In Matthew’s gospel, the first event of Passion week occurs when a woman anoints Jesus’ head with expensive perfume while he dines in Bethany (Matthew 26:6-13). Similar incidents occur in all four gospels (Matthew 26:6-13; Mark 14:1-9, Luke 7:36-50; John 12:1-8) but there are enough discrepancies between the accounts that scholars debate exactly how many times Jesus was actually anointed.
In the Synoptic gospels, the perfume is extracted from an alabastron (Matthew 26:7; Mark 14:3; Luke 7:37).
a woman came to Him with an alabaster vial of very costly perfume, and she poured it on His head as He reclined at the table. (Matthew 26:7 NASB)The word alabastron is used in the New Testament only in connection with Jesus’ anointing. The term encompasses both the type of material as well as the form of the container. Hence the word is rendered variously “alabaster jar” (HCSB, NIV, NLT, NRSV), “alabaster flask” (ESV, NKJV, RSV), “alabaster box” (KJV), “alabaster cruse” (ASV), “alabaster vial” (NASB) and more simply “bottle” (CEV, MSG).
Martha Jean Mugg Bailey (b. 1957) appraises that alabaster is “a firm, very fine-grained, variety of gypsum, used for statuary and as indoor decorative stone, especially for carved ornamental vases and figurines...The biblical terms translated alabaster...may also refer to marble, although alabaster probably entered Israel from Egypt much earlier than marble was imported from the Greek world (David Noel Freedman [1922-2008], Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, 39).”
Alabaster containers were ideal receptacles for perfume. W.D. Davies (1911-2001) and Dale C. Allison, Jr. (b. 1950) inform:
According to Pliny [23-79], Nautral History 13.3, ‘perfumes are best kept in alabaster vases’, and archaeology confirms that the stone, often imported from Egypt was frequently made into handleless perfume flasks. The necks were typically long and thin. (Davies and Allison, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew (International Critical Commentary) Volume III: XIX-XVIII, 444)Though in modern English, “alabaster” is most commonly used in reference to skin as a synonym for pale, not all alabaster was white. John A. Broadus (1827-1895) chronicles:
Some kinds of alabaster are of delicate and richly varied hues, and are extremely beautiful and costly. The Jews, like all the other civilized ancient peoples, made much use of fragrant ointment, often rare and of great price; and the flasks which contained it were of great variety as to material and shape...It was, with its contents, a tasteful and costly object, such as a woman would delight in possessing (Broadus, Commentary on Matthew, 519)While the container was consequential, its imported contents were equally prized. Craig S. Keener (b. 1960) notes that though anointing a dinner guest was not uncommon, the woman’s extravagance was.
Hosts of banquets customarily provided oil to anoint the heads of guests of notable social status ...but the outpouring of love here is more costly than the mere use of oil in customary acts of hospitality...They would seal the ointment to prevent evaporation, requiring the long neck of the jar to be broken and the ointment to be expended at once...Archaeologists have uncovered such long-necked flasks in first-century tombs near Jerusalem, suggesting the frequent once-for-all expenditure of this expensive perfume at the death of loved ones ...Nard was a costly ointment imported from India...or elsewhere in the east...and its expense might suggest an heirloom passed from one generation to the next. (Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 618)Because of its monetary value, in three of the gospels, the woman faces criticism for the way she chose to allocate her resources (Matthew 26:8-9; Mark 14:4-5; John 12:4). It is posed that the perfume could have been better used by liquidating her liquid asset and dispersing the funds. In each account the woman’s action is personally affirmed by Jesus himself (Matthew 26:10-13; Mark 14:6-9; John 12:7-8). In Matthew and Mark, as many verses are devoted to Jesus’ praise of the woman as are spent on describing the action itself.
Why was anointing Jesus a better choice than taking the cash value of the alabaster jar and dispersing it amongst the poor? Why does the woman do as she does?
For the woman, the alabaster jar was likely a treasured possession and possibly an heirloom. Many have speculated that the woman was saving it for a very special occasion.
Jackie Kendall (b.1950) conjectures:
In the days of Jesus, when a young woman reached the age of availability for marriage, her family would purchase an alabaster box for her and fill it with precious ointment. The size of the box and the value of the ointment would parallel her family’s wealth. This alabaster box would be part of her dowry. When the young man came to ask for her in marriage, she would respond by taking the alabaster box and breaking it at his feet. The gesture of anointing his feet showed him honor. (Kendall, Say Goodbye to Shame: And 77 Other Stories of Hope and Encouragement, 156)While Kendall’s writing is speculative, what is not supposition is the woman’s sacrifice. In Mark’s version of the anointing, the woman needed to shatter the jar like a piggy bank to use its contents (Mark 14:3). When the moment was over, she had nothing left of her treasure. The high cost of the woman’s sacrifice is set in stark contrast to the relatively cheap payment Jesus’ betrayer received for his complicity in the gospel’s next story (Matthew 26:15, 27:3, 9).
Does it matter how the woman acquired the perfume? What are you saving for just the proper occasion? What is the greatest sacrifice you have made for anyone? For God?
“You can sacrifice and not love. But you cannot love and not sacrifice.” - Kris Vallotton (b. 1955)