John 12:1-19, Jesus Anointed King with Nard

[April 17, 2011] Today we consider two very significant passages, the anointing of Jesus by Mary of Bethany on the eve of His proclamation as King, and this proclamation as He was paraded into the City of David. In Bruno Barnhart’s commentary (based on Peter Ellis’ work), the first part ends the horizontal beam of the gospel that began with the story of the Samaritan woman at the well (4:4-42), and the second part resumes the final ascent of the vertical beam and corresponds with the Baptist’s testimony to Jesus as the Bridegroom come for His bride, who gives the Spirit without measure (3:22—4:3). There is more wealth here than we can even hint at!

Parallel Differences: the Anointing

Let us prepare ourselves by noticing the differences with respect to the other gospels. First of all, concerning the anointing at Bethany, Matthew and Mark place the story at the end, after Jesus’ sermon on the Mount of Olives (on the judgment of Jerusalem and the coming of the Son of Man) and His final Passover with His disciples, presumably on Wednesday evening of Holy Week. Luke omits the story but has a similar story in 7:36-38. John places the story on the eve of Palm Sunday following the raising of Lazarus. So in Matthew and Mark the event is on the eve of the cross, following the events of Holy Week, but in John’s gospel it is on the eve of His entry into Jerusalem when He is proclaimed King, following the raising of Lazarus. This changes the significance of the story, for as Richard Bauckham has argued, what is implied in the Gospel according to John is that Mary is acting as a prophetess and anointing Jesus as King. 

Matthew and Mark also sandwich the story between the betrayal of Jesus, for contrast. John does not; he frames it between mention of Lazarus, for connection.

In Luke 7 the story of the anointing takes place in the house of Simon the Pharisee. In Matthew and Mark it takes place in the house of Simon the Leper. In John no mention is made of Simon. Instead we are told of Lazarus whom Jesus raised from the dead in chapter 11 and of his sisters Martha and Mary. John’s attention is on this family but the “they” of 12:2 implies that the village hosted the banquet.

In the other gospels the woman is unnamed. In Luke 7 she is a “sinner,” though this is probably a different incident. In John she is identified as Mary of Bethany, who was an important figure in John 11.

The other gospels all mention an alabaster vial; John does not. Only Mark and John identify the very expensive perfume as nard. In Matthew and Mark, the ointment is poured on Jesus’ head. In Luke and John it is Jesus’ feet that the woman anoints, and she wipes them with the hair of her head. Only John says, “the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment.”

In Matthew the disciples object, in Mark “there were some” who object. In John it is Judas who objects, and his motives are described. Only Mark and John value the perfume at three hundred denarii (in Matthew it is a “large sum”).

In response, in Matthew and Mark Jesus speaks of the memorial of the woman who has done this. John omits this.

Parallel Differences: the Proclamation

In John’s gospel, the next morning Jesus is met by a crowd of pilgrims who—perhaps hearing about the anointing—usher Him into the City, hailing Him explicitly as the “King of Israel.”

In the other gospels, Jesus prepares for His entry by sending His disciples ahead to get the donkey He would ride. In these gospels, the crowd comes after Jesus is seated on the animal. In Matthew and Mark, the crowd is unidentified; in Luke they are “the multitude of the disciples”; in John they are those “who had come to the Feast,” pilgrims come for the Passover. In the other gospels, the crowd strews their garments on the ground before Jesus; John does not say this. On the other hand, Luke does not mention the palm branches.

In Matthew’s gospel Jesus is hailed as the Son of David. In Luke’s He is the King. In Mark’s gospel the crowd welcomes the “coming kingdom of our father David.” In John’s gospel He is the King of Israel.

In John, Jesus only sits on the young donkey after the procession had begun. John then mentions the prophecy from Zechariah 9:9 and the disciples’ delayed comprehension; the others mention the prophecy earlier.

Only John says that the people who met Jesus on the road came because they had heard the testimony of those who witnessed Jesus’ raising Lazarus from the dead, connecting His proclamation as King to the events in Bethany. This is one of the most striking differences between John’s account of this story and the three other accounts.

In Luke the Pharisees asked Jesus to rebuke His disciples. In John they complain to each other.

