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Category Archives: Luke the physician

Hair

 And behold, a woman in the city who was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at the table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of fragrant oil, and stood at His feet behind Him weeping; and she began to wash His feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head; and she kissed His feet and anointed them with the fragrant oil (Luke 7:37-39).

Luke didn’t name the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet, but Simon said she was a sinner. Weeping, she stood behind Jesus, let down her hair and wiped His feet. Her extraordinary behavior disturbed the men. “Among the Jews it was a shameful thing for a woman to let down her hair in public.”[1] In adoration, she kissed His feet and massaged them with oil.

Simon thought that if Jesus were truly a prophet, He would have known the woman was a sinner. Responding to Simon’s thoughts, Jesus reminded him that a host customarily greets his guests with a kiss, provides water for washing their feet, honors them with anointing oil—all of which Simon had neglected to do. The woman, however, in heart-felt humility, fulfilled every courtesy Simon had neglected. Jesus called attention to the proportion of her love in comparison to Simon’s: Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little (Luke 7:47).

Cut

The woman’s hair was very long, long enough to wipe Jesus’ feet. I didn’t find any references to Israelite women cutting their hair for stylish purposes. There are references to women shaving their heads and cutting their hair in connection with vows. If a woman took a Nazarite vow, she couldn’t cut her hair for the duration of the vow. When the woman completed her obligations, she shaved her head and presented the hair in the Temple as part of an offering. A woman cured of leprosy shaved her head (Lev. 14:8). An Israelite soldier that took a foreign woman captive shaved her head, trimmed her nails, gave her new clothing and allowed her a month of mourning before consummating the marriage (Deut. 21:10-13).

Washed

Women in ancient Israel didn’t wash their hair with the regularity we do today. “How widespread and how frequent non-ceremonial bathing was in Israel is impossible to determine.” [2] Bathsheba bathed, Naaman bathed, Levites and priests washed before serving in the Temple, and men and women cured of leprosy bathed (Lev. 14:8). In the time of Jesus, some religious leaders made a great show of washing their hands. However, there’s no mention of soap for bathing the body or shampoo for washing the hair.

In the ancient middle-east “oil served a hygienic purpose prior to the invention of soap and shampoo.” [3] Although the Babylonians, Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Greeks and Romans used a compound made from oil, fat and caustic soda to wash clothing, the compound was harsh and tended to burn skin and hair. Women made a body scrub from oil mixed with natron, a mineral deposit that resembled baking soda. The natron scrub had some anti-bacterial properties but gummed up the hair and was difficult to rinse out. It is said that Egyptians washed their hair and their wigs in diluted citrus juice, but I found no references that citrus hair-washing was practiced in Israel.

Arranged and Colored

Isaiah, in warning ancient Israel, refers to “well-set hair.” Israel had defied God and would suffer for it. As part of the nation’s punishment, women who prided themselves on beautifully arranged hair, scarves, veils and turbans would experience the baldness of poverty and famine.

1024px-Beautiful_Greek_woman_statue

Beautiful Greek woman (public domain)
This image was originally posted to Flickr by Wonderlane at http://flickr.com/photos/71401718@N00/4258937618. It was reviewed on 12 September 2011 by the FlickreviewR robot and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-2.0.

On occasion women in Egypt and Israel colored their hair. Solomon may have been referring to the use of henna as a coloring agent in Song of Songs 7:6. Your head is like scarlet [or Carmel] and the locks of your head like purple. “Some scholars suggest that this refers to the purplish sheen of hennaed black hair, since elsewhere the woman’s hair is described as black. It is certainly possible that henna was known in the Biblical period as a hair dye. In fact, the earliest evidence for henna use in the Land of Israel are wigs of henna-dyed hair, dating from the Middle Bronze Age (1900-1550 BCE), which were found in the excavations of Jericho; furthermore, Greek and Roman historians specifically mention henna from the Land of Israel being used to colour hair.”[4] 

