Anointing in Bethany in Mark 14:3-9

By Julie M. Smith

Structure of Mark 14 This lengthy chapter contains some of the most significant events of Jesus’ story: his anointing, his observance of Passover, his prayer in Gethsemane, his abandonment and betrayal by his disciples, his arrest, his examination by the Jewish leaders, and Peter’s denial of him. While other options are possible, this is one option for understanding the structure of this chapter:

  1. Death Plot (14:1-2)
  2. Anointing of Jesus (14:3-9)
  3. Death Plot (14:10-11)
  4. Preparation of the Passover (14:12-16)
  5. Prediction of Judas’ Betrayal (14:17-21)
  6. Last Supper (14:22-25)
  7. Prediction of Peter’s Betrayal (14:26-31)
  8. Preparation for the Passion (=Gethsemane Prayer) (14:32-42)
  9. Jesus Is Arrested (14:43-52)
  10. Peter Positioned to Deny Jesus (14:53-54)
  11. Jesus Is Examined by the Sanhedrin (14:55-65)
  12. Peter Denies Jesus (14:66-72)

The chapter has three main scenes (14:3-9, 14:22-25, and 14:55-65); each one focuses on the topic of Jesus’ identity (see the commentary below). Each is bracketed by reference to the betrayal of Jesus (14:1-12, 10-11, 17-21, 26-21, 53-54, 66-72). In between the three main scenes are scenes focused on the idea of preparation: first, the preparation for the Passover (14:12-16) and then preparation for the Passion (including Jesus’ arrest; 14:32-52). The framing of the Gethsemane scene in Mark’s story of Jesus as noteworthy: it prepares Jesus to face his suffering and death and it should have prepared the disciples as well (see the commentary below).

In this structure, the main theme of Mark 14 concerns Jesus’ identity. Significantly, each foray into that identity (14:3-9, 22-25, and 55-65) is literally surrounded by the idea of betraying Jesus. The fact that he is betrayed, abandoned, and denied by those closest to him is crucial to the way Mark presents Jesus and a significant component of Mark’s message about discipleship.

What does Jesus’ statement that the woman’s anointing of him will be “a memorial” (Mark 14:9) mean? The term “memorial” is used in LXX Exodus for the way in which God remembers the people of Israel and the way in which the people are to remember God.[1] If Mark’s audience caught this allusion, it would have strongly emphasized the importance of the anointing by associating it with the biblical rituals of remembrance. It would have suggested a dimension of covenant enactment or renewal to the woman’s actions. The anointing would be taken as evidence of God’s involvement with the people; the woman’s act manifests this involvement by demonstrating the accessibility of God’s power to all people who would use it to honor Jesus.

The phrase “for a memorial” is often found in funerary inscriptions.[2] Its use here would then be ironic since the death in view is Jesus’–not the woman’s. There might be a bit of atonement theology at play since she is the one garnering a memorial for an action related to his death. And to the extent that “for a memorial” evokes the thought of the woman’s death in the minds of Mark’s audience, then Jesus is suggesting that his death is profoundly related to her death, an idea which also points to the atonement.

Jesus’ recent quotation of Deuteronomy 15:11 evoked a text which criticized those who gave to the poor anticipating recompense. His praise of the woman implied that she, on the contrary, had acted without expectation of reward. And yet, in a classic instance of Markan irony, the woman is recompensed—richly–not only by Jesus’ praise but by his statement that turns her deed into a memorial to her wherever the gospel is preached. His words invite the audience to participate in the woman’s memorial by re-telling her story.

Jesus’ statement is unique in Mark: the woman’s action is permanently connected to Jesus’ story, a privilege given to no one else. Some interpreters suggest that the memorial is of Jesus, not of the woman, or that her memorial will be that her good deed is remembered by God on the day of judgment, but neither of these readings seem likely given the actual wording of Jesus’ statement.

