Friday, February 15, 2013

Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary

Jesus had revealed the various signs of the End, concluding with an emphasis to be vigilantly ready for His Return. Then, as we continued on in Matthew, and cross-referenced Luke, we saw how there was some language suggesting a possible extended wait for Jesus' return, language which is absent from the earliest Gospel; Mark.

In Matthew 26:1-2, Jesus predicted His upcoming fate. With that, we jumped over to John's parallel track, where Jesus also predicted His fate while in Jerusalem, and took us on a strange journey of misquotes and missed connections of Jesus. John followed that up with some misquotes of prophesy. One of these quotes revealed to us that God purposefully (figuratively) blinded and hardened the hearts of some Jews so that they could not repent, and thereby God could apply His wrath to them.

Stepping back to the "synchronous" Synoptic Gospels, in Matthew 26:3-5 and Mark 14:1-2 we find the Chief Priests, Elders, and Teachers of the Law gathering then to figure out how to arrest and kill Jesus. Matthew even involved the High Priest Caiaphas in the plot. As mentioned in a previous post, in John 11:47-53 on the other hand, had this malevolent meeting of the religious elite prior to Jesus entering Jerusalem and in response to Jesus' popularity following His resurrection of Lazarus, which is not mentioned by any other Gospel.

Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary
On the list of things you would want in your holy book, you would think that "truth" would be pretty high up there. Sure, it may be a complex, nuanced truth which does not lend itself well to simple descriptions, but still you would want some assurance that the words of revelation are accurate, and that the events which are recorded therein did happen as described. Without that basic level of veracity, there is no way to tell if the message you have received is divinely crafted, or instead devilishly enhanced by later authors seeking to provide a "better" version of the truth. Fortunately with regards to the Bible, the four Gospel accounts allow us to compare and contrast each other to help us discern what kind of "truth" we really have with them. Take the story of the woman anointing Jesus, for example.

Matthew 26:6-13 and Mark 14:3-9 tell the story almost identically. It goes like this:
Near the time of the Last Supper after Jesus had made His Triumphant Entry into Jerusalem, in Simon the Leper's house, which was in Bethany (in the region of Judea, near Jerusalem), a woman poured an alabaster jar of expensive perfume on Jesus' head while He was reclining at the table. Some people objected to the waste of money which could have been used to help the poor, but Jesus said that they would always have the poor with them, but they would not always have Jesus, and that her anointing had been for His upcoming burial. (My paraphrase)
The only mentionable differences in these two accounts is that Mark identified the perfume as being pure nard and had those who objected harshly rebuking the woman, while Matthew does not name the perfume type or explicitly mention the rebuke, but does identify the people objecting as being some disciples. These are fairly insignificant changes. The accounts are so close, but have enough differences, that you may think that they are from independent witness, except for the fact that there are some spots where they match 100% identically word for word, which indicates copying. This includes the memorable conclusion to the episode in Matthew 26:13 and Mark 14:9 where Jesus said:
"I tell you the truth, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her." NIV
It is interesting, and bizarre, that this story would be told in the memory of what this woman did, and yet this woman was not named by either author. That is not much of a legacy of memory of her.

Perhaps more noteworthy here are Jesus' words saying that wherever the Gospel is preached, this story will also be told about this mysteriously unnamed woman. Before the New Testament became canonized into one volume as we know it today, these four Gospels were circulated independent of each other. So for Jesus' words to be true, we should find similar accounts in Luke and John. Indeed, that is what we find... sort of.

We find a story of a woman anointing Jesus in Luke 7:36-50. Did you notice the chapter number? According to Luke, this happened much earlier in the Gospel timeline, and that is not the only difference. But first, how about the similarities: at a house owned by a man named Simon, an unnamed woman anointed Jesus with perfume from an alabaster jar while He was reclining at a table. Sounds familiar, right? But wait: This happened in the region of Galilee, long before Jesus' Triumphant Entry into Jerusalem. This Simon was a Pharisee, not a leper. The woman anointed Jesus' feet, not His head, and also cried on His feet and wiped them with her hair. Only Simon objected to this anointing, but not because of the wasted money. Rather, he objected because this unnamed woman was a sinner and yet was touching Jesus. According to Luke, Jesus ends the episode by forgiving this sinful woman and telling her that she was saved by her faith.

This is the only anointing episode that Luke recorded. If it is supposed to be the same event as what Matthew and Mark recorded, then Luke got too many major details wrong, or visa-versa, and that makes the Gospel accuracy questionable beyond even this episode. If it is intended to be a different event, then there are a suspicious number of similarities between the two, and Jesus' words regarding the story of Matthew's and Mark's unnamed woman always being shared along with the Gospel become untrue.

