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Both describe a woman anointing Jesus with costly ointment on his head or feet. The place is the same (Bethany), and in John, the woman is identified as the sister of Lazarus. However, there are three problems:

  1. The place is different with the John description being in the home of Lazarus, whereas in the Mark description, it is at the home of Simon the Leper.
  2. John has the woman anointing the feet of Jesus, whereas Mark has her anointing his head.
  3. Mark gives the time as two days before Passover, whereas John's description takes place 6 days before Passover.

Otherwise, the events are very similar and the quotes from Jesus are almost identical.

If it is the same event, how do we reconcile the differences?

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  • Considered by whom and when?
    – user33515
    Commented Apr 8, 2023 at 18:07
  • By considered, I mean those majority of biblical scholors who have commented on this seeming inconsistency. As to when, that would be in the past 100 years.
    – SysJames
    Commented Apr 8, 2023 at 18:40
  • On a closer reading of the John passage, there isn't really a conflict. John records that Jesus arrived at Bethany 6 days before Passover, not that the meal cited occurred at that time. It probably took place after the Sabbath, which would put in Mark's time frame.
    – SysJames
    Commented Apr 8, 2023 at 18:43
  • I provided an answer based on some commentaries from the last 100 years, plus a few earlier for contrast. Basically, in the last 100 years most see one event, but they don't agree about how or even whether to reconcile the apparent differences. So simply observe the differences and accept them resulting from different sources that the various authors used. Commented Apr 9, 2023 at 3:01

4 Answers 4

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A survey of commentaries on the OP's question reveals a variety of opinions. Most modern and contemporary scholars see the accounts as referring to the same event but there is a wide divergence of opinion regarding the apparent differences in detail and how they might be resolved.

The NAB Bible says of John 12's account:

[12:1–8] This is probably the same scene of anointing found in Mk 14:3–9 and Mt 26:6–13. The anointing by a penitent woman in Lk 7:36–38 is different. Details from these various episodes have become interchanged.

The Enduring Word Commentary sees the two accounts as definitely referring to the same event and attempts to show how they dovetail without contradiction:

It seems that this dinner [in John's account) was at the home of Simon the Leper (Matthew 26:6 and Mark 14:3). His friends Martha, Lazarus, and Mary were also in attendance. Because Martha seems to be the hostess, some think Simon the Leper was related to Mary, Martha, and Lazarus or even that he was Martha’s husband. If common customs were followed, this dinner was for the men of the village and Martha and the other women served.

The Interpreter's Bible is more willing to accept differences in details:

The scene is comparable to the account in Mark 14:9, with details that also recall the incident in Luke 7:36-50. It differs from the Synoptic story in being placed before the Triumphal Entry... It differs further in being located in the home of Lazarus rather than of on Simon the leper.

An older commentary (Benson's) reports that the question is perplexing, resulting an a scholar who once agreed with the older view - that these two two different events - changing his mind after reflection:

“Few passages,” says Dr. Doddridge, “in the harmony [of the gospels] have perplexed me more than this. I was long of opinion, with Origen and Theophylact, defended by Le Clerc and Dr. Whitby, and especially by Dr. Lightfoot and Mr. Whiston, that the story recorded by Matthew and Mark is different from this in John. But on maturer consideration, it appears to me more probable that Matthew and Mark should have introduced this story a little out of its place."

Meyer opines that

The peculiarity of John’s account is founded on the fact of the writer’s being an eye-witness; but is referred by Baur, p. 256 ff., to an eclectic and arbitrary treatment, dependent on an ideal point of view; comp. also Hilgenfeld.

The Pulpit commentary, meanwhile, says

[The Synoptics'] purpose was not a chronological one. They give the narrative of the anointing apart from its deepest meanings and consequences, apart from any references to Lazarus (see Matthew 26:6-12; Mark 14:1-11). There are other subtle omissions from the synoptists, the difficulties of which must be settled as between themselves.

From the above we can see that scholars are far from united in their opinion of the OP's questions. Generally, it is fair to say that while older writers often spoke of two different events (Origen, Le Clerc, Lightfoot) modern scholars tend to see it as referring to a single event; but some are willing to admit to important differences in detail.

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Any discussion of Jesus' anointing by "the woman" must also include Matt 26:6-13. I will not discuss the other version in Luke 7:36-50.

The differences between the three events in Matthew, Mark and John are more apparent that real:

  • the difference in time between "6 days" (John 12:1) and "2 days" (Matt 26:1, Mark 14:1) is simply the difference between when Jesus arrived in Bethany and when the gathering actually occurred.
  • The apparent difference in home location (Simon vs Lazarus) is not actually true. John only says that Jesus was in Bethany the hometown of Lazarus, but Mark and Matthew tell us that the dinner was actually in the home of Simon, also in Bethany; Martha served/catered.
  • The difference between anointing of feet (John 12:3) vs head (Matt 26:6, Mark 14:3) is simply a difference between who observed and where each was in the room at the time. I presume that oil was poured on Jesus' feet and head.

Thus, there is no conflict between the accounts.

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Two additional ancient sources are the Diatessaron of Tatian, a 2nd century Syriac harmony of the Gospels, and the Eusebian Canons, a 4th century harmony.

In the Diatessaron of Tatian the event alluded to in Mark 14:3-9 occurs in Chapter 57, whereas the event involving Mary the sister of Lazarus occurs in Chapter 64. So they are seen here as distinct events.

The Eusebian Canons, however, maintain that Mark 14:3-9 (Canon 160) and John 12:1-8 (Canon 190) refer to the same occasion, as do Matthew 26:6-13 (Canon 257) and Luke 7:36-50 (Canon 47).

A third source, John Chrysostom, maintains in his homily on Matthew that the woman in John was distinct from the woman described by the synoptics:

This woman seems indeed to be one and the same with all the evangelists, yet she is not so; but though with the three she doth seem to me to be one and the same, yet not so with John, but another person, one much to be admired, the sister of Lazarus.

So there appears to be no simple answer to your questions, as there is consensus neither in antiquity nor in later commentaries.

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You have already noted 3 differences. The two events happened on different days (Friday evening and Tuesday or Wednesday evening in the last week before Jesus was killed), in different houses (Martha's house and Simon's house), different people doing the anointing (Mary and an unknown woman), different places of anointing (first feet, then a few days later the head), complaints from different people (Judas first, later some unspecified disciples - Judas was probably not present the second time), different descriptions of the amounts of ointment (first one litra, later one alabastron).

Another important aspect is the Jewish concept of two or three witnesses. We see two witnesses to the upcoming death and burial of Jesus. The women who did the anointing did not know this, but the Gospel writers understood it later.

A third aspect is that John complements the other gospels. He usually adds events not covered by the other gospels and only covers those events that he feels are very important or where he can add some detail. Similarly, only John describes the first cleansing of the Temple in Jesus' first year of ministry, while the other gospels describe the second and last cleansing in the last week of his ministry.

In my view, it shows a lack of respect for the Gospel writers and especially John as an eye witness, to suggest that John was so confused about these two events that he got so many details wrong and even contradicted Mark's Gospel which would be already known by his audience.

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