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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

Given to Hospitality…or Not

Carry neither money bag, knapsack, nor sandals; and greet no one along the road. But whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house.” And if a son of peace is there, your peace will rest on it; if not, it will return to you. And remain in the same house, eating and drinking such things as they give, for the laborer is worthy of his wages. 

 Do not go from house to house. Whatever city you enter, and they receive you, eat such things as are set before you. And heal the sick there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you (Luke 10:4-9).

English: Engraving of a woman with a water jug...

English: Engraving of a woman with a water jug, seen from the back. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Jesus sent the disciples on this particular evangelistic trip, He told them to travel light and to stay with hospitable folks along the way. For the disciples to stay with others was not considered an imposition. Showing kindness to strangers was a custom since the time of Moses.[1] Travelers depended on the hospitality of others because there weren’t many commercial places to stay or to buy food and water. Cities were built near water sources, and that’s where travelers looked for a place to refresh. God established laws to help strangers and aliens that hearkened back to the time when Israel was a stranger in Egypt. “Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:19). Showing hospitality filled a need in ancient Israel because everyone made a journey at some time—a kind of you help me and I’ll help you.

The fate of a “dusted” city

But whatever city you enter, and they do not receive you, go out into its streets and say, “The very dust of your city which clings to us we wipe off against you. Nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near you.” But I say to you that it will be more tolerable in that Day for Sodom than for that city (Luke 10:10-12).

Not every city was hospitable to strangers, especially not to those bringing a new religious message. Jesus knew that elders in some towns would not allow the disciples to enter. A city that refused to admit a disciple of Jesus had in essence refused to hear a message from God. A rejection of the good news brought consequences. As a near-term consequence, that city was “dusted.” As a long-term consequence—at the resurrection of the dead—that city earned for itself a less tolerable judgment.

For a disciple to wipe off the dust of a city from his clothing was a denunciation of that place. If a city of Israel refused the disciples, that city descended to the level of the heathen, so miserable that its dust defiled those to whom it clung.[2]  Shaking off the dust also symbolized that the disciples hadn’t come to take anything for themselves—not even dust. It was infected with evil. It would some day rise and testify that the city had rejected the Gospel.[3]

Faith to Follow

For the men and women in Jesus’ company, traveling was an exercise in faith. “He and his disciples lived upon the charity of well-disposed people, that ministered to him of their substance.”[4] What must it have been like to live one day at a time in the presence of the Man who really didn’t worry about tomorrow?

 During His three-year ministry, Jesus was “a stranger in his own world; a wanderer.”[5] As He and the disciples went from place to place, they depended on God to provide for them, either miraculously or through the generosity of others.

Do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.”

 Women Who Served

 A number of women regularly traveled with the twelve disciples and Jesus. The women’s helpful actions “greatly aided Jesus in His missionary activities.”[6] He had cast evil spirits out of three of the women who were often among the traveling group. They subsequently supported His work “from their substance” (Luke 8:2-3). Mary, Joanna and Susanna had money or other material possessions they put toward the needs of the group. Another disciple named Mary, who was the mother of James and Joses, traveled with Jesus and contributed materially to His work.[7] Salome, who was the mother of James and John, accompanied Jesus in Galilee. Later she and other women came with Jesus to Jerusalem.[8]

Two women are mentioned as having hosted Jesus in their homes. Martha of Bethany owned a home and made it a welcome place for Jesus and others with Him. Martha, her sister Mary and her brother Lazarus were close friends of Jesus, and He probably spent many restful hours with them. The mother of John Mark, also named Mary, had a large home in Jerusalem. The upper room where Jesus and the disciples ate the Passover may have been in her home. Mary’s home was a regular gathering place for the disciples (Acts 12:12).

One of the most supportive ways that women served Jesus was by staying with Him during His crucifixion. Among those who attended His last hours were Mary Magdalene, Mary His mother, Salome, and Mary the mother of James and Joses. In grief they stood through His final suffering so He wouldn’t die alone.

The women who traveled with Christ, who opened their homes to Him, who supported His work financially and who stayed with Him until the end, gave what was needed, when it was needed. They were aware, gracious, nurturing, selfless, fearless women who had the privilege of knowing and serving Jesus Christ in the flesh. Theirs is an enduring example of the importance and essence of hospitality.—Mary Hendren


[1] Exodus 23:9, Leviticus 19:33-34, Deuteronomy 10:19

[2] Adam Clarke’s Online Commentary, notes on Matthew 10:14

[3] Gill’s Online Commentary, notes on Matthew 10:14

[4] Matthew Henry Online Commentary, note of Matthew 8:18-20

[5] Barnes Online Commentary, note on Matthew 8:20

[6] All the Women of the Bible, Herbert Lockyer, p.101

[7] Same source, p.106

[8] Mark 15:40-41

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