Reviews of

Wendy Sproston-North, “The Anointing in John 12.1-8: A Tale of Two Hypotheses”

In Durham, John, Justin A. Mihoc, New Testament, SEMINAR REPORTS, Wendy SPROSTON-NORTH on January 19, 2012 at 12:47 pm

This is a report on a paper presented by Dr Wendy Sproston-North, formerly of University of Hull, at the New Testament Research Seminar, Department of Theology and Religion, Durham University, 16th of January 2012. The list of forthcoming papers in the NT Research Seminars at Durham University can be found here.

In this very appealing presentation, Dr Sproston-North challenged C.H. Dodd’s idea that John 12:1-8 was composed solely based on oral sources and proposed a new hypothesis. This essay is part of a project to be published as a collection of essays revisiting Dodd’s work. The two part structure of the paper covered both Dodd’s hypothesis and the author’s critique, and also provided a verse-by-verse analysis of John 12:1-8.

In his Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel, C.H. Dodd argues that John composed his Gospel based on oral tradition and did not rely on the Synoptic authors. Sproston-North attempts to contradict this hypothesis, and argues in support of the idea that John used Synoptic sources.

Dodd maintains that John 12:1-8 is a completely self-contained unit; he also adopts the alternative idea that John is, in fact, dependent on Mark. There are two accounts that represent a challenge to this hypothesis. First is the tale of anointment, where John’s dependence on Luke is evident. The second serious challenge is the account of Jesus’ body anointment at his burial (Jn 12:7): in John, the scene of the embalmment of Jesus from Mk 14:8 takes the form of ‘let her keep it for the day of my burial.’ However, Mary is not present, nor her spices used. Dodd considers this account as John’s ‘correction’ of Mark. Dodd fails to consider two examples where John seems to have wandered from one pericope to another. He proposed that a cross-combination of details has occurred during the oral transmission of the tradition, in a pre-gospel stage, rather than in composition from literary sources. Dodd rejects any proposals that Matthew copied from Mark in this instance. He offers his own hypothesis, proposing that variations already observed in these texts occur in the process of oral transmission; each Evangelist uses a strand of tradition and those strands overlap. In John we have the act of anointment recorded as in Luke, but the anointing of the head does not insinuate against the idea that John was dependent on Mark.

Dr Sproston-North argued that Dodd’s interpretation isolates the narrative from the broader context and that his form-critical approach led to a case against the creativity of the Evangelist himself. Also, she continued, Dodd sets out two possibilities here: John is taking a strand of tradition, or he is going out of his way to correct Mark, a possibility that Dodd finds highly unlikely. A third possibility not taken into consideration by Dodd is that John is not correcting Mark, but adjusting Mark to the implications of his narrative. Following this, the author proposed and discussed an alternative hypothesis, based on the episode of the active anointment in Jn 11:2 and a verse-by-verse analysis of Jn 12:1-8.

The parenthesis from Jn 11:2 takes the form of a reminder and has an unmistakable resemblance to Mk. However, the woman anointing Jesus is here named. This identification is unique in John’s Gospel and can be assigned to a secondary development, prior to the completion of John’s account as we have it (maybe in an earlier draft); the anointer and the sister have become fused into one. For an author like John, equipped with knowledge of Luke, the identification of the anointer with Mary would not have proved difficult. It serves John’s purposes, representing a link and establishes from an outset that Mary becomes the woman to prepare Jesus for the burial.

From a narrative point of view, Jn 12:1-2 contains linking material. Lazarus will not take part in the actions, but his presence here is in continuity with the material that follows. Lazarus is here the narrative clue. The village of Bethany is also familiar from the previous chapter. John’s choice of material betrays the influence of Mark. This takes us to the anointment itself (12:3), where John’s description of anointment is strikingly similar to that in Mk 14:3. Assuming that John has exercised choice in the matter, how may we account for this preference? It is worth reiterating that John’s readers were already alerted that the anointment was always going to happen after Luke’s depiction. Dodd’s insistence on the idea that this episode is slim evidence of contact between Luke and Mark, can only be dismissed upon striking verbal agreement (Mk 14:3//Lk 7:37-8). If we know by now how John incorporated Lukan material, we will have to find out why Lukan and not Markan material was chosen. In John’s presentation of the Bethany family he depicts a relationship between Jesus and individuals that consists of love. This relationship becomes prototypical for Jesus’ love command given to his Apostles (15:9-12, 17). It is in this context of love and its expression that Mary’s actions are best understood. It is also in this context that John shows his deliberate preference for Luke’s narrative. Also, John’s concern for preparing the ground for the events to come was formed by the actual process of anointment. Mary’s posture and action in 12:3 prefigure those of Jesus’ himself who washes and wipes the feet of his disciples (13:5). The detail of the powerful fragrance serves to underscore the extravagance of Mary’s gift; the price of the ointment used represents a deliberate exaggeration of Mark. The second purpose of this detail is to provide a link between the active anointment and the mention of the expenditure of this gesture. The similarity of Mark’s description of Judas’ objection and his attitude depicted in Jn 12:4-6 is striking. John here follows Mark almost word for word. The last two verses (12:7-8) show a clear abbreviation and adjustment of Mark 14:6-8. We are left to ask why he chose to conclude the anointment story in this way. Jesus insists that Mary keep the anointment for the day of his burial. It is clear from this rewording that John has found Mark’s statement inappropriate at this point and has chosen to alter it. This means that John cannot leave Markan matters as they stand. Are we supposed to understand that Mary did not spend the whole balm and kept some for the following events? This interpretation is not impossible, but is not the most natural either. John’s alteration not only sits awkwardly in his narrative, but is also inconsistent with the later burial scene. Why then has John’s alteration taken this particular form? There is evidence from the analysis above to suggest that John’s readers knew Mark. According to Mark, we do have a scene where women take spices to anoint Jesus’ body (Mk 16:1). It appears that John is already working with Mark in his mind, and had difficulty in supplying the future orientation he needs. In other words, Jesus’ language in John makes Markan sense. Mary’s words should be seen as prophetic for the events to come.

Concluding her paper, Dr Sproston-North reassessed her two hypotheses. According to Dodd, John composed his pericope independently from any literary source and only based on oral tradition. In contrast, Sproston-North argues that John composed his anointment account in full knowledge of Mark and Luke, and in direct contact with them. This new hypothesis places us closer to the Evangelist’s thought and his creative writing. John interacts with his readers, drawing attention to the extravagant expenditure of the anointment. He has referred to Mark and also to Luke, but is governed by neither. He feels free to abbreviate, and exercise choice for his purposes, preferring Luke’s anointment narrative over Mark’s. There is nothing there that was not deliberate or did not follow John’s design.

Justin A. Mihoc,
Department of Theology and Religion, Durham University

  1. […] 1Wendy Sproston-North, “The Anointing in John 12.1-8: A Tale of Two Hypotheses” « Biblical … SUBMIT […]

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