Significantly, in Mark’s Gospel, there is no command to memorialize the Last Supper (see the commentary below; contrast Luke 22:19). The only event in Mark which Jesus asks to be remembered is his anointing. Mark’s Gospel envisions a continued role in the life of the early church not for the ritual reenactment of the Last Supper, but rather for storytelling and, particularly, telling the story of the anointing.

There is a good case to be made that this story is the centerpiece of Mark’s Gospel. It is thus ironic that the woman’s name is not included in the account by which she will be memorialized. And yet the lack of a name is, in a sense, appropriate; Mary Ann Tolbert wrote: “throughout the Gospel, naming has often been associated with the human desire for fame, glory, status, and authority, all longings that harden the heart and encourage fear rather than faith.”[3] And there might be yet another layer of irony in that the unnamed woman “names” Jesus through an act which explains what it means to say that Jesus is the Christ (see the commentary below).

LDS readers will find a parallel between this verse and the scene in the Book of Mormon where Jesus reviews the Nephite record and requests that the prophecies of Samuel the Lamanite be included.[4] In both cases, there is the command from Jesus that certain material be included in the record; it is likely that, given cultural biases (against Lamanites and women) these particular stories might have otherwise been lost to history without Jesus’ intervention. Most significantly, both Samuel and the anointing woman testify of Jesus in profound ways.


Old Testament Allusions in the Story of the Anointing of Jesus (Mark 14:3-9)

  1. Allusion to Hannah (1 Samuel 2) There are some important similarities between Hannah and the anointing woman. In Hannah’s song of praise, she is the first regular Israelite to refer to the coming anointed one.[5] It is significant that the first person in the HB to recognize the coming messiah as well as the first person in Mark’s story of Jesus to recognize him are both female.
  2. Allusion to Samuel (1 Samuel 10) The story of the anointing of Saul as king by the prophet Samuel forms a significant backdrop to Jesus’ anointing in Mark. Samuel’s act of pouring oil on Saul’s head would have signified to Mark’s audience that Jesus was being anointed as a king (see below). And given that 1 Samuel 9:15-16 shows the Lord telling Samuel who to anoint (see also 1 Samuel 16:12), a comparison of these texts suggests that the anointing woman had a similar revelation regarding who she should anoint. Based on the manuscript evidence, most modern editions of 1 Samuel include the following at the end of 1 Samuel 10:1 although it is absent from the KJV: “And you shall reign over the people of the Lord and you will save them from the hand of their enemies round about. And this shall be the sign to you that the Lord has anointed you to be prince over his heritage.” Next, a very specific prophecy of instruction is given and is immediately fulfilled.[6] After Jesus’ anointing, there is a similar story: Jesus tells some of his disciples about arrangements for the Last Supper and they find everything to be as he predicted.[7] In both cases, the quickly-filled prophecy verifies the authenticity of the anointing.
  3. Allusion to Psalm 23 Psalm 23 has several interesting resonances with the anointing story, particularly in its LXX iteration. Both texts involve the anointing of the head at a meal in the presence of enemies. Psalm 23:5 mentions preparing a table for a meal, which resonates with the next story in Mark, where two disciples prepare the Passover meal for Jesus. In the context of the entire psalm, Psalm 23:5 implies that the anointing is a comfort to the speaker and may therefore suggest that the anointing would be a comfort to Jesus as he faces his suffering and death.
  4. Allusion to Proverbs 8 The Hebrew text of Proverbs 8:23 uses the word for “poured out” to describe wisdom, which is personified as a woman. Cory Crawford suggests that this alludes to “the pouring of oil for anointing kings, of other liquids for rituals of worship, and/or the pouring out of God’s spirit” by “a divine woman as the source of regal power, knowledge, justice, and creation.”[8] If Mark’s audience recognized this allusion, they would have associated the anointing woman with Wisdom, which in the HB is a personified aspect of God.
  5. Allusion to The Song of Solomon A passage from the Song of Solomon—a book which was read as part of the Passover observance–reads: “Because of the savour of thy good ointments thy name is as ointment poured forth.”[9] The reference in Song 1:12 to a king and nard are also echoed in the anointing story. As Philip Carrington explains, “The word shem, which means name or reputation, resembled the word shemen, which means oil or ointment, and the two words are associated with Eccl. vii.1: ‘a good name is better than precious oil.’”[10] These echoes would have primed Mark’s audience to link Jesus’ anointing with naming (see the commentary below on the symbolism of the anointing).
  6. Allusion to the Messianic Feast The messianic feast is the idea that the coming of the messiah can be symbolized by a lavish banquet. Isaiah 25 develops this imagery. The LXX of Isaiah 25:6 departs from the Hebrew text in a significant way: it describes the messianic banquet as including anointing with ointment. The significance of this allusion is that it implies that the woman turned an otherwise-ordinary meal into a messianic feast, reflecting her knowledge that the messiah was indeed present.


