NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
As another highly respected Rabbi points out that these instructions from Moses are a warning that such discussions with the Judges of the Supreme Sanhedrin are not merely ‘consultations or options,’ but must not be deviated from.1 He takes his cue from what the Jewish teachers said on this subject: “A Sage who rebels against the ruling of the court [is strangled],”2 which is another way of saying, hanged. So it goes without saying, that this kangaroo court of Sanhedrin members was so committed to getting rid of Jesus that they were willing to violate whatever laws or rules were incumbent upon them. Nevertheless, they would have to wait for the right time and place.
Chrysostom sees the same thing when he says: “How many chief priests were there? For the law wills there should be one, but then there were many. From this, it is beginning to be evident that the Jewish structure of governance had begun to collapse. For Moses, as I said, commanded there should be one and that when he was dead there should be another… Yet for all this, boiling with anger, they changed their purpose again. For though they had said, “Not at the feast time,” when they found the traitor, they did not wait but killed Him at the feast.”3
Verse 6: While this was happening, Jesus was in Bethany at the house of a former leper named Simon.
Most scholars take the designation of Simon the leper to, first of all, distinguish him from other Simons living in Bethany, and second, that this was his former state before he was healed. Since he is included here in the Scripture, there is strong support that he was among one who was healed by Jesus. It would not violate the Gospel record nor be unsupported by the timeline of Jesus’ ministry to wonder if Simon was the only one of the ten lepers healed who came back to thank Jesus.4
Verse 7: While He was there, a woman came to see Him. She had an alabaster jar filled with expensive perfume.5 She poured the perfume on Jesus’ head while He was eating.
The fortuitous break the Jewish leaders were waiting for to carry out their plot was just around the corner but little did anyone know what would precipitate such an act of betrayal. It may have started with the caring act of reverence and admiration on the part of a woman who wanted to show her devotion to Jesus the Messiah.
At this point, let’s take off our western culture hats and put on our Jewish kippahs, or as they are known in Yiddish, yarmulkes. We should not see Jesus sitting in a chair at a table, facing the woman as she comes in. Rather, He was reclining on His side at the table with His legs bent at the knees so His feet faced behind Him. He does not see the woman enter the house, come up behind Him and begin to pour out her perfume on His head. It should be noted that Matthew does not say that Jesus then turned around to see who it was. He didn’t have to, He was the Messiah and knew exactly what was going on.
Chrysostom gives us his view of who this woman was. He writes: “It may seem that this woman is the same in all the Gospel narratives. But I doubt it. In John, she is another person, one to be much admired, the sister of Lazarus.6 But not without purpose did the Evangelist mention the leprosy of Simon. He did this in order to show how the woman gained confidence and came to Jesus. Leprosy seemed to be the most unclean disease and those who inflicted by it were shunned. Yet she saw that Jesus had both healed the man and had gone into his house. This is why He remained with the leper. She grew confident that He could also easily wipe away the uncleanness from her soul.”7
Some scholars believe that the precious ointment she brought was a composition of those spices mentioned in Exodus.8 We are told by one Rabbi that when it comes to expensive perfume, we should take into consideration what the patriarch Job had to say concerning their preparation: “He makes the depths seethe like a pot, he makes the sea [boil] like perfume in a kettle.”9 The Rabbi states that the Hebrew word merkabah10 is understood as the perfume compound mentioned in God’s instructions to Moses,11 because the word used there is mirqachath, which is another way of transliterating the Hebrew, merkahah. But he adds: “Can this possibly be a reference to “ambergrtis”, which is a waxy secretion of the sperm whale much valued in perfumery?”12 This may have been a reference to the one in Job’s oceanic perfume kettle.
Verses 8-9: The disciples saw the woman do this and were upset with her. They said, “Why waste that perfume? It could be sold for a lot of money, and the money could be given to those who are poor.”
