Each gospel contains a single account of Jesus being anointed, but they do not all seem to refer to the same incident.
Here is a side-by-side comparison of each episode:
|Matthew 26:6-13||Mark 14:3-9||Luke 7:36-50||John 12:1-8|
|In Bethany, around the Crucifixion…||In Bethany, around the Crucifixion…||[location appears to be around Galilee, in the middle of Jesus’ ministry]||In Bethany, around the Crucifixion…|
|Inside the house of Simon the leper||Inside the house of Simon the leper||Jesus accepted a Pharisee’s dinner invitation (named Simon).||Martha served; Lazarus and others sat at table with Jesus|
|A woman came with alabaster flask of oil||A woman came with alabaster flask of oil||A sinful woman brought an alabaster flask of fragrant oil.||Mary had fragrant oil|
|She anointed His head||She anointed His head||She washed Jesus’ feet with tears and her hair. She kissed His feet and anointed them with fragrant oil.||Mary anointed his feet with oil and wiped with her hair.|
|Disciples thought she was wasteful||Disciples thought she was wasteful||The Pharisee thought, “A prophet should know she’s a sinner”||Judas Iscariot thought she was wasteful|
|Jesus defends the woman – “Help the poor later. She prepared me for burial. The gospel will recall this story.”||Jesus defends the woman – “Help the poor later. She prepared me for burial. The gospel will recall this story.”||Jesus teaches Simon in a parable: “Those forgiven much will love much.” Jesus pronounces the woman forgiven and saved.||Jesus defends the woman – “Help the poor later. She prepared me for burial.”|
In light of this, we propose that there are 2 separate anointings recorded in the gospels:
- The anointing of Luke 7 – in the middle of Jesus’ ministry
- The anointing of Matthew 26, Mark 14, and John 12 – immediately before Jesus’ death and resurrection
We say this because:
- The time and location are clearly different. Matthew, Mark, and John all tell us that this happened near Jerusalem within a week of Jesus’ final Passover (Mt. 26:2; Mk. 14:1; Jn. 12:1). But Luke says it happened before He did various activities that took place in the middle of His ministry, while He was at Galilee (nearly 60 miles away from Jerusalem, see Lk. 8:1ff).
- The woman in Luke’s story is a known “sinner” of that time (7:37), but the woman in the other accounts is “Mary” (Jn. 12:3) of Bethany (Jn. 11:1). This Mary was known and admired for her devotion to Jesus (Lk. 10:42; Jn. 11:5, as well as Mt. 26:13, Mk 14:9)—even by Luke who calls the woman of his story a “sinner”—and no hint of sinful living is mentioned concerning her.
- The main themes of each story are very different. In Luke’s story, the theme concerns a notorious sinner who loves Jesus much for offering her forgiveness, while others think she is too unrighteous for such an expression of gratitude. Whereas in Matthew, Mark, and John’s account, the focus is on a woman who sacrificed much to anoint Jesus, while others thought it was wasteful of her.
- The wording in Matthew, Mark, and John is virtually identical throughout the episode. Luke, however, retains none of the same phraseology and words (which is very uncharacteristic of him, and all the more if it concerns such a popular story as this clearly was).
The main objections against our view, and in favor of all 4 gospels recording the same anointing are:
- There are many striking similarities between Luke’s account and the others’ accounts. They all record that:
- It was at Simon’s house
- A woman came with fragrant oil to anoint Jesus
- Others present protested the woman’s act
- Jesus defended and honored the woman against the protest
- All the writers are silent about the existence of more than one anointing, which seems unlikely if two anointings occurred and were important enough to be retold.
Answering Objection 1
The similarities posed in objection 1 are not that significant or uncommon. Consider:
- There are 8 different men named Simon in the New Testament alone (even 2 among the 12 chosen apostles). Further, it has recently been shown that “Simon” was the most popular name in that place and time based on the data available to us (cf. Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, 2017). Thus, there should be little surprise that Jesus went to 2 different houses belonging to a Simon. And, even further, it could be that Matthew and Mark were differentiating their Simon from the Simon in Luke’s story, by calling him “Simon the leper” (e.g. Matt. 26:6), as opposed to “one of the Pharisees” (Luke 7:36). In either case, it would be very unusual to describe the same Simon as “the leper” in one setting and “the Pharisee” in the other if they were recalling the same event and person, adding further credence that these are two separate scenarios.
- Anointing with oil was fairly common in Jesus’ day, especially upon, “guests of notable social status,” (Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 2009, 618; see also Bock, Luke 1:1-9:50 1996, 1:702). As such, it is hardly surprising that multiple devotees of Jesus who found hope and liberation in Him would want to honor Him in this way. For two different women to do this (and plausibly others) during His ministry would be expected.
