Understanding the significance of Jesus being anointed by oil

You may be familiar with the stories of Jesus being anointed with oil when reading through the Gospels. Reading the accounts in the different books could easily lead to think that they refer to the same instance, but closer inspection shows that there are, in fact, three different times recorded when this happened.

Two of the instances where Jesus is anointed with oil take place in the days prior to His crucifixion. Is there any significance to him being anointed at these times?

The two occasions

Close inspection of the accounts of Jesus being anointed with oil before entering Jerusalem reveals that there are two separate occasions.

In the book of John, we read about the event six days prior to Passover.

Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at the table.

Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it.

Jesus said, “Leave her alone so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” John 12:1-8

Reading the account in Mark, the anointing with oil takes place four days later and just 2 days prior to the Passover. This time, events take place in the house of Simon the leper.

It was now two days before the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest him by stealth and kill him, for they said, “Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar from the people.”

And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he was reclining at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head.

But Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” Mark 14:1-9

So what’s happening

In both instances, we can see that same pure nard perfume is being used (see footnote), but the application is different. In the first instance, the oil is rubbed into the feet of Jesus and in the second, it is poured over his head. A subtle, yet significant difference.

Some of those present were not happy that expensive perfume worth more than a year’s wage was being wasted rather than being sold and given to the poor. So they rebuked her harshly.

In response, Jesus told them to leave her alone and decreed that she had done a beautiful thing to him. The poor you will always have with you and you can help them anytime you want, but you will not always have Me. She did what she could, pouring perfume on His body beforehand to prepare Jesus for His burial.

In both instances, whether Jesus was rubbed on His feet or oil poured on His head with this pure nard, the defence that Jesus gave was that the person doing it was preparing him for his burial.

Understanding the culture

There is something happening here that is more obvious to Hebrew people that it is to us. In that culture, it was hospitable if you had a guest in your house, to provide water in a bowl for them to wash their feet as they will  have just walked through the dusty byways of Israel. To that water, you would add droplets of perfume to provide a pleasant aroma, but not to be wasteful in the amount that you add because in the Torah you were commanded not to be wasteful.

The rabbis had decided that when you are celebrating someone coming to your house it is okay to use perfume, but it is not okay to use pure nard. Why? Because this was seen to be a waste, so if you were wasting resources then you were violating a command of the Torah.

How does Jesus defend both instances? He says that they are not rubbing the pure nard on My feet and pouring it on My head to celebrate Me; they’re using pure nard on My feet and head as an act of mourning for My burial. So He defends them by saying this is not an act of celebration and rejoicing. This is an act of mourning, and since it’s an act of mourning it fits in with the law.

Jesus was called a Master of Haggadah which was a teacher with parables and different stories. All of Jesus’ stories revealed truths about kingdom people and so we are going to find ourselves in this story.

Choosing the Passover lamb

Passover lambs were chosen six days in advance. This allowed them to be brought in, often into the family home and inspected for five days. They were inspected to ensure that they were free from blemish, including the legs, ankles, and feet, as they are easily damaged or marked in the rocky hillsides. At this point, the would take the anointing oil and rub it into the ankles and feet, prior to them being inspected for a further 5 days.

So six days before the Passover, Jesus is at someone’s house in Bethany and He is anointed for burial by having pure nard rubbed on His feet and ankles. That was His first anointing prior to His crucifixion.

The second anointing happens two days before Passover. The Passover lamb was anointed this second time on their head to announce that they were free from disease or blemish. This is in contrast to the first time which was on their feet six days before. The head of Jesus was anointed two days before He was crucified and was a sign that He was well, without sickness or defect.

The first Passover lamb anointing was on the feet six days before Passover; the second anointing was on the head two days before, and then the Passover lambs were sacrificed on Passover (which is Nissan 14) from the ninth hour.

We read that following His second anointing, Jesus and the twelve disciples return to Jerusalem from Bethany on the next day, to partake of the Passover meal. This was followed by His arrest, trial and crucifixion the following day when Jesus died around the ninth hour, about 3pm, which was the same afternoon that the Passover lambs were killed.



Summary of the three anointings

  1. Early in Jesus’ ministry an unnamed woman at the home of the Simon, who was a wealthy Pharisee, anointed His feet with ointment and wiped His feet with her hair. Lk 7:36-38
  2. Mary of Bethany anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped His feet with her hair on 9th day of Nisan.  The next day on 10th of Nisan, the day the sacrificial lambs were to be chosen (Exodus 12:3), Jesus rode into Jerusalem-the sacrificial Lamb of God, there for all to see and judge His perfection (Jn 12:1-3).
  3. An unnamed woman anointed Jesus’ head at the home of Simon the Leper in Bethany two days before the Passover – 13th day of Nisan (Matthew 26:1-16Mark 14:1-11)

; also called nardnardin, and muskroot, is a class of aromatic amber-colored essential oil derived from flowering plants, the identification of which is variable. The oil has, since ancient times, been used as a perfume, as a medicine and in religious contexts, across a wide territory from India to Europe. The identity of the plants used in manufacturing of historic spikenard is not certain; Nardostachys jatamansi from Asia (the modern definition of “spikenard”), lavenderfrom the Middle East, Alpine spikenard from Europe and possibly lemongrass have been suggested as candidates, and it is likely that different plants were used in different times and places.

The Bible contains several references to the spikenard, in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, and it is used in Catholic iconography to represent Saint Joseph. With this meaning, Pope Francis has included the spikenard in his coat of arms.