Examining Mark 14:3-9 Using West’s Model of Biblical Interpretation


Biblical Studies, New Testament, 2017
Mark Achieved: 83%

Lecturer Comment: “The student displays great insight into the topic at hand, as well as an excellent interaction with the resource material and content presented in the module.”

This paper will examine the Mark 14:3-9 pericope from an economic perspective while also applying Gerald West’s model of biblical interpretation of the World Behind the Text, the World of the Text, and the World in Front of the Text.

As West observes, when examining the World Behind the Text it is important to look to the writer (West, 2014: 9-10). Though we can learn details about the writer, Mark’s author is anonymous (Sanders, 1995: 63-64). It is also our earliest gospel (Brown, 1997: 164) that was probably penned around 70 AD (Perkins, 1998: 241). There are questions around the specifics of to whom Mark was writing, and the place from where he penned his account (Dunn, 2003: 146). However, it is quite probable that Mark was writing to a gentile audience in Rome (Steggman, 2015: 37) as evident by the fact that the gospel was written in Greek and that the author tries to explain Jewish traditions, as well as translates Aramaic terms for his audience (Burkett, 2002: 157). Robert Stein points out that getting a feel for the gospel author’s audience will assist in understanding the “willed meaning of the author” (Stein, 2003: 63). The author’s goal was to present a Jesus who was heavily involved in events at the end of history, after which God would punish his enemies and set up rule (Donahue, 2005: 15). The author penned his account in hope to strengthen the faith of Christ followers (Aune, 1987: 59), and placed special emphasis on the suffering Messiah (Aune, 1987: 59). Nonetheless, we find that the author crafts his story in such a way as to show who are inside and those who are outside of Jesus (Steggman, 2015: 40). He achieves this through three key incidents: the anointing of Jesus by the anonymous woman (14: 3-9) (our focus), the last supper (14:12-25), and the garden scene (14:32-42).

The world of the Text (West calls it “On the Text”) requires one to examine the pericope through identifying its literary composition (West, 2014: 9-10). For example, what does the text say? (Breed, 2015) Is it poetic or a story? And who are the key characters, and what is the setting? Mark narrates events within the Passion week, the final week of Jesus’ life and just a few days prior to Passover (14:1-2). Jesus and a few others were having supper at the house of Simon the Leper (14:3-4) in the small town of Bethany just outside of Jerusalem (14:3). A nameless woman who anointed Jesus with an expensive perfume (14:3-4) takes centre stage as Mark deliberately conveys to his audience the great faith and love the woman had for Jesus that night (14:8-9). She was harshly rebuked by some in attendance (14:4-6) only to have Jesus defend her actions (14:6-10). Those in attendance believed that the woman had wasted money that could have helped the poor; after all, Mark puts the value of the perfume at a considerable 300 denarii (14:5). Jesus had another view, however, and saw the woman’s actions as an anticipation of his burial (14:8), a beautiful thing (14:6), and an act that will endure in memory (14:9). It is debatable whether or not the woman actually knew that Jesus was soon to die or that she understood Jesus’ foreshadowing of his death, which was clearly missed by his close disciples. Thus, reading between the lines by taking into account several inconspicuous details assists in providing a fuller understanding of the text. In the pericope it is not only the woman who takes centre stage but also the nature of the object she anointed Jesus with: the perfume in the alabaster flask. According to the Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD), the best perfumes came in alabaster flasks, and were very valuable. Smaller objects like perfumes and spices were highly sought after given that they could be easily sold. It is thus clear that this perfume had much value to the woman which also a testament of the value Jesus had to her (300 denarii equalled approximately a year’s wages for a labourer). Mark’s detail is quite consistent with the milieu as the anointing sits well with the broader cultural-historical context. When a guest was invited for dinner, it was customary for the host to anoint the guest’s head with a dab of oil (Rabinowitz, 2008). Mark thus conveys a rather extraordinary event on the part of the woman who poured the entire contents of a very costly product on Jesus’ head. An extraordinary action suggests a radical love.

