Whether Mark is the source of Matthew and Luke (the other two synoptic gospels) or is their summary is beside the point in a straight-through reading. The question of why it’s here at all is puzzling.
It’s the most compact of the four gospels and the most action-oriented. It skips the Nativity entirely and opens with John the Baptist in the wilderness. The tone is reportorial, objective, in contrast to Matthew’s voice of a storyteller opining that the crowds were dumbfounded at the teaching or that the priests knew Jesus had spoken against them. Much of the book flatly quotes Jesus as he moves about the countryside.
Placed where it is, Mark seems to serve as a buffer between Matthew and the two later gospels. Yes, there are discrepancies among them in many details, as happens with eyewitnesses themselves or those who relate the events later. Mark holds us to the central plot, which the others then embellish.
But having four gospels, rather than one, also allows some of the more troubling evidence to be hidden in plain sight. I, for one, believe much of the vitality in the gospel story arises in its very scandalous nature. Jesus is conceived out of wedlock and is executed as a criminal. Let’s not sugarcoat those realities.
For now, look at the story of Jesus’ being anointed with costly oil. Spread across the four books, it’s easy to think there were actually two different women, with this action happening twice.
Read carefully, though, and connect the lines. I’m using David Bauscher’s translation here.
In Matthew 26, “A woman came near to him [Jesus] who had with her a vase of oil of sweet spices, very expensive, and she poured it on Yeshua’s head as he reclined.” Other versions use alabaster box, jar, flask, or the like. The disciples begin arguing about the waste of money.
In Mark 14, it’s an “alabaster vase of oil of the best spikenard, very expensive, and she opened it and poured it on Yeshua’s head. The disciples put its price at 3oo denarii.” (That’s thirty pieces of silver, or 300 times a laborer’s daily wage, as I find online. In other words, nearly a year’s wages.) Short, to the point, reporting.
Luke 7 places the event much earlier than the days leading up to Palm Sunday. Here “one of the Pharisees came asking him to eat with him and he entered the Pharisee’s house and he reclined. And a sinner woman who was in the city, when she knew that he was staying in the Pharisee’s house, she took an alabaster vase of ointment. And she stood behind him at his feet, and she was weeping and she began washing his feet with her tears and wiping them with the hair of her head. And she was kissing his feet and anointing them with ointment.”
The man hosting Jesus then says, “If this man were a Prophet, he would have known who she is and what her reputation is, for she is a sinner woman who touched him.” The KJV terms it, “what manner of woman she is,” or as the Eastern Orthodox Holy Tuesday service clearly identifies her, a harlot, who then sings the deeply emotional Hymn of Kassiane.
“Sinner woman,” of course, is purely editorial, in contrast to Mark.
John 12 thickens the plot. In Matthew and Mark, the feast happens at the house of Simon (Shimeon the Potter, in Bauscher’s translation) in Bethany, a rather disreputable town, as you’ll find explained elsewhere. In Luke, it’s at the house of a Pharisee, no town named — and Mary Magdalene is one of the women named in the next chapter, perhaps to throw us off scent. In John, however, we’re also in Bethany, and Lazarus, newly resurrected from the dead, is one of the guests. His sister Martha is serving the dinner.
“But Maryam [Mary] took an alabaster vase of ointment of the best Indian spikenard, very expensive, and she anointed the feet of Yeshua and wiped his feet with her hair and the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment.”
In John 11:2, the scene is introduced, “This Maryam was the one who had had anointed the feet of Yeshua with ointment and wiped them with her hair, whose brother Lazar was sick.” John then digresses before retelling the event is greater detail.
Yes, that’s Mary, the sister who elsewhere creates a scandal by being present in the room with the men while Martha alone is preparing the meal (Luke 10 and John 11). Connect the dots. Is this the occasion where Martha is rebuked? Martha would certainly have stronger reasons for objecting to her sister’s presence with the men if they’re fallen women. Remember, in this culture a woman shouldn’t even be in the room with men, except to serve.
John adds one more detail linking this account to that in Mark: “And Yehuda Scariota [Judas Iscariot], one of the disciples who was about to betray him, said: ‘Why was not this oil sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?'” The detail links the story back to Mark, and thus to Matthew as well. One event.
So prostitution as their profession is why Mary and Martha are not married and are apparently living instead with their brother? Why Martha is independent enough to rebuke Jesus just pages earlier, as well? Why Mary/Maryam can afford such costly ointment?
The story of the woman anointing Jesus is an example of one of the challenges to reading the New Testament straight-through. A Concordance — essentially an index of words in their phrases in the Bible, much like an index to their locations — helps in putting the fuller story and its implications together.
Attributing the source of this gospel to Mark, a companion of Peter, places the book in the Jewish council of Christians, rather than Paul’s gentiles. It lends credence, too, to those who give the date of composition as 66 CE or others who place it as 68-70 CE, in the traumatic days leading up to the fall of Jerusalem.