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In the third of this three part series, I’ll be discussing Mary of Bethany and what we know about her from the gospels. Most specifically, I’ll be focusing on whether she is the same figure as the sinful woman in Luke 7:36-50.
If you’re just joining this discussion in part 3 here, you might be wondering why the question isn’t “Was Mary Magdalene the sinful woman who anointed Jesus?”
To recap quickly, the gospels never present Mary Magdalene as a prostitute or the sinful woman who anointed Jesus. This is not a biblical view. Mary was a former demoniac not a prostitute.
In the gospels Mary Magdalene never once took an alabaster jar to anoint either Jesus’ head or his feet to the chagrin of guests watching her. Anyone who thinks that needs to go and re-read the gospel passages.
The only time she ever did anything remotely associated with anointing was when she visited Jesus’ tomb. This was with a group of other women including Salome, Joanna and Mary of Clopas. They all came to bring fresh spices but found the tomb empty and the stone rolled away.
So with Mary Magdalene out of the equation, the question that everyone will want to know is:
WAS MARY OF BETHANY THE SINFUL WOMAN WHO ANOINTED JESUS?
This is the natural question to ask. If it’s not Mary Magdalene, then maybe Mary of Bethany is the one woman who came to Jesus remorseful for her sins while he was dining with the Pharisees. It would seem to make sense now, especially since many people including Christians assume that Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9 and John 12:1-8 are parallel passages with Luke 7:36-50.
But coming to this conclusion in a vacuum without the context of the rest of scripture will lead you down an erroneous path. It might sound vaguely right if you just hear the name “Mary of Bethany” in isolation. Once you know who she is, and you also look at the details of the four narratives, you’ll see why they can’t possibly be the same person.
WHO WAS MARY OF BETHANY?
Mary of Bethany in Luke’s gospel
Mary of Bethany is the sister of Martha and Lazarus of Bethany.
The story of Mary and Martha is a Sunday school favourite that appeals to children everywhere. It appears in Luke 10:38-42. It tells of two sisters whom Jesus visits. Each take a very different approach to their guest. Mary, the quieter one, sits attentively at the feet of Jesus while her sister Martha frets over all the preparations to be made.
Finally, after spending all this time distracted while her sister seems to be doing nothing to help, Martha is exasperated. “Lord”, she complains to Jesus. “Don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to help me.”
Jesus chides Martha gently. “Martha,” he replies. “Martha, you are worried and upset about many things. But few things are needed – or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
This story is typically used as an example of how people can get so caught up in ministry and serving Jesus. In doing so, they forget to simply spend time in his presence.
Now no-one in their right mind telling this story today ever thinks that one of these sisters is a prostitute or sinful woman.
But John’s gospel identifies Mary of Bethany as the very same woman who anoints Jesus’s head in Matthew and Mark, except that in John she anoints Jesus’ feet. What does this mean for her?
Before looking at that in more depth, I want to discuss the other main passages she appears in.
Mary of Bethany in John chapter 11
Most people usually remember Mary of Bethany in connection with the story of Mary and Martha in Luke’s gospel. But she features more heavily in the fourth gospel in two separate passages.
We encounter her first in John 11:1-44 when Jesus raises her brother Lazarus from the dead. John 11:1-3 reads as follows:
“Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. (This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.) So the sisters sent word to Jesus, ‘Lord the one you love is sick.'” (NIV)
So it says very explicitly in verse 2 that Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha was the one who anointed Jesus. There is no question here that it might’ve been Mary Magdalene. She simply doesn’t feature in this story or the anointing incident at all.
In verse 5-6, John tells us that Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. By the time Jesus arrives in verse 17, Lazarus has been in the tomb for four days.
Verse 18-19 tells us that Bethany is less than two miles away from Jerusalem. Many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. Notice this verse. Martha and Mary, and the late Lazarus have friends who care for them and support them. The Jews seem to know the two sisters well and their family has much respect.
