Mary of Bethany lived in her family home in a village near Jerusalem with her siblings Martha and Lazarus. She appears twice in John’s account of the Gospel, at the raising of her brother Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-2), and at the anointing of Jesus (John 12:3). Luke’s account mentions the two sisters, but the village is unnamed. He contrasts Martha with Mary who prefers to sit at the feet of Jesus listening to his words rather than worry about hospitality. Jesus defends her saying, “Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken away.”
In the accounts of the raising of Lazarus from the dead, Mary of Bethany is overcome with grief and falls at Jesus’ feet weeping profusely. Jesus is deeply moved and troubled (John 11:21, 32). Some scholars claim that Mary of Bethany was not the woman who anointed Jesus with expensive perfume, despite the claim of John’s Gospel account that, “This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair” (John 11:2).
According to the accounts of Matthew and Mark the woman poured the entire contents of an alabaster jar of expensive perfume over the head of Jesus remains unnamed. Though the woman is not named, the event takes place in Bethany. According to Mark the perfume was the purest spikenard worth 300 denarii. The accounts of the event in Matthew 26:13 and Mark 14:9 end with these words of Jesus, “I tell you the truth, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” Surely, this woman was not unknown to them, but they failed to give her name.
In John 12:1-8 the woman is identified as Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus. John says she took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume, poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. When Judas Iscariot objects to this extravagant gesture, Jesus remarks, “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”
A similar anointing occurs in Luke 7:7-39 at the home of Simon the Pharisee. This is the anointing by the sinful woman whose identity was unknown. Pope Gregory I conflated her identity with that of Mary Magdalen to support the claim that Mary Magdalen was a penitent prostitute. As in John’s account the feet rather than the head are anointed. Anointing the feet rather than the head implies she was performing the Jewish ritual of hospitality rather than preparing Jesus for his burial or anointing him king.
Jesus confirms this interpretation with his words, “I entered into your house, and you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head. You gave me no kiss, but she, since the time I came in, has not ceased to kiss my feet. You didn't anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little.”
Orthodox tradition holds that Mary and Martha accompanied Lazarus who was cast out of Jerusalem after the martyrdom of Saint Stephen. According to legend they lived in Cyprus where they preached and later died.