Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Monday, October 11

Bible Contradiction: Sinful Woman? (Luke 7:36-50)

There are two stories in the Gospels about a woman pouring perfume on Jesus, and there are enough differences that some people argue Luke created the account and hence he is not trustworthy. But despite the similarities, there are so many differences that they must be two different accounts, and hence there is no contradiction.

Luke 7:36–50 is often compared to Matt 26:6–13 (paralleled in Mark 14:3–9 and John 12:1–8), charging Luke with altering the story and concluding that he s not trustworthy. There are striking similarities and yet significant differences in the four stories.

Matt 26:6–13 Mark 14:3–9 Luke 7:36–50 John 12:1–8
Simon the Leper's house Simon the Leper's house Antagonistic Pharisee named Simon With Mary, Martha, and Lazarus
Bethany Bethany Probably Galilee Bethany
Timing: last week Timing: last week Timing: early in ministry Timing: last week
Unnamed woman (not called a sinner) Unnamed woman (not called a sinner) Unnamed woman (well-known sinner) Mary (certainly not a “sinner”)
Recline at the table Recline at the table Recline at the table Recline at the table
Alabastar jar Alabastar jar Alabastar jar Pint
Expensive perfume Expensive perfume (nard) Perfume Expensive perfume (nard)
Poured on head Poured on head Poured on feet Poured on feet
    Wet feet with tears  
    Wiped feet with hair Wiped feet with hair
    Kissed feet  
Disciples complained of waste Some complained of waste Pharisee complained Judas Iscariot complained of waste
Loss of money Loss of money Touched by sinner Loss of money
Always have poor Always have poor Discourse on love and forgiveness Always have poor
Prepare for burial Prepare for burial   Prepare for burial
  1. No leper could be a Pharisee, and no Pharisee would go to a dinner in a leper’s house. This fact in and of itself is sufficient to conclude that these are different stories. The name “Simon” was the most common Jewish name in the first century (there are nine in the New Testament).
  2. John has the event in connection with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus,  and not a Pharisee.
  3. Luke’s account is years earlier in Jesus' ministry; the others are the week before Jesus’ death.
  4. It was common to recline at the table.
  5. It was common for perfume to be kept in a special container (see Bock). Blomberg adds that  the “alabaster jar”  “appears to be a stereotyped formula for any fancy, long-necked jar of perfume, such as were common in Jesus’s context.”
  6. It was common to wash a guest’s feet and anoint with perfume.
  7. Mary is named in John while the woman in Luke is not named.
  8. Matthew and Mark say she poured the ointment on his head while Luke and John say it was his feet. 
  9. Only in Luke does the woman wet his feet with tears and (with John) dry them with her hair.
  10. The response of the observers was significantly different in Luke. In Matthew, Mark, and John it was the loss of money. In Luke, Simon complains about begin touched by a “sinner.”

While there are shared details, some of them were common, but points #1, 3, 8, and 10 are significantly different and strongly argue these are different events and there is therefore no contradiction.

Blomberg adds, “Someone unfamiliar with papal protocol today might be convinced that two separate accounts of the same pope walking down airplane stairs onto a tarmac, kissing the ground, and being greeted by dignitaries in a formal welcoming line, each of whom kisses his hand, must be doublets of a single original story because those are far too many details to recur repeatedly. In fact, there have been dozens of such papal visits with this exact cluster of details since airplanes were invented.”

For further discussion, see:

  1. Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the New Testament (B&H Academic, 2016) 80f.
  2. Darrell Bock, Luke (Baker Books, 1994) 1: 689–691.

Comments

Helpful. Thanks. It is a bit weird that both these women wiped his feet with their hair. What is the cultural background for that and kissing feet? A common practice? I’ve been trying to get my kids to do that to me for years and it hasn’t worked.

I'm not sure. Curious about that myself. I think the kissing was not that unusual (but the feet?), but the hair is unusual I would guess.

Jesus called him Simon. But understood -- not a leper.