It’s Martha who comes to meet Jesus first, while Mary stays at home. Martha seems to be the more outspoken and extroverted one. She’ll speak her mind when she has to, as we see in John 11:23. She says “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
Jesus tells Martha that her brother will rise again. At first she simply assumes he is referring to a distant, eventual hope. However, he replies:
“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die, and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.”
After this, Martha goes back home and calls her sister Mary, telling her that the Teacher is asking for her. We’re told that Mary gets up quickly and goes to the place Martha had been to meet Jesus.
In verse 32, John tells us that when she reaches the place, Mary falls at his feet. She repeats the exact same words that Martha had spoken. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Jesus weeps for Lazarus and then orders the stone to be removed from the tomb. Then he calls Lazarus forth and the dead man responds and is raised to life.
Those who had come to visit Mary and accompanied her to the tomb ended up believing in Jesus after seeing him perform this great sign. She had the effect then, even indirectly, of leading people to Jesus through her own relationship with him and her faith in his power.
Mary of Bethany in John Chapter 12
In John 12, we’re now six days before the Passover. Jesus is in Bethany attending a dinner given in his honour. Martha is once again doing what she does best – serving others and making sure everyone is welcome.
Mary, on the other hand, is also keeping entirely within character. Once again, as in Luke 10: 38-42 and 11:32, she is at the Lord’s feet. This time she anoints them with an expensive perfume and wipes them with her hair.
However, Judas Iscariot objects. Why wasn’t this sold and given to the poor?
Jesus rebukes him and tells Judas to leave Mary alone. He says “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”
It is this passage, together with Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9 and Luke 7:36-50 to which we turn our attention now.
ARE MARY OF BETHANY AND THE SINFUL WOMAN ONE AND THE SAME?
These incidents are the main passages of contention and source of confusion for people. Because Mary of Bethany anoints Jesus’ feet and wipes them with her hair, many assume she must be the same person as the sinful woman in Luke’s gospel.
It is important to notice all the details in the passage to avoid assuming that these are simply minor variations.
At first glance, there are some similarities between Luke 7:36 – 50 and Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14: 3-9 and John 12:1-8.
In Matthew and Mark, it is an unnamed woman who anoints Jesus’ head with oil from an alabaster jar.
In Luke, it is a remorseful sinful woman who wets Jesus’ feet with her tears. She then wipes his feet with her hair and anoints them with oil.
In John, it is Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus who anoints Jesus’ feet with ointment from the jar and wipes them with her hair.
THE FOUR NARRATIVES COMPARED
I’ve created a comparison chart where I examine all four narratives in detail next to each other. The chart shows the similarities and differences along with comments. However, the chart would be too detailed for this post. You can download it free by entering your name and email address below.
Without this information in the chart, your knowledge would be incomplete, so I would recommend downloading it.
HOW DO WE RECONCILE THESE FOUR NARRATIVES?
Possible confused details through oral tradition
There are obvious similarities between the stories but also enough differences to argue that Luke is not a parallel passage with the other three but an entirely separate incident.
While one could argue that the gospel writers are simply reporting a single incident with variations, this seems more like an attempt to try to fit everything together neatly into one homogenised account.
Andre Legault acknowledges that Luke could easily have transposed the details of the anointing at Bethany to another time and place. In his paper, “An Application of the Form-Critique Method to the Anointings in Galilee and Bethany” he writes
“For we know that the sequence of Gospel episodes does not follow rigorously an historical order and there is nothing to stop St Luke from placing the anointing at Bethany in another locale and time. Moreover, he may have been inspired to place this scene earlier in the life of Christ to point out what sort of harmless conduct on the part of the Master had led the Pharisees in the pericope immediately preceding this to accuse him of being ‘a glutton and a wine-drinker, a friend of publicans and sinners.'”
However, he believes the two events are distinct and separate.
He continues in response to the above:
“This would all be very well, if we did not have elsewhere so many pscyhological reasons for denying the probability of such an identification… the Gospel texts endow Mary of Bethany with a character totally unlike that of a sinner, even a repentant sinner, and the better exegetes have always held the distinction between the two women.”
