According to the law, ceremonial defilement could result from touching a dead body, being present when someone dies, entering the home where there is a dead person, walking over a grave, or experiencing certain bodily afflictions or conditions. (Leviticus 14:1-20; 15:1-33; Numbers 19:11-18) To observe the Passover, one had to be ceremonially clean. (Numbers 9:6-14) Therefore, many Jews went to Jerusalem before the Passover in order to fulfill the legal requirements for purification from ceremonial defilement. (John 11:55)
In the temple precincts, these early arrivals began looking for Jesus and talking about him with one another. Among them were those who wondered whether he would even come to the Passover festival. The chief priests and the influential Pharisees in Jerusalem had given the order that anyone knowing Jesus’ whereabouts should inform them, as they wanted to arrest him. (John 11:56, 57)
Six days before the Passover, Jesus and the apostles arrived in Bethany. This village, situated about two miles from Jerusalem, was the home of Lazarus (whom he had raised from the dead), Martha, and Mary. (John 12:1)
Sometime during their stay, Jesus and his disciples were guests in the home of “Simon the leper.” Simon doubtless was a believer whom Jesus had cured of his leprosy, but the designation “Simon the leper” served to distinguish him from the other disciples with the same name. Lazarus was among those partaking of the meal, and his sister Martha served the guests. Their sister Mary had brought with her an alabaster container of costly ointment, one pound of genuine nard. While Jesus and the other guests were reclining at the table to eat, Mary approached Jesus and began pouring the perfumed ointment on his head. After applying it to his feet, she wiped them with her hair. The entire house became permeated with the aroma of the fragrant ointment. (Matthew 26:6, 7; Mark 14:3; John 12:2, 3; see the Notes section for additional information.)
Judas, who would later betray Jesus, appears to have been first to object to what Mary had done, raising the question as to why the ointment had not been sold for 300 denarii and the proceeds given to the poor. (John 12:4, 5) In indignation, other disciples then similarly expressed themselves. They could not understand why the nard had been wasted instead of sold and the money given to the poor. (Matthew 26:8, 9; Mark 14:4, 5)
While the others doubtless were sincere in their expressions about giving to the poor, Judas had ulterior motives. He had been entrusted with the bag or box for keeping the common fund and had been stealing from it. (John 12:6)
Jesus immediately came to Mary’s defense, telling those who objected to leave her alone and not to make trouble for her. He went on to say that she had done a good deed, one that had been undertaken prior to his burial. While there would always be the poor whom they would be able to assist, the disciples would not always have Jesus personally with them. (Matthew 26:10-12; Mark 14:6-8; John 12:7, 8)
According to Mark 14:8, Mary had done “what she could.” This suggests that she perceived Jesus’ life would end and did what she could in view of his future death and burial. He had been very open in telling the apostles what lay ahead for him, and it is unlikely that he would have concealed this information from his close friends. Unlike the apostles who found it very difficult to believe that Jesus would indeed suffer and die, Mary appears to have comprehended his words and acted accordingly.
With a solemn introductory “amen” (truly), Jesus gave the assurance that wherever the glad tidings, or the message about him would be proclaimed, there also Mary’s deed would be related in remembrance of her. (Matthew 26:13; Mark 14:9) The inclusion of this incident in the written accounts has kept the memory of Mary’s anointing of Jesus alive throughout the centuries.
When the news spread that he was in Bethany, many came to see, not only him but also Lazarus whom he had resurrected. Quite a number became believers because of what had happened to Lazarus. Therefore, in an effort to prevent more Jews from believing in Jesus, the chief priests determined to kill Lazarus. (John 12:9-11)
There is uncertainty about when Jesus and the apostles were guests in the home of Simon the leper. The mention of Jesus’ anointing with costly ointment, the objections raised regarding it, and his response provide the basis for concluding that Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, and John 12:2-8 relate to the same event. The account in John 12:2-8 (though unique in identifying Mary as the woman and Judas as the one who raised the objection) does not refer to the house of Simon the leper nor specifically say when in relation to the six days after his arrival in Bethany Jesus and the apostles were guests in the home. In Matthew 26 and Mark 14, the incident is narrated after the mention of “two days” until the Passover. (Matthew 26:2; Mark 14:1)
According to John 12:12-15, the “next day” Jesus, seated on a donkey’s colt, headed for Jerusalem. This could be the day after Mary used the costly ointment. In Matthew and Mark, however, the narrative about the entry into Jerusalem precedes the account concerning the meal in Simon’s home. (Matthew 21:1-11; Mark 11:-1-11)
In view of the mention of “six days” and then the “next day” in John 12, it would appear that a chronological sequence is being followed, which would mean that the words in Matthew 26:6-13 and Mark 14:3-9 are not in chronological order. On the other hand, there is a possibility that (in John 12:12), the “next day” refers only to the day after the chief priests planned to kill Lazarus (John 12:10, 11) and that the incident involving the meal (John 12:2-8) is not in chronological sequence. In that case, the meal in Simon’s home should be regarded as having taken place after Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.
Mary’s act was an expression of deep love and appreciation for Jesus and what he had done for her and her sister and brother. No words, acts, or gifts could have fully expressed the depth of gratitude Mary must have felt in having her brother brought back to life. The costly ointment, with a value of about a year’s wages (300 denarii, with a denarius being the daily pay for a common laborer), likely was the most precious item that Mary possessed. Whether she had obtained it to anoint Jesus with it or initially bought it for another purpose is not revealed in the account. Jesus’ words indicate that Mary’s use of the ointment was an expression of the full limit of what she was able to do for him in view of his imminent death and burial.
It is generally believed that the source of the nard or spikenard is Nardostachys jatamansi, a plant that grows in the Himalayas. If the nard did come from distant India, this would explain why the ointment had a very high value.
In his Natural History, first-century Roman scholar Pliny the Elder wrote concerning nard: “Of the leaf, which is that of the nard, it is only right to speak somewhat more at length, as it holds the principal place among our unguents. The nard is a shrub with a heavy, thick root, but short, black, brittle, and yet unctuous as well; it has a musty smell, too, very much like that of the cyperus, with a sharp, acrid taste, the leaves being small, and growing in tufts. The heads of the nard spread out into ears; hence it is that nard is so famous for its two-fold production, the spike or ear, and the leaf. There is another kind, again, that grows on the banks of the Ganges, but is altogether condemned, as being good for nothing; it bears the name of ozænitis, and emits a fetid odour. Nard is adulterated with a sort of plant called pseudo-nard, which is found growing everywhere, and is known by its thick, broad leaf, and its sickly colour, which inclines to white. It is sophisticated, also, by being mixed with the root of the genuine nard, which adds very considerably to its weight. Gum is also used for the same purpose, antimony, and cyperus; or, at least, the outer coat of the cyperus. Its genuineness is tested by its lightness, the redness of its colour, its sweet smell, and the taste more particularly, which parches the mouth, and leaves a pleasant flavour behind it; the price of spikenard is one hundred denarii per pound.” (English translation edited by John Bostock and H. T. Riley)
As an ingredient, spikenard was very expensive. Understandably, the ointment containing it would be even costlier.