You're right. I(

I did this study some time ago. A good introduction to Mary and her family can be found in Luke 10.38-42. Luke doesn’t enlighten the reader concerning the name of this village, but John 11.1 does; this verse tells us that the village where Mary, Martha, and Lazarus lived, was named Bethany, and verse 18 informs us that the village lay 3.22 kilometres outside Jerusalem. This eleventh chapter in John’s gospel is the record of the raising of Lazarus, and it took place in the home of Mary, Martha, and their brother, in Bethany, near Jerusalem. Where was Jesus when he was informed that Lazarus had fallen ill? The early part of John’s chapter ten places Jesus in Jerusalem, but the unrest caused by his activities in that place caused Jesus to leave Jerusalem (see v22 – At that time . . .), and verses 39, 40 record his departing north, to where John the Baptist was located – beyond the Jordan. John introduces the baptiser in the first chapter of his gospel, and we read in verse 28 that John was baptising in a place called Bethany beyond the Jordan. It is here that we learn that the New Testament speaks of two towns called Bethany; one is near Jerusalem, and the other, if a good Bible atlas can be consulted, shows Bethany beyond the Jordan to be located in Decapolis, approximately seven kilometres south of the Sea of Galilee, along the Jordan River, and about 2 kilometres somewhere on its eastern bank. Jesus’ ministry, and much of the NT events occurred to the west of the Jordan. To refer to something “beyond the Jordan” refers to areas on the eastern side – areas such as Decapolis and Perea. When we read in John 10.40 that Jesus departed from Jerusalem to beyond the Jordan to the place where John was first baptising, and He was staying there, we are led to conclude that Jesus was in the northern Bethany when he heard the news of Lazarus’ sickness. Fortunately, and unlike the synoptic gospels, John’s gospel is reasonably chronologically accurate. In fact, it is only through John’s gospel that we learn the length of Jesus’ earthly ministry because John mentions each of the four Passovers that Jesus attended, (Jn 2.13; 5.1; 6.4; 12.1) which was an annual event. When the messenger(s) reached Jesus in the early part of John 11, Lazarus was reported as being sick; according to John’s written word, Lazarus wasn’t dead at that point in time. Verse 6: So when Jesus heard that Lazarus was sick, he then tarried two days longer in the place where he was. Where was Jesus at this time? It couldn’t have been in Judea because verse 7 reads: Then after this Jesus said to his disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” It appears that Lazarus died sometime during those two days of tarrying, because when he and his party eventually arrived at Lazarus’ home in Bethany of Judea, Martha informs us that he had been dead for four days (Jn 11.39). What had Jesus and his followers been doing for four days? This might represent the time it would take to travel by foot from the northern Bethany, to the southern village of the same name. Assuming that Jesus and his party travelled approximately 5Kms per hour, for eight hours each day, the distance between the two Bethany’s would be about 160Kms. This puts the northern Bethany somewhere south, but not too far away, from the southern shore of the Sea of Galilee. This would support locating Bethany beyond the Jordan where most reliable Bible maps tend to locate it. Some have questioned Jesus’ decision to tarry a few days, but if He, who knew all, had departed for Judea immediately upon receiving the news, Lazarus would have been dead for only two days. When Jesus, upon first hearing the news stated, This sickness is . . . for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by it (Jn 11.4) , he was referring to the fact that to raise a 4-day body back to life that had already begun to decompose and smell, would seem to many a far more miraculous feat than doing the same for a body that had died only the day before yesterday. It needs to be remembered, particularly as we read John’s gospel, that his reason for writing it is announced: these things have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name (Jn 20.31). The reason for mentioning this aspect of Jesus’ ministry is simply to support the earlier statement that Jesus was in the northern Bethany when he first heard the news of Lazarus’ sickness, and that it took four days to travel to the Bethany near Jerusalem. Before we leave John 11, notice verse two where, after telling us where Lazarus lived in verse one, it mentions that this is the (emphasis mine) Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped his feet with her hair. Why does John write this, particularly since it is not until we get to the following chapter where this particular event is recorded? “Mary” was a common name in John’s time, and even among Jesus’ disciples, there were a number of women called Mary. But this Mary, whom he mentions in verse one, was the Mary who did this deed, a deed that was well known among those who followed and knew of Jesus, be they friend or foe. Writing some sixty years after the event, the aged John was