Thursday, February 28, 2013

Devotional: John 12:1-8

Illustration of Nardostachys
 (1881) from
Curtis's Botanical Magazine
When Mary of Bethany anointed Jesus Christ for His coming death, she caused quite a commotion, as is told in Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, and John 12:1-8. It was six days before Passover, not yet the beginning of what we know as “Passion Week.” Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead and was dining in the house of Simon, called “the leper.” Lazarus was eating with the other guests, Martha was serving, and Mary commenced anointing Jesus head and feet with “nard” (Gr. νάρδος , nardos, Strong's #3487; Lat. nardus). In Hebrew the plant is called נרד (nêrd or nayrd, Strong's #5373; Aram. ܢܰܪܕ݁ܺܝܢ, nardiyn, Strong's #1947), a semitization of the Persian nârdîn, after the Sanskrit naladâ. Mary’s “nard” was an import from India that we now call “spikenard.”

Not to be confused with Celtic spikenard, American spikenard, lavender, or the game of backgammon, Indian spikenard (Nardostachys jatamansi or Nardostachys grandiflora) has been known since ancient times as a prized ingredient for perfumes, medicinal cures, and even gourmet recipes from De Re Coquinaria (The Art of Cooking) by ancient foodie Marcus Gavius Apicius. It is a member of the Valerian family of flowering plants with strong odors, and grows in the high altitudes of the Himalayas (i.e., India, Nepal, and the Tibetan province of China). The ancient land and sea trade routes, such as the Silk Road, the Incense Road, and the various spice roads, insured that the potent oil was made accessible to the rich and powerful of Europe, North Africa, the Near East, and the Far East, although it was extremely costly.

Alabaster perfume jar from the tomb
of Tutankhamun, Cairo Museum
Because of the oil’s rarity, the ancients used it for special purposes, particularly in temple rites and for anointing the dead. The Egyptians, the Israelites (Jews), and the Greek worshippers of Aphrodite included it in their temple incense. According to Homer’s Iliad, Achilles anointed the body of his fellow Greek hero Patroclus with spikenard. It is also mentioned in the Old Testament wisdom book known as the Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs) and in the pseudepigraphal Book of Jubilees (or Lesser Genesis). In addition, archeologists discovered spikenard stored in alabaster jars in the tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamen. After more than three thousand years, the ointment’s scent was still strong.

According to John, Mary’s nard ointment weighed one Roman pound (Gr. λίτρα, litra; Lat. libra), which, considering the density of nard, works out to be approximately 337-355 milliliters (less than 12 fluid ounces). Given that a laborer’s daily wage was about 1 denarius (Matthew 20:2), Judas’ claim that Mary’s perfume was worth 300 denarii priced it close to a lower income annual wage, assuming unpaid Sabbaths and holidays. (Note: Based on a laborer’s income, the price might be comparable to $10,000-30,000. However, the same three-quarter pint would only cost about $200-300 wholesale and $500-600 retail in today’s more efficient global economy.) Because of its apparent value, some commentators speculate that the perfume had been saved for Mary’s dowry. In that case, in the eyes of onlookers, she was not only wasting what could be used to help the poor, but also throwing away her entire future as a married woman.

Throughout Jesus’ earthly ministry, He emphasized the need to help the poor. In the minds of Judas, and apparently other disciples, Mary’s sacrifice and service was an opportunity to reiterate this important lesson. Jesus’ reply probably surprised them. As He had done previously during His “Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 5:17-48), Christ overturned His followers’ usual understanding of the Mosaic Law. The poor will always be in need of care, and Mary still had an obligation to help them (Deuteronomy 15:11). However, at that moment, it was far more important to let her express her love and gratitude to the Lord, even if it was in an extremely expensive manner.

This devotional was written as an assignment for Robert T. Davis’ course on “Johannine Literature,” which I am currently auditing at the Southern California School of Evangelism at Buena Park Church of Christ.