- Throughout His ministry, Jesus repeatedly advocates for the marginalized and sinful in the face of opposition and their mistreatment, even from his own disciples (e.g. Mark 3:1-6; Luke 18:15-17, 35-43; John 7:53-8:11; 9:1-7). In light of this, two separate episodes of Jesus exonerating a woman rebuffed by others, sadly, was fairly typical.
Thus, in summary, a common practice (anointing your guest) at 2 different houses where the owner had the same popular name (i.e. Simon), that elicited a common response (i.e. Jesus vindicating a mocked woman), should not excite us too much or force anyone to assume there was only 1 anointing.
Answering Objection 2
The second objection (i.e. that writers aware of multiple, similar anointings should mention the other anointing) presupposes a few things. Namely, that:
- the anointing experience itself was unusual (to the point that it deserved mention if it happened twice over Jesus’ ministry),
- the gospel writers knew that such an event was unusual,
- the gospel writers knew this event happened twice during Jesus’ ministry, and
- the gospel writers would have articulated their knowledge that 2 similar, unusual events took place during Jesus’ ministry.
Presupposition #1 is addressed under “Answering Objection 1” (above), where we find that the event was not as unusual as some might think.
Next, even if the event was unusual, would the gospel writers know it was unusual (see presupposition #2)? No doubt, they were used to seeing unusual things in the days of Jesus and the early church. So much so, in fact, that Luke had to indicate when, “extraordinary miracles,” were taking place (Acts 19:11), presumably in contrast to the “everyday” miracles they were used to witnessing at this time. And not only was Jesus’ life a constant supernatural display, but He also broke so many social norms, and—whether directly or indirectly—encouraged others to break social norms as well. Thus, it would be hasty for us to make a judgment on what the gospel writers would or would not consider to be, “unusual,” during Jesus’ ministry.
Further, though the disciples were clearly present during Jesus’ anointing in Bethany, we do not know if they were present in the Luke 7 anointing. If they were absent at that time, and in the midst of so much activity, it is difficult to know whether (or how) they would have become familiar with the Luke 7 anointing (see presupposition #3). Of course, others were familiar enough with the story to pass it on to Luke who recorded it in his gospel, but Luke seems to have interviewed many witnesses in compiling his account, and thus could have been privy to information unknown to the other gospel writers.
Finally, and most importantly, even if the gospel writers (A) knew about these events, and (B) believed them to be unusual, it would be quite arrogant for readers thousands of years later—in a different place and culture—to presume that this means the writers should therefore include both stories in their gospels. The purposes of their gospels were not to give an encyclopedia of data about Jesus’ ministry, or make everything systematic and clear. Along these lines, the accomplished author and literary critic, C.S. Lewis, points out that literary critics of his time and place routinely miss the motives and purposes behind his own literature. Thus, Lewis argues, how much more should we be skeptical of modern claims to know the gospel authors’ intents when they are removed by thousands of years and different cultures (as cited by McDowell, The New Evidence That Demands A Verdict: Evidence I & II Fully Updated in One Volume To Answer The Questions Challenging Christians in the 21st Century, 1999, chap. 31).
With all of these considerations in mind, the best explanation of the data still seems to be
that 2 notable anointings occurred in Jesus’ ministry, Luke
recording the first, and Matthew, Mark, and John recording the second.
 We know this because: (1) it is recorded by Matthew, Mark, and John, while such commonality rarely exists, and (2) Jesus says this story should be retold “wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world,” (Matt. 26:13; Mark 14:9).
 See Psalm 23:5; 141:5; Amos 6:6; Matt. 6:17; Luke 7:46; 10:34.
 Further, as with much of Jesus’ ministry (and the entire Bible), the events themselves only carry as much significance as the theological implications and explanations behind the events. For instance, a man dying on the cross was a very common experience in the Roman world, and yet the Bible devotes much time and attention to Jesus’ death on a cross. This is because the significance is in the meaning of the event, and not merely that it was a spectacular event on its own. Thus, it is very possible that Jesus’ contemporaries knew of many times He was anointed by others, whereas these two recorded anointings carried theological significance and import that other anointings did not.
 This, of course, does not explain why Luke would not have known or recorded the other anointing if he knew about a lesser-known anointing.
 Though some have argued for 3 anointings, we have not addressed that hypothesis here because it seems highly improbable in light of the many similarities seen in Matthew, Mark, and John’s accounts (see above).