The Symbolism of Jesus’ Anointing (Mark 14:3-9) Anointing was a common practice in antiquity and there are many different reasons for anointing: before a feast,[11] to hallow objects,[12] for beauty,[13] or to consecrate priests[14] and kings.[15] Several themes developed around the concept of anointing, but particularly it served as an acknowledgment of divine election, implied an endowment of power from God, and conferred a spirit of wisdom. In general, anointing suggests “status transformation” which leads to a “new role.”[16] And while anointing was a common practice in the ancient world, Mark’s story—particularly Jesus’ statement that it should be told whenever the gospel is preached—suggests that this is not an ordinary anointing. It has several symbolic meanings in Mark:


  1. A burial anointing. Jesus states that the woman has anointed his body for burying. Some interpreters think that the only reason the anointing is in the text is because Mark’s audience would have been distressed that Jesus’ corpse was not properly anointed after burial.[17] However, it is more likely that early Christians would have denied the need for a proper burial since Jesus was resurrected, especially since the anointing story raises the question of whether this anointing would even constitute a proper burial anointing since it was performed before death. Nonetheless, this is a burial anointing and abounds in death symbolism. The same item of furniture (Greek: kline) is used to recline at a dinner and to lay out a corpse. The broken vial of oil, which was often left in the tomb with the dead, is itself a symbol of death and destruction.[18] And there is the suggestion that the house is a tomb since it is the home of a leper.
  2. A royal anointing. The anointing is in a context of profuse royal imagery, which began with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. The anointing continues the messianic imagery which reaches its ironic climax in the mockery of the crucifixion. The fact that Jesus’ head is anointed supports the idea of it being a royal anointing;[19] there is ample HB precedent for the anointing of the king’s head as the coronation ritual.[20] There is a particularly close association with Samuel’s anointing of Saul as king since both are followed by a quickly-filled prophecy as a sign of authenticity (see the commentary above). Although not every king in Israel was anointed, a king whose right to reign was disputed would have been anointed and the kingship of Jesus is certainly disputed. Of course, the woman’s anointing inverts expectations at least as much as it fulfills them since she is not a prophet in Israel. But when Jesus says that she has anointed his body ahead of time for burial, he suggests that the woman has in fact acted prophetically. The royal anointing would normally take place in the most sacred of locations (a temple), but Jesus’ occurs in one of its most polluted (a leper’s home). While the audience would have understood that this was a royal anointing, they also would have seen it as re-imagined in significant ways.


It is not the case that one or the other meaning for the anointing must be chosen. Rather, it seems that Mark wants the audience to consider the symbolism of the anointing to be multi-faceted: Mark intends for the audience to view this as both a burial anointing and a royal anointing. It also has some elements of a priestly anointing. The combination of meanings is essential to understanding the nature of Jesus’ mission: he is the messiah, but he suffers and dies. An anointing which is at once a royal anointing and a burial anointing is the ideal vehicle by which to teach this truth. As Austin Farrer wrote, “It is no diminution of its royal significance when Jesus declares the anointing to be for his burial, for it is precisely the paradox of Christ’s royalty that he is enthroned through being entombed.”[21]

Taking both meanings simultaneously allows the interpreter to view the anointing as consistent with Mark’s major theological focus:  the paradox of the victorious death. To see the royal, glorious Jesus without understanding the reality of his suffering and death is to make Peter’s mistake;[22] to see Jesus as one who suffers without any royal underpinning is to make the mistake of those who mock him in Mark 15.


