Who Was That Woman?

          In the services of Bridegroom Matins in Holy Week we hear of a woman who anointed Christ just before His Passion.  In the first Kathisma Hymn for Great and Holy Wednesday, she is described in this way:  “The harlot came to You, O Lover of mankind, pouring myrrh and tears on Your feet.  At Your command she was delivered from the stench of her evil deeds, but your graceless disciple, though breathing Your grace, rejected it and wallowed in filth, selling You in his love of money”.  In the third Kathisma Hymn from that service, we also read:  “In tears the harlot cried out, O compassionate One, as she fervently wiped Your most pure feet with the hair of her head, and she groaned from the depths of her soul, ‘Cast me not away, neither abhor me, O my God, but receive me in my repentance and save me’.”  And from the Praises of that service, we read the following:  “Oh, the wretchedness of Judas!  He saw the harlot kiss the footsteps of Christ, but deceitfully he contemplated the kiss of betrayal.  She loosed her hair, while he bound himself with wrath.  He offered the stench of wickedness instead of myrrh, for envy cannot distinguish value.”   There is much more poetry, all of it wonderful, culminating in the beautiful “Hymn of Kassia”, in which she meditates at length on “The woman who had fallen into many sins”.  Here we ask the simple question:  who was that woman?

            The Scripture texts upon which the hymns are based are Matthew 26:6-13 (and the parallel in Mark 14:3-9, and also John 12:1-8) and Luke 7:36-50.  The writers of the hymns, looking at these two different accounts, concluded that they both referred to the same incident, not only because Luke’s Gospel does not elsewhere contain a story about a woman wiping Christ’s feet immediately before His Passion, but also because of certain common details found in both stories.  For example, in both stories we find a woman anointing Christ’s feet with perfume and wiping them dry with her hair as He reclined at table (Matthew 26:7, John 12:2-3 and Luke 7:36-38); and in both stories the event took place in the home of a certain Simon, identified “Simon the leper” in Matthew 26:6 and as Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7:36,40.  Surely then, Luke’s version is simply his retelling of the story also recounted by Matthew, Mark, and John?  And the woman in question there is Mary, the sister of Lazarus (John 12:3)?   There are, however, problems with this identification.

            First of all is the chronological problem.  Though Matthew, Mark, and John are clear that the incident occurred “six days before the Passover” (John 12:1) and that accordingly the anointing could be considered to take the place of a funerary anointing for His imminent death and burial (Matthew 26:12, John 12:7), Luke places the story early in His Christ’s ministry, and reports no words from Christ that suggested the anointing could be considered a burial offering.  In fact Luke specifically records that “it came about soon afterwards that He began going about from one city and village to another, proclaiming and preaching the Kingdom of God” (Luke 8:1), which in fact He did not do after the anointing recorded in Matthew, Mark, and John.

            Then there is the problem of the words of dismissal.  In Luke’s account, after the anointing, Christ dismisses the woman, saying, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (Luke 7:50).  No such dismissal is recorded in the accounts of Matthew, Mark, and John, and indeed such a dismissal would have been impossible, for Mary was one of those who was hosting the supper!  Thus in John 12:1-3 we read:  “Jesus came to Bethany where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.  So they made Him a supper there, and Martha was serving, but Lazarus was one of those reclining with Him. Mary therefore took a pound of very costly genuine spikenard ointment and anointed the feet of Jesus”.  Note: Martha was serving, presumably with her sister Mary.  Mary, along with her brother and sister, was the one hosting the supper in Bethany, no doubt given in gratitude for the raising of Lazarus.  Is it likely therefore that Christ would dismiss her from the meal which she was serving?  In Luke’s account he makes it clear that the woman doing the anointing was an unwelcome intruder (Luke 7:39), not one of the hosts.  Indeed, in Luke’s account it was the Pharisee who “invited Him”, with Lazarus and Martha nowhere in sight.