able to identify this Mary by referring to an event that many would have recalled after all those years – an event that was well known throughout Judea, Samaria, and Galilee. Coming to John 12, we read the actual account when Mary, sister to Martha and Lazarus, anointed the feet of Jesus with a pound of very costly perfume of pure nard (v3). And we read that Mary wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. It’s a minor point of interest here that the quantity of the perfume used here is measured in weight rather than fluid measurements, indicating that the perfume was perhaps in ointment form, rather than liquid form, and this is borne out by the use of the word “ointment” in John 11.2, rather than “perfume” as some versions have it. Most Bible versions include among their centre or side references - Matthew 26.6-13, Mark 14.3-9, and Luke 7.37-39. This has given rise to confusion among many because it is assumed that these references are parallel accounts of the same event. When the facts are examined, it is found that this is not to be the case. When we look at the first two references, we are told that the host’s name is Simon. Apparently he was once a leper, and it seems that Jesus healed him; for this, Simon was supposedly forever grateful. In Luke’s account, the host is a Pharisee, and when we read v40, we are informed that the Pharisee’s name is also Simon. Simon was also a popular name at this time (the NT mentions at least ten), so Simon the leper, and Simon the Pharisee could be one and the same, or they could be different individuals. The main difference between these synoptic accounts (there are quite a few) and the one in John’s gospel is that John’s event took place in the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, in Bethany near Jerusalem, and the accounts found in the synoptic gospels took place in the home of someone called Simon, or two different homes, belonging to two different individuals, both of whom are called Simon. If Simon the leper is not Simon the Pharisee, then, together with John’s account, a third anointing has taken place sometime during the period of Jesus’ ministry. There are some who find that more than one occurrence of this particular event is too remarkable to be true, and so they incorrectly lump all the occasions together into just one anointing – in the home of Simon, in Bethany, near Jerusalem, just to make it easy. It is usually the case that the people who understand the accounts in this way are unaware that there are two places in the NT called Bethany. Where did Simon the leper live? The Matthew and Mark accounts tell us that Simon lived in Bethany (Matt 26.6; Mk 14.3), but which one? There is no quick answer to that. In Mark’s account, the first two verses of chapter 14 are unrelated to the following verses. Many have come away with a wrong understanding when they relate verse three to the two previous verses, causing them to place this particular anointing event close to Jerusalem. Luke’s account is more helpful. The commencement of Luke’s seventh chapter sees Jesus in Capernaum, an important commercial city on the NW shore of Lake Galilee. It was also Jesus’ adopted hometown (Matt 9.1; 4.13-16). This is where Jesus conscripted Matthew, the tax collector to be a disciple (Mark 2.14). Later (Lk 7.11), we find Jesus in Nain, a Galilean city, 37 kilometres SW of Capernaum, and just 10 kilometres south of Jesus’ home town of Nazareth. This is where Jesus raised the only son of a widow. It is a commonly accepted fact that Luke’s primary skills as a writer lie in the areas of historical accuracy, and it can be taken with a reasonable degree of confidence that his account of Jesus’ anointing by an unnamed woman took place in these northern regions where Jesus conducted the majority of his ministry. Following Luke’s anointing account in chapter 7, verses 36-50, he moves onto the events related in the following chapter without a break, continuing to write of Jesus’ ministry in these northern regions. In this account written by Luke, we read of a woman anointing Jesus in the home of a Pharisee called Simon. The question sometimes arises regarding the reason for Luke inserting the story at this point in his gospel. The earlier gospel writers place the story at the end of Jesus’ ministry, and that might be because they used it to highlight the steps leading up to Jesus’ betrayal by Judas. Luke places this account well before that time. Instead of writing of Judas’ reaction to the “waste” – as Matthew and Mark had done, Luke highlights the Pharisee’s reaction to Jesus appearing to be unaware of the nature of this woman who was touching him. In all three synoptic gospel accounts, the woman is not named, but there are some who have suggested that the woman was none other than Mary of the Bethany near Jerusalem, or even Mary Magdalene, There are even some who claim that each of these three women were the one and same woman! Let us, for a moment, consider the suggestion that Mary, sister of Lazarus and Martha from Bethany, was the woman at one of the “Simon” feasts. