In which I Celebrate the Anointing Woman

The Anointing Woman – Unnamed but Not Unknown

The story of the anointing of Jesus by an unnamed woman in Mark 14:3-9 touches me deeply. During breast cancer treatment six years ago, I chose not to receive communion due to my lack of immunity and the increased possibility of contracting sickness. As our UCC/Alliance of Baptist Congregation practices weekly communion, I asked my pastor for a blessing instead. Without hesitation, she began a tradition of providing an anointing with oil for anyone in addition to, or instead of, communion. It became, for me, the most potent part of every Sunday’s service. Each week, after I approached the pastor, she looked me in the eyes, gently touched my forehead with oil, and said, “Beth, you are a beloved child of God,” or “Beth, know you are loved just the way you are.” My eyes teared up, my heart welled, and in that simple touch, I felt truly loved, seen, and blessed by the Divine. Every single time. This powerful embodied experience inspired me to consider an early account of anointing in the New Testament.

            My paper explores the importance of the unnamed woman anointing Jesus in Mark 14 which ends with Jesus’ singularly notable declaration:

Truly I tell you,

whenever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world,

what she has done

will be told in remembrance of her

 Mk14:9 (NRSV).

In honoring the unnamed anointing woman with these profound words, Jesus highlights the significance of the action of anointing, the importance of the unidentified woman, and the role of women in his future ministry. My paper reviews the main literary features of Mark14: 3-9 starting with the pericope, implied author, implied reader, the setting, and the timing of the pericope. Literary features continue with the story’s plot structure and development, followed by a study of the characters and textual clues. Using literary criticism, I examine the importance of these elements in Jesus’ anointing in Mark 14:3-9. My analysis proves that although the unnamed woman was not identified, she was, indeed, known, as evidenced by her actions, her relationship with Jesus and his ministry, and Jesus’ stunning declaration that she will be remembered throughout the world.

Literary Features

Implied Author and Implied Reader

            The Gospel of Mark, likely written as early as 60 CE, or shortly after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE, is wildly accepted as the earliest of the gospels.[1] In Mark’s Gospel, women are usually silent, mostly unnamed, and kept at a distance (Mk 12:41-44, 14:3-9. 5:40-7). Yet, even in their silence and anonymity, “in Mark women often do what the male disciples have failed to do.”[2] In this way, actions speak louder than words.

            The implied author was the narrator of the story.

The implied readers would probably be early male leaders and followers of the Jesus movement.

Pericope

The pericope of Mark 14:3-9 describes Jesus’ anointing by an unnamed woman. The people present challenge the use of expensive ointment and scold the woman. Jesus defends the woman and chastises his companions, noting that, “She has performed a good service for me” (Mk 14:7). In response to the anointing, Jesus declares that “what she has done will be told in remembrance of her” (Mk 14:9).

Setting and timing

The location of the anointing takes place in the home of Simon the leper in the town of Bethany. In biblical times, people with leprosy were shunned, begged for a living, and were considered unclean. Simon the leper likely hosted Jesus in humble, if not squalid conditions.

The first two verses of Mark chapter 14, immediately preceding the pericope, note the timing as two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. These verses further highlight that “the chief priests and scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him,” but “not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people” (Mk 14:1-2). On that same day, immediately after the anointing, Judas Iscariot betrays Jesus to the chief priests. Promised money, Judas looks for opportunities to turn him over (Mk 14:10-11). Judas’s betrayal, Peter’s subsequent denial, and the disciples’ abandonment follow the anointing.

Plot structure

            The pericope contains four main plot points or sections. In the first part, an unnamed woman with an alabaster jar anoints Jesus’ head with expensive nard.

as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. (Mk14:3).

As Jesus is sitting at a table, perhaps he has just finished a meal. The woman is unnamed, and it is unclear if she came in from outside of the house or into the room from another room. The woman breaks open the jar reflecting that it is brand new in addition to being very costly. Rather than decanting the nard sparingly, dabbing a touch on his forehead, or parsing it out for special occasions, the precious substance flows. This is the special occasion, and she pours all of the precious balm to anoint Jesus’ head. In stark contrast to the humble, squalid setting, the action of anointing is extravagant and generous.