Women paid attention to their hair—covering it, wrapping it into buns, folding, curling and braiding it. They wove ribbons into their braids and fastened them atop their heads with ivory pins. They twined pearls and jewels into their hair. They added gold dust and metallic plates to catch the sunlight.[5] In writing to Christians in Asia Minor, Peter stated that a woman’s outward adorning of arranging the hair, wearing gold, or putting on fine apparel (I Pet. 3:3-4) should never overshadow the inner beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit. The Nelson’s Study Bible states that Peter “is not condemning women who wear jewelry” [6] or dress in an attractive manner. He encourages a woman to appear and conduct herself worthy of one called to inherit a blessing (1 Pet.3:9).

One woman’s hair and humility

All four gospel accounts mention the occasion of Jesus being anointed with oil by a woman before He was crucified, but with some variations (indicated in italics).

  • The accounts in Matthew 26:6-13 and Mark 14:3-9 agree almost word-for-word. Both writers say that an unnamed woman anointed Jesus’ head with fragrant oil while He was at dinner in the home of Simon the Leper. Some disciples criticized the woman for wasting the oil on Jesus rather than selling it to help the poor. Jesus stated that the woman had done a good work by anointing Him prior to His burial. The act would be remembered as a memorial to her.
  • Luke states that Simon the Pharisee hosted the dinner (Luke 7:36-50). The unnamed woman was a known sinner from the city. She wept at Jesus’ feet and wiped the tears with her hair. She anointed His feet with fragrant oil. Simon criticized her in his thoughts. Jesus drew a lesson about love and forgiveness from the woman’s devotion. He acknowledged that the woman was a sinner, and He forgave her sins.
  • John is the only writer that identifies the woman as Mary of Bethany (John 12:1-8). Lazarus, Martha and Mary hosted the supper. Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with fragrant oil and wiped them with her hair. Judas questioned why the oil was not sold to help the poor. Jesus stated that Mary had the oil in preparation for His burial and that the poor would always be there.

Postscript: Who was the woman?

Some scholars say that the differences in the four accounts reflect what the writers saw and remembered, which is the nature of eyewitness reports. These scholars believe there was only one occasion when a woman anointed Jesus, and details from the accounts can be accounted for. Their reasoning is based on speculations:

  • Simon may have been related to Mary, Martha and Lazarus, and may have owned the home where the three friends prepared supper.
  • Simon may have been a Pharisee and a recovered leper.
  • The unnamed woman may have anointed Jesus’ head before she anointed His feet.
  • Simon may have condemned her in his thoughts while Judas and the disciples criticized her openly.
  • Jesus may have addressed Simon’s self-righteous lack of love privately and corrected the disciples in public.

Other commentators believe that Mary of Bethany and a different unnamed woman anointed Jesus on two separate occasions. “There is no Biblical evidence whatever for identifying this sinful woman with Mary Magdalene or with Mary of Bethany as some commentators have done…as for Mary, sister of Martha, what is said of her devout spirit is strikingly adverse to that of a harlot of the streets.”[7] Lockyer’s argument rests most strongly on his confidence that Mary of Bethany, the dear friend of Jesus, could not have been the unnamed, sinful woman.—Mary Hendren


[1] A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, on-line note on Luke 7:38

[2] Archeological Study Bible, Zondervan, “Bathing,” p. 456

[3] Same source, “Perfumes and Oils,” p. 1746

[4] hennabysienna.com/henna-in-the-bible.html

[5] On-line commentaries: Barnes’ Notes, and Adam Clarke’s, notes on 1 Peter 3:3

[6] Nelson Study Bible, NKJV, Second Edition, note on 1 Peter 3:3, p. 1986

[7] Herbert Lockyer,  All the Women of the Bible, p. 231

Dear Dr. Luke

I suppose everyone has a favorite section or book of the Bible. I have several, among them the writings of Luke. I decided to write him a letter to thank him for enriching my studies, especially about a certain woman.