I believe that Luke's episode is actually supposed to be the same story, but Luke edited it according to his desired message and philosophy. If I am correct, Luke obviously did not like the thought of Jesus' disciples rebuking the woman for wasting money on Jesus, so he re-framed the objection into a lesson on forgiveness.

Beyond that, this unnamed woman anointed Jesus' feet and wiping them with with her hair seems a bit odd in Luke's account. Did Luke just dream up these details on his own, perhaps to make the woman seem even more humble? No. That alteration happened before Luke got to it. And we can know that with some degree of certainty, as well as identify Luke's account as originating from the same anointing story, by turning to the last Gospel: John.

In John 11:2, we get a teaser aside comment from the author:
(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.) NIV
This is at the beginning of the story which eventually results in Jesus resurrecting His beloved friend Lazarus. Not only did Jesus love Lazarus (John 11:3), but He loved Lazarus' sisters, Mary and Martha too (John 11:5). It is bizarre that this little family, so well loved by Jesus, is not specifically referenced in regards to the story of Jesus' anointing by any of the other Gospels, especially given its equally neglected, yet associated, tie in with Lazarus' resurrection?

In fact, John 12:1-8 would have you believe that this anointing came at a dinner held in Jesus' honor because of the resurrection of Lazarus. John had this event happen just before Jesus' Triumphant Entry into Jerusalem, not after, but it does occur in Bethany. Whose house this happened at is not explicitly given, but the implication is that it was Lazarus' house (John 12:1). Mary anointed Jesus while He was reclining at the table, explicitly doing so with nard, which ties into Mark's version. These coincidences speak of a common origin for this anecdote.

However, Mary anointed Jesus' feet with the nard instead of His head, and then wiped His feet with her hair, which ties into Luke's version. This implies that the version John included in his Gospel had deviated from the original source material, and that Luke and John had their versions sourced from the same "branch" of that deviation. Perhaps it was an error in oral storytelling, or perhaps it was an intentional modification by an unknown author who found it offensive that the woman in the original version anointed Jesus' sacred and holy head. Anointing His feet was much less controversial. In either case, by the time Luke and John had this resource for their Gospels, it had changed.

Yet the story had not changed very much. As the account continues in John, there was an objection to the woman wasting the money for the perfume on Jesus instead of giving it to the poor, to which Jesus replied about them always having the poor with them, just like in the original Mark version. John's version does have a slight tweak to that; identifying the objecting disciple as being Judas, the one who would later betray Jesus.

By comparing Luke to Matthew/Mark and John, it becomes apparent that this is indeed another case where Luke applied his editing skills to tell the story his way instead of the true way. If Luke had thought of assigning the objection-blame to Judas, perhaps he would have kept the story the way it was. Judas, in this episode, was likely a later inclusion to the Gospel storyline, just like the resurrected Lazarus and his sister, Mary, being the woman doing the anointing, because John was not afraid to tell the story the way he wanted to tell it either.

All of this evidence points to the incontrovertible conclusion that there is fiction within the Gospels. It may be accidental. It may be (as I suspect in most cases) purposeful. But either way, or through any mix of those two paths, it is obvious that the "truth" of the Gospels as a whole is questionable, and furthermore it is blatantly wrong in some places.

(On a side note, you may remember referencing this inconsistency in less detail in a previous study which had gotten us searching for the identity of Martha and Mary.)


  1. Very interesting. I have often heard of the various gospels borrowing from each other, but I don't usually think of other sources floating around like you describe here. It certainly does help explain some of the inconsistencies.

  2. Yeah, Hausdorff, it is definitely interesting to consider. Being that the Gospels were written in the forms we have them decades after Jesus died, there is a big time gap where the stories had to be carried on another way. That meant oral history and anecdotes written down. In comparing the Gospels side by side, I am fairly convinced that this multi-sourcing was the case by an Occum's Razor argument. It is a extremely convenient solution to explain many of the differences across them; differences which do not make sense in the dogmatic view of them being divinely inspired.

    Other Bible scholars have also used this tertiary source to explain Gospel construction, with one of the most "famous" being the Q Gospel used specifically to help solve the Synoptic Problem.

    But probably the most approachable extant example of this is the Gospel of Thomas, which is more of a collection of anecdotes and sayings than any sort of a Gospel as we usually think of it. Check it out! :-)

  3. Very cool, I'll definitely have to check those out sooner or later. Put them on the list