After consideration of the very moving story at the end of
Luke 7 it is not inappropriate to review the evidence for
the attractive idea that this woman who anointed Jesus is
to be identified with Mary Magdalene and also with Mary of
Bethany, the sister of Lazarus. This can hardly be said to
be a proven conclusion, but there is certainly a
remarkable accumulation of circumstantial evidence pointing
in this direction.
There are three sides to this triangle of identity:
It will be convenient to deal with each of these equations
separately. But before embarking on an examination of the
evidence, it needs to be said that the three records of the
Jesus at Bethany, as recorded in Mt.26:6-13, Mk.14:3-9 and
Jn.12:1-8, are taken as describing the same incident and not
two separate occasions. For full justification of this assumption
reference will have to be made to Study 155.
1. Mary of Bethany
the same as the woman of Luke 7.
(a) Jesus spoke a remarkable encomium regarding Mary's
action: " Verily I say unto you, 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"
(Mt.26:13). It is difficult to see how Jesus
could have spoken so enthusiastically about this action
if it had already been done by another woman in
much more trying circumstances. But if this incident was
a reminiscence or recapitulation of the earlier occasion,
done out of gratitude for all that it meant to Mary, as
one redeemed by Jesus from an evil way of life, no difficulty
remains. It is almost what might be expected. The
words just quoted from Mt.26:13 have an even stronger force.
In effect they '. are an instruction to all who
set out to tell the story about Jesus to include in their
account the details of this wonderful act of devotion. Accordingly,
this has been done by Matthew, Mark and John. But where
is it in Luke, if not in his chapter 7? Apart from this
identification of the two women, it would appear that Luke
has failed to follow his Lord's instruction!
(c) Jn. 13:2 introduces the account of the raising
of Lazarus with this allusion to Mary: " It was that
Mary which anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped his
feet with her hair" . Is this an anticipation of the
record which is to follow in the next chapter?-in which
case it reads very strangely (especially those past tenses).
Or is it an allusion to an act of service which Mary had
already performed on some occasion prior to
the raising of her brother, i.e. Luke 7? The latter explanation
is not hindered by having to be read as an allusion by John
to one of the other gospels, for there are quite a few examples
of this in the Fourth Gospel.
(d) Mark 14:3 places that anointing in the home of "
Simon the leper" , who presumably was either the father
of Lazarus and his sisters or else the husband of Martha.
The record of Luke 7 has that anointing taking place in
the house of Simon the Pharisee. This coincidence of name,
if it stood by itself, would carry little weight as evidence
of identification because Simon was a very common name among
the Jews, but when set alongside several other lines of
evidence it becomes much more cogent. Equating the two Simon's
also puts much more point to the Lord's miniparable of the
two debtors. If he had been healed of his leprosy and she
of her moral leprosy, the fifty and five hundred pence take
on much greater relevance.
(e) The astonishing identity of detail between Luke 7 and
the records in the other gospels calls for some sort of
explanation -Jesus at the meal table, the use of an alabaster
container, the anointing of his feet, and the wiping
of them with the woman's hair. Such things-three of them
very unusual-are not to be explained by an airy use of the
word " coincidence" . They demand some kind of
connection between the two incidents. One possible explanation
is that Mary was repeating earlier occasion and was deliberately
imitating it (but then Mt.26:13 is decidedly difficult).
The other explanation that Mary was repeating her earlier
action, is much more forceful and much more likely.
(f) The details of Luke 7 pose several problems which the
commentators almost invariably slide past. How did Simon
know " who and what manner of woman this
is" ? She was known to him personally! Also, it is
evident from the detailed description given by Jesus himself
that this woman was aware precisely what courtesies Simon
had studiously neglected to offer to Jesus. How did she
know to make good these very omissions? Is the reader not
bound to conclude that she had been a witness of the systematic
neglect of courtesy as Jesus arrived in the house? Again,
how did she get into the house at all? The common slick
assumption, with negligible supporting evidence, that in
those days it was permissible for onlookers to walk into
a home to view the progress of a meal, is just too ridiculous.
And is it conceivable that such a man as this Pharisee would
readily grant the freedom of his home to such a woman known
to be such a woman. Clearly she was there because she had
a right to be there. Further, in the expression " she
brought an alabaster box of ointment (7:37) the
verb strictly means " received" (it is so translated
in all its ten other occurrences in the New Testament).
She " received" this " when she knew that
Jesus sat at meat" . From whom? The most obvious explanation
is: from one of the servants in the house. She was in a
position to issue instructions there. Does not this considerable
combination of details require the conclusion that she was
one of the household? This was her home.
(g) There is a strange inconsistency between the Pharisee's
issuing of an invitation to Jesus and then carefully snubbing
him on arrival by neglecting all signs of welcome. But if
indeed Simon had himself been healed by Jesus and if there
were three (or maybe four) other members of the family eager
to offer hospitality, it is easy to understand how the invitation
was grudgingly offered and then, to save face with his Pharisee
friends, followed with a cool reception.