The World in front of the Text looks to the modern reader (West, 2014: 9-10). How might the text be relevant for today, and how might it challenge the modern reader? (Breed, 2015) Readers from all corners have discovered profitable ways of gaining a deeper awareness and understanding of a text. It is not uncommon to look to church history, and to examine how leading historical as well as present Christian thinkers have interpreted a text. The Mark 14:3-9 pericope has received a good deal of attention by scholars (Mack & Vernon, 2008: 85-106), and commentators alike (Carey, 2010). However, I argue that this pericope has relevance for many South Africans today. Poverty and unemployment is rife in South Africa, and inequality is embedded in many facets of society in the sphere of race (Durrheim, 2011). Currently 27.7% of South Africans are without jobs (Taborda, 2017), and a large number cannot compete economically. The South African government has put in measures in place, such as Radical Economic Transformation and Black Economic Empowerment, as ways to remedy this issue. This fact gives Jesus’ statement that “The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want” (14:7) the ring of prophetic truth, though it is hardly surprising. Those of us in the fortunate position of excess should, out of love for our neighbour, provide for the needy. God, in his omniscience, knows what we can give. Jesus said that the woman “has done what she could” when she anointed him (14:8-9), and that God expects no more from us than what we can do. When it comes to the poor, believers should emulate their Lord Jesus who treated the poor with dignity (Luke 6:20), sympathized with them (Matt. 25:31-46), brought the good news of salvation to them (Luke 4:18), and stressed inclusivity with them (Luke 14:13-14). Christ followers should be urged and encouraged to share, much like the woman shared her valuable perfume with Jesus. We should humbly share our time, finances, resources, and love. We might even do well to learn to read the Bible with the poor as to enrich our own theology and perspectives. This says West is learning to read the Bible from the perspective of the poor and oppressed (West, 2014: 13). After all, could reading about a Jesus who loved the poor with fellow poor South Africans impact us in such a way that it would not in our comfortable, well off church? Moreover, it is indeed a challenge on a moral level for many of us who have become satisfied and complacent in our comfort. We do not put in effort to help the poor, though a number of local charities and NPOs ask for our help. We also do not give at moments in which we can freely give from our excess. I witnessed this most vividly in one large church. Many of the congregants, both young and old (mostly young), come from privileged backgrounds but one would not say so by the lack of finances put into the collection bag. The bag would often go from row to row with barely a single coin to show. I found this sad given that the church is transparent and the collection goes towards numerous initiatives many of which assist the poor. Surely putting in a couple of coins would not hurt the piggyback for most congregants. If Jesus marvelled at the widows offering (Mark 12: 41-44), what would he think of this when he sees those who can give but decide not to?

It is clear that the Mark 14:3-9 has much value. It confronts readers of the Bible, and tasks them with sharing what they have, whether that be finances, love, or excess. Moreover, a lot of value, from a historical and personal perspective, can be gained from the text by simply applying West’s model. His model proves valuable should one wish to engage in sound exegesis.


Aune, D. 1987. The New Testament in its Literary Environment. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Breed, B. 2015. What Can Texts Do?: A Proposal for Biblical Studies. Available: http://www.atthispoint.net/articles/what-can-texts-do-a-proposal-for-biblical-studies/262/ [4 June 2016]

Brown, R. 1997. An Introduction to the New Testament. New York: Doubleday.

Burkett, D. 2002. An Introduction to the New Testament and the Origins of Christianity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Carey, M. 2010. Jesus is Anointed. Available: https://bible.org/seriespage/3-jesus-anointed [4 June 2016]

Donahue, J. 2005. The Gospel of Mark. Minnesota: Liturgical Press.

Durrheim, K. 2011. “Race Trouble: Race, Identity, and Inequality in Post-Apartheid South Africa.” Theory and Psychology, 22 (5).

Mack, B., & Vernon, R. 2008. Patterns of Persuasion in the Gospels. Oregon: Wipf & Stock Pub.

Perkins, P. 1998. The Synoptic Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles: Telling the Christian Story. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Rabinowitz, L. 20008. Encyclopedia Judaica. Available:
http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/anointing [4 June 2016]

Sanders, E. 1995. The Historical Figure of Jesus. London: Penguin Books.

Stein, R. 2003. “Is Our Reading the Bible the Same as the Original Audience’s Hearing it? A Case Study in the Gospel of Mark.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society.

Taborda, J. 2017. South Africa Unemployment Rate. Available: https://tradingeconomics.com/south-africa/unemployment-rate [4 June 2016]



3 responses to “Examining Mark 14:3-9 Using West’s Model of Biblical Interpretation

  1. What the? How is this story supposed to teach the rich to share their wealth with the poor? Jesus accepted the woman’s expensive gift. He didn’t sell it to share it with the poor. And Jesus himself needed practically nothing. He could live for forty days without food or water, and instructed his disciples to take very little with them on their missionary journeys. So the story is primarily about adoring Jesus. And it makes just as much sense if not more to view it as a metaphor for the allegedly beautiful sacrifice of supporting the church in Mark’s era.

    Also, one needs to step back, take a wider gaze at this tale and study along with it the other three anointing tales in the Gospels, and how they undermine the historicity of the tale in the fourth Gospel of the alleged “raising of Lazarus.” See https://edward-t-babinski.blogspot.com/2011/02/perfumed-jesus.html

    • In the first part I was using the woman, not Jesus, as the basis for sacrificial giving. I was applying it to a modern context.

      Under The World in front of the Text I also looked at how Jesus approached the poor and used that as a basis for how contemporary Christians should live.

      It was also not “the rich” who are only to share with the poor, but anyone who has excess or the resources to share.

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