The other major difference is the ambivalence of the other gospels. John’s gospel is straightforward: in this scene Jesus is publically proclaimed the King of Israel. In Luke, when the City comes into view, Jesus weeps for Jerusalem, for the siege of the Romans against it. In all three of the synoptic gospels, Jesus enters the City as its Judge. He enters the Temple and clears it; then He confronts the stewards of the City, those who were supposed to be shepherding the people, and pronounces judgment on them. A dark cloud hangs over Him which becomes palpable at noon on Good Friday. In John’s gospel there is nothing comparable. He is proclaimed King and enters the City as One “riding on” to victory, the Victor who will take the prize owed Him. Instead of darkness covering the earth at noon on Good Friday, and Jesus exclaiming His abandonment by God, Jesus declares, “It is finished.” Water and blood fountain forth from His opened side and He is placed in a garden tomb with a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes.

The Implied Anointing as King (John 12:1-19)

Richard Bauckham suggests that Mary acted as Samuel did in the Old Testament when he anointed Saul and David as kings, or Nathan when he anointed Solomon as king. Mary acted as a prophetess and anointed Jesus as King. This is “hidden” in the text for political reasons; her name and the identity of her family was kept anonymous by the earlier gospels for the same reason. Such an act would have been considered treasonous. Perhaps John dared to make the connection between the anointing and the procession on the following day as close as he did because Mary of Bethany was no longer alive at the time of his writing. Matthew, Luke and Mark still needed to protect her (therefore, John’s order of events is probably more historical than theirs).

Nevertheless, Bauckham argues, the anointing was understood as such—as a messianic anointing—by the crowd who immediately hailed him as the King of Israel. The word had gotten out of Bethany and reached the festival pilgrims. It would have also gotten to the Pharisees who were frustrated with Jesus. The high priest might also have heard of the anointing in connection with the procession and would have been alarmed along with his chief priests. This was not the kind of incident he would have wanted at the time of a major festival in the City when crowd control was a major issue and their responsibility. Probably, which is what the high priest would most fear, the news even reached the ears of the Roman governor. For it is apparent that it is he, Pilate, who initiated the arrest of Jesus, providing Annas (the father-in-law of Caiaphas) with the military cohort to have it done.

Jesus was arrested because of the proclamation of His kingship, not because He caused a disturbance in the Temple, which John in any case moves to the beginning of his gospel. John’s order could even be the more historically accurate in any case.

The proclamation of Jesus as King is closely associated by the crowds with His raising Lazarus from the dead (12:17). The anointing of Jesus in Bethany is also associated with this, for it is in Bethany that Lazarus was raised (12:1), and “Lazarus was one of the ones reclining at table with Him” (12:2). John tells us that, after the anointing, “a great crowd of the Judeans … came … that they might also see Lazarus, whom [Jesus] had raised from the dead” (12:9). The presence of Lazarus frames the story of the anointing in John’s gospel rather than the betrayal as in Matthew and Mark. Lazarus is not spoken of in the other gospels probably to protect him. In John’s gospel, the chief priests took counsel to kill Lazarus because on account of him many of the Judeans went away and believed into Jesus (12:10-11). Politically, however, Lazarus had something to do with the public proclamation of Jesus as King, and also with the secret anointing. This stigma would have endangered him with the Roman authorities also, well after the crucifixion of Jesus.

The raising of Lazarus was the last and the greatest of the seven signs that Jesus performed in the Gospel according to John. By it Jesus revealed that He IS “the resurrection and the life” and proved that He has the authority to impart life even to the dead. In the first part of the gospel, which ends here, Jesus revealed Himself as the eternal life of God come to us. In the second half of the gospel, He carries through the victory of the cross, thereby undergoing the process of death and resurrection by which He becomes able to impart Himself as life to His believers, through the gift of the Holy Spirit. Lazarus thus becomes the great sign of who Jesus is.

The kingship of Jesus is thus strongly associated with the power of His resurrection, which is to impart the divine life, and the divinization of His own human life—which took place in His resurrection—to others.

