בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם שֶׁהֶחֱיָנוּ וְקִיְּמָנוּ וְהִגִּיעָנוּ לזְּמַן הַזֶּה.

Bārūch atāh Adonai Elohênū melekh ha`ôlām šeheḥeyānû veqîmānû vehigî`ānû lazman hazeh

Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, king of the universe, who hast given us life and sustained us and brought us to this season

Saturday, April 4, 2020

The Anointing in Bethany according to John

Poussin, Sacrament of Penance

The gospels contain very similar stories about women anointing Jesus.  Luke, for instance, records that earlier in the Galilean Ministry, a woman "who was a sinner" entered a dinner and washed Jesus' feet with her tears, dried them with her hair, and then anointed them with precious ointment (Luke 7:37–38).  Then in the days leading up to Jesus’ death and resurrection, there are possibly two different stories of a woman anointing Jesus in Bethany.  John records that at some point after the raising of Lazarus and before the Triumphal Entry, Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, anointed Jesus’ feet (John 12:1–3).  Mark and Matthew, on the other hand, recount that a day or two before the Last Supper, an unnamed woman entered a dinner in the house of one Simon the Leper in Bethany and anointed Jesus’ head (Mark 14:3–9; Matthew 26:6–13).

Many scholars assume that these are two different versions of the same story, though the differences in detail and placement have led me in previous treatments of these stories to consider them as separate incidents (see God So Loved the World, 44, 133).  In both these cases, the explicit reason given for a woman anointing Jesus was to prepare him for his burial (see Mark 14:8; Matthew 26:12; John 12:7).  Implicitly, however, such an act of anointing may have symbolized something else.  Earlier I have written:
Regardless of how many anointings there may actually have been, the fact that John on the one hand and Mark and Matthew on the other introduce them at different points in the story allows us, as readers, to consider two important aspects of Jesus’ role as “the anointed one.” In ancient Israel two figures were regularly anointed: the rightful king (1 Samuel 16: 13; 2 Samuel 2:4; 5:3) and the legitimate high priest (Exodus 40:13; Leviticus 6:20). The case of Elisha (1 Kings 19:16) and the suggestion of Psalm 105:15 indicates that prophets, too, could be anointed. Jesus has been functioning openly as a prophet throughout his ministry, which began with a symbolic anointing of the spirit at his baptism (see Luke 3:21–22; 4:18). But now as he prepared to enter Jerusalem for his final week, the important symbolism of an anointed king and an anointed priest came powerfully into play.  (God So Loved the World, 133).
BYU Jerusalem students in the garden of the Franciscan church at Bethany reading about the anointings of Jesus and reflecting on the faith and love of Mary and the unnamed woman
Thus the story of the anointing in John serves as another fitting prelude to Holy Week.  His placement of Mary’s anointing of Jesus before the Triumphal Entry allows us to see him as the rightful, anointing king, symbolism which continues throughout the first few days of the Savior’s final week as he uses that authority to cleanse the temple, answer and silence his opponents in the Temple, and prophesy of his glorious Second Coming, when he will return as king of all the Earth.  On Wednesday of Holy Week, we will see how the anointing by the unnamed woman in Mark and Matthew can serve to signal Jesus’ transition to a more priestly role as he institutes the sacrament, suffers in the Garden of Gethsemane, and dies on the cross as a sacrifice for all.

Churches and the mosque near the Tomb of Lazarus in modern Bethany

Friday, April 3, 2020

A Working Chronology of the Savior's Final Days


For most traditional Christians, the basic chronology of Jesus’ last week is fairly clear: he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday; taught and prophesied for two or more days; held the Last Supper and was arrested on Thursday evening; died on Good Friday; and rose from the dead the morning of Easter Sunday.  To make a devotional study of the Savior’s Final Week simpler, in past years and in my 2009 Ensign article,[1] I avoided detailed chronological discussions.  Here, however, I have drawn upon some of the conclusions that I drew in God So Loved the World (pp. 129-133) to propose a basic, working chronology that can be used for devotional purposes.

Three basic considerations that I have used in creating this working chronology are the following:
  • To what extent can the historical timing, or at least order, of events be recreated?
  • When there are historical uncertainties or conflicts, it there a theological or symbolic reason for an event's timing, addition, or omission?
  • What is the utility in accepting, or observing, the traditional timing or liturgical observance of events commemorated by Christian communities?
The only securely established day is the day of the resurrection, which is explicitly identified as “the first day of the week” in all four gospels (Mark 16:2; parallels Matt 28:1 and Luke 24:1; John 20:1).  The gospel of Mark, widely assumed to be the earliest of the written gospel accounts, provides relative time markers, which, calculating back from the resurrection on the first day of the week, place Jesus’ triumphal entry on the previous Sunday.[2]

  • Sunday:          “And when they came nigh unto Jerusalem” (11:1)
  • Monday:         “And on the morrow, when they were come back from Bethany” (11:12)
  • Tuesday:        “And in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree” (11:20)
  • Wednesday:  “After two days was the feast of the Passover” (14:1)
  • Thursday:      “And the first day of unleavened bread, when they killed the Passover” (14:12)
  • Friday:            “And straightway in the morning” (15:1)
  • Saturday         the “Sabbath’” (15:42; 16:1; more below)
  • Sunday:          “and very early in the morning the first day of the week” (16:2)

In reality, establishing a secure chronology is a little more complex.  Other day markers beyond resurrection on Sunday morning, such as Passover and the Sabbath, are not as clear as they might at first appear.  As will be discussed later in some detail on Thursday, although the Synoptics make the Last Supper a Passover meal, traditionally placed on Thursday, John suggests that Passover began the evening after Jesus was crucified.  Likewise, Mark’s references to the Passover are sometimes obscure.  Should the “two days before the Passover” (14:1) be counted inclusively or exclusively?  The day that the Passover lamb was killed (14:12) was in fact the afternoon before the Passover, which was also the first day of the feast of unleavened bread.

Also, while it is true that Luke 23:53 says that “the Sabbath drew on” at sunset after Jesus was buried, John and Mark present potentially conflicting data.  John 19:31 refers to the Sabbath as a high day, connecting it with the “preparation day” of the Passover (see also 19:42), suggesting that perhaps it was a festal sabbath and not necessarily the weekly Sabbath (contra the explanatory LDS KJV note for 19:31c, it is just as likely that the “high day” was the Passover and not the day after the Passover meal).  Mark 15:42 also speaks of a preparation day in connection with Jesus’ death, which was “the day before the Sabbath.”  The Greek here is unclear on whether the day before the Sabbath was the day on which Jesus had just died or whether it was the day which, in accordance with Jewish tradition, had just begun with sunset.  Finally, and perhaps significantly, Matthew 28:1, which reads "In the end of the sabbath" in the KJV, actually has "sabbaths" (sabbatōn, genitive plural form) in Greek.  While some argue that the weekly Sabbath could be referred to in the plural, the form leaves open the possibility that there had been both a festal and a weekly Sabbath that week.

This ambiguity has led some to propose that Jesus actually died on a Thursday, sundown Thursday to sundown Friday being a festal Sabbath, the first day of Passover, and sundown Friday to sundown Saturday being the weekly Sabbath.  This proposal is attractive to some, particularly to a few in evangelical circles, because it preserves more completely Jesus' prophecy of being in the tomb for three days and three nights (Matt 12:40) better than the standard explanation that Jesus’ body was in the tomb for only parts of three different days.  While this chronology may also be attractive to some Latter-day Saints because of its apparent correlation with the Book of Mormon’s account of three days of darkness (Helaman 14:20, 27 and 3 Nephi 8:19–23), early Christian tradition nevertheless placed Jesus’ death on Friday from a very early time.

These rather complex chronological discussions are matters of detailed study or a scholarly investigation, not of a devotional (and hopefully inspirational), approach to the Easter season.  I mention them only because the symbolic potential of the events of the last week is sometimes greater if one is not too rigidly attached to a specific chronology.  However, in order to foster greater solidarity with other Christians who are observing Holy Week, and for purely practical reasons of convenience, my approach to the week before Easter this year follows a more-or-less traditional sequence of events.  Links are provided below for each of this year’s Easter posts:   

 
Two final notes.  First, most treatments of the anointing of Jesus assume that the versions portrayed in John 12:1–8 on the one hand and in Mark 14:2–9 (par Matt 26:6–13) on the other represent the same event.  I feel, however, that the details are different enough that they warrant separate treatment.  Even if historically there was only one anointing, the fact that John places it before the Triumphal Entry, and Mark and Matthew place it after the Olivet Discourse,[3] suggests that the evangelists were using its symbolism to stress different theological and symbolic points (see The Symbolism of Jesus as Anointed King and Priest in God So Loved the World, 133-135). 

Second, many Latter-day Saint harmonies of the final week list “No Events Recorded” for Wednesday,[4] but the sequence in Mark strongly suggests that the plot to kill Jesus, the unnamed woman’s anointing of Jesus, and Judas’ decision to betray Jesus happened on this day.  This is also in accordance with Christian tradition, which has since the Medieval period referred to Wednesday as “Spy Wednesday” because of Judas’ actions.


Easter Quicklinks




[1]Eric D. Huntsman, “Reflections on the Savior’s Last Week,” Ensign, Apr 2009, 52–60
[2]See Marcus Borg and john Dominic Crossan, The Last Week: A Day-by-Day Account of Jesus’ Final Week in Jerusalem (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2006), ix–xi.
[3]Compare this with the traditional harmonization of the Cleansing of the Temple, which John places at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and all three Synoptics place at the end.  Even if one assumes that there was only one cleansing, most recognize that John and the Synoptics provide different emphases about the nature of Jesus’ public career and the timing and nature of the opposition that it inspired.
[4]See President J. Reuben Clark, Jr. Our Lord of the Gospels: A Harmony of the Gospels (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), which was, in turn, based upon late nineteenth century Protestant commentaries