In Which John Rewrites Matthew and Jesus is Nice Again

I wrote a facetious post on Matthew 26:6-11, an episode in which a woman pours ointment on Jesus’ head and the disciples complain on the grounds that ointment is expensive and the proceeds from its sale should have been used to help the poor. Christ replies (in what I characterized as an asshole move) that she was right to do as she did, since the poor will always exist, but he won’t be around forever. Being in an irreverent and unscholarly mood, I left out the last line of Christ’s response: “For in that she powred this ointment on my bodie, she did it to burye me.”

It never pays to mock the Bible before you’ve done your research. I’ve since read further in my facsimile 1560 Geneva Bible. If you know your Gospels, you know that an almost identical episode takes place at John 12:3-9. Jesus is at Lazarus’ house when Mary, instead of pouring the ointment on his head, uses it to wash his feet:

Then took Marie a pound of ointment of spikenarde verie costlie, and anointed Iesus fete, & wipte his fete with her heere, & the house was filled with the savour of the ointment.

Then said one of his disciples, euen Iudas Iscariot Simons sonne, which shulde betraye him,

Why was not this ointment solde for thre hundredth pence, and giuen to the poore?

Now he said this, not that he cared for the poore, but because he was a thefe, and had the bagge, and bare that which was guen.

Then said Iesus, Let her alone: against the day of my burying she kept it.

For the poore alwayes ye haue with you, but me ye shal not haue alwaies.

Before diving into this, here’s a caveat: I’m obviously not a Bible scholar, but I was, once upon a time, a pretty fervent Bible reader. When I was eleven or twelve and really religious, I decided to read the Bible all the way through. I had a Precious Moments Bible and a plastic hologram bookmark and set to, plowing through Genesis and Leviticus and Numbers and the horrors of Judges, by which time my eyes were bulging out of their sockets at all the concubine butchery and rampant murder, adultery, and polygamy. By the time I got to the end of the Old Testament I’d overdosed on swallowed questions and doubts and given up the project. Never got to the New Testament. Point being, I read the Bible with a suspicious eye, but the suspicion is less objective and scholarly (I mean, why bother?) than it is readerly: in the way readers want closure from a story, I want the New Testament to redeem what the Old Testament made terrible.

From that viewpoint, Jesus’ insistence that the disciples won’t have him always, even though they’ll always have the poor, is so irritating. It smacks of self-love and it contradicts a basic tenet of Christianity: they will have Jesus with them always. That is the whole point. Jesus’s claims to transcendence and divinity don’t get switched off just because he’s talking about his carnal body*. On the other hand, the disciples won’t have the poor with them always: poor people die every day. Only if you regard the poor as an unindividuated mass can such a statement make sense. Is that really how Jesus sees the poor? As a demographic?

Seen as storytelling, it’s interesting that this version of the episode in John (with a slightly different cast of characters) makes the episode in Matthew much more palatable, despite almost identical dialogue. First off, the fact that JUDAS objects to Mary’s anointing of Jesus’ feet gives us a clear sign that this instinct is wrong. This isn’t the case in Matthew, where several disciples raise the point and seem to genuinely want to help the poor. John implies that the poor wouldn’t get the money anyway since Judas is a thief. In that case, obviously Jesus should receive the benefit instead of Judas. The interesting moral dilemma raised in Matthew is attenuated here, thanks to the appearance of Judas the Bad Apostle. Prolepsis wins.

Speaking of prolepsis, the proleptic angle I left out (“she did it to burye me”), which comes at the end of Matthew, appears before the dismissal of the poor in John. This drives home a point that sinks into near-irrelevance in Matthew: Jesus is going to die, and true believers sense this and are subconsciously preparing him for burial. His insistence on his right to anointment is thereby transmuted from a pretty unconvincing defense of luxury (in his special case) into an acceptance of death. He’s accepting a burial rite before he’s dead. The line about the poor has much less force this time round.

In the language of creative writing workshops: Good rewrite, John!**

*I concede that the point of the Passion is to shock believers into experiencing the loss of Jesus’ body—without focusing on his body there can be no guilt at his sacrifice, and no redemption. That doesn’t change the peculiarity of Jesus insisting on how much people will miss him.

**Totally spurious claim; I have no idea which gospel was written first.

Ointment For Asshole Jesus

If I stopped to mark all the Biblical moments that give me pause, my Bible would double its weight in sticky notes. (Sticky notes are the mattress-mites of academic books.) However, I just got the shiny new facsimile copy of the 1560 Geneva Bible, which means I get to experience verses I’ve already read again, this time with the benefit of 16th century marginalia and its alienating typeface, both of which somehow make it easier to be an ahistorical twat. One of the privileges of the early modernist is that—on your least mature days—your work is interrupted by episodes of rolling around in weird English like a psoriatic pig in mud. Shakespeare notwithstanding, there are days when sixteenth-century English sounds like David Sedaris’s French in “Me Talk Pretty One Day.”

