Sunday, June 28, 2015

Jesus's Anointing

Bas-relief of the anointing of Jesus at the home of Simon the Leper.
As many Christians are aware the terms "christ" (Greek christos) and "messiah" (Hebrew mashiah) are equivalent terms meaning "anointed". In the Old Testament (aka Hebrew Bible) the term "messiah" was typically applied to kings and priests and the text contains descriptions of the anointing of the kings and priests of ancient Israel.

In Christianity, Jesus is the archetypal king/priest and thus is THE Messiah or THE Christ. Since Jesus is the principle "Anointed One" the question naturally arises as to when exactly he was anointed. The answer is that he was anointed in the home of Simon the Leper at Bethany immediately prior to his death and resurrection. All four Gospels mention this event in which an unnamed woman quietly enters the home during the meal and anoints Jesus's head.

After his anointing Jesus makes the bold and remarkable statement that "Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached throughout the whole world, this also that she hath done shall be spoken of for a memorial of her" (KJV Mark 14:9). Clearly Jesus attached tremendous importance to what the woman had done and yet we often fail to mention this event in connection with the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. This event is an integral part of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ - it is point at which he became the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One.

Julie M. Smith has written an article for Studies in the Bible and Antiquity about the incident as portrayed in Mark 14:3-9. Its a fascinating article which is well worth the read but I wanted to summarize some of the points she makes in the article which I found particularly interesting or meaningful:

The anointing fit the pattern of royal anointings:
  • Royal context of the incident:
    • Anointing preceded by the Triumphal Entry (Mark 11:1-11) as prophesied by Zechariah (Zech 9:9).
    • "The ignorant unwittingly proclaim Jesus’s royal nature through their taunts" (Mark 15:9).
  • The account textually parallels the anointing of Saul (1 Samuel 10:1).
  • Anointings were typically administered by prophets. However, "when Jesus says that the woman 'is come aforehand to anoint my body to the burying' (Mark 14:8), he implies that she is acting prophetically since she knows of his impending death".
  • The woman anointed Jesus's head and "Ben Witherington notes, 'royal figures are anointed from the head down.'"
The anointing also fits the pattern of sacerdotal (priestly) anointing:
  • "The anointing also echoes the priestly anointing as described in the book of Leviticus (see Leviticus 8:12)."
  • Priestly anointings typically took place in the temple, while Jesus's took place in the house of a leper. Despite this "Mark has structured the Gospel in such a way as to suggest that the temple has become a leper's house and the leper's house has become a temple."
    • Leviticus outlines four steps for cleansing a leper's house and each step finds a thematic parallel in Mark's Gospel.
      • Step 1: Cleaning the leprous house (Lev. 14:39-42)
        • This is paralleled in Mark by the cleansing of the temple (Mark 11:15-19).
      • Step 2: The priest will inspect the leprous house (Lev. 14:44).
        • This is paralleled in Mark when Jesus visits the temple to converse with temple authorities. These exchanges showcase the corruption of the temple (Mark 11:27 - 12:40). Also, when the widow donates her mite to the treasury she is supporting the corrupt decadence of the temple administration when instead they should have been supporting her in her penury (Mark 12:41-44).
      • Smith, in her article, doesn't appear to mention the last two steps - at least I can't find them mentioned in her article but they presumably appear in the article she cites as her source, which sadly requires an expensive subscription to access.
The anointing for Jesus's burial or as priest/king?
  • Despite the royal and priestly context Jesus explicitly says the anointing is for his burial, so which is it?
    • The answer is that it is for both: "Austin Farrer wrote: 'It is no diminution of its royal significance when Jesus declares the anointing to be for his burial, for it is precisely the paradox of Christ’s royalty that he is enthroned through being entombed.'"
Simon the Leper
  • Had Simon been healed of his leprosy? No one knows for sure but there are two possibilities:
    • Yes, Jesus was on his way to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem and therefore needed to be ritually clean which wouldn't have been possible had Simon still been leprous (Numbers 9:6-12).
    • No, Jesus had allowed an unclean woman to touch him in Mark 5:27 and he may have intentionally dined with a leper for didactic purposes:
      • Contrast Simon the leper with Simon Peter. Simon the leper is providing hospitality while Simon Peter is nowhere to be found.
      • Perhaps the mention of the leper is to prepare the hearer for something unusual to follow.
      • Irony: Simon is remembered for his disease, which is unimportant since we don't hear anything further about it, while the woman, whose act immortalizes her, goes unnamed.
      • "The reference to the leper also contributes to the theme of death and burial that Mark develops throughout the anointing story. According to tradition, lepers were equivalent to the dead, so Jesus’s statement about his burial garners new meaning if we understand it to have taken place in the realm of the dead."
      • "Perhaps Mark is intentionally toying with the audience’s inability to determine whether Simon is recovered in order to emphasize the life-and-death themes of the anointing: the infected leper casts the pall of death while the likely conclusion that the leper is healed suggests a return from the dead."
The Poor
  • Passover was a time in which the poor were given special gifts, therefore those who criticized the woman for using the oil, which was worth more than a year's wages, seemed justified.
  • Despite this, Jesus defends her perhaps because, as he suggests, there will be other opportunities to help the poor but there will be no other opportunity to anoint the "Anointed One" who will soon be gone.
  • Ecclesiastes 7:1 seems appropriate and may have influenced events as it was at this time that Jesus was named "Christ".
  • The oil is worth "more than three hundred denarii" (emphasis added) which implies its spiritual worth is far beyond whatever monetary value has been attached to it. The critics are focused on the economic aspect of the gift rather than its far more valuable spiritual value.
The Woman
  • The only thing we know about her is that she is unnamed and that she anointed Jesus. Everything else is a mystery.
  • Her anonymity could serve to portray her as an ideal type of follower rather than as distinct character.
  • "As Mary Ann Beavis notes, 'Jesus’s comment on the woman’s prophetic anointing is his lengthiest and most positive pronouncement on the words or deeds of any person preserved by the evangelist Mark.' Her anonymity may be a necessary counterpart to her high praise."
The Larger Context
  • The anointing has several points of convergence with the story of the widow's mite:
    • Both reference the poor twice (Mark 12:42-43 and Mark 14:5,7).
    • Both accounts mention wealth (Mark 12:41 and Mark 14:3).
    • Jesus proclaims that each woman has given all that she has (Mark 12:44 and Mark 14:8).
    • There is a solemn "verily I say unto you" statement in both (Mark 12:43 and Mark 14:9).
    • Note the huge disparity in the value of the gifts given by each woman. The widow gave two mites (Greek lepton) which was the smallest coin in circulation while the anointing woman's gift was worth more than a year's wages. The value of the oil is somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 times greater than the mites.
    • "The widow’s gift of all her living parallels Jesus’s gift of his life, and the anointing woman’s gift defines what it means for Jesus to give his life."
    • The widow’s story and the anointing form a frame around chapter 13:
                              A evil scribes denounced (Mark 12:38–40)
                                        B the widow’s mite (Mark 12:41–44)
                                                  C Jesus’s teachings (Mark 13:1–37)
                                        B' the anointing (Mark 14:1–9) 
                              A' the plot to kill (Mark 14:10–11)
    • "Since chapter 13 focuses on the task of true followers in the difficult last days, this textual arrangement shows two positive examples of following Jesus—the widow and the anointer—juxtaposed against the negative examples of the corrupt scribes and the death plotters".
To be continued...

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