The Anointing (12:1-11)

As we approach the anointing in Bethany, we take our bearing from the four compass points with respect to this story. Opposite this is the story of the Samaritan woman in chapter 4. Juxtaposed to these “horizontal” stories, on the “vertical” beam of John’s gospel, is Mary the mother of Jesus at the wedding of Cana in chapter 2 and Mary of Magdala at the tomb in the garden in chapter 20. The wedding in Cana marks the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry and brings together the mother of Jesus, a wedding feast, and water that is turned to new wine better than the old; the woman of Samaria though is unfulfilled in marriage and is thirsty for living water. In contrast, Mary of Bethany out of the fullness of her love pours herself out on Jesus to prepare Him for His burial; while Mary of Magdala comes to the place of burial and is the first to touch the risen Jesus, who waited for her at the tomb until she was alone with Him, on the morning of His manifestation and impartation of Himself to the others. All of this is very suggestive.

Jesus met the woman at the well at the sixth hour and here He is anointed six days before the Passover. We might think of the sixth day when God created the man and the woman as His final act of creation before He rested in satisfaction on the Sabbath. This act of creation in the beginning points forward to the entire act of creation—from the beginning to the end of time—which will also culminate in the marriage of the Son and the Holy Spirit through their embodiment in the church (and by extension, through the deification of the creation itself).

The anointing takes place in an intimate setting of village life, at a supper-table in the midst of a family, some of whose individual names are given. The supper atmosphere reminds us of the wedding feast in Cana and Jesus’ last supper with His disciples. In 11:3 Lazarus is “he whom You love,” and in 11:5 we are told that “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” The gospels never speak so intimately of anyone else in relation to Jesus aside from the beloved disciple himself. The story brings together an intimate circle. This household intimacy is unique and unmistakable and the reader should not miss it. The smallness of the scene in Bethany speaks of the closeness of love and friendship and communion between people, and the sharing of that which is most precious.

Mary’s pouring out her ointment on Jesus’ feet also brings together and expresses the relationship between the raising of Lazarus from death and the going to death of Jesus, when Jesus will pour out His life so that He might become the life-giver in resurrection.

“The house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment” (12:3). In 11:39 Martha tells Jesus that “by now [Lazarus] smells” with the stench of death, for “it is the fourth day that he is” in the tomb. The fragrance of the ointment is the opposite of the stench of death. We are reminded of the hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes that filled the tomb of Jesus.  When Jesus manifested Himself to His disciples (who were behind shut doors) on the evening of His resurrection, as He breathed out the Holy Spirit into His disciples, the “fragrance” of His resurrection—the breath that animated His resurrected body—filled the house where they were. Indeed, by that breath, they became a “house” filled with this fragrance.

Rather than Judas framing the story in John’s gospel (as he does in Matthew and Mark), he is placed inside the story. The contrast in Matthew and Mark is still here. But Jesus now directs His words to Judas instead of the disciples. Later at another supper, in 13:18-30, Judas will take the morsel from the hand of Jesus and go out into the night. Judas is motivated, according to John, by a selfish love of money (12:6). Mary’s act is the opposite; it is an act of generous self-giving. Judas’ act is associated with death. Mary’s with resurrection. To Judas, Mary’s act is a waste. In reality the money that Judas values is a waste. Judas represents those who finding themselves among the lovers of Jesus represent the corroding influence of the world that would attempt to shame those who love Jesus.

The Ointment of Nard

“Mary took a pound of ointment, of very valuable pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment.”

Nard, a word derived through Persia from Sanskrit, is an aromatic oil that grows in northern and eastern India (though the name can also denote related perfumes). According to Marvin Pope (Song of Songs, page 348-349), it originally was used as an aphrodisiac, a love charm. As we know, it was very expensive.

We cannot help but be reminded of its appearance in the Song of Songs: “While the king reclines on his couch, my nard gives forth its fragrance” in 1:12, and 4:13-14 where it is among the fragrances of the garden which is the bride on her wedding night. After her arrival in the king’s harem in 1:2-8, the princess enters into the king’s presence in 1:9—2:7. After the king speaks to her in 1:9-11, the princess speaks aside the words in 1:12-14. The king is reclining on his couch when she enters. She is perfumed with nard, but her words—and the passage in 4:13-14—suggest other, more personal, scents being “given forth.” She is aroused by the king’s presence and responds with the flowing forth of her passion. This is unmistakable in 4:8—5:1, which is the consummation of the wedding that takes place in 4:1—7 and marks the end of the first half of the Song. (See Michael D. Goulder, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, 1986).

