Bible Insights

Is It One Woman Who Anoints Jesus or Four Different Women?

The Four Gospels Each Have a Story of a Woman Who Worships Jesus

Each of the four accounts of Jesus’s life—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—give a story about a woman who anoints Jesus with expensive perfume, but the details in each report vary.

It may be that this happens on four separate occasions. Or it could be the same story, with a few details that differ. Or it might be somewhere in between.

Matthew and Mark’s Version

Matthew and Mark’s accounts are the closest, with the only difference being who criticizes the woman for wasting expensive perfume: Matthew says it’s the disciples. Mark says it’s some people. Matthew and Mark likely cover the same event.

In these passages the woman anoints Jesus’s head. Some people think this symbolically prepares him for what he is about to endure: his death, burial, and resurrection.

John Says

In John’s version, the woman who anoints Jesus is Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus, but in the other three reports, we don’t know the woman’s name.

John’s version is like Matthew and Mark’s, but one key difference is that this woman anoints Jesus’s feet, not his head as in the first two accounts.

Also, John names just one person who criticizes her: Judas Iscariot.

Last, John says that Martha is serving dinner in Jesus’s honor, so we assume it’s at her home, while Matthew and Mark say Jesus is hanging out at Simon the leper’s house.

In anointing Jesus’s feet, some people think this symbolically prepares him for ministry.

Luke’s Account of the Woman Who Anoints Jesus

Luke’s version differs the most. First, he calls her a sinful woman, something not even hinted at in the other three accounts. Next, his version takes place at a Pharisee’s home.

His name is Simon, but it doesn’t say he’s a leper. And there’s no mention of it being in Bethany, as with the other three versions.

In Luke’s story, a woman comes up behind Jesus as he reclines at the dinner table. She weeps at his feet, showing sorrow for her wayward actions.

Her tears fall on him and she uses her hair to dry his feet. Then she dumps her perfume on his feet.

In this account, the woman doesn’t receive criticism, but Jesus does. The Pharisee thinks that Jesus should have known the woman touching him is a sinner.

Jesus affirms the woman for washing his feet, something his host didn’t do. Then he forgives her for her many sins, confirms her saving faith, and sends her off in peace.

Luke’s account has enough differences that it’s likely a separate event.

What Really Counts

It doesn’t really matter if this event happened once, twice, three times, or even four. It also doesn’t matter where it happened or who was involved.

What counts is the lavish adoration given to Jesus. This woman or these women really know how to worship Jesus. May this passage inspire us to do the same.

[Discover more about these stories in Matthew 26:6–13, Mark 14:3–9, Luke 7:36–50, and John 12:1–8.]

Learn about other biblical women in Women of the Bible, available in e-book, paperback, hardcover, and audiobook.

Peter DeHaan writes about biblical Christianity to confront status quo religion and live a life that matters. He seeks a fresh approach to following Jesus through the lens of Scripture, without the baggage of made-up traditions and meaningless practices.

Read more in his books, blog, and weekly email updates.