Dear Dr. Luke,

Sometimes when I read through the Bible I happen on something that makes me wish I could say “thank you” to the author. It’s a little hard to do, since so much time has elapsed and I live in a different phase of the Church; but I decided to write to you anyway to express my appreciation for the books you wrote and especially for the details you recorded about some of my favorite people—particularly women.

When I leaf through your Gospel in my Bible, I notice that it has pink pencil highlighting (my color code for women) sprinkled on its pages from beginning to end.

You see, I’ve read and reread these words many times before. I know women were sometimes not too highly esteemed when you lived, but you included them, as God led you to, in the real-life settings of your time. I find your book an exclusive edition in some ways, and I’ll tell you why.

A case in point: Mary the mother of Jesus

Without you, I would not have known many of the extraordinary details of Mary’s life: Gabriel’s amazing visit to her that remarkable day; John the Baptist leaping in his mother Elizabeth’s womb when she came for a visit; and her prophetic prayer. You managed to capture the moment, allowing me to “look over your shoulder” in the process. And with each reading I seem to learn something new. What a gift God gave you!

Only you gave me a glimpse of the aged Simeon bestowing a blessing on the tiny, newborn Jesus, allowing me to “hear” his solemn words to Mary. Why, in only three short verses you condensed the entire life of the aged prophetess Anna, herself an eye-witness to Simeon’s blessing. How masterfully you wrote.

I sometimes wonder why Matthew and Mark didn’t mention the episode where the youthful Jesus went missing after the feast of the Passover. That might have made front-page news in our town today. I’m glad you recorded the happy but surprising ending.

A couple of times you seemed to have been privy to Mary’s private thoughts—things she kept in her heart (Luke 2:19, 51)—as she struggled to comprehend the divine workings in her life. These intimate details touch me in such an inspiring and compelling way.

A real wireless connection  220px-Scribe_tomb_relief_Flavia_Solva

In this day of computers and word processing, it is hard for me to realize that you did not have access to paper or printers. You had no laptop, iPad, camera or Internet. You probably carried wax tablets or washable papyrus notebooks with you wherever you went to keep notes of interviews or first-person accounts or to jot down the facts. (I sometimes envision you as a kind of first-century man-on-the-street reporter with stylus in hand.)

It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that you sometimes used a type of shorthand—Paul’s secretaries apparently did. Whatever the method, I’m confident it was cutting-edge for the day.

Letter by letter

Patience must have been one of your chief virtues because I read once that it took lots of time to write a manuscript like the one you presented to Theophilus (Acts 1:1). In fact, someone estimated that it took two to three days to make each hand-written copy of your friend Paul’s letter to the Romans (Paul and First-Century Letter Writing, E. Randolph Richards, p. 165), and that didn’t include all the preliminary drafts and edits. I would call that a true labor of love!

The front side of folios 13 and 14 of a Greek ...

The front side of folios 13 and 14 of a Greek papyrus manuscript of the Gospel of Luke containing verses 11:50–12:12 and 13:6-24, P. Chester Beatty I (Gregory-Aland no. P 45 ). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You would be happy to know that your writing has endured through the ages intact and is highly revered yet today.

That extraordinary Day of Pentecost

If the hallmark of a good book is wanting to read it over and over, your books certainly meet that standard for me. This year, as I was rereading the first chapter of your The Acts of the Apostles, these words especially caught my attention: “These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers” (Acts 1:14).

Thank you so much for that verse, because you are the only one who let me know the rest of the story about Mary. It is comforting to learn that she survived the horrifying ordeal of seeing her Son die—that she was there with the rest, praying and faithfully waiting for the fulfillment of her Son’s promise : He was going to send the Comforter.

At some future date

If we ever have the chance to meet sometime in the future, I’ll be eager to learn more of the details about Mary’s reactions to that momentous Pentecost and the manifestations of God’s Holy Spirit working in and energizing the fledging Church of God.

Until then, with gratitude from your ardent admirer and student…KM

(This post first appeared in the Godly Women Blog, June 14, 2011.)

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