In this second section, unnamed people, perhaps the disciples, are angered by the excessive display and challenge the decision to waste what was equivalent to a year’s worth of subsistence wages on precious oil.[3]

But some were there who said to one another in anger, “Why was the ointment wasted in this way?” For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” And they scolded her (Mk 14:4-5).

Essentially, a group of tradesmen questions the agency of a woman to use her wealth. Jesus’s companions then chastise the unnamed woman. 

In the third section, Jesus immediately comes to the defense of the unidentified woman.

But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial.” (Mk 14:6-8).

In addition to defending the unnamed woman’s actions, Jesus turns on his companions and chastises them for “troubling her” (Mk 14:6). He tells the disciples that her actions were a “good service,” essentially approving women’s role in ministry. Jesus further acknowledges that she “anointed my body beforehand for its burial” (Mk 14:8). For the fourth time in Mark, Jesus informs his disciples that he will die (Mk 8:31, 9:31, 10:33-4, 14:6-8).

In the final verse and the last section of the story, Jesus makes a uniquely, unprecedented declaration.

“Truly I tell you, whenever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her” (Mk 14:9).

Each phrase in Jesus’ declaration holds special significance. “Truly I tell you.” In other words, “Pay attention; this is important!” And then he goes on to say, “whenever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world.” Not in Bethany, not in Judea, but the whole wide world – this anointing has a profound and wide-reaching significance. Jesus essentially declares, “Don’t ignore this act!” And he concludes with an equally profound and noteworthy statement, “what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” Again, this action is significant, and Jesus celebrates the unnamed woman for anointing him before his death. While not used in Mark’s version of the last supper, the unique phrase, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Lk 22:19 and 1Cor 11:24) parallels Jesus’s own words, “in remembrance of her.[4] In his final days and acts, Jesus implores his followers to remember both he and the woman. Significantly, “the anointing confirms Jesus’ status as, ‘the Christ, the anointed one.”[5] The unidentified woman, alone, honors Jesus before his death.

Characterization

            While the unnamed woman and Jesus are the pericope’s main characters, other men’s presence in the scene further highlights the unnamed woman’s importance. Earlier, the setting identified that the story took place in the home of Simon, the leper. We are not sure that he was present, but one would assume he was since a great teacher visited his home. Additionally, we don’t know if this Simon is the same as Simon Peter, the disciple, or an altogether different Simon. Since the disciple Peter is never described elsewhere as having leprosy, this is likely another man hosting Jesus. Note that his name and characteristic identified even a social outcast with leprosy.

Similarly, the verse immediately following the pericope identifies Judas Iscariot betraying Jesus to the chief priests and the scribes. Again, a man, even one who ultimately betrays Jesus, is named. Finally, since Jesus traveled with the twelve disciples and Judas was identified by name, one might assume that the companions who scolded the unnamed woman were his twelve disciples, the future Apostolic fathers. Together, the presence of Simon the leper and the twelve disciples represent a stark contrast to the actions of the unnamed woman. The men represent uncleanliness, betrayal, and abandonment. In contrast, the woman exemplifies generosity, thoughtfulness, and love.

            Several essential textual clues highlight the unnamed woman as the main character, along with Jesus. Interestingly much is revealed by what the author does not say about the unknown woman. She is not identified as “other.” In an earlier Markan parable, the author identified a woman Jesus met as Syro-Phoenician (Mk 7:24-30). Therefore, the woman in this story, not explicitly identified as an outsider, is most likely a Jewish woman.  It is also important to note that the woman is not expressly recognized as a sinner, ill, or otherwise unclean, as are many others in earlier chapters (Mk 1:21-8,1:29-31, 1:40-5, 2:1-12, 5:21-43). In addition to what is not said about her, we can assume only a wealthy woman would own an unopened alabaster jar of precious nard worth a year’s wages.[6] Later in Mark, the author identifies women who followed Jesus and supported his ministry, including Mary Magdalene (Mk 15: 40-41). These clues point to the likelihood that the unnamed woman is both a wealthy patron and follower of Jesus; certainly, someone Jesus knew personally.

