Holy Week: Wednesday, an anointing at Bethany

by Eric D. Huntsman

This post is excerpted from God So Loved the World and my blog. 

Some gospel harmonies do not list any events for the Wednesday of Jesus’ last week, but using Mark’s time references as a guide, three episodes actually fall on this day in our working chronology.  These are the plot of the Jewish leadership against Jesus, the story of an unnamed woman in Bethany anointing Jesus’ head, and Judas’ decision to betray Jesus. On the plot of Jewish leadership and Judas’ decision to betray Jesus, see my blog. 

Gospel harmonies have conventionally assumed that this anointing is the same as the one mentioned earlier in John 12:1–9. While this may be true, there are specific differences in circumstances that make it possible that there were, in fact, two anointings. Although both took place in Bethany, the Matthean and Marcan anointing take place in the house of one Simon the Leper, whereas the Johannine anointing was in the house of Lazarus and Martha. Their sister Mary anointed Jesus’ feet in John’s account, but here the woman anoints his head and is unnamed. Like Mary, who anointed Jesus’ feet at Lazarus’ house the previous Saturday (John 12:1–9), Jesus explicitly recognizes that this woman had performed the act in part to prepared him for his burial and provides a moving tribute and commendation: wherever the gospel is preached, we should recall her act of love and faith.

Luke omits the anointing of Jesus’ head in Bethany at the house of Simon the Leper, presumably because the episode is so similar to an unrelated washing and anointing of Jesus’ feet earlier in the Galilean ministry which are described in Luke 7:36–50 as an act of love by a woman “who was a sinner.” Once again, some harmonies and studies of the gospel have associated all of these anointing stories with the same woman and the same incident. While this may be the case, there is no indication that the unnamed woman here was a sinner, and the timing and setting of Luke’s account is much different.


As noted in the discussion of the anointing as recorded in John, the woman’s act of preparing Jesus for his burial presupposes that she understood, at some level at least, that he had come to Jerusalem to die.  This stands in contrast to the perceived understanding of the male disciples in the gospel of Mark, generally followed by Matthew and Luke.  In those gospels the Twelve, starting with Peter at Caesarea Philippi, had received powerful testimonies of who Jesus was, the Christ and son of God (Mark 8:27–30; par Matt 16:13–20, Luke 9:18–20).  Notwithstanding this revelation, when Jesus tried to explain to them three different times on the road to Jerusalem that he would be taken by the chief priests and elders when he arrived in Jerusalem, delivered to the Gentiles, and finally killed, they either resisted this sad reality or failed to understand (see the so-called “Passion Predictions” in Mark 8:31–9:1, 9:30–3, and 10:32–45, as well as the parallels in Matthew and Luke). At least in the literary record, the male disciples knew who he was but did not yet fully understand what he had come to do, still thinking perhaps in terms of an earthly king and messiah.

In this light, the unnamed woman’s act, like that of Mary earlier in John, was one of deep love and faith, one that resonates strongly with anyone, man or woman, who has lost or faces the prospect of losing a loved one.  In such instances, letting go is in itself an act of love when one recognizes that the loss is God’s will.  The glorious message of Easter, of course, is that such loss is never permanent:

O love that glorifies the Son, O love that says, “Thy will be done!”  Pure love whose spirit makes us one, come fill my soul today.  O love that overcomes defeat, O love that turns the bitter sweet, Pure love that makes our lives complete, come fill my soul today. (hymn 295)

While the anointing of Jesus explicitly deals with Jesus’ coming death, remembering that one who was anointed was a māšîāḥ in Hebrew or a christos in Greek suggests a possible, additional symbol in this act. While Jesus was the chosen Messiah from the foundation of the world, perhaps these acts symbolize that Jesus was at this point fully prepared now to complete his mission as the Savior of the world.  Regardless of how many anointings there may have actually been, the evangelists may have used this motif in different settings for different literary purposes. Thus the anointing by Mary on Saturday could thus represent the anointing of Jesus as king prior to the Triumphal Entry the next day, and the anointing by the unnamed woman in the middle of the week could represent his anointing as priest, preparing him to return to Jerusalem for a final time to complete the priestly act of atonement.  

Women of Christ, Then and Now

Of the woman who anointed his head with oil, Jesus said, “Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached throughout the whole world, this also that she hath done shall be spoken of for a memorial of her” (Mark 14:9; parallel 26:13).  As a result, in recent years I have taken time to read and think about her story each year as I prepare for Easter.  In God So Loved the World, I wrote:

“I am stirred by the faith of this woman, and it calls to my memory many influential women in my life—both of my grandmothers, my mother, my wife, friends, and teachers—who have similarly been stalwart and believing women of Christ.  Their testimonies have planted the seed of faith in my heart and nurtured it, just as the faith of Lois and Eunice did for Timothy (see 2 Timothy 1:5).  Jesus has asked us to remember the faith of this woman, saying, “Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world, there shall also this, that this woman hath done, be told for a memorial of her.”  Each year as we read this account, we can fulfill that injunction, and hopefully be moved to remember the faith of other women and men who believed in Christ and his sacrifice, and in the process passed that faith to us.” (p. 45)

In harmony with this sentiment, each year on the Wednesday before Easter, I choose to honor my grandmothers, my mother, my sister, my wife, and now my daughter for their testimonies of Jesus and their examples to me.