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Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. VI:
The Harmony of the Gospels.: Chapter LXXIX

Early Church Fathers  Index     

Chapter LXXIX.—Of the Concord Between Matthew, Mark, and John in Their Notices of the Supper at Bethany, at Which the Woman Poured the Precious Ointment on the Lord, and of the Method in Which These Accounts are to Be Harmonized with that of Luke, When He Records an Incident of a Similar Nature at a Different Period.

154. Matthew, then, continuing his narrative from the point up to which we had concluded its examination, proceeds in the following terms: “Then assembled together the chief priests and the elders of the people unto the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, and consulted that they might take Jesus by subtilty and kill Him: but they said, Not on the feast-day, lest there be an uproar among the people. Now when Jesus was in Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper, there came unto Him a woman having an alabaster box of precious ointment, and poured it on His head as He sat at meat;” and so on down to the words, “there shall also this that this woman hath done be told for a memorial of her.” 1209 The scene with the woman and the costly ointment at Bethany we have now to consider, as it is thus detailed. For although Luke records an incident resembling this, and although the name which he assigns to the person in whose house the Lord was supping might also suggest an identity between the two narratives (for Luke likewise names the host “Simon”), still, since there is nothing either in nature or in the customs of men to make the case an incredible one, that as one man may have two names, two men may with all the greater likelihood have one and the same name, it is more reasonable to believe that the Simon in whose house [it is thus supposed, according to Luke’s version, that] this scene at Bethany took place, was a different person from the Simon [named by Matthew]. For Luke, again, does not specify Bethany as the place where the incident which he records happened. And although it is true that he in no way particularizes the town or village in which that occurrence took place, still his narrative does not seem to deal with the same locality. Consequently, my opinion is, that there is but one interpretation to be put upon the matter. That is not, however, to suppose that the woman who appears in Matthew was an entirely different person from the woman who approached the feet of Jesus on that occasion in the character of a sinner, and kissed them, and washed them with her tears, and wiped them with her hair, and anointed them with ointment, in reference to whose case Jesus also made use of the parable of the two debtors, and said that her sins, which were many, were forgiven her because she loved much. But my theory is, that it was the same Mary who did this deed on two separate occasions, the one being that which Luke has put on record, when she approached Him first of all in that remarkable humility, and with those tears, and obtained the forgiveness of her sins. 1210 For John, too, although he has not given the kind of recital which Luke has left us of the circumstances connected with that incident, has at least mentioned the fact, in commending the same Mary to our notice, when he has just begun to tell the story of the raising of Lazarus, and before his narrative brings the Lord to Bethany itself. The history which he offers us of that transaction proceeds thus: “Now a certain man was sick, named Lazarus, of Bethany, the town of Mary, and her sister p. 173 Martha. It was that Mary which anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped His feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick.” 1211 By this statement John attests what Luke has told us when he records a scene of this nature in the house of a certain Pharisee, whose name was Simon. Here, then, we see that Mary had acted in this way before that time. And what she did a second time in Bethany is a different matter, which does not belong to Luke’s narrative, but is related by three of the evangelists in concert, namely, John, Matthew, and Mark. 1212

155. Let us therefore notice how harmony is maintained here between these three evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and John, regarding whom there is no doubt that they record the self-same occurrence at Bethany, on occasion of which the disciples also, as all three mention, murmured against the woman, ostensibly on the ground of the waste of the very precious ointment. Now the further fact that Matthew and Mark tell us that it was the Lord’s head on which the ointment was poured, while John says it was His feet, can be shown to involve no contradiction, if we apply the principle which we have already expounded in dealing with the scene of the feeding of the multitudes with the five loaves. For as there was one writer who, in giving his account of that incident, did not fail to specify that the people sat down at once by fifties and by hundreds, although another spoke only of the fifties, no contradiction could be supposed to emerge. There might indeed have seemed to be some difficulty, if the one evangelist had referred only to the hundreds, and the other only to the fifties; and yet, even in that case, the correct finding should have been to the effect that they were seated both by fifties and by hundreds. And this example ought to have made it plain to us, as I pressed it upon my readers in discussing that section, that even where the several evangelists introduce only the one fact each, we should take the case to have been really, that both things were elements in the actual occurrence. 1213 In the same way, our conclusion with regard to the passage now before us should be, that the woman poured the ointment not only upon the Lord’s head, but also on His feet. It is true that some person may possibly be found absurd and artful enough to argue, that because Mark states that the ointment was poured out only after the alabaster vase was broken there could not have remained in the shattered vessel anything with which she could anoint His feet. But while a person of that character, in his endeavours to disprove the veracity of the Gospel, may contend that the vase was broken, in a manner making it impossible that any portion of the contents could have been left in it, how much better and more accordant with piety must the position of a very different individual appear, whose aim will be to uphold the truthfulness of the Gospel, and who may therefore contend that the vessel was not broken in a manner involving the total outpouring of the ointment! Moreover, if that calumniator is so persistently blinded as to attempt to shatter the harmony of the evangelists on this subject of the shattering of the vase, 1214 he should rather accept the alternative, that the [Lord’s] feet were anointed before the vessel itself was broken, and that it thus remained whole, and filled with ointment sufficient for the anointing also of the head, when, by the breakage referred to, the entire contents were discharged. For we allow that there is a due regard to the several parts of our nature when the act commences with the head, but [we may also say that] an equally natural order is preserved when we ascend from the feet to the head.

156. The other matters belonging to this incident do not seem to me to raise any question really involving a difficulty. There is the circumstance that the other evangelists mention how the disciples murmured about the [wasteful] outpouring of the precious ointment, whereas John states that Judas was the person who thus expressed himself, and tells us, in explanation of the fact, that “he was a thief.” But I think it is evident that this same Judas was the person referred to under the [general] name of the disciples, the plural number being used here instead of the singular, in accordance with that mode of speech of which we have already introduced an explanation in the case of Philip and the miracle of the five loaves. 1215 It may also be understood in this way, that the other disciples either felt as Judas felt, or spoke as he did, or were brought over to that view of the matter by what Judas said, and that Matthew and Mark consequently have expressed in word what was really the mind of the whole company; but that Judas spoke as he did just because he was a thief, whereas what prompted the rest was their care for the poor; and further, that John has chosen to record the utterance of such sentiments only in the instance of that one [among the disciples] whose habit of acting the thief he believed it right to bring out in connection with this occasion.



Matt. xxvi. 3-13.


Luke vii. 36-50. [This identification of Mary of Bethany with the woman spoken of by Luke is part of the process by which the latter is assumed to be Mary Magdalene. The occasions were different, and it is far more likely that there were two women, neither of them Mary Magdalene.—R.]


John 11:1, 2. [John’s language is more properly referred to what was well known among Christians when he wrote, than to what had occurred before the sickness of Lazarus.—R.]


John 12:1, Matt. 26:3, Mark 14:3.


See above, chap. xlvi. § 98.


De alabastro fracto frangere conetur.


See above, § 96.

Next: Chapter LXXX

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