As the aromas and scents of the Song of Songs harkens back to the unspoiled Garden of Eden, so Mary’s oil also hints of something original and unspoiled by sin. The feminine aura of her act reminds us that Eve was never banished from Eden, as Adam was. The alabaster flask, that contains the aromatic oil, must be broken for the oil to be released: this speaks of the conditions that came to pertain—even for woman—after the rupture of the Fall.

The nard in John 12:3 also has the connotation of sexual union, though we are meant to think of this not literally but spiritually. Mary’s act is the gift of herself in utter devotion to Jesus. In the case of the Samaritan woman, her spiritual longing was connected to marital “restlessness,” with its implied sexual overtones. Their conversation centers around water, and Jesus satisfied her thirst with living water. Oil has an even more sensual connotation than water. But while the Samaritan woman thirsts to fill her emptiness, Mary pours out of herself from the fullness of her devotion.

Mary’s longing for Jesus is not fully satisfied. She is not able to love Him enough, even with the outpouring of such an expensive treasure. “She has reserved it for the day of My burial,” Jesus says. Her outpouring of nard is only the initial release from when she first enters the King’s chamber (Song of Solomon 1:12). A sword must go through her own soul as she loses Him when He passes through death. Nevertheless, the love that she has for Jesus is greater than His death can conquer. In chapter 20 the role of lover that she represents is taken over by Mary of Magdala who waits for Him at the tomb. Towards the end of the Song of Solomon, the queen demands of her lover, the king, “Set me as a seal on your heart, as a seal on your arm; for love is as strong as death, jealousy is as cruel as Sheol; its flashes are the flashes of fire, a flame of YHWH. Many waters cannot quench love, nor do floods drown it. If a man gave all the substance of his house for love, it would be utterly despised” (8:6-7). A man cannot be parted from his seal; it was his signature. The queen here demands no less an association with her lover; she was demanding of the king his constant companionship.

Mary’s spiritual arousal by and passion for Jesus demanded no less. “She has reserved it for the day of My burial.” Jesus fulfills this demand by His resurrection. Mary of Magdala waits there for Him, and He comes to her intimately, when they are alone (indeed, He waited for Peter and John to leave before He appears to her). Though she is not the same woman as Mary of Bethany, she continues the type. But though she touches Him, He makes her stop for there is a greater intimacy that awaits her and all His lovers. His coming to dwell in the believer (John 14-17) is His intimate presence with us forever. This is signified by His breathing into His disciples. He enters them when the Holy Spirit does, for He and the Holy Spirit are coinherent (they dwell in each other). All that the Son now is—His humanity and His history as well as His divinity—dwells fully in the Holy Spirit which fills our spirits, is beginning to permeate our souls, and will resurrect our bodies.

Mary’s pouring out of her nard looks like Jesus’ pouring out of Himself in death for us. It anticipates what Jesus does on the cross. Nevertheless, Mary does this to Jesus, and not the other way around. The next day Jesus would say, when He was in Jerusalem, “Truly, truly, I say to you, Unless the grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it abides alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He would loves his soul loses it; and he who hates his soul in this world shall keep [his soul] unto eternal life. If anyone serves Me, let him follow Me; and where I am, there also My servant will be” (12:24-26). When Mary “wasted” the ointment of pure nard on Jesus, anointing His feet and wiping them with her hair, she was devoting her soul to death with Jesus. The fragrance that was released represents the release of the incorruptible life within her, the release of her spirit. We are reminded of Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 4:7, 10-12, “We have this treasure in earthen vessels that the excellency of the power may be of God and not out of us. [We are] always bearing about in the body the putting to death of Jesus that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who are alive are always being delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So then death operates in us, but life in you.”

The fragrance that Mary released filled the whole house with its aroma, the aroma of life. What Mary has done shows the purpose of human life and the way to its fulfillment. It is in losing ourselves for the sake of the One whose purpose is to give us back to ourselves, no longer in a form ruined by the world, but as divinized by participation in His own humanity.

Thus this story concludes the presentation of Jesus as life. The first half of the Gospel according to John concludes with our pouring ourselves out to Him in response to who He is, and thereby anointing Him in His kingship. What follows is His pouring Himself out to us that He might “set us as a seal on His heart, as a seal on His arm,” that He—our Lover—might be with us—His lovers—forever.

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