            Jesus, as the recipient of the anointing, is the second main character. Fully half of the pericope includes his words (Mk14: 6-9). To start, he visits with a leper in his home and has probably just finished a meal. It is typical of Jesus to visit with the unclean and outcasts. He receives the anointing and later defending the woman’s action. He confronts his companions and continues in a conversational, almost matter-of-fact, style. “For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish, but you will not always have me.” (Mk14: 7). In stating, “show kindness,” he reflects that the woman’s action was kind and welcomed. In acknowledging that the anointing is for his burial, he tells his companions, once again, that he will die. He ends with the declaration in support of the woman. In just a few verses, he has corrected the disciples, defended the woman, acknowledged the importance of the anointing, and declared her remembrance. While the implied author does not acknowledge the woman, Jesus celebrates her action.

Textual clues

            In addition to the human characters highlighted in the anointing story, three particular objects or details provide essential context and insights; the alabaster jar, the nard, and the 300 denarii. To start, consider that the alabaster jar is described more thoroughly than the unnamed woman. Alabaster, a form of gypsum, is typically a translucent white and sometimes seems to radiate light from within.[7] It is fragile and easily carved into boxes and jars.[8] Clearly, a container made from alabaster was used for rare or special occasions.[9] The ointment contained within the precious vessel also carries significance. Nard, or spikenard, is “an aromatic oil imported from the Himalayan mountain.”[10] Noted for its memorable earthy, musky fragrance, nard is also used as a pain reliever and as a sedative.[11] Finally, the nard ointment was valued at 300 denarii, considered worth one year’s subsistence wages.[12] These details reveal that the unnamed woman’s act of anointing is deemed to be precious, earthy, memorable, and valuable. Together these three key elements prove that the anointing was both anticipated and essential. It is also striking that the author noted all of the jar’s specific details, but not the name of the woman who owned it, broke it open, and anointed Jesus with its precious contents.

Conclusion

            In response to the anointing, four key actions emerge; the disciple’s scorn the woman, Jesus’s scolds the disciples and defends the woman, Jesus acknowledges that the anointing is in preparation for his death, and, most importantly, that the action of anointing will be declared and remembered throughout the world. The first action, the disciple’s questioning and scorn of the woman, gives essential context as to why, after Jesus’ death, the woman remained both unnamed and essentially erased from the narrative, if not history. The second action point, Jesus scolding the disciples and defending the woman, leaves no doubt that the male disciples might later harbor jealousy towards the woman, the cause of their chastisement. Indeed, they were admonished by their teacher in front of a woman; perhaps another reason not to name her in the account of the anointing. The third action underscoring Jesus’s inevitable death uses undeniable language that this woman, who was likely a wealthy patron of Jesus, perhaps a disciple or family member, should be remembered and honored for her ritual blessing. Finally, using the future tense, “will be told in remembrance of her,” Jesus implies that women’s participation in rituals will and should continue. (Mk 14:9). With these actions highlighted, Jesus notes the significance of ritual anointing, the importance of the unidentified woman and women to future service and ministry. We don’t know her name, but Jesus clearly does. The author provides many characters and details. Simon has leprosy, Judas betrays, and the disciples flee. Specific inanimate objects also receive significance and attention.  Ultimately, the woman, who was, indeed, known by Jesus, was not named in the narrative, and the implied author of Mark successfully diminished a woman’s role in the anointing of Jesus as the Christ. This, despite Jesus’ proclamation:

Truly I tell you,

whenever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world,

what she has done

will be told in remembrance of her (Mk14:9).

