This past Sunday’s sermon I skated over a remarkable story from John 12. Jesus is invited to a banquet in his honour following the miraculous raising of Lazarus from the dead. It would be hard to exaggerate how strange a gathering this would have been: kind-of like a reverse wake! The height of the awkwardness however was definitely when Lazarus’ sister Mary came and anointed Jesus’ feet, or was it his head? Matt 26:6-13 records a very similar story where an unnamed woman (is it Mary?) anoints Jesus head in the house of a man with the misfortune of being named Simon the Leper. This story is likely based on text borrowed from Mark 14:3-9. How do you reconcile the differences in these stories?
When reading Bible stories it is very important to remember that each writer is writing for a purpose. Modern western readers put a high value on chronological factual accuracy and are always wishing extraneous details had been included in the stories. A cynic might read these stories and conclude that there are mistakes in the Biblical text: inaccuracies which prove that the Bible cannot be trusted. A simple explanation will usually clear this up. John records that Mary and Martha hold a dinner but don’t say where (it isn’t important to John where the dinner is). Matthew and Mark say that the dinner is at a former leper’s house (in keeping with Matthew’s interest former social outcasts). Matthew and Mark don’t mention who is hosting the dinner because that isn’t important to their stories. Both could obviously be true without contradiction.
Matthew (and Mark) are very interested in the kingly role of Jesus. He is being welcomed as King into Jerusalem and is therefore in these stories being symbolically anointed as King, though in an unexpected way. John doesn’t say that Mary only anoints Jesus’ feet. He just mentions the feet (in keeping with John’s emphasis on the servant nature of Jesus ministry). It is perfectly likely that each author only mentioned what related to their focus. Mary had plenty of nard to go around and likely anointed both. As the reader we need to be willing to allow the author to pick the purpose and the content of his writing.
Authors by their very nature need to practice a selective attention. John rightly observes in John 21:25 that the earth couldn’t hold the books that could have been written about Jesus. He had to be very selective in his story telling and so he only covered the details that were relevant to his story.