by Bert Newton
While studying one of the gospels recently, something popped out at me that I had never noticed before, something that, once I had noticed it, immediately made me wonder why I had never heard it mentioned in all my years in the church. This is the thing that I noticed: Jesus, the Messiah (i.e. “the anointed one”), is anointed in all four gospels by a woman. That is his anointing as Messiah, King of Israel!
Not only do I feel that I should have heard this mentioned in church at some point over the years, it seems to me like it should have been one of those things that, in a world where men hold most of the levers of power, people repeat over and over as an example of the counterculture teaching of the Gospel.
Before stumbling upon this most obvious of Gospel message-shaping details, I had already, with the help of Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels by Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, figured out that Jesus, through his teaching and behavior, inverts the male honor code of his society, resulting in, what might arguably be called, a female honor code.
What I mean is this: The first century Mediterranean world, the world that Jesus inhabited and in which the gospels were written, was what sociologists call an honor-shame society. That is to say that the notion of honor shaped the value system of that culture; while modern western societies think in terms of guilt and innocence, an honor-shame society thinks in terms of honor and shame. One way of understanding the difference between the two types of societies is that in a modern western society, conscience resides in the individual, whereas in an honor-shame society, conscience resides in the community. In an honor-shame society, the matter that is of overriding importance is whether one has honor in the eyes of the community. In the first century Mediterranean world, in particular, only men could acquire honor, women were but passive participants in this cultural system. For this reason, I refer to the operative feature of that system as the “male honor code.”
Domination, hierarchy, violence and exclusion characterized this male honor code. Honor was thought to be a limited resource, so men acquired honor by taking it from other men, by dominating other men. This way of acquiring honor did not usually involve direct violence, but violence always lurked in the background as a threat, and the society was, in fact, an exceedingly violent society. It was also a rigidly hierarchical society; everyone knew their place in the pecking order. This hierarchy resulted in classist exclusionism. One did not associate with people beneath them in the class hierarchy because those people were thought to be unclean. Likewise, one could not associate with people above them in the class hierarchy because those people would see them as unclean.
In the gospels, it’s not hard to see that Jesus’ teaching and behavior runs counter to this cultural honor code. Jesus does not abandon the idea of honor-shame, he merely inverts the honor code of his day. Rather than honoring those who can dominate others, he declares that, in this new society that he calls “the Kingdom of God,” the honored, or “blessed,” ones are the “meek,” the “peacemakers” and the “merciful” (Matt 5:3-10). He teaches that the greatest person in this new society is the one who serves everyone else (Matt 20:26; 23:11, Luke 22:26). He demonstrates this new honor code by getting down on his knees and washing other people’s feet and then teaching his disciples to do the same (John 13:1-20). Given the cultural assumptions of that society, his inversion of the male honor code might very well have been understood as the promotion of a female honor code. Not that anyone came out and actually named it that, but such a designation would, I think, have been completely in keeping with the cultural norms of the time.
So, then, the gospels tell the story of a messiah, anointed by a woman, who enacts a female honor code.
I especially love the way John sets it all out: The Gospel of John uniquely places Jesus’ anointing just before his grand entrance into Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday. Mary anoints Jesus’ feet, not his head as in Matthew and Mark. Right after that, Jesus rides into Jerusalem, hailed by the people as their popular king, “the King of Israel!” Then, one of his first acts as king in the capital city is to get down on his knees and wash other people’s feet. Did you catch that? A woman anoints Jesus’ feet so that he goes on to become the king that washes other people’s feet! (It’s also worth noting that, in John, previous to his anointing at the hands of Mary, Jesus refuses to be made king by the people; see John 6:15.)
Wow! What a powerful counterculture story!
On the surface, the Gospel is a story about a man who is called “the Son of God,” who calls 12 male disciples and becomes a king.
Under the surface, we find an emerging feminist trajectory. This man is anointed king by a woman and sets forth a female honor code. He establishes a nonhierarchical “kingdom,” a “kingdom” that breaks with the patriarchal domination of the culture and establishes a Reign of Love and Grace.
Bert Newton is the author of Subversive Wisdom; Sociopolitical Dimensions of John’s Gospel