            Finally and most conclusively, there is the problem of the woman’s character.  In Luke’s account the woman is “a sinner”—i.e. an immoral woman, possibly (but not necessarily) a prostitute.  (That is, she may or may not have been paid for the sex she provided.)  Her presence at the meal therefore was a scandal, and Simon privately thought that Christ’s allowing her to touch Him disqualified Him as a prophet (Luke 7:39).  Simon was, in fact, puzzled as to why Christ would allow her presence there.  It is inconceivable that Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, had such a character.  John’s extensive mention of her in the account of the raising of Lazarus in John 11:1-44 contains no hint that Mary was notoriously immoral—and this raising happened just shortly before the incident of the anointing.  In Luke’s account, Simon the Pharisee assumes that Christ has no direct personal knowledge of the sinful woman.  It would have been nonsensical for him to observe, “If this man were a prophet He would know who and what sort of person this woman is” if “this woman” were in fact a long-time friend of Christ and who moreover was one of those hosting the meal.

          In short, there is no way to harmonize these passages or to assert that they refer to the same event.  Luke records the anointing of a sinful woman early in Christ’s ministry.  Matthew, Mark, and John record the anointing performed by Mary of Bethany just shortly before Christ’s Passion.  The name of “Simon”, occurring in both accounts, is simply a coincidence, and in fact the Holy Land was full of Simons, since it was the name of the one the patriarchs and also of a famous high priest (Exodus 1:2, Sirach 50:1).  Peter was one of those Simons, as was his apostolic comrade “Simon the Zealot” (Luke 6:15), and the fact that a Simon had invited Christ to a supper early in His ministry, and another Simon had provided the venue for the meal served by Martha and her family was not at all unusual.  Luke evidently saw the reporting of two similar anointings as something of literary over-kill, and so chose to report the first one, doubtless because it conformed to one of his central themes which was Christ as the friend of sinners (Luke 7:34).

          So, we may ask, what are we to make of our hymns for Bridegroom Matins?  It appears that at least one exegetical opinion in ancient times equated the two anointings, and the creative and poetic possibilities in this equation were too good to pass up—not, of course, that the hymn-writer consciously knew the anointings were different but decided to equate them anyway, but rather that the poetic possibilities exercised their own kind of power.  The lasting value of the hymns lies in the lessons found in the contrast—lessons about the superiority of love over greed.  The picture of a penitent harlot drawing near to Christ at the same instant as Judas was coldly plotting to sell Him for silver is a startling and powerful one.  It reveals not only the dangers of cold-heartedness and greed, but also the depth of the divine mercy, which embraces and saves even the wretched prostitute if only she will come to Christ.  We receive these words as poetry, not exegesis, and their value for us does not depend upon their historical accuracy.

          Who was that woman?  She was not one woman, but two—an immoral sinner, and a grateful friend.  But despite their differences they had one thing in common:  their love for Christ, for which they were willing to perform an act of extraordinary and even scandalous devotion.  Who was that woman?  She was the wise woman whom we can all aspire to become.


    1. In consulting my “Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture” series, it seems that the Fathers were aware of the issues. Both Origen and Augustine distinguish between the two women.

  1. Thanks Father for putting this clearly. It is confusing for many people. Having come to the same conclusion after some struggle, this summary is going to serve as a great reference.

    Combining all the accounts about Mary’s anointing, it seems that she poured the spikenard ointment both on Christ’s head (Matthew 26:7 and Mark 14:3) and his feet (John 12:3), more like a funerary anointing (rather than just if it were for the feet).

    1. Yes, my sense is that Mary’s original intention was to pour the vial upon His head, and then, finding lots of ointment left in the vial, poured out the rest upon His feet (He was reclining, not “sitting” on a chair), in a sudden impulse of love and devotion. Note the account in John’s Gospel: she wiped the excess with her hair, so that after the anointing the fragrance would have clung to her hair also. This tells us that the fragrance of divine devotion would have clung to her after this act of extreme devotion. This encourages us also to pour out our love and adoration to Christ, so that the fragrance of divine devotion to Christ may cling to us also as we linger in the world.

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