(h) Mk.14:3 uses the puzzling description: " pistic
nard" about the ointment used by Mary. The phrase has
had commentators guessing. Since pistikos
is obviously connected with pistis,
faith, the most likely reading
is " faith ointment" . Then is it called by this
name in this gospel to recall the earlier warm approval
of Jesus: Thy faith hath saved thee" (Lk.7:50)?
(i) A further small detail. Judas was the son of Simon
Iscariot (Jn.6:71). This is a slender
reason for making him the son of the Simon in Luke 7, Simon
the leper (Mk.14:3). But if correct, then Judas was a brother
of Lazarus, Martha and Mary. It is now more significant
that he should lead the criticism of Mary (Jn.12:4,5-where
he is specially called Simon's son). If this took place
in his own home, and Mary were his own sister, he would
be the more ready to voice such criticism. And the line
he took was not dissimilar to that taken by Simon in Luke
2. Mary of Bethany the same as Mary Magdalene
(a) This identification rests primarily on an argument
from omission which, in this particular instance (though
by no means always), has special force. The sudden prominence
of Mary Magdalene at the crucifixion
and resurrection is given no explanation in the gospels.
Before this she is mentioned, with the utmost brevity, only
in Lk.8:2. Alongside
this fact is the unexplained
absence of Mary of Bethany from both crucifixion and resurrection.
Yet she was the one who loved Jesus so intensely, and her
home was at most only a mile and a half away from all the
happenings which were more important to her than anything
else in life. These facts have an air of strangeness about
them until the equation of these
two Mary's is attempted, and then there is no problem.
(b) The next two points to be mentioned here will be of
no value whatever to some readers of the gospels, but for
others will be almost decisive.
So much here depends on one's personal
approach to Scripture. Is it just a coincidence
that every time these two women are mentioned, they are
at the feet of Jesus. Mary of
Bethany sat at his feet, hearing his discourse, when Martha
wished her to help with the meal (Lk.lO:39-42). On the occasion
of the raising of Lazarus, Mary " fell down at his
feet" (Jn.l1:32). And, of course, the anointing of
Jesus brought her kneeling at his feet (Jn.12:3). Mary Magdalene
was at the feet of Jesus at the cross (Jn.19:25). And at
the resurrection it was surely because she worshipped him
and held him by the feet that he had to say to her: "
Do not keep on touching (or, holding) me" (Jn.20:17;
Mt.28:9). The same was, of course, true of the woman described
in Lk. 7:38.
(c) Also, with perhaps one exception, these women are described
as being in tears (or this is fairly clearly implied). Certainly,
at the grave-side of Lazarus and at the foot of the cross.
Certainly also, at the tomb of Jesus, both at his burial
and at his resurrection (Lk.23:55; Jn.20:13). And since
in two other instances (Lk.10:40; Jn.12:5,7) she was the
object of censure and complaint, tears were very probably
the consequence then. Lk.7:38 specifically mentions tears
at that anointing of Jesus. Is such remarkable harmony admissible
as evidence or not?
3. Mary Magdalene the same as the woman of Luke
(a) The only mention of Mary Magdalene before the crucifixion
narrative comes immediately offer the record of the anointing
of Jesus (Lk.8:2). Is this just accident, or is it Luke's
delicate way of suggesting identity?
(b) The name " Magdalene" is often taken as meaning
" from Magdala" . But it could just as easily
be " the hair-braider" , that is, the harlot.
Such a name would have special relevance if at her first
meeting with Jesus she wiped his feet with her hair (Lk.7:38).
(c) The phrase: " which ministered to him of their
substance" (Lk. 8:3) is specially apposite to the anointing
of Jesus, which was lavish in its costliness and was yet
the most humble ministry imaginable.
(d) " Out of whom went seven devils" can be interpreted
only by its one other occurrence—the parable of the cleansed
house taken over by unclean spirits (Lk. 11:26). This rather
grotesque little parable is interpreted by Jesus as a picture
of the moral depravity which would overtake his nation
because of a their refusal to receive him as the rightful
" tenant" of the " house" (Mt.l2:45).
Then does not this indicate indirectly the 10 earlier character
of Mary Magdalene?
If this identification be accepted, then it is possible to
piece together an impressive story of the family at Bethany.
They were a wealthy and socially important family (Jn.11:31,45).
The father Simon, one of the Pharisees, had also been an incurable
leper yet he was cured by Jesus. Hence the ensuing tension
between his hospitality and his Pharisee prejudices. Mary
had evidently given herself over to a profligate life, and
she too was rescued by Jesus, to continue thereafter the most
devoted of all his disciples. These experiences would provide
more than ordinary ground for the later expectation of Martha
and Mary that Jesus would hasten to the bedside of their sick
brother and restore him. There is also the possibility that
Judas, the son of Simon (Jn.6:71), was another member of the
family. There is not much point in identifying Judas as "
son of Simon" unless this Simon were himself known in
the circle of disciples. This suggestion would explain why
Judas spoke up so boldly in criticism of Mary's " waste"
of precious ointment. In his home he would feel the more ready
to speak his mind, and with reference to his own sister! This
interpretation concerning Judas is not so well supported as
the other ideas in this study. It has nothing intrinsically
improbable about it, but the positive evidence is hardly substantial.