This passage shows what Scripture scholars commonly call the “telephone game” character of the oral tradition from which the Gospels grew. Instead of Luke’s Pharisee, whose name is Simon, we find in Matthew “Simon the leper.” Most tellingly, this anointing is specifically referred to as the traditional rubbing of a corpse with oil, so the act is an explicit foreshadowing of Jesus’ death. In Matthew, and in Mark, the story of the unnamed woman puts her acceptance of Jesus’ coming death in glorious contrast to the (male) disciples’ refusal to take Jesus’ predictions of his death seriously. But in other passages, Mary Magdalene is associated by name with the burial of Jesus, which helps explain why it was easy to confuse this anonymous woman with her.
Indeed, with this incident both Matthew’s and Mark’s narratives begin the move toward the climax of the Crucifixion, because one of the disciples—“the man called Judas”—goes, in the very next verse, to the chief priests to betray Jesus.
In the passages about the anointings, the woman is identified by the “alabaster jar,” but in Luke, with no reference to the death ritual, there are clear erotic overtones; a man of that time was to see a woman’s loosened hair only in the intimacy of the bedroom. The offense taken by witnesses in Luke concerns sex, while in Matthew and Mark it concerns money. And, in Luke, the woman’s tears, together with Jesus’ words, define the encounter as one of abject repentance.
But the complications mount. Matthew and Mark say the anointing incident occurred at Bethany, a detail that echoes in the Gospel of John, which has yet another Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, and yet another anointing story:
Six days before the Passover, Jesus went to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom he had raised from the dead. They gave a dinner for him there; Martha waited on them and Lazarus was among those at table. Mary brought in a pound of very costly ointment, pure nard, and with it anointed the feet of Jesus, wiping them with her hair.
Judas objects in the name of the poor, and once more Jesus is shown defending the woman. “Leave her alone; she had to keep this scent for the day of my burial,” he says. “You have the poor with you always, you will not always have me.”
As before, the anointing foreshadows the Crucifixion. There is also resentment at the waste of a luxury good, so death and money define the content of the encounter. But the loose hair implies the erotic as well.
The death of Jesus on Golgotha, where Mary Magdalene is expressly identified as one of the women who refused to leave him, leads to what is by far the most important affirmation about her. All four Gospels (and another early Christian text, the Gospel of Peter) explicitly name her as present at the tomb, and in John she is the first witness to the resurrection of Jesus. This—not repentance, not sexual renunciation—is her greatest claim. Unlike the men who scattered and ran, who lost faith, who betrayed Jesus, the women stayed. (Even while Christian memory glorifies this act of loyalty, its historical context may have been less noble: the men in Jesus’ company were far more likely to have been arrested than the women.) And chief among them was Mary Magdalene. The Gospel of John puts the story poignantly: