By Martin Accad
In the gospel of John, chapter 12 (1-8), we read the story of a woman called Mary, who anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume. But who was this enigmatic Mary character, and what was the significance of her act?
1 Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. 3 Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, 5 “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” 6 He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. 7 “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. 8 You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”
In the previous chapter (11), which recounted the narrative of Jesus’ raising of his friend, Lazarus, from the dead, we learned that Mary was the sister of the dead man, and in verse 2 of that chapter, John preannounced that “(This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.)” So, we learn from the gospels that Jesus regularly visited this family of three siblings, Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. The account in John’s gospel brings to mind two other narratives from Luke, which tell us more about Mary’s background: the story of a sinful woman who washed the feet of Jesus with perfume, which is found in Luke 7:36-50, and the story of a dinner that took place at Martha and Mary’s house in Luke 10, where Jesus was the honored guest. While Luke reveals to us Mary’s less honorable background, John prefers to withhold this information. But significantly, John, in verse 7 cited above, interprets Mary’s intimate act as one predicting the death of Jesus.
I am currently reading a couple of recent books on Jesus, written by two Muslim scholars: Reza Aslan’s Zealot (Random House, 2013), and Mustafa Akyol’s The Islamic Jesus (MacMillan, 2017). Both scholars undertake the ambitious and remarkable task of retrieving the “Jesus of history” from the Church’s portrait of the “Jesus of faith” – a remarkable task in view of the vast literature on the topic that developed throughout the twentieth century. Aslan’s output is a depiction of Jesus as a violent revolutionary who was eventually executed by the harshest of Roman method, crucifixion. Akyol’s Jesus, on the other hand, emerges as a Jewish Messiah, far more aligned with what he refers to as the “gospel of James” (with reference to James’ Epistle), which he places in stark contrast with the “gospel of Paul,” who depicts Jesus as the glorified Son of God. Despite their remarkable command of a large body of Christian scholarly literature on the issue, both authors’ investigation is strongly slanted by the presuppositions of the Qur’anic Jesus conveyed through the lens of the Muslim tradition. The portrait of Jesus that emerges from both works is one where the death of Jesus is more of an accident of history than a core component of the gospels.
As we read the gospels, however, the centrality of Jesus’ death and resurrection emerge not as peripheral to the story but rather at the core of the narrative. The most striking element of this in the gospels is Jesus’ own strong awareness of the ultimate purpose of his life in the death and resurrection that would ensue. The centrality of Jesus’ sacrificial death and victorious resurrection in the kerygma – or proclamation – of his followers can hardly be considered as a late-comer or as an afterthought of the kerygma in view of his own consistent reference to them in his discourses found in all four gospels.
In the gospel of John, Jesus’ references to his death are pervasive, not only in the Mary narrative itself (v. 7), but in many other passages as well (7.33-34; 8.21, 28; 10.11, 15, 17-18; 12.20-36, and frequently beyond this point). But in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) as well, as Jesus sets his face upon Jerusalem, his discourse about his own crucifixion, death, and resurrection becomes increasingly prominent.
In the gospel according to Luke, shortly after the narrative of the “sinful woman” who washes his feet with her hair (referred to above), and immediately after Peter’s confession that he is “God’s Messiah” (9.20), Jesus begins proclaiming:
The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. (Luke 9:22)
In the gospel according to Matthew, it is also the questioning of his disciples about his true identity, leading to Peter’s confession that he is the Christ, the son of the Living God, which triggers Jesus’ discourse about his death:
From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. (Matthew 16:21)
In both Matthew and Luke, the narrative of Jesus’ transfiguration follows immediately these discourses about his death, whereas in the gospel according to Mark, Jesus’ announcement of the manner of his death and resurrection is associated with the aftermath of his transfiguration (chapter 9):
“We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles.” (Mark 10:33)
The point is that the death and resurrection of Jesus are not marginal to the Gospel; they are not an accident of history, resulting from rebellion against Rome (as in Aslan) or from an attempt at the reform of Judaism which is rejected by the Jews (Akyol’s thesis). The death and resurrection of Jesus, by Jesus’ own testimony, are central to the Gospel.
It turns out that, for Aslan and Akyol, ultimately, it is not so much the historical reality of Jesus’ crucifixion that is hard to absorb, as they indeed seem to part with the Muslim tradition in taking this at face value. Rather what bothers them is the theological implication, drawn by the early disciples and the later Christian tradition, that this death and resurrection had some redemptive significance for humanity.
It is, indeed, not easy for the reader far removed from the sacrificial system of biblical Judaism to make sense of the redemptive value of Jesus’ death and resurrection. But two other ways that the New Testament itself interprets the death and resurrection of Jesus, beyond the sacrificial metaphor of the Old Testament world, are to represent these events as a model for humility and unity, and the metaphor of our own resurrection and glorification. The first – Jesus as model of humility and unity – is reflected in that ancient liturgical hymn found in Philippians 2, where the humility and death of Jesus are the model by which we, as the community of believers, are to live.
And in 1 Corinthians 15.17, 19-20, Jesus’ death and resurrection are represented as the guarantee of his and of our own glorification, as Paul affirms,
And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins … If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
As it turns out, the contrast that Akyol attempts to draw between the so-called “gospel of James” and the “gospel of Paul” may not be as stark as he wishes to paint it. I close with a citation from James’ Epistle to point out that James’ understanding of the significance of Jesus was perhaps not so different from Paul’s understanding:
Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. (James 1:12)
It is hardly possible to read this verse without hearing the undertones of both the four gospels’ and of Paul’s affirmations of the centrality of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, and of the implications of these events for the glorification of Jesus and eventually of ours. For James, as for Paul, it is the pattern set by the death and resurrection of Jesus that guarantees our own glorification, as we put our trust in the one who lived a life of self-giving, which eventually led to the ultimate sacrifice. As we approach Passion Week and Easter Sunday, we can do so with confidence that all four gospels, as well as the entire New Testament, conveyed to us the events of Jesus’ final week in this earthly body with unanimous force about the core significance of these events for our salvation.