Summary: The anointing of Jesus's feet for burial is a part of a very profound text.
Jesus Anointed for Burial: An Exposition of John 12:1-10
The anointing of Jesus by Mary of Bethany for burial is a touching act of piety on her part. This account is in the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and here in John. There is a similar story in Luke, but it differs quite a bit on time and circumstance. Together the three gospels supplement each other. Mark and Matthew said what she did for Jesus was to be memorialized.
The general details of the anointing agree to the point that it seems to be the same account. It provides the context to Judas’s betrayal of Jesus. These accounts also are in the context of the desire of the chief priests and leaders of Israel to arrest Him without causing a riot among the people. All mention the precious ointment, and John and Mark say it was spikenard. They all state that the value of this ointment was 300 denarii. They all agree that it was to prepare the body of Jesus for burial. This makes it pretty conclusive that the same event is being spoken of.
But there are some serious differences that have to be reconciled. Matthew and Mark’s context seems to indicate that this occurred on the second day before Passover. John 12:1 says this happened six days before the Passover. So did this happen on Wednesday or did it happen at the very beginning or Palm Sunday if we remember that the Jewish day started at sunset. It is not easy to reconcile this detail, but if we will allow that even though there is a tendency to chronological arrangement that it isn’t the only way material could be arranged. There is a logical arrangement which puts two different events together thematically where the one event interprets the other. To place a close connection between the plot to destroy Jesus which seems to have been hatched on Wednesday is supplemented by the anointing of Jesus for burial. These accounts logically explain each other. The use of logical and chronological arrangements would explain much of the differences of order in the gospels as a whole. So in this desire of logical arrangement, there are displacements of time. One could also see that John has a very interesting use of time. Time in John has a cosmic and theological basis. Even though I would differ with Barth to some degree, his idea of the chronology of “historie” and the chronology of “geschichte” would fit well. I do want to say that the events actually happened in history, but at the same time there is more to history than the recording of facts.
The other conflict is whether Mark anointed Jesus’s feet as John notes or poured the ointment over his head as Mark and Matthew state. The feet would be easy to do, as people reclined at the dinner table. This means the head would be close to the table and the feet away from the table. John shows much emphasis on the feet. Soon He would wash the disciple’s feet. On the other hand, anointing the head was the anointing of a king. The Greek “Christos” which in similar to the Hebrew “Messiach” is roughly translated “Anointed One.” The easiest way to reconcile this is that both the head and feet were anointed, a merism which refers to the entire body of Jesus (from head to foot).
When we look into John’s account, we see that this event happened six days before the Passover. The two questions to answer is what day Passover was and what day “six days before the Passover was.” The reckoning of time is made more difficult by the differences between the Romans, Greeks, and Jews as to when the day actually started. For the Romans, it was midnight, which is the way we reckon time legally. The Greek day started at dawn, which is the practical start of the day. The Hebrew reckoning of the start of the day was sunset because night came first and then the day. John also shows some fluidity to time. But here we will use Hebrew reckoning.
To reckon the day in which the anointing occurred, we must first reckon Passover. Here we have an apparent difference between the three gospels and John. John seems to indicate that the priests did not want to defile themselves in entering the hall of judgment so that they could eat the Passover which seems to indicate that the Passover was future to that point. The other gospels seem to indicate that Jesus ate the Passover meal with His disciples before His arrest. Exodus 12 says that the Passover meal began at sunset. Exodus also say that the meal was to be eaten before the following morning, and that any leftovers were to be burnt. If we see the Last Supper as occurring at the very beginning of Passover, then our Maunday Thursday by our reckoning of time actually occurred on Friday be Hebrew reckoning. Therefore, the three synoptic gospels say that Jesus died on the day of Passover, as He died and was buried before sunset which began the day after Passover.