Because of the similarity between the scenes, he applies form criticism to them. Form criticism is a method of Bible study that examines literary patterns in scripture to determine its origin in oral tradition. Scholars of this method will attempt to discover what really happened and how a story may have changed as it was passed down orally, or how it may have led to different written accounts.
Legault writes that
“the two narratives were born, were circulated and developed according to laws of popular narration. Thus circulating in the community in a living and oral form before being put into writing, they naturally underwent certain transformations.”
Legault believes that the community could have unconsciously modified certain details of the setting, especially when there were so many points of similarity. It was almost inevitable that certain details were juggled back and forth from one scene to the other.
He admits that Luke may have borrowed some details from the Bethany anointing such as the name Simon, perfume in an alabastar jar and even the act of anointing. These are the main elements of contention for Legault.
He suggests that if we subtract these elements from the Luke account, we are left with a scene which works on its own and doesn’t actually have that many similarities at all. Instead you have a more bare bones of a story where Jesus is dining with an anonymous Pharisee when a penitent woman who is remorseful for her sins throws herself at Jesus’ feet, wets them with her tears, wipes them with her hair and kisses them. Then, as the Pharisee objects, Jesus tells him a parable about two debtors and its application. Then Jesus forgives the woman’s sin.
If there is no anointing, which may have been part of a confused oral tradition, and no-one named Simon, then it allows the two incidents to work independently.
Legault also argues that the account in John may have confused certain details where Mary of Bethany wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair.
Because anointing the feet and drying with hair would’ve been unusual, he believes that the actual anointing in Bethany would’ve more likely consisted of an anointing of the head. He believes that the wiping of the feet with hair belongs to the Galilee incident, while the anointing with perfume belongs solely to the Bethany incident.
George Beasley-Murray agrees with him. In his Word Biblical Commentary on John writes:
“It is more likely that two incidents have descended in the tradition, one of a sinful woman whose tears fell on the feet of Jesus and who wiped them with her hair, and another of of one who brought expensive nard perfume and anointed the head of Jesus with it; in the transmission of the accounts the details of the two incidents became mixed.”
Anointings and Simons would be commonplace – there’s only one real main similarity in the stories
The explanation by Andre Legault is quite possible. However, the problem is that it is assuming that only one anointing could have taken place. This is what most people seem to assume. In other words, how likely is it that there would be two such similar incidents?
Scholars often point to Jesus cleansing the Temple in Matt 21:12-13, Mark 11:15-17, Luke 19:45-46 and John 2: 13-21. John sets this incident at the beginning of the gospel. By contrast, the synoptic gospels set it at the end of Jesus’ ministry after the triumphant entry into Jerusalem. Scholars usually say that it is highly unlikely that Jesus would’ve been able to do this twice. The Jewish authorities were already plotting against him after this action, so he wouldn’t have been able to get away with this a second time.
However, this is not the same situation at all with the Temple passages. John places it at the beginning to make a theological point to foreshadow Jesus’ death. But the facts are much the same. With the anointing passages, there was not any huge public outrage that repeating this incident more than once would’ve put the authorities on red alert.
More to the point, Jesus expressly makes the point in Luke 7:36-50 that Simon the Pharisee didn’t offer him any of the common courtesies that hosts would normally offer their guests. Anointing someone whenever you went to their house was an expected custom of the day.
So the question becomes not “what’s the likelihood of there being two anointings?” but rather “what’s the likelihood that there were ONLY two anointings reported?” We should have expected a report of one at every single meal that Jesus attended.
But the gospels aren’t simply about recording history. They weren’t going to note down every single instance of this, just like they don’t tell us many other minute details. They only record these things when there’s a theological point they want to make.
John tells us in 20:30 that
“Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples which are not recorded in this book.”
In 21:25, John says that
“Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.”
So these are only two of the anointings that the gospels record. There were likely many more, and it would’ve been commonplace.
Another thing that would’ve been frequently found is the name “Simon”.
It is entirely possible that Jesus could have gone to two different houses owned by someone named Simon where he received an anointing at both. If receiving an anointing was the common custom, that should be expected. It would not be out of the ordinary.
