Who Washed Jesus Christ’s Feet? [The Bible Explained]


The Gospels record multiple instances of women washing the feet of Jesus Christ. The stories have a few similarities, but there are clearly two separate occasions that involve different locations, participants, anointings, criticisms, and lessons learned. These details lead many Bible readers to seek clarification on who washed Jesus’ feet.

Two different women wash Jesus’ feet on two separate occasions in the Gospels. In one story, Mary of Bethany, the sister of Lazarus and Martha, anointed Jesus’ feet with oil and wiped them clean. In another story, an unnamed prostitute washed Jesus’ feet with her tears as well as oil.

Why do scholars believe there are two different stories rather than different versions of the event? How can readers be sure that it’s Mary of Bethany that washes Jesus’ feet, not one of the other Marys mentioned in the New Testament? Keep reading to learn the answers to these questions and others.

Jesus Christ on the cross
How does Luke’s story differ from the other Gospels? See below

Women wash Jesus’ feet in Bethany and in Galilee

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John include the story of Mary of Bethany washing Jesus’ feet. The Gospel of Luke records a separate occasion in which an unnamed prostitute washes Jesus’ feet.

Though the actions of the women are similar — they both wash Jesus’ feet — they aren’t identical. The table below shows how the stories are different.

Anointing at BethanyAnointing in Galilee
Recorded in John 12:1-3, Mark 14:3-9, and Matthew 26:6-13Recorded in Luke 7:36-38
Takes place at the home of Simon the Leper (Mark 14:3) in BethanyTakes place at the house of a Pharisee named Simon (v. 36, 40) in Galilee
The three siblings Lazarus, Martha, and Mary are presentThe three siblings aren’t present
Oil specified as nardOil not called nard
Mary of Bethany washes Jesus’ feet with anointing oil (John 12:3)An unnamed prostitute first washes Jesus’ feet with her tears and then anointing oil (Luke 7:38)
There is no mention of Mary crying or kissing Jesus’ feetThe woman cries and kisses Jesus’ feet (v. 38)
Judas Iscariot questions Jesus, criticizing Mary’s actions (John 12:4-6)The Pharisee, Simon, accuses Jesus of not being a prophet (v. 39)
Jesus defends Mary’s actions (John 12:7-8)Jesus demonstrates that he knows Simon’s thoughts and that he is a prophet (v. 40-49)
Jesus mentions the poorJesus doesn’t mention the poor
Jesus mentions his burialJesus doesn’t mention his burial

Are these passages describing the same story? See below

John 12:1-3: Jesus anointed at Bethany

  • John 12:1, “Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.”
  • John 12:2, “So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table.”
  • John 12:3, “Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”

Luke 7:36-38: Jesus anointed at Galilee

  • Luke 7:36, “One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at table.
  • Luke 7:37, “And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment
  • Luke 7:38, “and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment.”

Are these stories describing the same occasion?

Some critics of the Gospels argue that the writers are recounting the same event, but that one or more get several of the details incorrect.

Most conservative Bible scholars strongly disagree with this hypothesis. Matthew, Mark, and John refer to the same instance, yet told with different detail, but Luke’s story is clearly another occasion.

New Testament scholar D.A. Carson writes, “Although there are some critics who hold that one event stands behind the four reports, the discrepancies between Luke’s account and the other three are so large that only unbridled imagination can offer adequate reasons to explain why so many differences would have been invented.” [1]

Mary washed Jesus feet
Why don’t Matthew and Mark mention Jesus’ feet? See below

Mary of Bethany washes Jesus’ feet?

Mark and John’s versions of the story of Mary of Bethany washing Jesus’ feet have many commonalities.

John reports that it was six days before the Passover when Jesus arrived at Bethany (12:1). Mark says that in Bethany Jesus ate at the house of Simon the Leper (14:3). John mentions that the three siblings, Lazarus, Martha, and Mary, were present (12:2-3).

Mark reveals that as Jesus was reclining at the dinner table (14:3) with Lazarus (John 12:2), a woman approached him with an alabaster flask of pure nard (Mark 14:3). John identifies the woman as Mary (12:3). Mark calls the oil “very costly” (14:3). John calls it “expensive” (12:3).

  • John 12:3, “Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”
  • Mark 14:3, “And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he was reclining at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head.”

Regarding the significance of foot washing, New Testament scholar Andreas Kostenberger writes, “Anointing the head was common enough (Ps. 23:5; Luke 7:46), but anointing the feet was quite unusual (usually, simply water was provided), even more so during a meal, which definitely was improper in Jewish eyes…attending the feet was servant’s work, so Mary’s action shows humility as well as devotion.” [2]

Why don’t Matthew and Mark mention Jesus’ feet? John mentions that Mary anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped them clean. Matthew and Mark don’t mention Jesus’ feet, but report that Mary anointed his head. Some scholars suggest that only mentioning Jesus’ head fits better with certain themes that Matthew and Mark wanted to develop, for example, his kingship.

However, when Jesus responds to criticism in Matthew and Mark, he says that Mary anointed his “body,” which indicates that she washed more than his head.

  • Mark 14:8, “She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial.”
  • Luke 12:26, “In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial.”
Jesus feet
How many Marys are mentioned in the New Testament? See below

How many Marys are in the Bible?

There are six different Marys mentioned in the New Testament. The ones that are written about the most are Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene.

MaryExample
Mary, mother of JesusMatt. 1:18-25; Luke 2:1-20; John 19:25; Acts 1:14
Mary, the Mother of James and JosesMatt. 27:56; Mark 15:40; Luke 24:10; John 19:25
Mary MagdaleneLuke 8:2; Matt. 27:55-56; Mark 15:40-41; John 19:25
Mary of BethanyJohn 11:1; Luke 10:42; John 12:3
Mary, mother of John MarkActs 12:12; Col. 4:10
Mary of RomeRomans 16:6

References:
[1] The Gospel According to John by D.A. Carson. p. 425.
[2] John by Andreas Kostenberger. BCNT. p. 361.

Daniel Isaiah Joseph

Daniel's seminary degree is in Exegetical Theology. He was a pastor for 10 years. As a professor, he has taught Bible and theology courses at two Christian universities. Please see the About page for details.

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