The Gospel of John is very different than the other three Gospels (commonly called the “Synoptic” Gospels – a word which means “seeing together,” since much of their narrative is shared material). In John 12:1-8, we have a rare occasion where John tells a story that Matthew, Mark and Luke all seem to tell as well. The relevant passages are Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, Luke 7:36-50 and John 12:1-8.
The question is: are they all telling the same story from different perspectives, or was there more than one time when Jesus was anointed?
Let’s start with the easier one: comparing Luke and John. When we read Luke’s narrative (and I’d encourage you to take a few minutes and do so!), it becomes pretty apparent that we are looking at a different occasion than the one in John. Though Luke describes a woman that interrupts Jesus while He is eating to anoint His feet with anointment and wipe the ointment with her hair, just about everything else in the story is different.
Luke’s account takes place pretty early on in Jesus’ ministry (John the Baptist is still alive). John’s account takes place at the very end, during the last week before His death. In John, Jesus is in Bethany and is anointed by Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus. Martha serving the meal may indicate that the dinner takes place in her house. Luke sets the scene in the house of a Pharisee named Simon in an unspecified city, and the woman is not named but only called “a sinner” (Luke 7:37). In Luke’s story, Jesus tells a parable to the Pharisee about a moneylender and two individuals who owed him different amounts of money. The point of the story (and parable) is that Jesus has come to forgive sinners a great debt, of which the Pharisee is ignorant. John’s point is very different, emphasizing sacrificial worship.
From this brief comparison, it is clear (and most scholars agree) that John and Luke tell a different story. So Jesus was anointed at least twice in the course of His ministry. But what about Matthew and Mark? Do they narrate the same account as John?
Curiously, Matthew and Mark both have the account taking place in Bethany “in the house of Simon the leper” (Mt 26:6, Mk 14:3). So Bethany agrees with John, but the name Simon agrees with Luke, though in Luke it is stressed that Simon is a Pharisee and not a leper! It is not unreasonable to assume that there was more than one Simon that had Jesus over for dinner, so we don’t need to be talking of the same man. But it’s a curious little similarity between the Synoptics. If Matthew/Mark and John are telling the same story, then we would have to assume Martha’s serving of the dinner does not necessitate that the dinner is in her house. (This might not be too hard a stretch of the imagination, knowing what we do of Martha’s personality!).
Matthew/Mark don’t name the woman, but Mark does note that the ointment she poured out was “pure nard, very costly” (14:3), the same words used in John (12:3). Matthew/Mark show the woman anointing Jesus’ head, whereas John shows Mary anointing His feet. This is one difference that is easily explained. 12 ounces of ointment goes a long way, and Jesus’ whole body was likely anointed, with each Gospel focusing primarily on a single part.
(It’s like when my mom used to swim and instruct us all not to get her hair wet. Inevitably, being the boys we were, her hair would end up soaked. My father might look at her and say, “You got your hair wet!” The comment is natural and not untrue, even though her entire body would also be soaked. The Gospel writers do not need to mention every part of Jesus that was anointed in order for their focus to be true.)
Matthew, Mark and John all note the indignant reaction to the anointing. Mark agrees that the ointment could’ve been sold for 300 denarii (Matthew just says “a large sum”), but only John specifies Judas as the chief complainer. Matthew/Mark indicate that other disciples were indignant as well. Much of Jesus’ dialogue is similar between the three accounts, with Matthew/Mark adding a bit at the end: “And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her” (14:9).
Perhaps the most difficult obstacle to overcome before agreeing that these three accounts tell the same story is the chronological issue. Both Matthew and Mark place this event two days before the Passover (Mt 26:2, Mk 14:1) and later than the triumphal entry (Mt 21:1-11, Mk 11:1-10), but John clearly has it six days before Passover (12:1) and also before the triumphal entry. How do we account for such a glaring difference?
We could say that Luke tells one story, Matthew/Mark tell another, and John tells a third, making it three times that Jesus was anointed (twice within a week!). But I’m not sure we need to go that far. The simplest solution is to recognize that Matthew and Mark are a bit looser with their chronology than is John. In fact, the story of the anointing in Matthew/Mark is not necessarily attached to the dating notice earlier in the chapter. To put it another way, Matthew/Mark insert the story of the anointing out of chronological order for thematic and theological reasons (possibly to tie it closer to the preparation for the Passover, which comes just a few verses later in these Gospels).
To summarize, it is clear that John and Luke both narrate a different anointing story. Matthew, Mark and John all seem to narrate the same event, though there are some (mostly minor) obstacles to overcome in how they tell their stories.