Again, Matthew doesn’t say Jesus saw her do it but His disciples did. This further substantiates the picture of her coming up from behind Jesus to anoint Him. This makes it possible that the disciples were watching what was going on while Jesus was dining with Simon. But instead of being thrilled at such adulation for their Master, it angered some of them. The woman involved here is accepted by most scholars to be the sister of Lazarus, whose act of anointing Jesus is outlined in John’s Gospel.13 Yet, some take the anointing Jesus received in Luke as performed by a different woman.14 Matthew calls the ointment she brought as “expensive perfume.” From Mark we learn that it was called “Spikenard.”15
To give you some idea of how such ointments and perfumes were regarded in those days, we turn to a Roman author, naturalist, and philosopher (23-79 AD), who wrote: “There are some single essences also which, individually, afford ointments of very high character: the first rank is due to malobathrum,16 and the next to the iris of Illyricum and the sweet marjoram of Cyzicus, both of them herbs. There are perfumers who sometimes add some few other ingredients to these: those who use the most, employ for the purpose honey, grains of salt, omphacium,17 leaves of agnus,18 and panax,19 all of them foreign ingredients. The price of ointments of cinnamon is quite enormous; to cinnamon there is added oil of balanus, xylobalsamum, calamus, sweet-rush, seeds of balsamum, myrrh, and perfumed honey: it is the thickest in consistency of all the ointments; the price at which it sells ranges from thirty-five to three hundred denarii per pound. Ointments of nard, or foliatum, are composed of omphacium or else oil of balanus, sweet-rush, costus, nard, amomum, myrrh, and balsamum.”20
So we can see why pouring out such an expensive unguent on some stranger’s head was considered a waste of a valuable commodity. This same naturalist goes on to add: “Unguents keep best in boxes of alabaster, and perfumes when mixed with oil, which conduces all the more to their durability the thicker it is, such as the oil of almonds, for instance. Unguents also improve with age; but the sun is apt to spoil them, for which reason they are usually stowed away in a shady place in vessels lined with lead.”21 So this was not some cheap perfume this woman brought to anoint Jesus, it was the best money could buy. How much more then, should those things we offer in exultation, honor, and glory to Him be the very best we can possibly bring in our praise and worship.
1 Tzror Hamor, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 1906
2 Mishnah, Fourth Division: Nezikin, Tractate Sanhedrin, Ch. 11:2
3 Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 79.3
4 See Luke 17:11-17
5 Alabaster jars were often made from a precious stone found in Israel. This stone resembles the texture of marble, and was extremely expensive to own. These jars contained ointments, oils, and perfume. The thick stone prevented the aroma from escaping and kept the perfume from spoiling. The shape of the jar usually had a long neck and a sealed top. To open the jar, the top had to be broken off, which allowed it to be used only once.
6 John 12:1-3 also tells of the anointing of Jesus by Mary sister of Lazarus, but in Matthew the woman anoints the head of Jesus, and in John the feet. Hence Chrysostom believes that there were two distinct episodes.
7 Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 80.1
8 Exodus 30:23-25
9 Job 41:23 – Complete Jewish Bible
10 Hebrew word for “chariot.” See Ezekiel 1:15-16. Jewish literature refers to this as the heavenly Throne chariot.
11 Exodus 30:25
12 Pesikta De-Rab Kahana, op. cit., Supplement 2:4, footnote (24)
13 John 12:1-8
14 Luke 7:36-50
15 Mark 14:3, Spikenard also called nard, nardin, and muskroot, is a class of aromatic amber-colored essential oil derived from Nardostachys jatamansi, a flowering plant of the Valerian family which grows in the Himalayas of Nepal, China, and India.
16 Malobathrum is the name used in classical and medieval texts for certain cinnamon-like aromatic plant leaves
17 Omphacite is a green silicate mineral
18 Vitex agnus-castus tree is a shrub that is native to the Mediterranean and Central Asia. The shrub has long, finger-shaped leaves, blue-violet flowers, and dark purple berries. The fruit and seed are used to make medicine.
19 Panax is a type of ginseng
20 Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Bk. 13, Ch. 2
21 Ibid., Bk. 13, Ch. 3