayed, crucified, killed and raised. From chapter 14 onwards ,these predictions are realised and many of the disciples’ responses are on display for the reader to see. However it all ends with an empty tomb and a victorious proclamation. On this, Dowd and Malbon writes,
Mark’s story of Jesus does not link Jesus’ death with the forgiveness of sins, but it proclaims perhaps a more powerful message: God is present in the world, even in the face of evil, for God is stronger than evil. (Dowd & Malbon, 2006, p. 297)
Literary form and structure
Mark introduces the anointing with the plotting by the chief priests and teachers and concludes it with Judas agreeing to betray Jesus. Incigneri describes this as an example of “pattern of conflict and threat interspersed with moments of comfort and blessing” (Incigneri, 2003, p.289). He also writes,
This juxtaposition of danger and consolation reflects the experience of the readers, surrounded as they are by danger outside, but beauty, truth and saving grace inside. (Incigneri, 2003, p. 289)
The structure implies the Judas responded negatively to the anointing. Straight after Jesus’ words, Mark takes the reader straight to Judas’ meeting with the chief priests and agrees to betray Jesus. Camery-Hoggatt writes,
The extravagance of that anointing will apparently provide Judas’ act of betrayal (vv. 10f), an indication that he at least is blind to the deeper significances jesus indicates are resident in the act itself. (Camery-Hoggatt,1992, p.168).
For Camery-Hoggatt, while writing on Irony in Mark’s Gospel, this is an example of where Jesus’ actions, or actions towards him in this case, are symbolic in some way and are largely lost on the story’s characters (Camery-Hoggatt, 1992, p, 168). Elsewhere, the narrative carries on without significance when this happens. However, Mark is now beginning the Passion, Judas’ ignorance and unappreciation of the anointing leads him to betray Jesus and progresses the story along.
Relation to parallel in Matthew and Luke
The closest parallel can be found in Matthew 26:1-16. Like Mark, Matthew sits the anointing between the two parts of the planning of Jesus’ betrayal. A small distinction is where Matthew’s version begins this section with Jesus predicting the Son of Man being handed over to be crucified. Apart from this detail, Mark and Matthew share the same description. Considering the layout and placement of the account, in a Passion section, they are likely to be about the same event.
Luke contains a similar event in Luke 7:36-50 but careful reading suggest that it is not a complete parallel with the Mark version. Firstly, it is found in the early part of Luke, Luke’s account of Judas agreeing to betray Jesus is found much later in chapter 22 along side with the Last Supper and Peter’s Denial. Secondly, Luke’s version has people opposing the act for a different reason: Jesus should not have allowed a sinner to touch him. Thirdly, the woman in Luke’s Gospel anoints Jesus’ feet. In Mark and Matthew, the woman anoints his head. It is possible that these are two separate events but that could be problematic. Cole offers this suggestion on the matter,
It is best, as in the case of several of the miracles of Jesus, to assume that we have seperate accounts of different, though similar , incidents here. (Cole, 1989, 6.A.ii)
Taylor also suggests that the Mark account is the original version and suggests that the Luke version be put aside when interpreting this passage from Mark (Taylor, 1992, p. 309)
Socio-culture and religious dimensions
Whether or not this is intentional by Mark, this is not the first time that a female character has been the positive opposite to the established Jewish hierarchy. Sweat highlights the similarities with this passage with Mark 12:41-43 when Jesus applauds a poor widow’s meagre offering to the temple. Sweat writes that both passages contain Jesus’ praise of a woman in the broader context of condemnation (Sweat, 2011, p. 145-148). In the end of chapter 12, Mark describes Jesus condemning the scribes before Jesus applauds the widow. In chapter 14, Mark shows the reader the evil of the High Priests scheming to have Jesus arrested before describing the anointing. After Jesus praises the widow, he predicts the destruction of the temple. After Jesus is anointed, Judas agrees to betray Jesus.
This is only a few examples of the number of women used in Mark’s Gospel to articulate Jesus’ message, though not all are positive. However in the cases where women provide a positive light in the midst of negativity, the established religious heavyweights are often put to shame and rebuked by Jesus. Considering that women were amongst the downtrodden of Mark’s time, this would have emphasised the point of Jesus being the light amongst the dark and the saviour for those in need of a saviour.
Another social aspect in this passage relates to Jesus’ comment about the poor. At first reading, this could be interpreted as Jesus putting his needs above the needs of the poor. However Miller points to the new age of great abundance, that Jesus will bring into effect with his death and resurrection as prophesied by the anointing, and compares it to the current age of limited resources (Miller, 2004, p. 137). Miller writes,
In this sense the poor will experience the abundance of the kingdom of God through Jesus’ own death. (Miller, 2004, p. 137).
In short, the alternative use for the expensive ointment would only be temporary relief for the poor. However, the woman’s sacrifice points to a better and eternal relief for all the poor of the world to pursue.
Theological Themes – The Suffering Messiah
This passage revolves around the responses to Jesus’ anointing. As the reader will pick up, the woman could be considered to be very wasteful. Mark highlights this when the cost of the perfume is set at a year’s wages and the response of the other diners. However, as discussed above, this passage begins the Passion narrative. The anointing intercalated with Judas’ betrayal, the reader is reminder that Jesus is going to be betrayed, suffer and be put to death. This is very much the center of who Jesus is.