This is one of those days. On another day like it I’ll get down to business and actually make my Bible verses comic series, but in the meantime, draw your own mental picture from this little episode:

“And when Iesus was in Bethania, in the house of Simon the leper, There came to him a womá, which had a boxe of verie costelie ointemet, & powred it on his head, as he sate at the table.”

That’s Matthew 26:6-7.

For those of us willing to cast historical contingencies aside, there are already MAJOR ISSUES. Some random gal just gallops on in and pours a box of super-expensive ointment on Jesus’ head?

The first question to strike the discerning reader is how do you pour ointment?

The second is likely to be how did Jesus feel about a box of ointment (again–a BOX of OINTMENT–who knew it came in boxes? I just can’t imagine an unlikelier phrase, and imagine what getting it off would take in a pre-detergent age) being poured ONTO his head?

Did it get into his eyes?

His disciples were annoyed, though not, as you might expect, because they hated to see their leader BLINDED by OINTMENT in a career-ending mishap*:

“And when his disciples saw it, they had indignation, saying, ‘What needed this waste? For this ointment might have been sold for much, and been given to the poor.”

Now, were I to have an indignation at a woman who waltzed in an doused my friend in ointment, this is not the first indignation I would have. But I respect it: evidently the box of ointment was very costly, and the whole incident does seem very wasteful. Fair if slightly tangential point, disciples.

To which Jesus replies, “Why trouble ye the woman? For she hath wrought a good work upon me. For ye have the poor always with you, but me shall ye not have always.”

At this, even the Christianest of Christian readers’ eyes goggle. Screw the poor, they’ll always be around! Jesus says, like someone on the set of Entourage instead of, oh, Hope Incarnate For All Mankind. Crazy lady here had the sense to spoil me. TAKE NOTES, FELLAS.

But this is where the ahistorical twat within me reconciles, after an airport chase, with history. Because the marginalia in my shiny new 1560 Geneva Bible shows that sixteenth-century readers were going out of their minds at the cognitive dissonance here too. “This fact was extraordinary, neither was it left as an example to be followed,” they say, in what might be the most diplomatic way you can (as a Christian) say DON’T LISTEN TO CHRIST HERE HE’S VERY TIRED, AND ANYWAY, HE DOESN’T HAVE A HEAD FOR US TO DOUSE IN OINTMENT ANYMORE, SO: “Also Christ is not present with us bodily or to be honoured with any outward pomp.”

And that’s why I love what I do.

*I’m modernizing spelling for the rest of this

How To Kill the 17th Century Serpent in Your Garden of Eden

John Dunton, one of my favorite late seventeenth-century fellas (of whose Athenian Mercury I wrote a series for The Awl), decided to amalgamate “extracts and abridgements of the most valuable books printed in England” between 1665 and 1692. It’s called The Young Students’ Library, and there’s an entry on what I’m 90% sure are modern-day rattlesnakes. Here’s the description:

“There are in several Places of America a kind of Serpents, most dangerous, which is called the Bell-Snake, because with the End of their Tail they make a Noise very like that which Bells do, when they are moved. This Animal is very big, about five Feet long, and of Brown Colour· mixed with Yellow: It hath a forked Tongue, and long sharp Teeth, and moves with as much Swiftness, that it seems to Fly.” 

Worrisome. Dunton helpfully includes the ways and means of killing it. According to a Captain Silas Taylor, what you do is poke it with a stick, on one end of which you’ve put some “wild Pouliot” leaves, which are rattlesnake-kryptonite. Here’s Taylor in his own words:

The wild Pouliot, or the Dictam of Virginia, is about a Foot high, the Leaves are like unto those of the Pouliot, and little blue Knots, at the Places where the Branches are joyned to the Trunk; and though the Leaves are of a Red Colour, inclining to Green, the Water, which is distilled thence, is of a fine Yellow, and is like Brandy. When these Leaves are opened and put upon the Tongue, they seem very hot and pricking. They take of these Leaves, which they tie to the End of a splitted Stick, and some one puts it very near the Nose of the Bell-Serpent, which useth all its Endeavours to draw away from it, but the Smell, as it is believed, kills it in less than half an Hour.

America might a new Garden of Eden where a New Jerusalem could be built, but it comes with the serpent. Of course, it also comes with a handy serpent-killer. The OED tells me dictam is a labiate plant that was thought to be medicinal. Not just medicinal—magic. Cretan dittany was said to be able to expel weapons. Its American cousin was also known as pepper-wort and (fittingly enough) Snake-Root.

But how well did work?

“This Experiment was made in Iuly 1651. at which Time it is thought the Venom of these Animals is in its greatest Strength. This Gentleman also assured the Royal Society, That where ever the wild Pouliot groweth, or the Dictam of Virginia, there are no Bell-Serpents to be seen.”

In short, to keep your Eden serpent-free, be a good gardener. Plant wild Pouliot and keep the devil-bell out.