Each of the four accounts of Jesus’s life—in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—give a story about a woman who anoints Jesus with expensive perfume, but the details in each narrative vary a bit.
It may be that this happens on four separate occasions. Or it could be the same story, with a few details that differ. Or perhaps it is somewhere in between, with there being two or three times that women anoint Jesus.
Matthew and Mark’s accounts are the closest, with the only differing detail being who criticizes her for wasting expensive perfume on Jesus: Matthew says it’s the disciples. Mark says it’s “some” people. Matthew and Mark likely cover the same event.
In John’s version, the woman who anoints Jesus is Mary (3), sister of Martha and Lazarus, but for the other three reports, the woman isn’t named.
John’s version is like Matthew and Mark’s, but one key difference is that this woman anoints Jesus’s feet, not his head, as in the first two accounts. Also, John identifies just one person who criticizes her: Judas Iscariot.
Last, John says that Martha is serving the dinner in Jesus’s honor, so we assume it is at her house, whereas Matthew and Mark say Jesus is hanging out at Simon the leper’s home.
Of the four writers, John is the only one who is an eyewitness, whereas the others needed to research their account. However, John is the last one to write it down, so it’s hard to say if he got the part about the feet, along with the other details, right or wrong.
Regardless, it’s reasonable to assume he’s telling the same story as Matthew and Mark.
In all three accounts Jesus defends the woman’s action and says she is preparing him for burial.
Luke’s version differs the most from the other three. First, he calls her a sinful woman, something not even hinted at in the other accounts. Also, she crashes the party.
Next, this takes place at a Pharisee’s house. His name is Simon, but it doesn’t say he’s a leper. And there’s no mention of it being in the town of Bethany.
A woman comes up behind Jesus and weeps at his feet, apparently in sorrow for her wayward ways. Her tears fall on him and, lacking a towel, she uses her hair to dry his feet. Then she dumps her perfume on them.
In this account, the woman doesn’t receive criticism, but Jesus does. The Pharisee thinks that Jesus should have known the woman touching him is a sinner.
Jesus affirms the woman for washing his feet, something his host declined to do. Then he forgives her for her many sins, affirms her saving faith, and sends her off in peace. Luke’s account contains enough differences that it’s likely a different event.
Although some people, like myself, enjoy digging this deeply into the Bible, we should do so loosely. It doesn’t really matter if this story is about one woman, or two, or three, or four.
What counts is that it happened. The specific details don’t matter so much.
When we read Scripture as narrative, the way it’s written, we can enjoy this story and receive inspiration through it. However, if we see Scripture as merely an irrefutable historical treatise, then we’ll surely trip over the minutia.
The key point is that these women give us an example of the lavish adoration of Jesus.
How exuberant is our worship of Jesus? Are we free to worship him regardless of what others say or think?
[Discover more about the four stories of women who anoint Jesus in Matthew 26:6–13, Mark 14:3–9, Luke 7:36–50, and John 12:1–8.]
Learn about other biblical women in Women of the Bible, available in audiobook, e-book, paperback, and hardcover.
A lifelong student of the Bible, Peter DeHaan, PhD, wrote the 1,000-page website ABibleADay.com to encourage people to explore the Bible. His main blog and many books urge Christians to push past the status quo and reconsider how they practice their faith in every area of their lives.