According to Mark, Judas makes no time once he decides and the opportunity presents himself. This can be contrasted with what happens after this passage when Jesus eats the Passover with his disciples. Danker (2006) writes:
The Markan Jesus’ preparations for the Passover meal with his disciples (14:12-16) contrast with the preparations of the religious leaders and one of his disciples for his death. (Danker, 2006, p. 1966)
There is a sense of irony as this betrayal is written in close proximity with one of Christianity’s most enduring traditions, the Lord’s Supper. Where Jesus speaks of giving his body and blood for many, Judas gives up Jesus for his own gain. The severity of Judas’ action cannot be lost as Jesus declares woe on the betrayer in verse 21. The motivation seems to be greed. Cole writes,
In the Bible, Judas has no high or patriotic motives; sheer love of money was his downfall, as it has been many church leaders since, whether in rich or poor countries. This is why Jesus warns so often against the love of money. (Cole, 2011, p. 971)
However, as tragic as the betrayal is, this is all done in light of what Jesus has predicted. The reader is being shown the first part of Jesus’ predictions in motion and should expect the remainder soon. Sweat writes,
The point of all of these proclamations, whether parabolic or predictive, is never only Jesus’ suffering and death. Each of the three explicit passion predictions (8:31; 9:31;10:33-34) also predicts his resurrection (Sweat, 2011, p. 144).
This leads to the anointing. As Mark has said through Jesus’ words, the woman anoints Jesus in preparation for his upcoming death. Since Judas’ actions will lead to his arrest and death, Jesus’ body must be prepared for burial and so the woman’s actions are justified as clarified by Jesus in verse 8. This further presses the point that Jesus knew what was to happen. Three times before, Jesus has predicted his suffering and death. While some, such as Peter in chapter 8, oppose such a thing, the woman in Bethany embraces it. This is lost on the other dinner guests but it will soon be properly explained and made clear. Malbon comments on this factor,
Once the passion narrative begins in chapter 14, the response of the Markan Jesus to the disciples focus, not surprisingly, on his fast-approaching persecution and the implications of that persecution for them (Malbon, 2009, p. 150).
However, Jesus’ predictions included his resurrection. As such, this anointing can be see as completely appropriate for the long awaited Messiah. Miller writes,
The woman appears to be a prophetic figure, since her actions expresses Jesus’ identity as messiah and king. (Miller, 2004, p. 134)
Nineham also adds,
In that case, by sandwiching the story in here, he has made his introduction a profound guide to the meaning of the Passion narrative. He who was the object of the guile and malice of the Jewish authorities (vv 1-2) and of the treachery of Judas (vv. 10-11) was at the same time rightly the object of love and devotion as Messiah (vv. 3-9). (Nineham, 1963, p. 373)
As described above, Mark specifies that Jesus is anointed at the head. This is how the Kings of Israel were anointed, along with the coming of the Holy Spirit (see 1 Samuel 16:13). However, unlike King David, Jesus would not receive his kingdom by entering Jerusalem by force nor would he enter with allies. Jesus is first be betrayed, abandoned by his closest disciples, crucified and buried. However, he would be resurrected by the Holy Spirit (see Romans 1:4). The anointing of such is then completely appropriate and the unnamed woman, perhaps similar to as how Samuel was to David, has performed her duty as prophet and is a glimpse for the eternal anointing through the Holy Spirit. Putting all this together, Miller writes,
Her action foreshadows the action of God who will intervene in the midst of human hopelessness to raise Jesus from the death. (Miller, 2004, p.144)
From now on, things will happen very quickly and it won’t be until the empty tomb is present before the reader can understand and appreciate the significance of this anointing. The messiah is anointed before he sacrifices himself to gain his kingdom.
As Mark begins the Passion Narrative with this passage, it will be hard for any reader to miss that Jesus is close to fulfilling what he was set out to do from the start of the Gospel. As tragic as being betrayed and being prepared for burial is, readers expect a victorious anointed Jesus to overcome evil and darkness.
Camery-Hoggatt, J (1992). Irony in Mark’s gospel: Text and subtext. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Cole, A. (2011). Mark. In D. A. Carson & R. T. France, J. A. Motyer, & G. J. Wenham (Eds.), New Bible Commentary (pp. 946-977). Nottingham: Inter-varsity Press.
Cole, R. A. (1989). Mark an introduction and commentary. Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press.
Danker, F. (1966). The literary unity of Mark 14:1-25. Journal of Biblical Literature, 85(4), 467-472. doi:10.2307/3264031.
Dowd, S., & Malbon, E. (2006). The significance of Jesus’ death in Mark: Narrative context and authorial audience. Journal of Biblical Literature, 125(2), 271-297. doi:10.2307/27638361.
Johns, E., David, M. (1980). Witness in a pagan world : A study of Mark’s gospel. Guildford: Lutterworth Press.
Incigneri, B J. (2003). The gospel to the Romans: The setting and rhetoric of Mark’s gospel. Leiden: Bril.
Malbon, E. S. (2009). Mark’s Jesus: Characterization as narrative christology. Texas: Baylor University Press.
Miller, S. (2004). Women in Mark’s gospel. London: T&T Clark International.
Nineham, D. E. (1963). The Gospel of St Mark. London: Penguin.
Sweat, L. C. (2011). A paradoxical portrayal: God in the gospel of mark (Order No. 3489318). Available from Religion Database. (912739017). Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.csu.edu.au/docview/912739017?accountid=10344
Taylor, D. B. (1992). Mark’s Gospel as literature and history. London: SCM Press.