When Jesus was at Simon Peter’s house to heal the latter’s mother in law, Simon’s wife could easily have anointed him there as a guest. Or if he dined at the house of Simon the Zealot, another of his disciples, an anointing would’ve been par for the course. But the gospels never reveal these details because they aren’t relevant to the story.
Anointing someone’s head using perfume from an alabastar jar would not be unusual. Nor would dining at the house of someone named Simon.
Jesus could both
a) dine at the house of a leper named Simon where a woman anoints Jesus’ head
b) dine at the house of a Pharisee named Simon and encounter a sinful woman who wets his feet with her tears.
These could easily work as two separate incidents without it seeming implausible.
So the only real issue becomes whether two different women would have done the more unusual act of wiping Jesus’ feet with their hair.
It is only this detail which might lead people to believe they are too similar to be different.
And it may be only this detail which people may have confused through the transmission of oral tradition.
But there’s another explanation.
Theological significance of anointing Jesus’ feet
In all three instances where Mary of Bethany appears in the New Testament, there is one thing that is common to her. Luke 10:39 describes her as the sister of Martha “who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he had to say.”
In John 11:32, when she encounters Jesus, the first thing she does is fall at his feet before saying “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
John 12:3 describes her as pouring the perfume on Jesus’ feet and wiping his feet with her hair.
The act of falling at or being at a person’s feet has special significance. We see this when the Samaritan leper falls at Jesus’ feet in gratitude after Jesus heals him in Luke 17:16. We see this with Legion first falling at Jesus’ feet begging for mercy. He also does this after Jesus has healed him and he is in his right mind. The woman who touches Jesus’ cloak also fall at his feet, as does Jairus when he comes to plead for Jesus to heal his daughter. In Matthew 28:9, when Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” are running to tell the disciples that Jesus has risen, they encounter the resurrected Christ himself. They fall at his feet, clasp it and worship him.
These all fall at Jesus’ feet for different reasons, whether out of fear, gratitude, petition. In all instances though, there is a recognition and acknowledgement of who Jesus is.
John Marsh observes that in John 11:32, although there is no similar declaration of faith from Mary like there was with her sister, the act of falling at his feet would’ve amounted to the same thing. It symbolises worshipping someone and giving them the honour reserved for God. So Mary is doing in one single action what Martha said in her earlier confession of Christ. Mary too displays her trust in Jesus, just like her sister, that he has power over death.
Marsh also suggests that Mary’s anointing in Chapter 12 points to the sign that she had recognised that Jesus was the resurrection and the life. Although she had not confessed that herself earlier in Chapter 11, anointing his body for death represented Mary’s acknowledgement that Jesus has a unique relationship to life and death. Therefore, it is quite natural to anoint his living body as even now, he is the resurrection and the life, before his physical resurrection later on.
While it might’ve been more usual to anoint someone’s head as part of the usual hospitalities, Mary may have done something different here. She may have fallen at the Lord’s feet again, just as she had done before.
This may have been out of gratitude for raising her brother from the dead, and in recognition of who Jesus was. It would’ve had the same effect as Martha’s confession of faith in chapter 11. This was her way of worshipping Jesus and showing her gratitude. With her anointing, she was saying “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is come into the world.”
In Matthew, Mark and John, Jesus tells his disciples or Judas that they will always have the poor with them and they can help them any time they want. However, they will not always have Jesus with them. This is a similar theme to Martha and Mary in Luke 10:38-42. In that passage, Mary sits at the feet of Jesus because she knows that Jesus is there with her. Martha too busy trying to serve Jesus or serve others. She can do this any other time. She will not always have Jesus with her, but fails to recognise when he is present.
John would’ve recognised the symbolism behind Mary being at Jesus’ feet. He could easily have borrowed that one detail from Luke’s anointing to illustrate a theological point. Borrowing elements from an earlier gospel doesn’t invalidate the later story’s independence.
So rather than confusing the detail, he may have deliberately used it to show that Mary was not simply anointing Jesus as part of the common courtesies that a host would perform. Instead, she was worshipping at his feet just as she had been at Jesus’ feet in Luke 10:38-42 and in John 11:32.