What does the anointing (Mark 14:3-9) teach about Jesus? The anointing may be the chief christological material in the Gospel; this would explain why Jesus states that the story will be told wherever the gospel is preached. Because the anointing is a ritual action and not a simple a spoken title (such as “Christ” or “son of man”), it is best able to reflect Mark’s christological vision. Donald Juel explains that “it is only in the relationship of the two facts–his identity as Messiah and his appearance as the crucified King of the Jews–that the truth of the story can be expressed.”[23] Jesus is named not with a title, but through the silent action of a faithful follower. This type of naming is most appropriate to the Gospel of Mark where more traditional methods of naming fail. And the layered truth that Jesus must be simultaneously understood as a dying and a royal  Messiah simply cannot be expressed in one small word. Mark’s Christology encapsulates a nuanced understanding, so one title cannot capture the full meaning. Even the title “Christ” is insufficient since, through the anointing, Mark redefines its meaning. The very fact that Mark is a narrative should suggest that Mark believes that truth is best conveyed by telling a story–not by one title or phrase.

Jesus links the woman’s deed to the proclamation of the gospel–the good news–of Jesus Christ. What is that good news and what are the implications of this christological vision? The good news is that traditional expectations are inverted in the face of the inbreaking kingdom of God. Life and death are mysteriously intertwined, purity and impurity play, outsiders become insiders and insiders become outsiders, power comes from silence, words speak only betrayal, and gender barriers are shattered. But the most important and most curious paradox in Mark is the concept of the victorious death and the suffering messiah.




[1]See Exodus 3:15, 12:14, 13:9, and 28:12.

[2]See Joel Marcus, Mark 8-16 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 937.

[3]See Mary Ann Tolbert, Sowing the Gospel:  Mark’s World in Literary-Historical Perspective (Minneapolis, MN:  Fortress Press, 1989), 293.

[4]See 3 Nephi 23:7-13.

[5]See 1 Samuel 2:10. See also Julie M. Smith, “‘I Will Sing to the Lord’: Women’s Songs in the Scriptures,” Dialogue 45, no. 3: 56-69.

[6] See 1 Samuel 10:2-9.

[7]See Mark 14:13-16.

[8]Cory Crawford, “The Struggle for Female Authority in Biblical and Mormon Thought,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 28, no. 2 (Summer 2015), 15.

[9]Songs 1:3.

[10]Philip Carrington, According to Mark: A Running Commentary on the Oldest Gospel (1960), 306.

[11]See Amos 6:6.

[12]See Genesis 31:13 and Leviticus 8:10.

[13]See Ruth 3:3.

[14]See Exodus 28:41.

[15]See 1 Samuel 15:1.

[16]See Santiago Guijarro and Ana Rodríguez, “The ‘Messianic’ Anointing of Jesus,” Biblical Theology Bulletin, August 2011 vol. 41 no. 3, 137.

[17]See Mark 16:1-8.

[18]See Ecclesiastes 12:6 and Jeremiah 13:12-14.

[19]See Ben W. Witherington, The Gospel of Mark:  A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001), 368.

[20]See 1 Samuel 10:1, 1 Kings 1:39, 2 Kings 9:1-6, and 2 Kings 11:12.

[21]Austin Marsden Farrer, A Study in St. Mark, Dacre Press (1951), 130.

[22]See Mark 8:32-33.

[23]Donald Juel, A Master of Surprise: Mark Interpreted (Fortress Press, 1994), 41.