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were Jews, and this fact is indicated by John’s mention that many Jews had come to Martha and Mary, to console them concerning their brother (Jn 11.19,31,45). Any Bible student would know that the Jews are an exclusive race, keeping company basically with themselves. The Pharisees (separated ones) were an exclusive religious sect of Judaism, and they too, chose their company carefully. Using the grammatical-historical principle of hermeneutics, the astute Bible student would also realise that at this particular time in history, the Jewish culture and customs would forbid a Jewish woman appearing outside her home with her hair unbound. To do so was an act of the gravest immodesty and suggestive of a “loose” lifestyle – a lifestyle that is in no way implied in Scripture regarding the Lazarus family. How anyone could even contemplate a Jewish woman being found in the home of a Pharisee, labelled as a “sinner”, more than one hundred kilometres distant, with unbound hair, is beyond this writer’s simple mind. These proponents also dare to suggest that in addition to having Mary wiping the feet of Jesus with unbound hair in the home of a Pharisee, in a town 160 kilometres to the north, they also have Martha serving, and Lazarus reclining with the guests! The fact that the names of these three do not appear in any of the synoptic accounts, together with the fact that the name Simon appears nowhere in John’s gospel, should alert them to the possibility that they are reading different accounts of different events. Let’s consider for just a moment the other possibility that Mary Magdalene was this woman. Mary was from Magadan, which Jesus once visited according to Matthew (Matt 15.39). It was here that he healed a woman called Mary, who was demon-possessed. Mary was a common name in the time of Jesus, and to distinguish her from the other Marys, she is referred to as Mary Magdalene (lk 8.2). There are some who paint Mary Magdalene as the sinful woman who attended one or both of the “Simon” feasts, but again, there is no biblical evidence to support this notion. Being demon-possessed doesn’t necessarily make a person sinful, nor does it even suggest loose living – such as a prostitute might be. Luke informs us that Mary Magdalene, and other women, followed their Lord and Saviour around as he manifested his love and compassion on others, and they supported Jesus and his apostles out of their private means (Lk 8.2). So much for the Lukan account. In Mark’s account, we have the unnamed woman pouring perfume (thereby suggesting a liquid, rather than an ointment)(Jn 12.3) on Jesus’ head. This is much the same as Matthew’s account and that is to be expected because Mark was a principle source for Matthew’s material. In an effort to relate this to the stories in Luke and John where the woman anointed Jesus’ feet, there are those who suggest that the perfume ran all the way from Jesus’ head down to his feet. Such a suggestion might be timidly accepted by some if Jesus was standing, but in both Matthew and Mark accounts, we read that Jesus was reclining at the table, and hence the suggestion must be dismissed completely, leading to the conclusion that the occurrence in Simon the leper’s home, and that of Simon the Pharisee – as related by Luke, were more than likely two separate occasions. CONCLUSION Being aware that there are two places called Bethany, more than 100Kms apart, and that there were at least two anointing’s, possible three - of Jesus by a woman in each case, allows the Bible student to join the dots instead of following “cleverly devised tales” (2 Peter 1.16) based on tradition, and misreading’s of the texts. The anointing(s) described in the synoptic gospels took place in the homes of some people with the same name – Simon - one who was a leper before Jesus healed him, and the other a Pharisee who lived in the northern regions of Jesus’ ministry. They could have been the same person, but it is more likely that they were two different individuals. John’s gospel indicates that the anointing occurred in the home of Lazarus, with his sisters Mary and Martha, and we learn from previous study that their home was located in the Bethany that was just a few kilometres to the east of Jerusalem. It is probably significant that in John’s account, there appears no reference, implication, or suggestion, that a similar event occurred in that same village at that time, or any other time, and neither is the name of Simon forthcoming in anything that John has written. The Bible makes fascinating reading. Sometimes we can’t make sense of what we read, but through prayer and adhering to sound hermeneutic principles, the Word literally comes to life and we are enabled to see the author’s meaning more clearly. Tucked into this account of course was God’s great love, borne out by Jesus, and which drove him to the cross. It was the Father who caused Jesus to tarry. It was the Father who informed Jesus when Lazarus had ‘fallen asleep’, and this whole story was ultimately intended to reveal God’s glory so that God’s Son could be glorified. John wrote his gospel for one purpose, and one purpose alone: These things have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in his name.