Does it fit with the rest of scripture?
One of the principles of Biblical hermeneutics is the clarity of scripture. In other words, the Bible is considered generally easy to understand. It is not an esoteric text which requires decoding. This means that we don’t take the attitude: “well, we can’t be sure who each Mary is in the gospels or whether they’re the same person.” The gospels never suggest there is any confusion between these two characters.
I could understand with other women named Mary such as Mary of Clopas where there is very little said about her. But we have a number of passages which reveal details about both Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene.
Another principle of Biblical hermeneutics is that scripture interprets scripture. If the meaning of any passage is unclear, then we have to consider what other parts of scripture also say on the topic and take everything in context. This means we need to look at what we know about Mary of Bethany’s character. Does it fit with what we’re told of the sinful woman?
Mary’s character is in complete contrast to the woman that appears at Simon the Pharisee’s house. While both women anointed Jesus’ feet, the way Luke describes the sinful woman in 7:36-50 is entirely different to the way he portrays Mary in 10:38-42. It’s also at odds with the way John describes Mary either in Chapter 11 when Jesus raises Lazarus, or in Chapter 12 when she anoints Jesus herself. The sinful woman was expressing her remorse for her sins. Mary, on the other hand, was showing her gratitude to Jesus for bringing her brother back to life.
While the two anointings may have had a similar outward appearance, their themes and theological significance were markedly different.
The idea of Mary of Bethany being a former prostitute doesn’t fit with what we know of her. It’s only when you allow your preconceptions to colour your interpretation of the other anointing passages that you could read the sinful woman’s characteristics into Mary.
Once you put aside any preconceptions from Luke 7:36-50 that you might have and only read all the passages where Mary of Bethany actually features, nothing about them suggests she is anything other than an ordinary Jewish woman. They do not contain any elements where you could infer she is a prostitute from the accounts.
Most modern translations or commentaries do not view these passages as parallel narratives at all.
Darrel L Bock, in his Luke 1:1-9:50 commentary writes that the comparison between all four accounts
“… seems to make clear that Matthew, Mark and John describe the same event, while Luke records a distinct event.”
Bock then cites a number of other authors who also hold this same position: Plummer, Ellis, Schneider, Schumann.
Likewise, if you look at a number of Bible translations, they never list these as parallel passages themselves. For example, the Good News Bible is well known for doing this so that you can look up the equivalent version in another gospel. It expressly omits Luke 7:36-50 when it lists the other three together. It does not recognise it as the same event.
The main reason people might make a connection between the two is if they are influenced by Pope Gregory’s sermon as explained in Part 2 of this series. It was Gregory who erroneously identified Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene as one and the same. But as we established in Part 1, this was incorrect. Mary Magdalene herself was not a former prostitute. The gospels describe her as a former demoniac.
We should therefore neither identify Mary of Bethany nor Mary Magdalene with the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet (nor the woman caught in adultery).
From the gospels, we know nothing of either Mary’s sexual past whatsoever. All we know is that Mary of Bethany was the sister of Martha and Lazarus while Mary Magdalene was a former demoniac.
It’s time to stop associating these women with each other and see them as individuals in their own right.
Make sure to also download your free comparison chart by entering your details below. This highlights the similarities and differences between the four anointings in the gospels.
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Finally, after hearing all the arguments and comparing the four accounts, do you still think the sinful woman in Luke’s gospel is the same as the woman in Matthew, Mark and John’s gospel?
And knowing what you do of Mary of Bethany now, do you still think she is a former prostitute or one and the same as Mary Magdalene? If so, why?
Or if you thought they were all one and the same before, has your view changed now?
Let me know your thoughts by leaving a comment below. Also, please share if you found this article useful.
Robert is the founder of Drawing on the Word. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Theology and a Master’s degree in Systematic Theology. He also has a degree in Law and was called to the Bar. Robert previously taught religious studies and was a theology lecturer. He is an artist, musician and writer, and has created a graphic novel version of Luke’s gospel. You can follow him below.