In my mind’s eye, a woman that Jesus knew well approached him and acknowledged what was to come. Breaking open a brand-new alabaster jar, the room filled with the distinctive earthy essence of nard, and she poured all of the precious oil on his head.  Looking him in the eye she said, “Jesus, you are a beloved child of the Divine.” Thus, began Holy Week. Not with Judas’s betrayal, but with a woman’s blessing. 

Epilogue

As noted, this brief literary analysis stops short of definitively naming the unnamed woman. While I can’t prove that the unnamed woman who anointed Jesus was Mary Magdalene, I do think she was. She was unnamed but not unknown. I believe the literary clues highlighted in this brief analysis point to who she was and highlight another missing piece of Mary Magdalene’s real legacy in the early church. I gratefully acknowledge the work of Cynthia Bourgeault’s, The Meaning of Mary Magdalene and Margaret Starbird’s, The Woman with the Alabaster Jar for piquing my interest in Mary Magdalene and ultimately my decision to choose this pericope for study.[13] [14]

Bibliography:

biblestudytools.com. “Alabaster Definition and Meaning – Bible Dictionary.” Accessed March 6, 2021. https://www.biblestudytools.com/dictionary/alabaster/.

Barton, John, and John Muddiman, eds. The Oxford Bible Commentary by John Barton, 2007. https://www.americanbookwarehouse.com/916173/.

Bourgeault, Cynthia. The Meaning of Mary Magdalene; Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity. Boston: Shambhala, 2010.

Coogan, Michael David, Pheme Perkins, Marc Zvi Brettler, and Carol A. Newsom. The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books: New Revised Standard Version. 5th ed. Place of publication not identified: Oxford University Press, 2018.

Desy, Phylameana lila Desy Reiki Expert Phylameana lila, “How to Use Spiritual Art Chalk for Healing.” Learn Religions. Accessed March 6, 2021. https://www.learnreligions.com/healing-properties-of-alabaster-1724560.

Verywell Health. “Spikenard Essential Oil Health Benefits, Uses, and Side Effects.” Accessed March 6, 2021. https://www.verywellhealth.com/the-benefits-of-spikenard-essential-oil-88802.

Starbird, Margaret. The Woman with the Alabaster Jar: Mary Magdalen and the Holy Grail. Santa Fe, N.M: Bear & Co. Pub, 1993.


[1] John Barton and John Muddiman, eds., The Oxford Bible Commentary by John Barton, 2007, 886https://www.americanbookwarehouse.com/916173/. 886.

[2] Barton and Muddiman. 920.

[3] Michael David Coogan et al., The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books: New Revised Standard Version, 5th ed. (Place of publication not identified: Oxford University Press, 2018). 1857.

[4] Michael David Coogan et al., The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books: New Revised Standard Version, 5th ed. (Place of publication not identified: Oxford University Press, 2018).

[5] Coogan et al.

[6] Coogan et al., The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, 2018. 1857.

[7] “Alabaster Definition and Meaning – Bible Dictionary,” biblestudytools.com, accessed March 6, 2021, https://www.biblestudytools.com/dictionary/alabaster/.

[8] Phylameana lila Desy Reiki Expert Phylameana lila Desy et al., “How to Use Spiritual Art Chalk for Healing,” Learn Religions, accessed March 6, 2021, https://www.learnreligions.com/healing-properties-of-alabaster-1724560.

[9]Desy et al.

[10] Coogan et al., The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, 2018. 1857.

[11] “Spikenard Essential Oil Health Benefits, Uses, and Side Effects,” Verywell Health, accessed March 6, 2021, https://www.verywellhealth.com/the-benefits-of-spikenard-essential-oil-88802.

[12] Coogan et al., The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, 2018. 1857.

[13] Cynthia Bourgeault, The Meaning of Mary Magdalene; Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity (Boston: Shambhala, 2010).

[14] Margaret Starbird, The Woman with the Alabaster Jar: Mary Magdalen and the Holy Grail (Santa Fe, N.M: Bear & Co. Pub, 1993).

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